You're More Of A Libertarian Than You Think

A consistent theme on my blog (and in my interactions with people elsewhere) is my belief that nearly all people are basically libertarians, at least in a nutshell. Politicians do a good job of hiding this fact, of course, by using wedge issues to convince us of a vast ideological divide between American "liberals" and American "conservatives."

In truth, Americans share a common history, a common cultural narrative, and a common sense of individuality. Our feelings of patriotism are all wrapped-up in ideas about liberty and individual rights, no matter what our political affiliation is. Whether we are rightist, leftist, or something else, we all frame our political debates in the language of the "classical liberalism" and Enlightenment-era philosophy of our country's founding.

By international standards, this is an anomaly. It cannot be said that every political discussion in every other country leans so heavily on the language of the John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Benthams and Thomas Paines of those countries. In many cases, there were no such figures. The central liberating figure in Cuba, for example, is Fidel Castro. For better or for worse, communist and formerly communist countries term their political issues in the lexicon of revolution, progress, and equality of result. This is not exactly how it is in the United States. In fact, the more exposure one gets to foreign politics, the more obvious it is that Americans are more politically similar than they are different.

Reading the op-ed pages, though, you'd hardly know it.

This language issue is not small potatoes. Economists frequently use their familiar internal jargon to express free market concepts, and this jargon seems silly - and even downright objectionable - to "ordinary people" out there who hear about it.

A great example of this is F.A. Hayek's "Knowledge Problem." The whole problem might be phrased thusly: No one person or group possesses all the knowledge required to improve upon the inherent conditions of a free market. In other words, free trade creates a superior outcome precisely because small elements of partial knowledge is dispersed across the entire market. Each tiny piece of knowledge marginally impacts market trends and equilibria (assuming the existence of equilibria). To "improve" upon a free market by placing greater control in the hands of the few is to diminish the optimality of the market situation precisely because a smaller group possesses less knowledge.

Now, if you're not an economist, your eyes probably just glazed over and you kind of stopped paying attention.

But if I told you that the best way to find the answer to a question is to take to a social network and crowd-source your question, you wouldn't even blink. You crowd-source for answers every time you ask a question on Facebook, search for something on Wikipedia, or create a new thread on StackOverflow.com. What's more, you thoroughly understand this process and you don't need it explained to you. You completely understand that everyone out there has a slightly different expertise, so if you ask your question "publicly enough" you will soon get your answer.

Now, if I told you that Barack Obama wanted the US government to purchase Wikipedia so that the information it contained could be vetted by experts before it was published, you would cringe. [Note: To my knowledge, no such thing is happening; this is just a hypothetical scenario.] The reason you would cringe is because you know that the whole strength of Wikipedia - the genius of it, in fact - is that all people can publicly alter the information according to what they know, and because everyone is constantly doing this, the quality of the information consistently improves.

Take out that magic ingredient, and what you're left with is a small group of government bureaucrats attempting to write an electronic encyclopedia on everything. And what are the odds that such a group, no matter what their qualifications or methodology might be, will be able to improve upon the already-excellent Wikipedia?

On a gut level, we all accept the plain truth of Hayek's Knowledge Problem. So long as we use modern language to express what we're talking about, everyone is on-board. But the minute we frame it in economic terms, people start to choose ideological "sides" based on preconceived notions of what it means to be "pro-market" or "libertarian."

Hence, I think it's important for free market advocates to make their case using as little jargon as humanly possible.


  1. This is a fantastic explanation of a complex topic. You should really consider writing a few books. Start with just one though...

  2. ...bringing "I, Pencil" into the digital age. Well done!

  3. You seem to just be arguing that most Americans have classical liberal ideas. I agree with that, but that seems wildly different from the title claim.

    It's like you want to argue that if you care about liberty and consider the motives and capacities of politicians suspect, that's a libertarian thing. That doesn't seem right at all to me.

    If you want to define things that way, then sure we're all libertarians. But I don't know why you'd want to define things that way.

    1. Daniel, please see my previous blog post on the language of morality versus the language of existence:

      Linguistic philosophers, semoticians, etc. understand the role language has on perspective. This generally understood concept is really all I'm getting at here. It should be uncontroversial for the most part.

      The leftists call this "framing."

    2. Oh yes, and the substance is great. I guess I just feel like when you write something like this:

      "On a gut level, we all accept the plain truth of Hayek's Knowledge Problem. So long as we use modern language to express what we're talking about, everyone is on-board. But the minute we frame it in economic terms, people start to choose ideological "sides" based on preconceived notions of what it means to be "pro-market" or "libertarian.""

      I think that a lot of those "preconceived notions" are there for a reason, and that there's more of an uphill battle for libertarians than just pointing out that Hayek's knowledge problem makes a point most people already agree with.

    3. Again, I think you're just looking at libertarianism too narrowly. There is no "uphill battle" for anyone who is not part of a movement. Libertarianism is a set of ideas, not a political team. I'm not battling anything as the member of a group of people called "libertarians."

      You really ought to review my (still unfinished) series on Individuality, because you seem to be coming from an angle of political affiliation implying group affiliation. I try hard on my blog to delineate a person's social motivations from his/her existential ones. In this case, you are describing libertarians' social motivations. The point I am making above, however, pertains only to their existential ones.

    4. I think "affiliation" is probably the wrong word. I can be pretty idiosyncratic and don't feel "affiliated" with any group for the most part. But I can recognize that when I talk about random things I think some people nod their heads more often than other people. That's simply a distributional claim... no need to invoke affiliations.

      I think my general sense of "libertarian" is broader than the movement. I'm having trouble pinning down exactly what you mean by the term. It seems very different from how the word is usually used. Maybe you just mean the liberal tradition.

    5. Haha, nah. I said what I meant. My blog is my respository for words as I like to use them. You can feel free to check out The Stationary Waves Lexicon if you're concerned about my use of language. I try to keep a list of special-use words and phrases there to avoid this kind of miscommunication.

      At any rate "affiliation" is not the sort of word that can ever be used ambiguously or confusingly. If that word doesn't sit well with you, choose whatever synonym you prefer. Affiliation works well for me here.

    6. Ha - you have your own lexicon! Excellent. I shall have to check that out before I comment further :)

  4. Let me pose it another way.

    I agree on a lot of the substance you present here. Hayek's great IMO. Classical liberals are great IMO. If you just explain the logic, most Americans would agree with you and me on that.

    So why is libertarianism such a small movement? Are people too dumb to self-identify, or are you making a mistake by identifying classical liberalism with libertarianism? Or is there another possibility? I suspect you are making a mistake. Libertarianism seems to me to be something much more specific than what you are talking about here.

    You like things about libertarianism (it's classical liberal elements) that I like about liberalism and that a conservative probably likes about conservatism. Classical liberalism is an enlightening and uplifting foundation. For the varieties of liberalism that you find in America today. We all like our classical liberalism. I'm not a libertarian because I don't like the more specific things you all think about the role of the state in society, not because I have a problem with our common classical liberalism.

    1. This is a fair point. I think you are looking at libertarianism too narrowly, however. Your focus is on "movement libertarianism," which I am not particularly fond of. But the point I'm getting at is that a general belief in government of limited size and scope prevails in the United States (and I would argue that this concept is universal, but I did not make that argument here).

    2. I'd agree that that's universal too, but that's a very wide reading of libertarian. I can't imagine self-identified libertarians would be satisfied with just that. There are big differences of opinion on exactly what limits we're talking about.

    3. You're probably right there. Good thing I'm not too worried about satisfying a group of people who self-identify as libertarians. ;)