New Year’s resolution for freedom-loving writers: avoid using libertarian jargon as much as possible, even the word “libertarian” (except in cases like this where you’re talking about libertarianism specifically). It will force you to write for a purpose, to an audience, and to help people understand. It will also help you escape from the ditch of ideological yammering.
New libertarians especially get caught up with the NAP, aggression, property rights violations and whatnot, which is all good, but tends to alienate those unfamiliar with our inside baseball. It looks like we’re just talking to each other, which is probably the case, and we do run the risk of motivated reasoning. Avoiding that is a small challenge, and the result is better, more persuasive and probably wider reaching writing.
One might think, then, with resisting an excess of ideology, that I’d agree with the Niskanen Center’s recent change in mission. Jerry Taylor, the think tank’s President, wrote the linked article, “The Alternative to Ideology”, explaining his own journey from being an explicit libertarian to a “social pluralist,” freed from the prison of belief and motivated cognition. He sees the organization’s remit not to offer a libertarian angle, but to produce “moderate” content without the ideological baggage.
We need to resist that temptation too, however, as it’s probably worse than being a raging ideologue. First, because the Niskanen Center have now succumbed to dog poo ice cream. (Analogy courtesy of journalist James Delingpole). Let’s say we’re deciding what to have for dessert, and the options are ice cream or dog poo. The proponents of ice cream point out that ice cream is delicious and refreshing, whilst dog poo is mostly waste. Ice cream is to be preferred for dessert in all cases. The dog poo advocates disagree. The moderates, of course, are not like either of these extremists:
“Now let’s not be caught up in ideology here. If we see everything through the lens of ‘ice cream good,’ then we’re guilty of motivated cognition. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes must be the right answer.”
Then, what we’re left with, is ice cream with dog poo in it.
In theory, the idea of being an impartial observer, taking in information from all sides and coming to a reasoned conclusion without a motivating principle, sounds good. In fact, it is unrealistic and highly self-serving. In the real world, we have values, we have things that trigger us. And that’s a good thing. Having no principles leaves us with no skin in the game, and therefore prone to wrong-headedness.
The middle position between two opposing ideas is rarely the right answer. The right way to answer the question of slavery wasn’t to reduce slavery a little, or to “manage” it, or have slave-freeman partnerships, but to eliminate slavery entirely. The right answer to rape is not to permit a small amount of rape to exist, it is to put the ban on it. Yes, there are some things that have no black or white answer, but there are some things that do.
In no other field of thought except political philosophy are we encouraged to adhere to an idea because it represents “the middle.” There is a right answer when it comes to the development of life on this planet: evolutionary biology. The right answer is not some combination of evolutionary biology and young Earth creationism.
If libertarianism is true, then there is no need to water it down.
The second reason why we must resist this enlightened centrism is that those who believe they are free from ideology are more often than not acting upon some unseen axioms that no less motivate cognition. The difference being, they’re not under the light of day. “Moderates,” think they’re being reasoned and balanced, but they’re merely serving the status quo, for good or ill.
Taylor’s examples of successful moderate presidents include Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt (!), two of the most authoritarian US leaders amongst tough competition. In modern day, the moderate consensus on foreign policy involves the continuous disruption and destruction of the Middle East. Only “extremists and isolationist idealogues” disagree with blowing up children. If you don’t have any ideology (read: principles), you invariably settle on some tyranny.
Taylor is right to condemn ignoring of evidence if it’s inconvenient to your worldview. On the face of it, for example, there is no obvious answer to the climate change problem from the libertarian point of view. He’s right that it’s wrong to just dismiss the evidence. I’m prepared to take on the evidence and for the moment say, “I don’t know what the answer is.” Taylor thinks the right answer is to dump libertarianism.
If climate change is such a serious problem that it justifies violating the rights of others, then make that case. Don’t make a general appeal to “reasonability,” or against ideology per se. That’s weak stuff. What’s the principle you’re working by here? Humanism, utilitarianism?
Libertarians know what they believe, which makes them a step more enlightened than these “moderates,” whose houses are built on foundations of sand.
This article represents the views of the author, and not those of Being Libertarian LLC.
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