Matt Bruenig wrote a very interesting article a few years ago, Two Different Kinds of Libertarians. The two kinds of libertarians are “procedural justice” and “consequentialist.” It is easier to just call them “theoretical” and “practical,” and so I will. Supposedly, the practical libertarians are just looking to maximize utility and they just look out at the big bad world of ideas and find that libertarian ideas are the ones that make everyone best off. The theoretical ones start from the theory that no one has the right to take another’s property, and work out from there.
I think this is a false dichotomy. No one reading this blog can question but that I think that people decide and then rationalize. It doesn’t work the other way around in most cases. There is lots of science to back me up on this. In fact, this is why I believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I greatly value my reasoning ability. I hate the idea that my beliefs just bubble up from deep in my brain and then my higher brain functions set about justifying why they are right.
As a result of this, I know that libertarians are generally libertarians because it feels right. So I think the libertarians who justify their beliefs on theoretical arguments are no different than libertarians who justify them on practical arguments. And it just so happens that I have experience with this. If you can talk seriously with a practical libertarian and convince him that, for example, the minimum wage does not cost jobs and will actually stimulate economic growth, he will not stop being a libertarian. He will just change his arguments from practical to theoretical.
Bruenig says that he has seen a shift from practical to theoretical libertarianism. But this is just because he hangs out with far smarter people than most of us do. I mean — Good God! — he mentioned Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. I assure you that people are not standing around at Libertarian Party conventions discussing Democracy: The God That Failed. All you really have to do is listen to Majority Report, where libertarians call in all the time. And they always make practical arguments, although when losing, they will sometimes back up into theoretical arguments.
So really, all that has happened is that the high end thinkers of libertarianism have had to retreat into theory. That alone speaks incredibly poorly of libertarianism. The truth is that most people are not theory-based when it comes to governance. They aren’t going to pick a political ideology on the basis that it has a good theoretical foundation. They what practical results. So the fact that the best thinkers in the movement have abandoned it as a means of enriching everyone means it will never be adopted in a free country. This may be why Hoppe has argued so strongly against democracy.
But as Bruenig has pointed out in a different article, even the theory of libertarianism is filled with holes, Non-Aggression Never Does Any Argumentative Work at Any Time. This is a response to what is by far the most common theoretical libertarian argument. The non-aggression principle (NAP) holds that it is always wrong to commit aggression against another. Libertarians use this as an excuse for saying no one should have the right to their person or property. There are very many problems with this, but here is Bruenig’s take:
Suppose I come on to some piece of ground that you call your land. Suppose I don’t believe people can own land since nobody makes land. So obviously I don’t recognize your claim that this is yours. You then violently attack me and push me off.
What just happened? I say that you just used aggressive violence against me. You say that actually you just used defensive violence against me. So how do we know which kind of violence it is?
You say it is defensive violence because under your theory of entitlement, the land belongs to you. I say it is aggressive violence because under my theory of entitlement, the land does not belong to you. So which is it?
If you have half a brain, you see what is going on. The word “aggression” is just defined as violence used contrary to some theory of entitlement. The word “defense” is just defined as violence used consistent with some theory of entitlement. If there is an underlying dispute about entitlement, talking about aggression versus defense literally tells you nothing.
In other words: the argument is about our approach to property rights. It has nothing to do with “aggression.” The truth is that the government uses aggression to enforce property rights. Of course, it is also true that all land currently owned was, at some point, stolen either from the commons or from other individuals. So it is hard to make the argument from non-aggression when the current state of property rights depends upon aggression. Libertarians, therefore, must argue in favor of property rights. I think most don’t do this because it doesn’t even occur to them that property rights are anything but God given. And those who get beyond that find that the issue gets incredibly murky.
Take, for example, Ayn Rand and her ignorant and racist claim that the founders of the United States were justified in stealing land from the native peoples. As I discussed in Ayn Rand and Indians, this is simply the claim that “might makes right.” She decided that what the native peoples were doing with their land was not valid and so that justified the European settlers taking it. This is very much like my arguing that I ought to be able to use a gun to steal cars from old people, because I drive better and can make better use of their cars.
The bottom line of all of this is that libertarians are hung up on an infantile notion that no one has a right to take their stuff. And then they justify it based upon whatever kind of arguments make sense to them. For most people, those would be the practical arguments. Very few people find the theoretical arguments very compelling. But libertarians will use whatever arguments are needed. And if even the theoretical arguments fail them, they can fall back on the real argument that animates all the higher level nonsense, “Mine!”