Must Libertarians Be Social Liberals?

Must Libertarians Be Social Liberals?

Recently by David Gordon: What Is Libertarianism?

Matt Welch has been kind enough to respond to my review of his and Nick Gillespie’s recent book, but I think that he has not fully come to grips with the basic problem I tried to raise. It is common ground that libertarians reject the initiation of force and support private property and the market. My concern was that if one adds other requirements to this definition, then those who accept the non-aggression principle and the free market but do not meet these further requirements have been wrongly excluded from libertarianism by the extended definition.

A different example from the ones they discuss will illustrate my difficulty. At one time, atheists who expressed their views openly put their lives in danger. Nowadays, religious disbelief has become much more widespread; and in societies like the United States, atheists are free to say what they want. The fact that they are free from persecution is from a libertarian standpoint all to the good, but it does not follow from this that libertarians are required to view the spread of atheism as desirable.

I am glad to learn that Welch does not think that you have to like rock music to be a libertarian. I stand corrected: apparently what you have to like is that other people like rock music. You must also deplore those who fear that this style of music will have bad consequences.

Welch claims that on education, I have ignored his statement that the present system cannot be saved. If one refers to the pages he cites, though, one sees that what he and his co-author reject is the current system of educational uniformity. Where do they call for the total exclusion of government from education, even as an ideal? Again, in their definition of libertarianism, they require that one believe that the government is less efficient than the private sector. But someone could think this and still maintain that the government has a proper role to play in the economy, e.g., to remedy distributional inequities. If I am not mistaken, Ronald Dworkin holds just this combination of views; but he certainly is not usually taken to be a libertarian.

Welch wonders how Ron Paul can be excluded from the libertarian mainstream and mentions a number of articles in Reason about him. He does not see that the point at issue is the implications of the definition that he and Gillespie proffer. If this definition mandates that libertarians are social liberals, then to the extent Paul is not a social liberal, he fails to qualify. If Welch nevertheless considers him one, he has not thought through what his own definition entails.

It is surprising that he uses against me Murray Rothbard’s criticism of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, because Hayek defended a fairly conservative view of the place of custom in morality. I fear that he would not altogether qualify as a social liberal, in Gillespie and Welch’s sense; and to the extent that he does not, they could not count him a libertarian in good standing. It would not be a good reply to this to cite articles in Reason by themselves and others written in celebration of Hayek. The point once again is what their definition of libertarianism entails.

One last point. I think that Gillespie and Welch have a mistaken view of libertarianism; but it does not follow that I deny their libertarian credentials. That would depend on whether they meet the terms of my definition, a matter that their book leaves me unable fully to discern.

Books by David Gordon

September 2, 2011