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I’m Obsessed With You Because You’re Irrelevant

August 13th, 2007 · 12 Comments

I don’t think there’s any serious disagreement that the sudden rise of the blogosphere these past few years has corresponded with an equally dramatic spike in the currency and prevalence of libertarian ideas. Like the impressive growth rates that only Third World economies can achieve, this is in large part just a measure of their prior obscurity, but the phenomenon is still undeniable. The self-flattering explanation is that libertarian arguments have been disproportionately favored by the opening of a new medium where ideas, stripped down to their barest form, can spread regardless of their level of pre-existing institutional support, just by dint of their cogency. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with folks ill-disposed to libertarianism, which creates something of a quandary for those who delight in constantly talking about how childish and crazy and marginal libertarian ideas are, but who nevertheless feel compelled to engage them at least semi-seriously with some frequency. Ezra takes a stab at squaring the circle:

My hunch is that libertarians are safe debate partners for liberals. With Republicans, too much appears to be at stake, and partisanship generally overwhelms the policy discussion. The other side must actually be stopped. But libertarians aren’t going anywhere politically, so the discussion can largely focus in on interesting questions of political and economic theory. That’s intellectually useful, but a bit frivolous, so it tends to mainly happen among people with too much time on their hands and little in the way of responsibilities, like bloggers and high school seniors.

I’d be inclined to put it somewhat less condescendingly, but there’s surely something to this as well. One virtue of political irrelevance—though Ezra surely overstates it by focusing on libertarianism as an organized political movement rather than an intellectual current that exerts influence on mainstream political figures—is that you’re less tempted to argue in bad faith when you don’t have actual, fallible members of your party in office to defend. And as various folks observed during this year’s discussion of “liberaltarianism,” progressives and libertarians do have certain more fundamental priors in common: Whatever appeal libertarian ideas haves turns very little on embracing a specifically theological value set, one important gap that may frustrate productive conversation between progressives and religious conservatives.

But one thing I think has been little remarked upon is how good the Internet has been for libertarian ideas, not in terms of their success at winning converts, but internally. I think that not only most people outside “the movement,” but also many libertarians under the age of 30 or 35, aren’t attuned to how different it looks today than it did as recently as, say, the early 90s. Libertarians have never been particularly well-organized (cue the old joke about herding cats), and so for the most part until quite recently, the lone village libertarian’s typical political discourse was going to take the form either of evangelism to people unfamiliar with the term or inside-baseball conversations in venues like Liberty. And while both of these have their place, they’re not necessarily conducive to the development of a robust and sophisticated set of political ideas. The result was an impressively consistent but rather brittle framework in which every controversy was thought to be resolvable by appeal to first principles, most often a beguilingly vacuous “axiom of non-aggression.” Contemporary libertarian commentary online has, I think, benefited enormously from informed and ecumenical engagement.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular article, but I think it’s telling that the cover story about the 1994 Clinton health care plan in Reason, which if anything has been ahead of the general trend I’m talking about, was a thumbsucker by philosopher David Kelley on the importance of the distinction between positive and negative rights, a piece with more than a whiff of the armchair about it. Make no mistake: I’m the last person on earth to deride the deployment of philosophy in policy disputes. One thing Keynes got dead right was that soi-disant pragmatists who relegate such considerations to the ivory tower are invariably the ones most in the grips of some “academic scribbler’s” theory—usually bad theory for being held unreflectively. But let’s be frank: This is not exactly a scintillating deployment of Kelley’s full philosophical powers (which are ample: most philosogeeks would happily throw a fat man under a runaway trolley for his pedigree). It would not be apt to persuade an educated person who doesn’t already share share his priors. Rather, it proceeds to lay out a case without apparent concern for the rather obvious responses a reasonable defender of a “right to healthcare” would be likely to offer at each step, because it aims primarily at an audience that is already disposed to share its conclusion, and that is not expected to encounter the objections. As our own tenets might have predicted, our thinking has benefited from greater engagement in the marketplace of ideas.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Aug 13, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    Do you think the framework is less brittle now? Examples? How does one measure such a thing, and how can you attribute that progress to the Internet as opposed to the mere advancement of libertarian theory/rhetoric/research?

