Three Kinds of Libertarian

A common practice amongst libertarians is categorization of ourselves into various little factions. Attempts to draw up classification schema of “types of libertarian” are a popular pasttime, and although one may argue this only serves to encourage infighting, it can also be useful for illustrative purposes.

I wish to make my own proposal. At risk of Yet Another Objectivist Cliche, I’m going to indulge in some trichotomic analysis and suggest that libertarians can be divided into three basic kinds.

I am dividing libertarians on the basis of three different broad lines in libertarian argumentation. All three kinds of argument have overlap with each other, so by no means is this system perfect, but I believe it has some use.

In essence, my scheme divides libertarians on the basis of which argument for liberty they most strongly emphasize. Whilst libertarian thought is very diverse and rife with internal disagreements, I think it would be fair to describe it as having three underlying “currents” that dominate the discourse.

1) The Argument from Natural Rights (“Radical Libertarianism”)
This argument proposes that because of human nature, people can be said to possess a natural right of self-sovereignty (also known as self-ownership). As such, it is wrong for any individual to intrude on the self-sovereignty of any other individual.

This is the oldest argument for libertarianism and is generally credited to John Locke. Other thinkers associated with it are Ayn Rand as well as Murray Rothbard and the Rothbardian free-market anarchists. Religious libertarians will often be of this kind and argue for rights granted by God. The most famous statement of the Radical Libertarian argument is from the Declaration Of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

2) The Argument from Consequentialism (“Utilitarian Libertarianism”)
This argument proposes that liberty is good because it creates the most positive consequences for the widest number of people. As such, any curtailment to liberty will produce negative outcomes.

This is the second oldest argument for libertarianism and emerged most fully during the British Enlightenment. This argument tends to be associated primarily with Adam Smith and most pro-market economic analysis. Milton Friedman is probably the most famous modern proponent of this argument. Free market anarchists are typically Radicals, but David D. Friedman is an example of a Utilitarian free market anarchist.

3) The Argument from Anti-Utopianism (“Skeptical Libertarianism”)
This argument is the newest of the arguments for libertarianism and, whilst having historical roots in the British Enlightenment, emerged most fully as a counter to the dominance of Marxism during the early 20th Century. This historical context is crucial for understanding the argument, for this argument is principally a negative argument disputing any alternatives to libertarianism rather than a positive argument for liberty per se.

This argument proposes that totalitarianism is doomed to fail because it is invariably based on a rationalistic impulse to construct utopia out of a grand sociological theory; whilst this may look good on paper, it always fails in real life because human beings cannot be perfectly understood by theory.

Probably the first clue to this argument lies in the work of J.S. Mill. Whilst Mill was an Utilitarian, his case for liberty was dependent on the proposition that only each individual knows what will generate the most subjective utility for themselves. Therefore, the best results will be generated by letting individuals live their own lives and solve their own problems and pursue their own happiness.

This argument emerged fully during the Economic Calculation Debate, where Mises and Hayek argued that the price system collected subjective preferences of market participants and eventually produced prices which guided the efficient allocation of capital; in the absence of these prices (which, as Hayek stressed, were impossible to replicate because they were grounded in individual preferences (a kind of information which was tacit and essentially impossible to gauge without the use of a price system)) there could be no efficient allocation of capital.

Hayek consistently expanded this argument into an indictment of rationalistic, deterministic social theories like Marxism; he ultimately accused these theories of abusing human reason, divorcing it from reality, and underestimating its fallibility.

This line of thought has been expanded by many thinkers including the philosopher Karl Popper.

It needs to be emphasized that none of these arguments are mutually exclusive. The vast majority of libertarian thinkers have employed all three arguments at various occasions depending on context. It should also be stated that in many respects, these arguments tend to be logically compatible. For instance, Radicals can argue that evidence from the Utilitarian case substantiates their argument that human nature demands liberty; after all, the conditions under which any organism thrives are determined by the nature of the organism. J.S. Mill was an Utilitarian, but his emphasis on only individuals understanding what can bring their own happiness was a clear precursor to Hayek’s Skeptical critiques of attempts to design Utopia. And, whilst Radicals have often shown hostility to Skeptical libertarians (Rand and Rothbard’s attacks on Hayek, for instance), but the Skeptical libertarian indictment of rationalism shows the epistemological origins of totalitarianism and vindicates the empiricist roots of Radical Libertarianism. Additionally, by emphasizing how human reason is not suited to totalitarian societies, Skeptical Libertarianism only backs up the Radical Libertarian appeal to human nature as the basis of rights.

