ranking the impurities of the outranked

Not that I needed a reminder of how impure I am, but Glenn Reynolds has linked a couple of great posts on libertarian purity by Tom Knighton which reminded me that I hardly alone in grappling with this problem.

Knighton's latest post discusses a touchy subject for some libertarian purists -- moderate libertarians

These can be Democrats who aren't fans of welfare or it could be pro-gay marriage Republicans.  I'm not talking about moderate Republicans who support regulations or gun control.  That's an important difference.

As for co-opting the term, I certainly agree.  However, my point is that arguing someone isn't a libertarian because of a few differences is silly.  Obviously, at some point the term certainly can be rendered meaningless if everyone can use the term however they want.  No one was saying that was OK in any way.

The reality is, however, that everyone will have their own definitions of what it is to be libertarian.  Everyone will also have an issue or two that are touchstone issues, ones that illustrate someone's potential to vote a certain way on unforeseen issues.  For me, gun rights is such an issue.  I can't vote for a pro-gun control candidate no matter how great he or she is on economics.  It's just how it goes.

I too would be unable to vote for a pro-gun control candidate as I feel very strongly about that issue. But even saying that brings to mind the question -- what is gun control? I am reminded of libertarian purists in Berkeley who once devoted the better part of an evening debating whether the sale of handguns in elementary school vending machines should be allowed. Such people may be pure, but they are not living in the real world. Not allowing guns to be sold in school vending machines is gun control, and I support that. So does that mean I am in favor of gun control? I don't think so.

To many libertarians, though, my greatest shortcoming is my tendency to support a strong defense, and even intervention into countries posing a threat to us. For supporting the war in Iraq I was repeatedly attacked as non-libertarian, so I graciously accepted the title of "pseudo libertarian." (Oh the pain.)

After years of struggling with ideological terminology, I still don't know what to call myself. Usually it's just "small-l libertarian." But if I had to be honest, I would have to admit that I am most likely either a conservative libertarian, or a libertarian conservative. (But don't ask me to define the difference; this stuff is hard enough as it is.)

I'm also an admitted pragmatist who doesn't especially like arguments, especially over ideology. These days especially, libertarian (better yet libertarianish) is a vague enough label that by calling yourself that you can keep a fairly low profile, and maximize your chances of avoiding interrogation or criticism from most purists as they don't know where to start. And in places like Berkeley or Ann Arbor, if you call yourself a libertarian people won't like it, but you won't face the same sort of reaction as if you call yourself a conservative. This is not to say there aren't genuine conservatives here; only that libertarians tend to have an easier time admitting to being libertarian than conservatives have to admitting conservative -- even though both tend to be in the closet for obvious reasons.

Not that what other people might think should ever influence what people call themselves, but this touches on the difference between what is admitted publicly and what is the truth. I have long suspected that some of the people calling themselves libertarian in leftist lalalands are actually conservatives who are trying to avoid flak. Whether that helps dishonestly expand libertarian ranks, I do not know. I am not interested in policing other people's purity, as I can barely police mine.

What is more dishonest? Being a conservative who calls himself a libertarian to make himself more palatable to liberals, or a libertarian who calls himself a conservative to make himself more palatable to conservatives?

And which term is more binding in the "purity" sense: libertarian? or conservative?

And exactly what is purity? How is it to be determined without reference to what other people think? I did not create these labels, so why should I have to live up to them? I mean, is it "my" purity I am talking about here, or is purity to be defined according to other people's standards?

I have recently felt obligated to discuss my conservative impurity, for if one thing is certain, it's that I do not measure up to the standards of many of the ideologues who define the term. A problem I have had for some time is that there are generally more people whose politics I cannot stand (and would not want to identify with) who call themselves "conservative" than there are people whose politics I abhor who call themselves libertarians. And because conservatism is an imprecise term, there is a natural tendency to allow it to be defined by default -- to the loudest self appointed conservative ideologues. Which means that if Michael Savage's political views constitute conservatism, it becomes easy to say, "If Michael Savage is a conservative, then I know I am not a conservative." Ditto Alan Keyes, WorldNetDaily, Robert Knight and the three-legged stool, and Steve King's statement of conservative principles (which I find too statist for my liking). 

But does that settle it? Should whatever conservatism I possess be defined and measured by what I disagree with, or by what I agree with?

Ronald Reagan (known for saying that libertarianism is at the heart of conservatism) famously said that someone who agrees 80% of the time, is not a traitor but an ally. How that is to be squared with the "three-legged stool" phrase commonly attributed to him (but which I cannot find anywhere as a Reagan quote) I do not know. 

