The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Libertarian and the “Consistency Syndrome”

There have been some remarkably interesting posts and comments as of late regarding libertarianism. Some of them emerged in various postings on Rand Paul. Damon Linker, for example, congratulated Jason on diverging from “absolute libertarian principles” and approvingly posted Bruce Barlett’s take on Rand Paul:

“I don’t believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians. They believe that freedom consists of one thing and one thing only–freedom from governmental constraint. Therefore, it is illogical to them that any increase in government power could ever expand freedom.”

The consistency syndrome is, indeed, common. It may stem from the fact that libertarians rarely [never] carry the weight of political power. Rather than having to make concrete decisions about how to address a complex problem in real time with limited information, resource constraints, and blunt policy tools, they often have the luxury of working within the confines of thought experiments constructed of simplifying assumptions and freed from historical context.

Name a problem, I got a solution. It will begin as follows:

“Assume we have perfectly functioning markets and perfectly delineated property rights. Assume, furthermore, that individuals behave rationally. Then we can eliminate [fill in blank with social or economic problem of your choice].”

Alright. This is a lovely posture to strike among academics and in the classroom.

But now comes the hard part. We will never have perfectly functioning markets and we will never have perfectly delineated property rights. Human nature is fixed and flawed and there is little reason to expect that rationality will prevail relative to the passions. Moreover, we have vexing problems and social pathologies that have been created or exacerbated by a long history of poor policy decisions. There is no way to cut the Gordian knot. There is no way to return to the original position. There are massive issues of path-dependency.

We see these problems in the financial mess. We see these problems in the current debacle in the Gulf of Mexico (and we certainly saw it with Katrina). The persistence of intergenerational poverty and the looming entitlement crisis (ditto).

So here is the challenge: assuming that what I have said in the above paragraphs is correct, what is the role of libertarians? How can libertarians be mindful of not falling into the consistency syndrome while still offering something of value to the policy debates and political discourse more generally?

What can and cannot be compromised in this quest?

My fear is that libertarianism could [has] degenerate[d] into:

  1. A set of insular debates grounded in a set of simplifying assumptions shared by the “tinfoil hat” crowd (or the remnant, to be more positive) but of no real relevance to flesh-and-blood policy problems
  2. A way for those who are more conservative in their political orientations to remain hip among their liberal friends (Hey, I believe we should legalize drugs and prostitution! Gay marriage? The state should not marry anyone!]
  3. The limited insight that, given the option, markets are preferable to non-market solutions. Beyond that, one can still embrace the welfare-regulatory-entitlement state in all its glory.
  4. Mere muckraking.  Focusing attention on government incompetence without simultaneously offering viable alternatives that could be implemented under existing constraints.

9 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Libertarian and the “Consistency Syndrome”

  1. Why assume libertarianism needs to be any one thing? Can’t it be a guide to policy, a political theory that is an ideal-type by which we judge the justice of current and future political arrangements, a unifying set of principles around which a party or caucus could emerge, etc. etc.

  2. It seems to me that there are two possible ways to define libertarianism. The first is a range of sets of policy positions – a range with blurry edges – on the ideological spectrum: beliefs generally characterized by pro-market, anti-paternalist positions on most of the issues of the day. A libertarian in this sense is not committed to any comprehensive theoretical position. Moreover, libertarianism here is just a post hoc label to apply to a set of policy positions, not a unified principle of action that can generate reasons.

    The second, more interesting definition of libertarianism is that it is a theory of justice and the state, a position on the circumstances under which the use of force is justified. Its view of the state is that it exists at most to protect people’s rights (which have to be defined), and should neither provide for people nor punish them for activities that interfere with no one else. This position is committed to the implication that the state may not try to solve market failures if they have to violate someone’s rights to do so. This view provides reasons for taking particular policy positions, but whether they are good enough reasons or not is another question, and on foundational questions it is difficult to find consensus.

    What both libertarianisms share, it seems to me, is an anti-paternalist core. Utilitarian and natural-rights libertarians seem to agree on the universal wrongheadedness of government policies intended to make people choose better for themselves.

