Ideology and pragmatism #2 – Liberty

Ideology and Pragmatism #1 - the environment
Ideology and pragmatism #3 – Socialism

2013-09-12 pragmatism 2

I started listening to Stefan Molyneux when he was still making his podcasts while driving to work. He was at around #400 and I started diligently with the first. I never caught up, I stopped listening when I realized that he is hopelessly and irredeemably ideological.
His presentations were a little too verbose but fair representations of libertarian principles as they relate to various subjects. Still, I consider his work the best example of the problems of ideological libertarianism today.
He is, of course, not alone, he is standing on the shoulders of the likes of Rothbard, but Stefan represents best what I would call populist ideological libertarianism.

The problem with ideological anything is that more often than not, it is the easy way out when we are dealing with the complexity of the world around us. Let’s grab onto something that is easily understood and derive everything from it. Explain the whole world based on it then draw a line: are you in or are you out? If you are too stupid to understand how right we are then there is no point talking to you. Offering a concession in any of the details is unacceptable because it is seen as a compromise that will inevitably lead to the decay of the idea.

Ideology versus pragmatism is the line that various schools and factions of libertarians define themselves along. How much liberty they are willing to give up to make the rest of the ideas acceptable.

The real question of liberty

Is not what it is, what it could be or what it should be but the question of how we can get to it.

The likes of Stefan say let’s withdraw from the present rotting system, isolate ourselves from it and wait. It is a religious approach picturing the libertarian utopia as some sort of heaven on earth that we may get to if we are ready to reject the false reality and get prepared for the inevitable collapse of the present system at which point we can start anew with a clean slate.

The problem with the tabula rasa

…. Is that it is a myth. There never was, there never is a clean slate. Everything builds on something; everything is loaded with the baggage of its origins. An object in motion possesses the traces of the force that set it in motion. A newborn baby has the genes of its parents with millions of years of evolution embedded in them and grows up in a culture that further limits the range of the options our minds perceive as free will. Our free will is constrained. By physics, by biology (including our psychology), culture and even politics. Culture is probably the most important as it defines what we see as normal, desirable and possible.

Hoping for a new start is dangerous delusion.
Michael Van Notten’s book, “The Law of the Somalis” was much discussed in Libertarian circles in the mid-90s. It is proof that a libertarian world can function just fine. The customary law of Somalia does indeed bear resemblance to the free market justice system envisioned by the Anarcho-capitalist  libertarians, but did you look at Somalia lately? Would you take the travel advisory from the Government of Canada?
Just yesterday I listened to an interview with Amanda Lindhout about her Somali experience (460 days in captivity). Not a particularly good advertisement for the libertarian cause.

The problem is not just this particular example, but the predictable outcome of similar situations. No libertarian order will ever grow out of chaos. Power abhors vacuum and civilization is a luxury.

The only way we can ever find liberty is through leading others to the understanding that it is the highest form of civilized social coexistence. Once we accept this, we can still ask the question what is more convincing, an ideological or a pragmatic approach, but if we want to demonstrate that liberty works, we can only refer to ‘partial’ examples simply because there is no fully functioning healthy libertarian society we can point to.

Let me affirm: the non-aggression principle, the notion of self-ownership and the property rights based on them are the most amazingly simple yet complex and most fundamentally moral political ideas ever formulated. I greatly appreciate how I can deduce from them every single political position I have. There is no political ideology that can even come close to its intellectual coherence, but I’m afraid that this is not enough to convince most people. They want ‘proof’ that the idea works.

If libertarians as political parties want to offer an acceptable alternative, they need pragmatic policies, not ideology.

Creative Pragmatism

Unfortunately, some libertarians love their ideology a little too much.
I was not present, but I was told about a meeting where an enthusiastic new member of the party presented his ideas about taxation, which ones are the worst, which ones should we target first and which ones can we compromise on and how. His ideas were rudely and offensively dismissed by the then party leader who took his presentation and tore it up saying that all taxation is theft, no discussion is necessary.
I can understand how this can turn off someone who could be ready to open his mind to the libertarian idea.

If we try to sell the ideology in its purest form, we come across as ignorant of the realities.
Being pragmatic does not mean that we need to compromise our core principles, quite the contrary; it would be an opportunity to emphasize them as we can measure every policy against them.

Taxation is a perfect example. We have gazilions of taxes, and yes, they are all immoral but some (and some aspect of them) are more immoral than others and when it comes to the harm they cause, there are big differences. We could debate whether it is the capital gains tax or the corporate income tax that is the more harmful one to the economy, but I would hope that we could all agree that they both cause more damage than excise taxes or resource royalties.