But how is any "ism" to be measured? By listing all of the issues and totalling them up? Are not some issues more important than others? For example, I think it might be possible to disagree over marijuana laws or gay rights and still be philosophically conservative, but for the life of me I cannot see how anyone who supports gun control or socialized medicine can be considered a conservative. Notice that I did not list abortion, which looms ever larger as a litmus test for conservatism. If you are running for any political office, you might not be asked about drug laws or health care, but you absolutely will be vetted on the abortion issue, and given a RTL rating.

I don't make these rules, but it makes it difficult to figure out how to apply the 80% agreement rule, which doesn't seem to factor in the relative weight of the issues.

So, in coming up with a scale to measure someone's isms, it isn't just a question of listing the various issues and checking them off, but weighing them in terms of ideological importance.

Does it come down to what issues are the biggest deal killers for the greatest number of people? That sounds as if "purity" is an external measurement, enforced by others, and subject to change depending on the mood of the majority. 

But is that really it? Is "purity" simply determined by a given majority of people at a point in time? 

Or do the "leaders" get to decide these things. Is that it? Do those who outrank me get to rank my impurity?

Have I no impurity of essence to call my own?

Help me! I'm more confused than ever.

posted by Eric on 04.03.11 at 10:43 AM


Big-L Libertarians, a/k/a LP members, are nothing but ideological purists who advocate policies that would only attract votes from their fellow members of the looneymum brigade. I spent 2 years as a local party official here in VT and had to give it up as it became shockingly clear that the national party didn't care about winning elections with 80% of the desired policies, especially if the 20% was a robust outward-looking foreign policy.

In that 2 years what struck me most about the national party was how mid-'30s isolationist it was. It thought that if they stuffed their fingers into their ears, closed their eyes, and held their breath until they turned blue, the outside world would no longer be an issue for the USA. Their atavistic devotion to the gold standard was just as bizarre.

Let the LP wither on the vine like most navel-gazing purist-politics parties. After all, the greater idea is already coursing through the electorate. Declare victory in that and go away to your Mensa meetings, D&D games, and Pokemon tournaments.

Captain Ned   ·  April 3, 2011 2:32 PM

My natural libertarianism is most challenged by my belief that people at a local level should be able to choose and form the kind of community they want though the use of blue laws, discriminatory zoning, et cetera that widely infringe on the natural right of people to make a living and live their life unmolested by the power of the state.

My general rule of thumb is that things that everybody uses constantly are subject to the rules of commerce. Things that apply to only a few people or are infrequent do are subject to the rules of regulation because of an asymmetry of information. Food & medical care-->commerce, criminal justice & insurance-->regulation.

Let me make a qualified defense of a little bit of socialized medicine, a socially-paid backstop of catastrophic costs: it is very difficult to save or insure in a way to cover very expensive procedures or conditions (say $100K + per year), so that may be a benefit of citizenship available to all regardless of income. Its purpose would be to keep health care in the realm of commerce and out of the area of insurance accumulation and payout and would recognize that most truly expensive care is already provided socially to "recognized" groups, such as veterans, the poor, the young and the elderly.

rustbelt   ·  April 3, 2011 2:47 PM

"discriminatory zoning"

zoning by definition is discrimation

newrouter   ·  April 3, 2011 5:18 PM

I don't see conservatism as a political ideology so much as it is a weltanschauung. In the American context, what is to be conserved encompasses the ideals that informed the Founding. Those being the first time in history when a government was formally constituted for the maintenance of ordered liberty. That is: libertarianism. A true American conservative must of necessity be a libertarian. What I think has happened is that too many people have forgotten the word "ordered" and think to cast off all restraints. A moment's thought will reveal that to be anarchistic, and not very conducive to true liberty.


Mark Alger   ·  April 3, 2011 5:43 PM

I spent 2 years as a local party official here in VT and had to give it up as it became shockingly clear that the national party didn't care about winning elections with 80% of the desired policies, especially if the 20% was a robust outward-looking foreign policy.

Three years for me. And then came 9/11. I'm a 9/11 libertarian Republican.

M. Simon   ·  April 3, 2011 7:30 PM

A true American conservative must of necessity be a libertarian. What I think has happened is that too many people have forgotten the word "ordered" and think to cast off all restraints.

With enough restraints you can get disorder too.

M. Simon   ·  April 3, 2011 7:56 PM


Quite true. It's all about balance, between order and liberty. Me, I am biased toward liberty, but can see some limits can be argued for within reason.

Not that I could list any offhand, mind you, but...


Mark Alger   ·  April 4, 2011 12:22 PM

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