As a libertarian, why did you choose to be a libertarian over being a moderate or centrist?

…as answered on Quora….

I was a moderate “liberal” when I was in high school. Well, maybe. I was strong on civil rights and hated anything that smacked of imperialism, but had rather humdrum and unexceptional notions about economic policy. I sometimes thought of myself as moderate, like my mother, and, at other times, as more liberal than my Democrat father.

But I was not a reactionary. And I was never inclined to socialism — the extremist version, “Communist” socialism — which I knew enough about to regard with utter suspicion.

I was nevertheless very curious about utopian communal experiments. That may have been more a romantic curiosity than an eager political agenda. So, I was a seeker, and my quest led me to a book that was new at that time: Robert Nozick’s 1974 classicAnarchy, State and Utopia. I devoured it at age 17, but — though greatly impressed (and in complete agreement with the final third of the book) — for another three years I assumed that gun control was a grand idea and that minimum wage legislation was the very minimum we could do for the working poor. Nozick had not convinced me of libertarianism, and I was still pretty much in the centrist camp, between left and right — the former which I distrusted and the latter which I loathed.

What changed my mind?

Three things, at least:

  1. I came to see that many statist “solutions” to social problems (minimum wages being a great example) are in and of themselves (a) not what people typically think they are even on the face of it, and (b) do not show the uniformly good benefits claimed for them. Indeed, they often, even usually, produce widespread negative effects.
  2. Since grade school I had been deeply concerned with in-group/out-group dynamics. From observation and from reading I had learned that people become rather irrational in relationship to both their tribes and to outsiders. The sense of justice that so keenly moved me, but seemed fragile in so many others, was almost invariably perverted because of the playing out of this inevitable social orientation. I saw amity/enmity (inclusion/exclusion) in both standard and inverse forms as a huge problem, and I came to see the individualist conception of liberty as the best solution to it.
  3. Being, as I was, an odd duck, I recognized that my values and my developing understanding were largely at variance with common opinion. This landed me with a philosophical problem: value diversity. How could there be any justice if values were diverse? That is, if justice is giving people “what they deserve” but desert is largely dependent upon a specific, invariant value set, how can we determine the substance of justice? Isn’t it arbitrary? “Relative”? This was the question that unsettled me as I closed Anarchy, State and Utopia for the first time. How is justice even possible at all? I came to see liberty as a universally handy and usually easily identifiable social equilibrium boundaryone that could adjudicate competing values by not resting on strategies dependent and understood primarily in values terms. (Whew; sorry about that.) Freedom possesses a formalistic element that allows it to serve as a good balancing point among competing valued agendas.*

And there we get to the answer to our present question: freedom is a moderating principle.

It is not an extremist notion at all — I am with Brandon Ross on this. Both your desire to steal from me and my desire to steal from you must be thwarted. The compromise is no stealing. Grogh’s plan to enslave others, and others’ machinations to enslave Grogh? Both strategies must be given up. I leave you alone, you leave me alone . . . until we can find mutually advantageous opportunities for cooperation. And then we work together (or just trade) to achieve either shared or separate ends.

We respect each other’s separateness and individuality as a baseline, and hold each other accountable no matter what group we belong to. We can be as gregarious or as withdrawn as we want. But neither our “other-interests” nor our “self-interests” provide excuses to harm each other.

And the simple rule that prevents chaos and strife?

Do not to initiate force.

Freedom is the condition where no one is preyed upon by others. It is the condition where we support each other voluntarily. Or not.

Today’s political centrists try to moderate competing claims in amazingly inconsistent ways. On some occasions or contexts your group lives off my group; in others, mine lives off yours. On some occasions “we” sacrifice individuals for group benefit; in others, “we” sacrifice our wealth or attention for the benefit of a few individuals. How the “bargains” are made depends upon political pressure in either a democratic or behind-the-scenes corrupt fashion (there are differences, but the differences are not huge), and it is by historical happenstance that a centrist holds to one program one week, a competing program the next.

A centrist can be talked into just about anything.

Because what centrists moderate are competing expressed political demands, their principles are ad hoc and non-rigorous.

One epoch the blacks are ridden herd over; the next they are released from such oppression; a decade later they are given vast amounts of resources without anything in exchange, enticing them to become wards, “clients” of the State. One decade Asians are allowed in the country to do hard labor; a few later they are harassed and deported; in wartime Japanese are interred; much later some are compensated. There is no real principle discernible. Centrists move to and fro to the winds of doctrine.

They call it “being realistic.”

Libertarianism offers a way out of this appalling back-and-forth of in-group/out-group antagonism.

It is an eminently civilized way out. It is the basic “moral deal”: I sacrifice my options for gain through initiated force, and you do the same — and among all these freed people (freed from each others’ malignity and coercion and exploitation) we find opportunities for mutual advance.

Despite the apparently huge sacrifices for individual or particular group gain, the gains from civilization are vast, and for everybody.

I know, I know: the cost of liberty sure seems high: you can no longer gain a sense of pride — or revel in temporary triumph — in making your enemies pay for what you want. The desire to coerce and be coerced is very baboonish, and suppressing that desire is not always easy. Limiting our lust to dominate down to defense and restitution (and perhaps retaliation)? Easier for some than others. And to restrict the resolution of conflicts to public adjudication, according to public principles that are impartial as to specific persons or groups? Where is the fun in that?

Well, there is nothing much fun in relying upon the rule of law, rather than the rule of regulators, redistributionists, and rent-seekers.

But the rule of law does allow a lot of fun. Not for no reason is freedom commonly associated with fun. Yet that is not the whole story: there is a certain nobility in the responsibility required, in insisting upon an acute focus on actions.

And remember, it is honest.

Centrists, I came to see, were always getting sucked into little grafts and even extravagant boondoggles. And yet they are proud. Their pride can be seen in their over-confidence, their conceit in their discernment. They think they can conjure up wisdom to judge each new situation “according to its merits.”

That is hubristic. No one can do that on the macro social level. The world is too complex.

We need simple rules to live by, and to allow the prudential principle of “according to its merits” succeed or fail on voluntary terms. Failure must be accepted as such — and not merely shrugged off as in moderate statism, where every failure is an excuse to throw more money at it, sometimes also placing “better people” at the top.

Without freedom as a limiting principle, democracies become welfare states and welfare states become “churning states” — where there is so much redistribution of wealth and advantage that in most cases it proves impossible to know who really comes out ahead and who gets the short end of the stick.

I became a libertarian because I saw liberty as a solution to

  1. the craziness of the left’s “cult of the other” as well as
  2. the right’s “no kill like overkill” defense of in-group.
  3. But, perhaps most importantly, to the centrists’ pathetic attempts at moderating those two anti-freedom tendencies in politics in ad hoc and piecemeal fashion, according to the realpolitik of the moment.

I became a libertarian because I did not want to be suckered by incoherent or perverse strategies. I did not want to be a mark. And I did not want to encourage the grifters.

* My position before becoming a libertarian was, philosophically, summed up neatly in Walter Kaufmann’s 1973 treatise/self-help book From Decidophobia to Autonomy Without Guilt and Justice. I worked through his congenial non-cognitivism by seeing the Schelling Point aspect of the Non-Aggression Principle, and, later, by incorporating an evolutionary component to establish justice as an emergent property of distributed adjudications of disputes over long periods of social history. The book that helped me see freedom’s utility — a sort of anti-disutility — was Ludwig von Mises’ 1962 classicThe Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. In that work I saw something even more challenging than value diversity: value subjectivity. And the social function of freedom became apparent . . . but that’s another story.