  3. I second Jason’s (second) proposal. It isn’t just a point about what sorts of moral constraints there are on the use of coercive power, though it is that. It’s also the point that those constraints have and continue to playing a role in allowing for cooperation and minimizing conflict between people trying to live their lives.

    It seems to me there is also a significant negative point here, at least among one strain of libertarianism, which is that big-picture policy ambitions don’t make great sense because we simply don’t know enough. I think libertarianism is micro, not macro, at its core. Its diagnosis of what has gone wrong in many or most cases is: too many policy prescriptions we should have known better than to think we got right. What’s the solution? First, don’t suppose we’re going to get it right this time. Second, try to work on a path out of the business of making policy prescriptions at the macro level, and protect people’s liberty and rights to do so at the micro level.

    Finally, on the consistency point: the complainants about consistency seem to me just addled. Reasons are consistent. True, we do have to distinguish a commitment to consistency and rationality from a commitment to rules, especially explicit rules. But to think we just respond ad hoc to situation after situation as we deem fit is to give up thinking altogether. It is to give up on justifying ourselves to ourselves or each other. It is, in the end, a recipe for simply living by the exercise of power. You don’t get to pick and choose when your fundamental commitments hold and when they don’t. The Bruce Bartlett’s of the world are really well suited to the world of politics, not so much for the world in which actual people owe other actual people morally constrained conduct.

  4. This is an interesting post, and I’ve gone back and forth with people of all stripes over many of these same contentions. This might be an over-simplification, but I think libertarians are actually less free in some regards; as opposed to having the lack of constraints you’ve denoted. I’ve come to find that libertarians have the peculiar habit of trying to fight a war on two fronts.


    I think this is the playing field for most political ideologies. It’s mostly a tug-of-war involving differing views of the most pragmatic ends and the most pragmatic means to achieve those ends. Whether those ends are the welfare of the people, the abolition of vice as it is perceived, or anything else, we tend to squabble about what the best ends are and the easiest way to get there. Libertarians do this just as much as anyone else.

    In fact, libertarian sensibilities regarding their economic dispositions revolve pretty heavily on the idea that freedom will actually produce these preferred results more completely than their statist counterparts’ ideas will. And I have to say, in their defense, that some of the more particular aforementioned contentions are just going to leave most libertarians shaking their heads. There is certainly such a thing as market failure (that is the entire concept of public goods). But pointing blame at free-markets for an economic crash that happened in a market that is anything but free from government perversion seems pretty unreasonable; as does pointing to a disaster perpetrated by a company that is tucked well away under government protection and privilege.

    But even if we were to accept the premise that we have been operating under some utopian, free-market regime, the argument would still stand (in most cases) that free markets would correct themselves much better than ratchetting reactionary regulations (which mysteriously seem to fail in light of the next crisis). In fact, I think a strong argument is made that the free-market pattern of failure and self-correction is what makes the whole system work so efficiently. Economists like Peter Boettke make this point time and time again, that it’s actually the friction – the creative destruction – within the free market that resolves so many of these problems. The argument is not that free-markets never run into problems. The argument is that free-markets self-correct, and that political intervention most often makes things worse in the long run by perverting incentives (see: 2008 market crash & 2010 BP oil spill).


    This is arguably the playing field where libertarians find their political enemies doing a bit of a different dance. Libertarians often find themselves in line, ethically, with many of the ends of both their liberal and conservative brethren. Few of us will be found praying for human suffering and misery. However, even if we did not believe that freedom was a pragmatic answer to our political question, we would generally find it unconscionable to openly perpetrate harm against innocent people in order to achieve some greater good.

    If we were offered the chance to shoot 75 innocent people to save 100, I think many people of other persuassions would start shooting. I think most libertarians would ask how we, in light of the ethical end of trying to preserve life in this situation, could justify taking innocent life in the process. It certainly may not seem pragmatic, but what the libertarians are trying to offer is a way out of this binary dichotomy of choice(s) we seem to be presented with. We entertain the idea of putting down the gun altogether.

