The other day, Marginal Revolution poined me to an excellent essay by Virginia Postrel at Cato Unbound. In it, she delineates four cultural and intellectual traditions that we typically lump together under the umbrella of “libertarianism.” Briefly and inadequately paraphrased, they are:
- Natural Liberty. According to Postrel, this is the group with the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” and concerned with gun rights. In fact, my position on gun control is emblematic of my relationship to this libertarian tradition: I’m pulled both ways. If responsible, law-abiding people want to shoot guns for sport, I’m entirely okay with that. On the other hand, I think Utah’s “Keep Schools Safe for Guns” crowd is a little crazy.
- Live and Let Live. Postrel says that this tradition is embodied in the biblical prophecy “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid,” and the phrase “Follow Your Bliss.” I align more closely with this philosophy than the first.
- The Deductive Tradition. I haven’t read anything by Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard, so I can’t claim to be a follower of this school of thought. And from how Postrel describes them, I don’t think I would be a very good fit with this group. I think that people need government to provide some things that individuals can’t provide very well as individuals, such as national defense, roads, parks, and schools. I’m willing to accept the idea that the government can make better use of some of my money than I can. I probably define the category of worthy goals more narrowly than most, and distrust government’s ability to meet those goals more than most, but I don’t go nearly so far as the crowd saying that “taxation is theft.”
- The Empiricist Tradition. I am an aspiring devotee of this “non-utopian, empiricist” approach that, in Postrel’s words, is characterized by “[i]ts distrust of grand plans and refusal to embrace the one best way.” While I think that a free market should be the default policy in matters of economic regulation, I know that markets can fail in lots of ways that justify the government stepping in.
If you think you might be libertarian, or are even just curious how you might define one, you should go read Postrel’s essay now. It certainly helped me to parse out why I believe some of the things I do, and to see where the bases for those beliefs might conflict with one another.