Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Interview: "'Libertarianism' to me is an umbrella term, kind of like 'Christianity,'" Cato's Jason Kuznicki explains

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

Libertarianism has seen better days.

A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, however, protectionism surged -- not only in the GOP, but among Democratic ranks as well. Now, amid the age of Donald Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory.

"I fear that the classical liberal/libertarian idea and ideal will be seriously tarnished by the policies and politics of the Trump Administration," Dr. Richard Ebeling, one of our time's greatest Austrian School thinkers, recently told me.

He continued: "Virtually all of Trump’s proposed policies involve a continuation or an intensification of government involvement in social and economic life. He acts as the all-knowing government central planner when he calls in business executives and tells them where to invest and what products they should make to 'create jobs.' He undermines respect for and protection of essential civil liberties when he ridicules the freedom of the press and their way of reporting on his administration’s actions and his words."
Ebeling went on to state his worry "that with the assistance of the mainstream media the Trump Administration’s anti-freedom policies will tarnish the real case for a free society and a free market. That is, people who want lower taxes and fewer regulations on business will be identified as the people who also believe in torture, discrimination against immigrants, violations of civil liberties, and the instigation of trade wars because of aggressive nationalist attitudes."

While libertarianism is easy enough to discuss in a superficial, explicitly political context, what does it mean in a deeper, philosophical sense? Of course, such a question necessarily delves into the realm of politics, but at the same time, there are finer aspects of libertarianism that defy any neat category political science has on offer.

Fortunately, Dr. Jason Kuznicki is here to help us figure all this out.

"Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute’s online journal of debate," the Doctor's Cato biography reads. "His ongoing interests include censorship, church-state issues, and civil rights in the context of libertarian political theory. He was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism and the author of Technology and the End of Authority: What is Government For? (Palgrave, 2017). Kuznicki earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize."

Kuznicki recently spoke with me about the ins and outs of libertarian thought. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Considering the philosophical diversity within the libertarian movement, in the context of American politics, what does 'libertarianism' really mean?

Dr. Jason Kuznicki: “Libertarianism” to me is an umbrella term, kind of like “Christianity.” There are a lot of differences within Christianity, such that you can’t just go to an Episcopal church and say to yourself “Ah, so that’s Christianity.” It is Christianity, yes, but it’s only Christianity of a particular flavor.

Also like Christianity, libertarianism has been full of system builders who want to claim the whole umbrella term for themselves, and to expel all those who disagree. This makes us terribly fractious. I sometimes call it Kuznicki’s First Law: You are not libertarian until, on three separate occasions, someone has excommunicated you from the libertarian movement.

But in the end, libertarians are all those who would substantially reduce the size and scope of government action rather than expanding it in any of its particulars. That encompasses a lot of people, and they arrive at libertarianism for a lot of different reasons that aren’t always compatible with each other. Then they try to get along with one another in a set of institutional structures that aim at achieving public policy goals… and the result is the vibrant chaos that has always been the libertarian movement.

Cotto: Paleolibertarianism is a socially traditionalist approach to libertarian philosophy. In a nutshell, what does this entail?

Kuznicki: I’m not a paleolibertarian, so take this as an outsider’s view.

My understanding is that paleolibertarians favor a minimal government, but they hold that a particular set of personal virtues and disciplines are necessary to make it work; these correspond more or less to traditional Judeo-Christian values. If you don’t have those, they think, you’ll not have a minimal government for long.

I am skeptical of this because I observe an increasing number of non-Judeo-Christian societies that have achieved what one might call a basic liberalism. And if they can do that, then it’s not clear why Judeo-Christian values in particular must be needed for a fully libertarian society.

Cotto: Minarchism perceives libertarianism through a vehemently anti-state lens. What is its ultimate goal?

Kuznicki: I’m going to disagree, if I may, with the premise of the question. I do so for two reasons: First, no anarchist would ever agree that minarchism is vehemently anti-state. An anarchist would say that minarchism is pro-state, in that the minarchist’s ideal society still contains a state. One may disagree with the anarchist’s goals here, but the point I think must be conceded; a minarchist still wants a state.

Second, I am somewhat suspicious of the term “minarchism” in general, because there are probably no people who want more government than is necessary: If a minarchist wants only the smallest government that’s necessary… well… FDR was a minarchist, and Nixon was a minarchist, and George W. Bush was a minarchist… they just disagreed about what was necessary. The term “minarchism” gets us nowhere, even we’re not anarchists ourselves (and I am not).