What libertarians tend to do is attacking any new tax or any increase without having any pragmatic policy alternative behind the attack.
Suggestions such as “you shouldn’t have to raise this tax if you would provide free competition in that field or cut spending in those areas.”

What we need is political imagination, not indignant, doctrinaire regurgitation of the basic tenets of individual liberty and property rights. It turns people off.
What we need is a set of well-argued policy initiatives. What we need is a roadmap to liberty, not just a rosy picture of how wonderful it would be if we were already there.
What we need is policies that are based on our principles but also take into consideration our political realities.
The libertarian world we envision can only come into being through societal consensus, not through conflict and opposition.

What libertarians need to persuade the world is not ideological purity but creative pragmatism.

4 replies on “Ideology and pragmatism #2 – Liberty”

  1. zorkthehun says:
    The following is a conversation the went on on Facebook:
    G.j. Hagenaars
    I’m in full agreement with the article.
    === ===
    Brent McCulloch
    I’m in complete disagreement with the article. The only good part of it for me, was what he had to say about the non-aggression principle.
    His analysis of Molyneux’s work is completely inaccurate.
    I also think he completely understates how persuasive and important moral arguments are. For instance, the ending of slavery, the granting of equal rights for women, the civil rights movement and so on, did not appear on the backs of pragmatic arguments, it was the moral argument that got people on board with those movements. As another example, when we’re kids, our parents don’t teach us not to steal or hit using pragmatic arguments, they persuade us using moral and ethical arguments. Although war is not pragmatic at all, I would imagine most war protesters are taking action because they feel war is immoral and unethical.
    Most people I’ve met don’t consciously defend violent physical aggression for pragmatism. They don’t advocate rape for the sake of procreation. The moral argument is way more powerful than the pragmatic one, in my opinion.
    === ==
    G.j. Hagenaars Molyneux tells people to take themselves out of politics; he opposes the Ontario Libertarian Party.
    Ideology has turned people away from the OLP. Airy-fairy la-la-land unbelievable stories about how the world should work gets nothing done.
    If you want to discuss academic situations: by all means, do so. Just don’t think that you’re going to have any political influence.
    (And political influence is what makes laws, and it’s how –thus far– we have been losing our civil rights. Meaningless discussions about ‘morality’ notwithstanding.)
    == ==
    Rob Brooks
    Personally, I don’t think any approach is wrong by definition. Work within politics, do other things – do whatever you like. We have no way to know what will be the single method that creates change best or whether it could be some rich combination of things that are done. It could be a butterfly flapping its wings in Brussels that is the final straw that stirs the drink. To think you can predict and control millions or even billions of hums is pretty laughable. I think everything helps. I think being dismissive of people that make different choices from those that you make yourself is a limiting strategy.

    My answer:
    I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact that there is a discussion.
    You got the point, but I would need to add to it. The airy-fairy la-la-land of the ideologues is just one of my problems. Being an ideologue is the easy thing to do. The lazy thing to do. Coming up with the ideas that will advance our cause while it will also hold onto our core believes is the thing that requires work.

    My post is not about morality, it is about ideology and pragmatism. I am big on morality. Reason and morality are at the centre of all of my arguments.
    I also acknowledge that Stefan is a tremendous force in the movement and his work is invaluable. I only have problems with two closely related aspects of it: the fact that is it ideological and the fact that it is increasingly cult-like. There may be a good argument for both and I would love to debate them with him, but he is apparently not ready.
    Back to morality. As I said, We are in agreement on the importance of morality as the main argument for liberty, but I have seen it thrown back into our face by the socialists way too many times. The socialists simply claim that their morality taking care of the needy is a higher order of morality than your selfish non aggression principle. The NAP is ideological. Demonstrating that welfare is also truly harmful to the recipient (and therefore is immoral) is a pragmatic argument. Demonstrating that civil society can help the needy better is a pragmatic argument. How to reverse the damage that is caused by excessive statism would be a pragmatic discussion. Saying that the NAP is the most amazingly moral thing is fine and dandy, but then what? Keep patting each other on the shoulder with collective righteousness?
    That is not enough for me