    Anyhow, I remember reading that Kelley piece when it ran in ’94. It’s an excellent primer on the subject. Perhaps current Reason writer Ron Bailey, who’s now mistakenly signed up for the universal coverage/individual mandate kit ‘n’ caboodle, ought to read up.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Aug 14, 2007 at 6:41 am

    I’m not sure what the point of piling up isolated examples would be; I’m eyeballing a general trend. But yes, I do think it’s less brittle now, at least in part because libertarianism is conceived more as a cluster of principles and analytical tools than as –what I think was a much more common notion even fifteen years ago–a rather specific, complete ethical philosophy deduced from first principles.

    Since we don’t get to do a controlled experiment and see what would have happened with libertarian ideas in a world sans-Internet, I suppose the attribution of the shift to the Net has to rest mainly on the facial plausibility of the narrative I lay out. One supporting consideration is that the shift in tone doesn’t seem to have followed any sort of explicit decision, either tactical or theoretical, by some group of influential libertarians. It seems more like an emergent function of what works discursively online.

    And the merits of Ron Bailey’s views aside, I have no idea how you can seriously call that article an “excellent primer.” I like DK, and he’s a very sharp guy, but that piece is embarrassing. If I were an ethics TA and an undergrad gave me the first half of that essay as an assignment, he’d fail. It makes no effort whatever to frame the opposite case in its best form, as evidenced by the fact that every objection raised there has a painfully obvious response if you’re willing to sincerely adopt, for half a second, the perspective of a reasonable non-fascist who advocates a “right to healthcare.” It is, in other words, the sort of thing nobody would ever, ever write if they aspired to preach to anyone but the converted, given the expectation that one’s audience would also be reading responses to the argument from intelligent people on the other side. I can dissect it by the sentence if you really want to defend this mess.

  • 3 JasonL // Aug 14, 2007 at 9:00 am

    It reads to me like a decontextualized exerpt from “A Life of One’s Own”. Did you find the whole welfare rights argument laid out by Kelley to be similarly flawed?

    Regarding libertarianism in the age of blogs, I suspect that mostly what has happened is the internet is now characterized by a disproportionate libertarian population. It is likely a mistake to believe that libertarian ideas have any more traction on Main Street than they ever have.

    Bloggers yell at each other, and liberal bloggers have to argue with libertarians just as a matter of numbers.

    What strikes me as odd about Ezra’s argument is he seems to believe that liberals (as opposed to Democrats) are substantially more relevant than libertarians. I’m not sure that is the case.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Aug 14, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Honestly, it’s been long enough that I don’t recall what I thought of the full argument. As for the scope of our impact, the relevance of what has traction on Main Street is grossly overstated. I’ll take a couple blocks of K Street or Mass Ave over a Manhattan of Main Streets. Graph the frequency of “libertarian” over the last two decades in a Lexis-Nexis search of The Economist, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker. I’ll consider that a decent rough measure.

  • 5 JasonL // Aug 14, 2007 at 10:19 am

    In your view, the wonkosphere is the most appropriate measure of relevance? I’ll have to chew on that, but it doesn’t smell right.

    Is the argument that for practical purposes wonks and their readers constitute a majority of votes?

    I don’t think a great majority of voters are ideological at all. Most people who vote Democrat aren’t liberals, for example. They just want, say, abortions to remain legal.

    It seems to me that recent history has libertarians continually surprised our issue specific coalition buddies turn out not to be libertarians after all. You see this in the seemingly endless ‘I thought Republicans were the small government party?’ stories we get from libertarian publications.

  • 6 Other Ezra // Aug 14, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Libertarianism has thrived on the Internet, just as it has in Computer Science departments, because computing and the Internet symbolize growth without scarcity and free exchange without restrictions. The allure multiplied during the dot-com boom, when faith in the Net’s power seemed to translate into absurd levels of success for some role models.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Aug 14, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Well, I guess there are two arguments. One is that, on lots of issues, voter preferences are relatively malleable. There wasn’t an overwhelming constituency for invading Iraq until the president decided it was super urgent. The other is that policymaking elites have a fair amount of autonomy in certain areas even when voter preferences are more fixed. Voters don’t have to actively support a policy shift so long as they’re not attentive, motivated, and organized enough to raise a huge stink against it.

