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True Names

June 29th, 2004 · No Comments

I’m always a little puzzled by a rhetorical strategy I occasionally encounter in friendly political arguments. I’ll often, unsurprisingly enough, end up taking a libertarian position, and midway through the back-and-forth, my interlocutor will respond with something like: “Well, you’re a libertarian, so of course you think that, but…” as if to suggest that an ideology is some kind of suspect ulterior motive, along the lines of “Well, you work for ADM, so of course you’re for ethanol subsidies.” But of course, that’s sort of backwards: I don’t believe in low taxes, strong property rights, free trade, and robust civil liberties because I’m a libertarian. Rather, I’m a libertarian because I believe all those things for other independent reasons. (And the “because” here is constitutive, not causal—being a libertarian, in other words, just means believing those other things.) It’s as though once you can slap a label on a view, you’ve banished it, in the way we used to think knowing the true magical names of evil spirits gave us power over them.

I guess there’s a quasi-legit deployment of this line of attack, but it’s insulting enough that I’d rather not believe that this is how it’s intended. That is, you might mean that someone is rejecting some potential form of government action in a knee-jerk way, just because they generally oppose a lot of other forms of government action, without having thought about the specifics of this case. (I say quasi-legit because I think there are several general objections to whole classes of government action, like the problem of regulatory capture, that are at least prima facie admissible even if you don’t know a great deal about the specific instance.)

So, can we ditch this one? It’s as though someone argued for single payer healthcare, and I said “well, you’re sort of center-left, so of course you think that’s a good idea,” as though that ended the matter.

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