Will Wilkinson: Nonlibertarian or Liberal Libertarian

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Recently, Will Wilkinson announced on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog that he was no longer willing to call himself a libertarian:

 I’m not interested in identifying myself [as] a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe.

Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.

Given the prevailing public understanding of “libertarianism,” this ain’t it and I’m no libertarian. And it’s not at all clear to me what is to be gained by trying to get people to retrofit the label to fit my idiosyncratic politics. At any rate, that’s not a project I’m interested in. I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.

I can certainly sympathize with Wilkinson’s frustration with the tendency among many to view libertarians as a single monolithic group.  Moreover, I agree entirely with some of the “non-standardly-libertarian things” he lists and agree at least in part with much of the remainder.  Back in the day, I used to be a Nozickian libertarian who fit pretty well with the standard definition of the libertarian position.  But over the years, through the influence of Friedrich Hayek, Richard Epstein, and others, I became a consequentialist, more moderate, and more conservative.  So today I am something of a moderate, conservative libertarian.  But so what?  I still regard myself as a libertarian, although of a different type than the old me.

I think Wilkinson’s response to the monolithic understanding of libertarianism is unproductive.  The better response is two fold.  First, one should feel free to describe oneself as hyphenated libertarian – in Wilkinson’s case, calling himself a liberal libertarian would do just fine (even the less euphonious “liberaltarianism” that Wilkinson previously employed might be ok).   Second, one should insist that “libertarian” is not a monolithic political position.  That there are different kinds of libertarians, just as there are different kinds of conservatives (economic, social, defense hawks) and different kinds of liberals.  There are vigorous libertarians and moderate libertarians; liberal libertarians,  conservative libertarians, and left libertarians; deontological libertarians and consequentialist libertarians.

Not only do I think it would be accurate for Wilkinson to call himself a liberal libertarian,  I also believe there is an important strategic reason for him to do so.  Libertarianism is a minority – perhaps a small minority – position and it can use all the support it can get.  When libertarians are a large minority or a majority, then they may have the luxury of focusing more on their differences.  But for now it is important to place the interests of liberty above having what one regards as the perfect name for one’s position.  No one wants to be in the position of sounding like the People’s Front for Judea.