Skeptical Libertarianism: A Manifesto

Today, libertarianism is experiencing an unprecedented surge in popularity and media attention. The ideas of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and F.A. Hayek are now being discussed–however ineptly–on a national stage, and for perhaps the first time ever, libertarians have a prominent position at the table of public discourse. But as the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat warned, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

The more the spotlight turns toward the “liberty movement,” the more concerned libertarians should be about the unsavory, conspiratorial, and pseudoscientific beliefs being spread under the banner of the libertarian and antiwar movements. For too long, libertarians have ignored the problem and pretended that it has no impact on our credibility, believing that open opposition would be too “divisive.” This has proved to be a mistake–and an increasingly costly one.

Instead of trying to silence or ignore the crazies in our midst, we ought to confront them and expose the lunatic fringe for what they really are: peddlers of fear, falsehood, and paranoia, just like the politicians they claim to oppose. We cannot sit passively next to the people in tinfoil hats screaming about chemtrails and FEMA camps and still expect to be listened to when we try to speak about our real concerns on foreign policy or personal liberty.

What discredits and defames libertarianism is not the belief that government is corrupt, exploitative, or conniving. Rather, what hurts the cause of liberty most is when its alleged proponents lie, libel, and twist the facts. As skeptics, we realize that the evil perpetrated by our government mostly results not from the plots of secret cabals, but from the unintended consequences of bad ideas. In the name of opposing those ideas, we must not let ourselves become a carrier for another set of malignant beliefs.

Libertarians need to practice a kind of “conversational intolerance” within our movement, exacting a social penalty every time a person tries to hijack our message with false and nonscientific claims. We must make the libertarian movement inhospitable to the crackpots and conspiracy theorists if we hope to move the philosophy of liberty from the margins to the center of public discourse. It needs to be crystal clear to everyone that our ideas based on–and defended with–facts and evidence, not superstition and innuendo.

We are libertarians because we believe it is the political philosophy which most closely reflects reality. The lessons of economics, science, and history lead us to be distrustful of moral busybodies and central planners, and to defend individual liberty, personal responsibility, and spontaneous social order. This philosophy is not grounded in dogma or tradition, but in reason, tolerance, and respect for human dignity.

This devotion to reason is fundamental to libertarianism, and it underscores our responsibility to be honest, open to argument, and committed to skeptical inquiry. Progress, whether political or intellectual, relies on our ability to engage with others in a truly open-ended conversation.

This dialogue must ultimately ride the rails of a shared reality. While we may never reach consensus on many issues, nor anything like “absolute truth,” we may be sure that our best understanding of the world will be derived from a scientific approach to answering questions, not from ad hoc reasoning and conspiracy logic.

A naturalistic view of how society, the economy, and the universe operates makes it clear that vast conspiracies do not control the world. Cartels break down, scams are exposed, governments fall, schemes flounder, businesses go bankrupt, culture evolves, churches revive, religions decline, great plans go awry, markets oscillate–and there is no one in charge of it all.

The great forces operating in this world are the cumulative result of tiny individual decisions made by billions of people every day. Culture, markets, and social movements arise through bottom-up evolutionary processes. The order that emerges from this sea of choices gives an illusion of design because we are hardwired to find design, conflating pattern with planning. We see politicians marching at the head of the parade and, like they, mistakenly believe them to be leading it.

Just as we once inferred an “intelligent designer” from the patterns in nature, spirits in the air from the patterns in weather, and gods in the sky from the pattern of stars, we seek patterns in human events and infer purpose behind them. We connect ideas and events in order to tell a story, all too often making false connections and creating false narratives, delusions, and fantasies–the errors we seem born to make.  For many today, government remains the superstition that explains social order, and for others, conspiracies the myth that account for disaster.

As skeptical libertarians, our job is to use reason and evidence to investigate claims and to discover how the world really works. In this task, we have a dual mandate: expose the government’s incompetence and debunk the fables and false conspiracies that so easily mislead so many.