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Friday, October 3, 2008

Towards a New Kind of Libertarianism: The Future of the Libertarian Movement

Photo from Republic Domain

A spectre is haunting America- the spectre of Libertarianism. All the Powers of old America have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Bush, Pelosi, Obama, McCain, the NeoCons, the ACLU, the mainstream media.

No, wait. That's not right. What a lame way to start off an important manifesto. Better try again:

I won't tread on you. That's where libertarians need to start in the 21st century if they plan for their message and proposed form of government to take root and last longer than that of the libertarians of the 18th who started by saying "Don't tread on me." It worked for a while at least, but did not affect a lasting change in mindset and policy because it started and ended with the wrong premise, the premise of "my rights," the "me" premise. If libertarians in this century plan to make any headway in the global and respective national dialogues about politics and the proper role of government, they must turn this premise on its head. They must start thinking the other way around. And I'm not simply proposing a change in how libertarians present their views, as a mere marketing tool, but a fundamental change in our very views themselves so that they reflect more accurately the true nature of humanity. The result will not only be a more successful fight for our beliefs- we'll end up by fighting for something even better than what we were previously fighting for, a better way of thinking and a better way of living.

Libertarian thought often starts with "me" and says to others "you shouldn't violate my rights," which is certainly true, but somewhat off-putting because it's egocentric. Aside from being off-putting, it's the moral low-ground. It's moral and true, but it pushes the moral imperatives of libertarian thought off on someone else. The moral high-ground is to accept and practice the moral imperative for yourself. Libertarians would always do better to say, "I shouldn't violate your rights- I won't violate your rights." In practice this makes a world of difference. On the issue of welfare and property redistribution, for example, the first approach would sound like this: "Who are you to take my hard-earned money and give it away to the poor? Even if I should give it to them, you have no right to confiscate my property from me." The second approach is a sharp contrast to the first in both tone and content: "Who am I to take your hard-earned money and give it away to the poor when I'm likely not even giving enough myself? Even if you should give it to them, I have no right to force you to, especially when I'm not giving enough myself. How hypocritical of me would that be?" See how much more humble that is and sounds?

The first example is a challange. Its tone is antagonistic and its premise is egocentric. The second example is an invitation and a catalyst for conversation. Its tone is humble and its premise is philanthropic- motivated by love and concern for other human beings and their rights. The distinction here can ultimately boil down to these alternatives, egocentric libertarianism on the one hand, and philanthropic libertarianism on the other. It is encouraging to know that in some quarters of libertarian thought, I might be "preaching to the choir." For people who already implicitly share the premise I am advocating and who instinctively feel that it is correct, I hope that the value I offer here is to put this premise in its clearest and most explicit terms, to bring into focus and reveal to the world a new kind of libertarianism, a better kind.

Libertarians of the world, be nice!

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  1. Anarchist AccountantAugust 7, 2009 at 10:03 AM

    W.E. You make a lot of sense and this is to me the classic libertarianism that the movement needs to move toward. To me, the main focus of libertarianism always manifested in personal freedom to choose ones own path, as long as that path did not bring harm to others. The concept of philanthropic libertarianism is not new, although you may have successfully given it a name. An interesting example of this is how African American communities prior to the LBJ era were energetic and vibrant. Largely cast aside from mainstream white society, they were forced to be communities of significant libertarian values, running their own businesses and local organizations without outside oversight. Those who had and could provided the philanthropical aid to those who could not. It was the social engineering of the Great Society which changed these communities to become dependent and essentially laid waste to their successes. So the philanthropic libertarianism that you describe has many past examples and most of the time came to life organically, as it must.

    On the other hand, I think we've seen far too much of the egocentric variety in past years, specifically from those conservatives who in my view have invaded the house of libertarianism and have tried to reform it into their own Corporate Republican wing. Most of this egocentric attitude of "my rights and freedoms" appears through these people only in the form of free market rhetoric, in other words, the freedom to pillage for personal gain. This short sighted view is not merely "Who are you to take my hard earned money...", but also "I believe in personal responsibility, so let me make my millions on the backs of others and leave me alone." In the past, men like Rockefeller and Carnegie did this, but were also extremely philanthropic in their excesses. Hey, it helped build the country. Trouble is, I don't see much philanthropy or a lot of this market freedom mentality doing much building for future benefit these days. Freedom and responsibility cannot be two separate philosophies, yet that is what I see with many of the recent converts to the libertarian party.

  2. What an excellent and very thoughtful comment! We just got to keep carrying the message to the people, first to the libertarians, and then to the neo-conservatives and statist democrats.

  3. To refrain from the use of aggression should be, after the general directive of benevolence, the most important commandment of any moral code.

  4. I like your approach to libertarian ethics. I've often had to point out to my (neo) conservative friends and family that it is hypocritical to insist on their rights and freedoms at every moment while blatantly denying those exact same rights and freedoms to the people we oppress with our imperial foreign policy.

    Also, from a Christian-libertarian perspective this sort of description could go a long way towards making more believers aware of how well Christ's teachings model libertarian thought.

  5. ACF- yeah it's definitely up there!

    Ken- thanks. I hope to do more extensive work here in the near future to explore, explain, and defend this premise.

  6. This is a well written and thought out post. I agree that altering the perspective changes the tone. I am a libertarian not only because I wish to be free, I am a libertarian because I want you to be free. 100% free.

  7. Great idea, that is really what libertarianism is all about, respecting the rights of others.