Sunday, November 22, 2015

Libertarian ideology

by George Dance
It has become increasingly popular in recent years for libertarian intellectuals to try to define the "libertarian ideology." An "ideology" is the fundamental beliefs about man and society that determine and justify the goals of a political group. For example, religion and tradition are components of conservative ideology, humanism and progress of the liberal, collectivism and dialectical materialism of the communist, and so on.

Is there then a distinct libertarian ideology? Many libertarians are convinced there is. Quite a few libertarian thinkers and publications believe that they express this ideology. Some even go so far as to set themselves up as "plumblines" of libertarian thought and use that position to denounce "deviations" from and "betrayals" of this ideology.

This trend is understandable, as modern libertarianism did develop, as a popular movement, as a political application of a particular philosophy – in short, as an ideology. This trend is also useful insofar as it has dissociated libertarian principles from conservative ideology, with which they are too often exclusively identified. But this trend is also intellectually and politically dangerous.

Dangerous because it restricts libertarianism's universal appeal by making it the handmaiden of non-political views. Dangerous because, by making these other views logically prior to liberty, it confuses the basic libertarian message. Dangerous becaue each non-political addition to basic libertarianism narrows our base of support, and alienates even hitherto committed libertarians.

These dangers would be necessary, if belief in a libertarian ideology were correct. But it is not correct.

Libertarianism is not an ideology. It is a method, a process – a principle, if you like – for settling disputes between adherents of competing ideologies. It is then, it has to be, compatible with all and identified with none. It is indifferent to conflicts over altruism vs. egoism, materialism vs. idealism, natural law vs. utilitarianism, religion vs. atheism; it can only establish rules for resolving such conflicts. Belief in non-initiation of force not only can stand independently of any of the above concepts – indeed, it is cheapened by any suggestion of dependence on them.

The reason democracy has swept the world (as an idea, anyway) was precisely that it was such a method of resolving differences. In Hayek's terminology, it is an agreement on means, not ends. And, as Hayek points out, widespread agreement is possible only on means, and only because it is not known which ends will be promoted.

We know that, as an attempt to resolve disputes peacefully, democracy has not always been successful. Unsuccessful because inconsistent: it allows the use of force for the promotion of the dominant ideology, asserting only that force should play no part in determining which ideology should become dominant. Hence liberty, a more consistent set of rules for social peace, unalterably opposed to no ideologies but to the messianic element in all.

Should there then be no libertarian ideology? On the contrary: there should be hundreds. Thinking persons are bound to have their own, individualized, beliefs about society, man, and nature – this is a point on which we all can agree. We can also agree that there will not be unanimity on the entire gamut of these beliefs. (Try disagreeing with that belief.) If we deduce libertarian methods as a means of resolving our differences, we are libertarians; if statist methods, we are statists. But if we try to pretend that such differences do not exist, we are either fools or liars.


from Principle 8:4 (September/October 1981), 14.

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