    I do not want to say that a clear definition of liberty is a bad thing, I just don’t see enough pragmatic ideas for my taste. It is definitely an option that needs to be considered and discussed.
    = = =
    Rob Brooks
    I will explain a little more what I mean. Some people choose civil disobedience as a way to expose the flaws of the State. Some people go to court to attempt to beat the State. Myself – I prefer to act out my dissatisfaction to the over-reaching State within a political party. As much as I personally think the first two are a waste of time, from my perspective – I encourage people that choose to do it that way since that is what works for them. Everything helps.
    As to being a practical and pragmatic libertarian – that has taken a little time to get to. For instance, I love Stefan – but he is not helpful to me in my efforts since he eschews the political party process and will say it loudly and persuasively to anyone that will listen. Also, I find that trying to argue what the future will look like is not a winner, and I also find taking the moral approach to be not very effective. Most people don’t think like that. Where I am currently at is using the approach of offering “less government”, while promising myself that I will keep offering less, no matter how less we get to. I used to use “limited government”. People get “less”. They don’t get “limited”. I am offering a journey not a destination. Less government and more freedom. If you want this, climb aboard – we will get there if we all get together.
    = === =
    Rob, we are basically on the same page.
    It is debatable which approach can have more solid converts, it is debatable which approach is more conducive to the ultimate objective, but my personal goal with this post was – pardon the pun – more pragmatic .
    I would like to see a plethora of pragmatic political policy ideas and less ideological masturbation.
    What I am trying to do with this blog is to offer insight through examples into the libertarian way of thinking and to warn about the dangers of statism.

    • Allen Small says:
      I don’t disagree with Rob. I think he is correct when he says we don’t know what it will take, what will work, what won’t.
      I also like Stefan, I think that his vision is important to hold up, but it is the lazy way.

      The very difficult job is to come up with the persuasive stepping stones that people will accept as feasible, and doable so that we get to a freeer society. Just as we are not now completely without freedom, I doubt that we will ever get to the place where the utopian libertarian society will exist. There will always be opposition, push and pull, that’s the way things work.


      • zorkthehun says:
        Hi Allen, After reading the comments to this post I realized that I will have to write a fourth one, the lowdown on ideology and pragmatism. You put it perfectly when you said that Stefan’s way is the easy way. That is half of my point, but I also think that it is dangerous because it gives a sense of misguided satisfaction and also makes us prone to mistakes. More on that in my second next post ……..
  2. zorkthehun says:
    More from Facebook:
    Brent McCulloch
    Zork, I am still a bit confused. I get that I may have misinterpreted your article confusing ideology with morality, but i still don’t get the argument that ‘Stefan is too ideological’ for the movement. Why is statelessness ideological but a government as small as humanly possible is not? Why is it ideological to reduce aggression in our lives by 100%, but not ideological to reduce it by 98%?

    Maybe your experience has been different, but when i was a minarchist and explaining the libertarian position, i was accused of being too ideological. This hasn’t changed since moving to anarchism. It seems like people think the non-aggression principle is ideological whether or not it’s applied universally, or almost universally.

    I guess I also find his perspective on staying out of politics worth some thought, though in my opinion it applies more in the US than Canada. I’ve been following and reading about Rand Paul and his career. It seems like he has a much more reasonable chance of being elected than his father ever did. But as Stefan says, when the Titanic is at a 90 degree angle and half underwater, you do NOT want to be promoted to captain. The ship that is the USA is sinking, it is inevitable. Having a libertarian in charge when it descends into the dark depths of economic collapse could be disastrous for the movement. I think this concern of his is completely valid.

    I like the libertarian political parties in canada and other countries because i don’t think our country is so far gone, and could become more prosperous and more moral with a libertarian government. I’m also willing to ‘try’ all sorts of ideas, activism, politics, whatever, to achieve the goal of statelessness. But in the USA at least, i think the political approach could really backfire. Their political environment is so corrupt now, I would have to agree with Stefan that reducing the state to a libertarian utopia through the political process would be akin to infiltrating the mafia for the express purpose of turning it into a charity. Sounds awfully ideological to me

    To agree with Stefan once more, and he’s mentioned this in several of his latest videos as well as his intro to the book Practical Anarchy, I think we need to lead by example, not just complain about the current system, but set off like pioneers and create our own one. The seasteading project, the free-state project in new hampshire, the stuff jeff berwick is doing in chile, are all great examples of this. I completely agree with Rob and probably you too, that multiple approaches are really great, and i encourage all of them, i just tend to agree with his analysis of american politics, that it’s a titanic on it’s way down, and taking charge during that inevitable collapse could actually set the movement back by decades.

    just my two cents i guess

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