But typically, one of these arguments will be the focal point. One will be predominant and the others will be used as support (or in some cases, attacked as sham ‘pseudo-libertarianism’). One argument will be cited as the fundamental justification for liberty.

And it is on this basis that I divide libertarians up. They differ in amount of overlap with other categories (how frequently they employ non-primary arguments), and matters of degree with respect to political program, but a division on the basis of intellectual subspecies makes the most sense.

As for classifying myself, I am a Radical, but I acknowledge and respect both the Utilitarian and Skeptical cases. Unlike most Objectivists I actually think the Skeptical case is perfectly in accordance with the Objectivist argument since the Skeptical case targets Rationalism, which Objectivism considers intrinsicism.

So, where do you guys fit? And do you think this classification system has any use or is it just another useless set of quaint little categories?

17 thoughts on “Three Kinds of Libertarian

  1. I’m mostly utilitarian with a dose of radicalism and a touch of the naturalist.

    Every stable chair needs at least three legs (or else none). 🙂

  2. “At risk of Yet Another Objectivist Cliche, I’m going to indulge in some trichotomic analysis”

    Oh dear God…

    Anyway I say I’m all three.

  3. I’d identify most strongly with “Skeptical Libertarianism”. I think that emergent systems are the most effective, even though within emergent systems you often have outlying behaviour that goes against the norms in general that is in line with human behaviour. Language is the example I use- language has “rules” and “norms” without having some objective truth governing it. Effective language use is about a particular set of accepted norms within a particular historical context. I think to gain more effective language we need to allow experimentation. Similarly I think to gain more effective government, business, morality, education, etc we need to allow experimentation. Libertarianism itself may not be the most effective systems- but it allows for experimentation that will result in the most effective systems.

    As an aside I think one of the biggest challenges for contemporary libertarian theory is giving a libertarian account of criminal justice. Libertarianism as a theory works well presuming consent is given, but what happens to people that breach consent? I think we need a stronger theoretical basis for evaluating reparative, retributive and rehabilitative justice. I also think that the three types of libertarians you mention may well give very different answers. I’m inclined to actually think an even stronger common law and even stronger jury system than we have no, with less of a focus on legislation might be the libertarian solution. In this aspect, though, I suspect a lot of libertarians- especially deontologists and utilitarians may disagree with me.

    I haven’t read enough of Rand’s philosophical work specifically, but in ethical thought I’m not sold on deontologies (such as Kant’s). And I’m highly skeptical of utilitarianism (especially since it possibly gives VERY unlibertarian answers). I personally tend towards virtue ethics, with a relativist conception of what a “virtue” is, yet accepting that there are common human goods that emerge as a result of evolutionary psychology (liberty, rationality and amiability are all good bases for “moral” social interaction). I think liberty is the virtue that best allows a person to seek their own conception of virtue in life, so in a sense it’s the “highest good” as it best allows for the promotion of other goods.

    So yeah, after some time drifting between schools of thought- I think initially I was utilitarian- I’m fairly firmly settled on the “skeptical” position. Though personally I’d like to refer to it as something like the “emergent good” position. I’m not anti-utopian, I think that a libertarian society MAY tend towards a utopia- but “utopia” (I take as my meaning of utopia “a society that maximises the good”) can only emerge through organic processes.

  4. I can think of four more types, and three of them are anties! That is, if one does not accept the utilitarian argument, but embraces the other two, then one is an anti-utilitarian libertarian, and so on for the other two anti-positions. Conversely, if one accepts all three arguments, then one could be called a pan-libertarian!
    So your three types leads to seven brands of libertarian thought.

  5. Nuke,

    I don’t deny overlap, and as I said most thinkers have employed all three arguments. I’d also argue that all three arguments are ultimately compatible with each other although some would dispute that (the “anties” as you call them).

    But in any mind, one argument will always be the core argument.

