Is Libertarianism a Mistake?

Wendy McElroy posts a speculative essay that plays devil’s advocate with libertarian theory. Her essay considers libertarianism, as I do, as a means, and not as an end. As I’ve written on recent previous occasions, I consider libertarianism to be more concerned with injustice than morality. This bothers some people because then libertarianism is seen as being amoral. It clearly bothers McElroy who considers the possibility that “libertarian means” could possibly lead to illiberal ends. McElroy thusly suggests the need for libertarianism to be underlain by a systematic moral foundation. Libertarianism needs it’s “dialectics.”

My response would be to concur that libertarianism most definitely needs it’s dialectics. The reason a libertarian is concerned about liberal ends is because libertarianism derives from the liberal tradition. Libertarianism, seen as a form of anarchism, is nonetheless distinct from, or a subcategory of, a general category of anarchism. Quite a bit of the general anarchist thought or tradition can give a rat’s ass about the “liberal tradition” or liberalism itself. However, for my “dialectics,” I turn to Hayek, which means a methodological approach of non-rationalist emergent order. I’m skeptical of rationalist moral systematic foundations because when the social evolution doesn’t go that way, the perceived need for the use of force to preserve the “moral foundations” is likely to follow. An interesting paper by Sean Gibb, How English Liberty was created by accident and custom–and then destroyed by liberals, argues that attempts to logically rationalize something that was a product of spontaneous order undermined the very thing itself.

McElroy mentions libertarianism’s “empirical problem.” The Hayekian paradigm, at least, does try to address this. That’s why I have a link to “Analytical Anarchism” in my blog roll. Check it out.

I don’t think liberalism was a mistake, even though it has obvious institutional flaws. Simply, liberal ends through political means doesn’t hold up against a class critique. Libertarianism proper emerged from this radical liberal critique of liberalism’s reliance on political means. If libertarianism is a mistake(empirically, we already know that State Socialism, even deriving from the liberal tradition, is a mistake–the Hayek critique), then the only correct answer is that liberalism is an evolutionary dead end.


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