    But even if we found ourselves talking pragmatics, I think the annoying “consistency” of libertarians still has value. If nothing else libertarians, at the expense of political power (ha!) and expediency, offer a reminder to those who believe themselves to somehow be more “mature” than their counterparts; to constantly be aware of what hangs in the balance. I think people find it too easy to push asside the inconsistency of their views even in light of their own ethics, and libertarians will (hopefully) keep reminding them that two wrongs don’t make a right.

  5. consistency syndrome… like it… i bet mathematicians insist on being consistent too .. bleuch … even to the point of answers we dont want.

    what’s wrong with consistently applying the principle that people shouldnt harm others or take their property without consent? you wouldnt tell your children anything different… why does this change on a meta level?

    posing policy questions to a libertarian is like asking for a defence of a religious position to an atheist. you presuppose too much.

    who’s the policy maker on food distribution? oh…there isn’t one. it just kind of happens all by itself. now, imagine it was provided by government, it’s essential after all, just like healthcare.. bet we’d have a lot of problems to discuss now and we’d need lots of policy responses…

    1. i think this at least raises an interesting point.

      are math and ethics ways of describing the world (do we discuss ethical truths the way we discover mathematical ones?) if this is true, ethics are simply woven into the fabric of the universe and we discover them through our reasoning ability. how they got there is a huge question.

      conversely, are they different, in that do we make up ethics as we go along?

      keep in mind, this is still compatible with being a libertarian in both cases.

      obviously, both have certain limitations. if you’re going the metaphysical route? how did it get that way? by what method do we prove these things?

      if you’re going with the welfarist approach, you’re stuck with the question of why this is better than any other. the repugnant conclusions at that point become fair game.

      1. It’s worth pointing out that those options aren’t exhaustive, though they are the obvious and inviting ones. It might be that ethical norms are what they are because of what we are and what we do, without it being the case that we just “make them up as we go along.” For example, they do seem to be subject to the constraints of logic, and those aren’t things we can make up as we go along. But, as you say, it’s not obvious that a libertarian could not hold any of those positions about what makes ethical judgments true or false.

  6. Points 2 and 3 are feints. Even the most liberal senator will realize that, should a market be possible, it’s preferable. It’s one of the things that distinguishes progressive ideology from socialism. In addition, while I don’t doubt that some conservatives put on libertarian airs to blend in, I think that’s seriously misunderstanding what libertarianism entails. It’s much more than drugs and sex. That will just make you a moderate Republican. Calling for an elimination to a social safety net (as well as being fiercely anti-gun control) will get you into far more trouble with your liberal friends. Also, libertarians tend to be stereotyped as loner losers, not party animals.

    Points 1 and 4, however, are certainly apt. The Lew Rockwell crowd and the Beltway libertarians, respectively.

    My personal hunch? It’s the same as any other serious political philosophy. Instead of being a religion, it’s a framework. A way of looking at the world, rather than a set of policy decisions. All political philosophies have their private arguments. It’s just, since libertarians really don’t have any political power whatsoever, they don’t feel the need to project a unified front like the Religious Right/Free Trade/Traditionalist/Neocons and Feminist/Multiculturalist/Union/Environmentalist alliances do.

  7. @TheNino85: but are there really any libertarians who are calling for the elimination of a social safety net? Or are they rather arguing that markets and charities can do better than coercive mechanisms? There’s the Society vs. Government argument there – and many people have been trained to believe Society requires central control.

    It seems to me libertarianism is a policy strategy, not a moral or ethical philosophy. You can have individualists and Objectiveness at great philosophical odds with each other, yet agree on libertarianism as a political strategy. But for the past two hundred years in the US, it can only be scored as winning minor defensive battles, but overall losing the war, perhaps because the idea is itself a failure of consistency.

    Marc makes a good point about Reason vs. Passion, and if there is hope for libertarianism it’s that Reason _does_ seem to be prevailing over Passion, slowly, in society. We can hope that bleeds over into government. If the passion-based government doesn’t demonstrate its own failure first. The global trend in government may even be going our way.

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