    Other Ezra-
    I think there’s very probably something to that.

  • 8 JasonL // Aug 14, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Other Ezra:

    Or, libertarians are now, as always, geeks. Geeks talk on the Internet. Voila.


    If you are right, that’s pretty depressing. I mean, I’ve always thought our wonks were better than other peoples’, which gave us a disproportionate voice in certain policy discussions. If, across a broad “middle” range of issues, people’s views are substantially malleable, we are doing even worse than I’d thought.

  • 9 Barry // Aug 14, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    JasonL, one thing that I’m becoming more and more believing of is that elite interests matter, where ‘elite’ is frequently monetary. A set of wonks pushing policies, or prepping for/against policies, doesn’t have to be worth sh*t, if there are significant interests behind them. One current example would be global warming – after the science is ~99% settled, one wouldn’t know from reading in the mass media. Another example is the war in Iraq – the mass media led the US people to that war (following Bush), and only reluctantly followed the US people out. Even now, the people who did support the war, and do support the war predominate in the mass media – as the saying goes, the rest of are Not Serious People.

  • 10 Barry // Aug 14, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Back to the original article – Julian, the phenomenon that you’re seeing now in the blogosphere was one that I saw back in ’94-96, when I got on the internet (back in USENET days).

    There was a large minority of libertarians – or claiming to be – you’ve seen the sort who claim this, but really like the GOP. If your picture of US politics was derived from the internet, it’d have been very, very far from reality. Part of this was the computer science/academia getting there earlier, part was the white, educated middle-class male thing (IMHO).

    Today, I think that there’s another factor involved – the right-wing/libertarian split. Back in the USENET days, I noticed that oh so many of these ‘orthogonal’ libertarians really hated Democratic politicians, but were tolerant to supportive of GOP politicians. By now, the libertarians who were actually Republicans have openly left, and a larger proportion of the actual libertarians have found that they don’t like the Republican Party. This has put liberals and libertarians in closer alignment – we have a common opponent. In the meantime, both sides have a harder time talking with a formerly triumphant, now ‘dead ender’ GOP. I’m pretty sure that liberals read liberal blogs, and some libertarian blogs, but only a few right-wing blogs – and those would be conservatives, not actual right-wingers. I’d be unsurprised if libertarians have a similar pattern. You’ve probably read some right-wing blogs, and decided that these people just aren’t in the same universe as you. Talking with them would be futile, since they can’t accept reality.

    The rise of right-wing radio, TV and magazines have helped this along. One can spend a lot of hours listening to a world where Bush is an inspired genius, patriotic American, Christian of good character, etc. Where we are winning the war in Iraq, to save those poor people (who deserve anything that we do to them since they’re all foreign Muzlim terrs, not that we do, but they deserve it anyway….).

    As the Bush administration and this war keep crashing down the highway of disaster, I expect this to continue, since a paranoid ‘stab in the back’ theory is well developed, and anybody who doesn’t buy into their lies is an enemy – not an opponent, but probably a charter member of Al Qaida.

  • 11 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Aug 14, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    Julian, thanks for your response to my comment. I think the trend you are “eyeballing” has little to do with the Internet and mostly to do with the declining influence of Rand and Rothbard on the libertarian movement. I’m not sure to what extent you can attribute that to the Internet. I think it’s more to do with the fact the major engines of libertarian policy thought are in the Friedman-Hayekian wing. And Murray died, and Lew Rockwell ain’t no Murray.

    As for the Kelley article, I haven’t any philosophical training and so must defer to you on that point. By “excellent primer” I meant to say that it does a great job of explaining the standard libertarian rights view on positive rights.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Aug 14, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    You probably have a point re: Rand/Rothbard. As for Kelley, I suppose we were looking for different things. As a simple statement of the libertarian view on positive rights, it’s OK; as a fair, charitable response to the best version of an egalitarian liberal’s position on healthcare, I think it falls far short.

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