[By Ryan Noble]
Libertarianism has been accused of being simplistic. It has, like objectivism, been dismissed as a “child’s philosophy”. This claim is worthy of rejection on its face as a non-rebuttal rebuttal but there is something a bit abnormal about libertarianism vis-a-vis its competing philosophies that might justify its characterization as “childlike”. Unlike other philosophical or political orientations; only a single statement is required to guide judgement of any proposition. Stated differently, our eyes are always cast toward a single principle for guidance. That principle could be formulated any number of ways; I prefer phrasing the libertarian principle as “force is only justified in defense against an initiating force”. This fact has some real consequences when it comes to how it will be received.
Bill Clinton’s testimony in front of a Grand Jury was famous for his ingenious “that depends what the definition of “is” is” line, but what made me feel viscerally he was a con man was his use of the phrases
“I will revert to my statement on that.”
“I will revert to my former statement.”
“(that) is covered by my statement.”
“I think that was covered in my statement.”
In the case of his testimony this was done to obfuscate the truth, and that tactic of answering questions is understandably interpreted as such. I think skeptics of libertarianism often feel the same way when interrogating the libertarian idea. The stricter the libertarian holds to his philosophy, the more their answer to any question will be a carbon copy of their singular principle. A conversation with a terse and pure libertarian could go as follows;
“What is your stance on gun control?”
“Force is only justified in defense against an initiating force.”
“What is your stance on taxes”
“I refer to my previous statement.”
“What is your stance on minimum wage laws?”
“I refer to my previous statement.”
If your questioner is thoughtful, this really does tell you everything you need to know, but no one really answers questions like this. We might be thankful for that. Taking this tact during a conversation is a surefire way to end any congeniality that conversation had.
The problem is that referring to our libertarian principle is the proper response to these questions. It really is the best answer. The answers we often give in response to questions like these are largely beside the point. Pointing out that minimum wage laws hurt low productivity workers is a utilitarian argument, not a libertarian one. The same goes for pointing towards crime statistics to argue gun laws and economic trends when arguing about taxes. The flaw of debating using the language of your opponents choosing is obvious. You don’t argue against Marxism by saying the bourgeois are actually really nice guys and the proletariat should be happy to live in a market economy. You destroy the credibility of the categorization. You don’t argue against a religion by showing that God is a meanie in the Bible or the Koran, you attempt to demonstrate the absurdity of God (big love to my Christian Libertarian comrades). A Libertarian arguing that run of the mill utilitarian politics is bad because it has bad outcomes is trying to disprove the premise by accepting it. It is utterly self-defeating and this is the main tactic we use! Sure, there are Utilitarian Libertarians, but screw those guys! Deontological Libertarianism is the one true libertarianism!
Resorting to utilitarian rationales is tempting and, honestly, inevitable for those of us that like to hear ourselves talk. It also does have its place in the conversion process, but only for the purpose of deconstructing the web of sophistry and lies in the dominant narrative. It can never be the basis of the ideology for multitudinous reasons, but one reason is good enough. Utilitarian notions of harm and happiness outside of individual preferences are immeasurable in the same way that value is in economics. Therefore, utilitarian calculation on a scale greater than the individual is invalid. Therefore, the policies that will win support are the one that have the most power of propaganda behind it. (I think this entire paragraph is a digression but I like it)
If libertarians are childish because we cling to a well-defined principle than the anti-libertarian is admitting to being committed only to non-commitment. Being ridiculed as childish can make you feel small and weak but remember that is not the real criticism, but an afterthought conclusion. The real reason for the ridicule is that you have a principle that isn’t paper thin or negotiable. Why minimize the greatest strength of your philosophy? Because your opponents want you to? Take the force of the attack and redirect it. Be like a child in all the ways we admire; unjaded, maximally capable of joy, enthralled by discovery, desperate to learn and grow. Show the statists to be adult like in all the ugly ways we know that they can be. Expose their philosophies and them as connivers, sophists, and purveyors of violence, just like all the grownups in government.