Are Libertarians Pragmatic?

Russ Nelson recently argued that there is no such thing as a “left-libertarian.” In so doing, he points to a larger issue:

I think there’s a larger issue here. “Liberal” used to mean the philosophy which is called in the US “libertarian”, and which is still called “liberal” in some other countries. Since this philosophy generally promotes happiness and distributes power, people who seek power object to it. Since the philosophy is hard to understand and is counter-intuitive, it only takes a little bit of effort to undermine it.

[Emphasis mine] Is a philosophy that is easy to undermine and difficult to understand in the first place a realistic philosophy? Well, self-organizing systems such as this often display emergent properties that are more than the simple sum of their parts. So the people contributing to the system don’t necessarily need to understand the system in order for the system to work. However, it is the “easy to undermine” part that causes the major problem…

I find libertarian ideas and concepts interesting and useful, but I can never seem to get rid of the nagging pragmatic objections to it, such as the one outlined above.

3 thoughts on “Are Libertarians Pragmatic?”

  1. Though I rarely get interested or excited about arguing it anymore…libertarianism is not all that counter intuitive or easily undermined. To be sure, there may be some valid arguments against it, but to simply decide that it is “hard to understand” is more than a little simplistic.

    Whether or not libertarianism is a “realistic” or “viable” philosophy is a valid discussion, and can be a pretty interesting one…but I think it should be based on firmer social or political thought than a vague dismissal. Pragmatism versus the idealistic structure of libertarian thought is a little bit more discussion worthy than “it’s hard to understand, and therefore easily undermined.”

    Though, I do see after reading the post that the thrust of it was more against those who would label themselves “left-libertarian” when in fact there is nothing libertarian about them. I don’t disagree there…but is it really that big of a deal? People constantly label themselves things they aren’t…that’s nothing new.


  2. You make some excellent points. Indeed, this wasn’t meant to be a rigorous discussion, just a sort of off-the-cuff comment. A self-professed libertarian claims that the philosophy he subscribes to is difficult to understnad and easy to undermine, but doesn’t that sound less than pragmatic?

    To play devil’s advocate, libertarianism can in some ways be counter-intuitive. Take Adam Smith’s invisible hand: private self-interested acts tend to produce publicly beneficial outcomes that exceed what could be attained by relying on either benevolence or government regulation. This is counter-intuitive and can easily be undermined with examples to the contrary. Take polution (or any spoiling of the commons scenario) – libertarians would have us believe that companies that polute will self-regulate. That may well be true, but it’s pretty counter-intuitive (and I’m sure it would be easy to find historical counter-examples) and thus the libertarian argument is easily undermined. Not all libertarian arguments are so easily countered, but you get the point…

  3. I do see what you’re saying, and those are valid counter-examples. Pollution in particular, as well as things like the Court system and national defense are thorny issues for libertarian thought…perhaps not so much because there aren’t cogent theories to deal with them, but because they probably are a bit counter-intuitive.

    Indeed, the main arguement against libertarianism probably is pragmatic…libertarianism is pretty idealistic at its core, though I do think its at least based on some sound principles.

    It is interesting that the comment you quoted came from a self-professed libertarian; I didn’t really clue in on that on my first read through.

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