    For instance, Rand was at her core a Radical; she explicitly rejected the idea that utilitarianism justified liberty. However, in spite of her fire-breathing bitchiness towards Hayek, she utilized his contribution to the Economic Calculation Argument (see “Egalitarianism and Inflation”) and she also thoroughly critiqued the platonistic-rationalistic underpinnings of modern totalitarian thought (I honestly believe that a Randian reading of the Abuse Of Reason Project would be a work of phenomenal value). She also accepted the Utilitarian proposition that markets do in fact produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

    In short, one element was primary even if others were present.

    J.S. Mill’s argument was a Utilitarian one even if it provided an early indication of the Skeptical case. Mises was a Utilitarian (at least in his advocacy) but he was critical in the development of the Skeptical case.

    Rothbard was anti-Skeptical (based primarily on a misreading of Hayek IMO), and whilst he was a Radical, his economic analysis accepted Utilitarian standards.

    The essential element for categorization under this system is which strain of thought counts as primary. All the rest is inessential. This is principally for parsimony. Would additional categories help us understand libertarians any better? I doubt it, although it might help when dealing with inter-faction conflict.

  6. A very eloquent statement of the Skeptical case! You make very good points; ones I agree with. Rationalistic systems are weak, closed, maladaptive (that’s actually an important point for Objectivism; the Piekoff-Kelley split was based upon whether or not Objectivism should be an open system of ideas that integrates new knowledge (Kelley) or a closed system of thought ruled principally by orthodox interpretation), and ultimately fragile. In a world where reason is a function of the individual and knowledge is always knowledge of a specific empirical context, top-down imposition of pre-designed and inflexible systems will always fail.

    Criminal Justice is a very interesting area of thought… one I admit I haven’t explored enough. I’d state my basic framework is Restitutive Justice (Reparative Justice) but complex questions of practical implementation still remain. I think your point about jury system/common law vs. legislation seems more, though, about practical implementation and political strategy rather than a matter of principle. If the legislature were libertarian we’d all want more focus on legislation. Since the legislature isn’t, mechanisms like Jury Nullification may be at least a way to frustrate the legislature even if they are by no means guaranteed to produce libertarian outcomes.

    Ethically, its kind of hard to place Rand. She has a deontological-esque rhetoric, but her ethics are extremely context-sensitive; ignoring context is pretty much the hallmark of deontology. She wasn’t a utilitarian even if her ethics were very teleological. She’s probably closest to a virtue ethicist given she develops a system of virtues, but “value” always takes primacy over “virtue.” Really, it is hard to fit her into the modern categories since she developed her philosophy independently from the academic mainstream and its traditions. If anything, Rand resembles Aristotle more than any other ethicist even if she had a different meta-ethical theory.

    You make a good point about the term “anti-Utopianism.” Perhaps though, your definition of Utopia is a little less stringent than the classical definition of Utopia (which is “a perfect society,” your definition seems like it means “the best possible society”). The concept itself is pretty much inherently Platonistic but that’s an argument for another day.

  7. I guess my concept of “utopia” is based on my concept of “perfection”.

    I see perfection as similar to “infinity”. Numbers can’t really BE infinity, they just can just trend towards it. Similarly I see goodness as being able to trend towards “perfection”, but never reach it. I definitely don’t believe in metaphysical Platonic forms of perfection, though.

    As for Rand, I guess I definitely need to read more of her work. I took her to be similar to Kant in that I presumed she based her ethics off reason alone. As you say, it can be difficult to see her in the light of other ethicists as she worked independent of the academic mainstream. Still, when studying Kant I felt that there were quite a few parallels between them, which is why I characterised her as a “deontologist”.

  8. Shem,

    Just following up to your reply about Rand and Kant. Rand did base her ethics on reason, but Rand’s concept of reason is VERY different from Kant’s. For Kant, reason operates in an a priori, deductive manner. For Rand, reason is a faculty which deals with integrating empirical evidence. Rand does accept deductive logic, but only if its kept within certain empirical constraints; a concept must be formed properly and be connected back to empirical reality and it cannot be applied outside of its empirical context.

