To the uninitiated all scotch tastes the same: like a mixture of coal, moss, and wood-shavings. However, the more experienced palate starts to notice subtle distinctions between vintages. The kind of wood used in the storage barrels, the weather in the area where the liquor is made, and its age all contribute to its flavor. Some scotches have overtones of heather and honey, some are smoky, some are earthy. Laphroaig makes a malt that tastes like bacon. With enough experience, a person can become a connoisseur and discover that he likes certain varieties of scotch, but not others.
Libertarianism is like scotch. When a new person is first exposed to the movement, he might think that everybody agrees on a set of principles and generally gets along. However, it is not long before he hears the word "Kochtopus" or gets laughed at for sporting a "What Would Ayn Rand Do?" armband. Our new activist begins to suspect the existence of the dark undercurrents and rivalries that color our people like a Jackson Pollock painting.
I have been around libertarians for almost a decade, and petty factional disputes are old news to me. If the mangled body of Ed Crane ever washes up in the Potomac River, I can give the police a short list of suspects. However, recently I began to notice something far more important and interesting: there are sharp philosophical differences and many incompatible ideas in the traditional libertarian cannon.
Libertarianism is like a piece of legacy software that has been patched over and over but never rewritten - a sprawling, contradictory, and sometimes surprising mess. This unsettles me. Becoming a libertarian in my formative years, it has since become part of my self-identity. But what does it mean when I call myself a “libertarian”? I am still not sure. And thus began my current odyssey in libertarian hair-splitting and navel gazing.
But this hair-splitting is important. One half of the hair is a completely different color from the other. Subtle differences in ideas can lead to large differences in how we think human society should be organized. And it is hard for me to see how people with vastly different visions of the ideal world can form part of the same movement.
My previous post on structural libertarianism versus policy libertarianism is the first part of this odyssey. I mentioned my preference for the structural vintage of libertarianism over the policy variety as the one with (barely) more practical potential. However, before anyone else jumps on the structuralist bandwagon, I should give fair warning about its faults.
The main problem with structural libertarianism is that we are heading away from the libertarian mainstream, and maybe away from libertarianism altogether. Consider the doctrine of universal rights. It states that every individual has the right to a certain degree of autonomy, at all places and at all times. It is hard to find a more central doctrine of libertarianism.
But now consider another popular libertarian idea – federalism. Federalism states that small, local communities should be able to set their own laws and policies. Advocates of federalism argue that this will create better-managed governments that more closely reflect the will of the people living under them.
But if we are to adopt federalism, then we must temper our support for universal rights. The tension between the two ideas is clear: under federalism, the laws of an area will only be as libertarian as the people living there. The libertarian's dream of a free-loving pothead utopia might be realized in Massachusetts, but I'm pretty sure that holding hands with a member of the same sex in Utah would carry a jail sentence if the federal government didn't prohibit it.
Most structural libertarian ideas involve some degree of political decentralization and suffer from the same drawback: they will create conservative theocracies. It's a profitable market niche - there are tens of millions of conservative Christians in the United States alone. If Utah were allowed to outlaw premarital sex, its property value would shoot up due to demand from evangelical fathers with pretty daughters.
So if you have something against theocracies, and most libertarians do, then maybe structural libertarianism isn't right for you. Maybe you should send your resume to the Ron Paul 2012 campaign after all.
Federalism and other structural libertarian ideas are not sold on the fact that they support universal rights, because they don't. Rather, they claim to produce governments with incentives to create better policies, or at least policies that people like. Instead of governments with incentive to produce as many wars and pork projects as possible, we might be able to create governments that try to produce the most appealing places for its customers, its residents, to live. On average, I think that rights will be better protected under most decentralized schemes, such as market anarchism. This is especially true for unpopular commercial rights like freedom of contract. But there will be theocracies, and probably racist states. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were states that only admit people with over a 1500 score on the SAT.
So as we begin to decentralize, we allow the creation of very non-libertarian states. However, we do increase variety. And we probably increase choice. We might have few tolerant libertarian paradises that let you make your own life decisions. But you will be able to choose which decisions are made for you.
There's something libertarian-sounding about a world that increases choice, even if it doesn't guarantee freedom everywhere for everybody. Some libertarians will find that distasteful. Some won't. But it's a controversy that we should probably hash out instead of ignoring.