Interview with a Libertarian

November 7, 2008

Have you ever noticed how absurdly self-indulgent you get to be when you give an interview? You get to talk on and on, as if you think everything you say is witty and charming. Well, for this reason, I decided to interview myself about libertarianism, law school, and why you should never give up hope for the cause of liberty.

Interview:

What do you think makes you ready to study law?

Well, I’d have to say that my best preparation for a career in law is that most of my friends, family, and random people at parties think I’m wildly, fundamentally wrong about everything if believe.

Really? What do they think you are wrong about?

Well, I’m a libertarian.

Oh.

Yeah, so basically I have radically different political views from 98% of the population.

I see. And how has that influenced you?

It’s made me recognize the value of persuasive argumentation, and also taught me how to argue.

What do you mean, recognize the value of persuasive argumentation?

I just mean that for a libertarian, there are two alternatives. Either you can go off and form your own cult of libertarianism, or you can engage with people who don’t share your beliefs. I much prefer the latter option, which means that I need to struggle desperately just to convince people that I’m not a total lunatic.

But aren’t you a lunatic? I mean, almost everyone disagrees with you…

It’s a good point. There is a certain arrogance in trying to claim that my positions are correct, even though almost everyone disagrees with me. Which is why it is all the more important to constantly engage people, so that I’m familiar with the sharpest criticisms of libertarianism and try to grapple with those. So many people are complacent about their political beliefs. Libertarians can never be that way, because they are so marginalized.

Fair enough. So what has all this constant arguing taught you about arguing?

First of all, that your attitude and how you say things are very important. I think many people are turned off by what they see as the arrogance of libertarians who act as if they possess some secret, profound knowledge that only a select few can understand. As I said before, it’s an understandable reaction to being in constant disagreement with 98% of the population, but it’s an attitude that’s unlikely to win anyone over. Nothing is more annoying to people than claiming “My beliefs are true because of reasons you’re too dumb and uneducated to understand, and I don’t have time to explain them to you.” It’s a complete turnoff.

Right, so what’s the alternative?

That you take a genuine interest in how people arrived at their particular beliefs. Libertarians should of course read the works of influential libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick, but it’s equally important that we understand John Rawls’ point in A Theory of Justice,  and perhaps more importantly, that we understand the intuitive appeal of his theory.

Empathizing with different perspectives is often difficult for libertarians who believe in the superiority of individualist ethics in all situations, but as Hayek, another major libertarian influence, pointed out, unless we understand the sentiments that motivate socialist thought, we have no hope of addressing it.

In order to argue with someone, you must first be able to state his beliefs in such a way that they are recognizable to him. If you can’t complete this first step, the rest of your argument is a waste of time.

So, when you figure out an acceptable set of premises to start with, you can show anyone that libertarianism is correct?

Now that really would be arrogant! No, there do exist genuine values disagreements between libertarians and other groups, but there are a number of concrete examples in which libertarian policies simply produce better results than interventionist ones, even by the standards of the people doing the intervening.

Rent control is an easy example, and a favorite of libertarians. Generally, people who favor rent control want to “help the poor,” but as Paul Krugman, certainly no libertarian, has argued, these laws end up hurting the very people they are trying to help. I guess much of what keeps me optimistic about convincing people about libertarianism is that most people have never even heard that argument. People’s failure to reject state intervention usually stems not from knowing what libertarianism is and determining that it’s wrong, but rather not being aware of the basis for libertarian thought.

Aren’t you coming dangerously close to those libertarians who think they possess some secret knowledge that makes them smarter than everyone else?

I guess you’re right. But like I said, every libertarian has to cope with his minority status somehow.

Okay. So how does any of this relate to law?

Well, lawyers are in the same position at libertarians. You can’t just argue for your position using whatever principles you think are right. You have to look for common ground first, legislation and case history, and then make your arguments.

Now it makes sense. One last question: What’s the difference between anarchists and libertarians, really?

Anarchists have a better logo. [laughs]

No but really, I’d say the difference is not so much one of type as of emphasis. Libertarians emphasize the practical, positive implications of liberty, whereas anarchists emphasize the immorality of government coercion.

Another way to think about it might be to think of anarchists are just a different type of libertarian. All libertarians are for “minimal state intervention;” anarchists simply have a much more extreme notion of what constitutes the “minimal state.”

Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.

For me as well!

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One Response to “Interview with a Libertarian”

  1. Rrrrobert! Says:

    1. Law school?
    2. Watch out for straw-man arguments. Though there are undoubtedly a host of interventionist policies that work worse than no intervention, this can’t really be marshaled as evidence that non-intervention is the best policy. To take rent control as an example, it’s way possible that other interventions (e.g., housing subsidies) could accomplish the same goals. In other words, since there are an infinite number of potential interventions, you will have to do much more to argue that the best policy is non-intervention.

    By all means, though, do disabuse people of the notion that interventions are de facto useful.


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