    Basically, Rand was much more of an empiricist and Kant was much more of a rationalist. Kant believed abstract knowledge was acquired deductively from a priori knowledge and this a priori knowledge “processed” our empirical experience and thus the world we experience (phenomena) is not the world in itself (noumena)… thus Kant was an indirect realist (or representational realist). Rand believed abstract knowledge was acquired inductively from sensory measurement of empirical reality, and that whilst our senses indeed operate in a specific way, we do see the actual world outside of our heads (as it appears to an observer with our faculties) and NOT merely an internal representation of this world. Thus, Rand was a direct realist.

    So yes, whilst Rand did base her ethics off reason alone, when she says “reason” she means “empirical reason” first and foremost, rather than a priori deduction.

  9. Interesting article, but what is the actual difference between category 2 and 3 ?

    Isn’t Mises and Hayek’s “socialist calculation problem” just a utilitarian argument ?

    Isn’t pointing out the shortcomings and failings of marxism and socialism a utilitarian and pragmatic approach ?

  10. Utilitarianism, as a theory is pretty strict.
    It goes something like “Of all actions available to an agent, the moral one is the one that maximises satisfaction of preferences all things considered.”

    I think being a utilitarian has some problems for libertarians. Specifically I can imagine quite a few scenarios where maximising the satisfaction of preferences WOULDN’T give libertarian answers and may well give answers antithetical to libertarianism.

    I also think it’s different from the third school of thought, because one focuses on CONSEQUENECS (the total amount of preference satisfaction) the other focuses on systems (the system that allows for the satisfation of prefrences based on local knowledge).

    I think most theories place SOME weight on consequences- but to the utilitarian consequences are the sole good. For the deontologist, duty, or “right action” is the sole good. As someone who empathises with the latter position most, I value consequences and action, but more importantly I value the “right systems”.

  11. The difference is that the Skeptical argument is principally a NEGATIVE argument, or a rebuttal. Its PRIMARY focus is the flaws of the Statists, or “why they are wrong.”

    Logically speaking, all of these three arguments are compatible and arguments 2&3 have shared historical roots. Most libertarians use a mix of all three. The essential element (upon which the categorization is founded) is which of these arguments is considered the PRINCIPAL argument for liberty.

    Being a member of any category doesn’t necessitate rejecting any of the other arguments. It simply is a matter of prioritization.

  12. I just simply believe in freedom
    and not faceless control as Orwellian as that is becoming currently.
    Too many believe now that the government will provide all (as if) and
    Collectively, the world must be saved – which is the latest falsehood being pushed now for the new domination order of some class of weeklings.

    I am finding currently that in order to pursue employment, I must be able to provide at least three different government checks.

    oh, and don’t forget that we are taxed for breathing.

  13. Is there not a nihilistic/fatalistic strand of libertarianism too? Or perhaps this melds into ‘skeptical libertarianism’.

    What are these ‘natural rights’? Where are they? They seem like moral constructs to me. In other words they don’t really exist. Surely ‘natural rights’ is a contradiction in terms. Self-sovereignty only exist insofar as you can defend it. To claim otherwise is to make a normative claim and is akin to believing in sky fairies. Rights can be attributed to people within a society but, then, they’re not miraculously imbued in the individual, are they?

    Utilitarianism is wank. It’s OK if you want to try to convince everyday people in a consequentialist manner, but ultimately unconvincing, given the impossibility of ever making such a calculation. I can’t say utility exists either.

    Then there’s ‘skeptical libertarianism’. I suppose this is closest to my thinking. I go along with the ‘totalitarianism is doomed to fail’ argument as well as Mill’s and later Hayek’s and Mises’ subjectivity arguments. But I suppose I come at it more from a different perspective; I don’t accept objective morality, too much of life is peoples’ attempts at moral tyranny over others. I realise this statement in itself is probably hypocritical 😉

  14. “Where are they? They seem like moral constructs to me. In other words they don’t really exist.”

    Do you believe that murder is and should be a crime with one of the severest punishments society uses against offenders?

    Isn’t that odd?

    “Utilitarianism is wank. It’s OK if you want to try to convince everyday people in a consequentialist manner, but ultimately unconvincing, given the impossibility of ever making such a calculation.”

    Rubbish. It’s just running the numbers on pragmatism, which is the ontological line you are undertaking.

    Hint: They’re all correct.

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