Liberal Means, Illiberal Ends

Jacob Lyles makes a good point:

Libertarianism is a philosophy about means. It describes a set of allowed and prohibited ways of interacting with other people. If you describe yourself as a libertarian, you believe that these means of interaction are wise and just. I tend to agree with that sentiment, so I call myself a libertarian.

Many libertarians treat the term “classical liberal” as a synonym, but that is not true at all. Liberalism is a philosophy about ends. It says that people ought to have the freedom of speech, of the press, and of organization. They ought to have fair trials when accused of a crime, and not be deprived due process before any punishment is meted out.

Modern libertarianism is a muddled mess of an ideology because its adherents don’t understand this difference. They assert that libertarianism and classical liberalism are one and the same, that libertarian means necessarily result in classical liberal ends. But that is not true. I just showed one counter-example whereby libertarian means can result in very illiberal ends through the intermediate step of private governments. Like any complex set of rules, there are edge-cases, grey areas, and Godelian loop-holes.

Indeed. Eric Crampton and I describe such an edge-case in this paper, showing that market anarchism can encourage illiberal law by encouraging the formation of cult-like religious groups. 

In a well-functioning market for law, for now holding constant relative technical efficiency of enforcement and avoidance, those rights which garner the highest total willingness to pay will be the rights enforced. When preferences are libertarian in the way Stringham and Hummel imagine and also, if Caplan and Stringham’s (2003) argument is correct, when preferences are knavish and selfregarding, a free society emerges. But in any actual society, some people will have preferences over things libertarians see as none of their business. If the total willingness to pay to have some activity prohibited exceeds the total willingness to pay to avoid prohibition, the activity will be prohibited regardless of what libertarian political philosophy has to say about it.

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