Down with Policy Libertarianism

Libertarian thinkers can be plotted on many axes. Presently, the axis I am most concerned with is Policy Libertarianism vs. Structural Libertarianism.

Policy Libertarians (PLs) include the vast majority of the most visible organizations and writers in the modern libertarian movement: the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Ron Paul campaign, the LP, the Constitution Party, most libertarian economists (e.g. Milton Friedman), and single-issue organizations like Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. PLs, as their name suggests, focus their energies on inventing and advocating a list of policies that governments should follow. For example, you can find policy libertarians opposing liberal eminent domain laws, fighting for lower taxes and deregulation, supporting cultural tolerance, opposing invasive police searches, and advocating the rest of the familiar libertarian manifesto.

Structural Libertarians (SLs) are much rarer in modern times than PLs, although the opposite used to be the case. Structural libertarians include Patri Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, all libertarian Public Choice economists, Lysander Spooner, and the classical liberals that libertarians have adopted as intellectual ancestors. SLs often have the same moral and policy beliefs as PLs, but they focus their energies on the alternative ways to structure a government and the effect that government structure has on its incentive to adopt good policy. At their most extreme, SLs barely sound like libertarians. Under a market-based government system (a common SL proposal), the architects of Singapore would likely find plenty of customers for a burbclave that is incredibly prosperous and clean, but where communists are sent to jail and litterbugs are viciously beaten with sticks.

The decline of the structuralists and the rise of the policyists is a phenomenon that should interest us. It is a by-product of general political trends in the modern western world. Simply: democracy has won. Democracy is considered to be righteousness and goodness and freedom, all else is tyranny. Didn't the American colonists risk their lives and fortunes to institute democracy and overthrow monarchy? And wasn't America the shining example on a hill, leading the rest of the world into a democratic century?

Today all competing political ideas acknowledge this. Conservatism, libertarianism, liberalism, environmentalism, socialism, and nationalism are all strictly policy movements. Since our government structure is assumed to be sound, they focus on advancing their agendas through electoral politics.

But what if democracy is not the impartial "marketplace of ideas" that moderns assume? What if liberal democracy contains its own unwholesome incentives and biases? In other words, what if the game is rigged?

This is why policy libertarianism seems like a weak and incomplete philosophy to me. Presumably if libertarians believe that libertarian policies are just and beneficial, then they would want to live in a world where those policies are implemented. However, if the incentives of the political system are stacked against libertarianism, then their efforts advocating libertarian policies are futile. No amount of pamphleteering and blogging will make vast amounts of people act against their self-interest. Quoting Jefferson at housewives isn't going to sway them when Obama Claus is on the television offering free college educations and health insurance. Putting 51% of the country on welfare programs and then campaigning to enlarge the payments will remain a winning strategy no matter how many DVDs of "Freedom to Fascism" are printed.

Policy libertarianism is only valid in a particular time and place, and then only if you have certain beliefs about the political system at that juncture.PL is useless otherwise. If we kidnap Ron Paul and ship him back in time to live under the Bourbon Dynasty in France, what should he do? Presumably he still thinks that libertarianism is as just and wise in Bourbon France as it is in 21st century America. Should he write florid epistles to the king, trying to convince him of the value of universal human rights? Should he try to marry a princess?

Or suppose we send Ron Paul to live under a government run by evil robots that grow humans in vats and then suck out their life force to power their machines in some physics-defying green energy scheme. Likely Ron still thinks the evil machines should respect his property rights and freedom of speech. I don't see how Ron's beliefs matter very much. He is going to have to hire a damn good lobbyist to overcome the sway of the human-vat-maker union.

Under an incompatible government structure, policy libertarianism is an impotent philosophy. As soon as your faith in liberal democracy wavers, PL looks naive. It's as useless as a lawn ornament. It's gazelle trying diplomacy with lions.

My faith in democracy is at a low ebb, so I think structural libertarianism should be given more thought and policy libertarianism less. As one of the 200 million most influential people in America and one of the 20 most influential writers on this blog, I hope I can lead the libertarian discussion in that direction.

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I'm not sure how you

I'm not sure how you separate policy libertarian and structural libertarian. Are you talking in terms of means or goals ?

Structural Libertarians (SLs) are much rarer in modern times than PLs, although the opposite used to be the case. Structural libertarians include Patri Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, all libertarian Public Choice economists...

Uh ? AFAIK, David Friedman's vision for a transition to a libertarian society is that of government that withers away by becoming irrelevant, and Rothbard's vision is deeply rooted in policy changes by political means. They may favor structures which are more prone to libertarianism than democracy, but so might the organization that you cite as pushing for policy change.

I'm unsure what methods that

I am simply drawing a distinction between the idea of libertarianism as a family of policy prescriptions, and libertarian thought that goes beyond that. Reason magazine thinks that taxes should be lower, the bailout should be stopped, and the cops should stop using paramilitary raids to arrest nonviolent offenders of the law. David and Murray think those are swell ideas, but they would also like to do away with democracy and replace it with a society where you can buy your law on the market. There is a qualitative difference there.

Structural libertarians share PLs goals, but they also have additional goals that involve changing the way society works. These additional goals are often seen as a means towards achieving the shared goals that they have with PLs.

Another example, the American classical liberals did not limit themselves to devising policies that they thought King George should implement in the colonies. They went farther, advocating constitutional democracy and the right of secession, which puts them squarely in the structural libertarian camp. Very few modern libertarians are so bold.

Moldbug thinks the United States government should be put in bankruptcy and converted into a for-profit corporation. Patri thinks we should build boats on the ocean and reenact Waterworld. There is a qualitative difference between their proposals and those of Reason, though they probably think Reason's ideas are pretty swell.

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