Making libertarianism relevant


I held a competition a few weeks ago to come up with the best alternative name for libertarianism. There were a good number of entries, and a number of good entries. Some were funny (“Freedophile”, “Libercareian”), some were cheeky (“Socialism – because "socialism" is what we do, voluntarily and co-operatively, when there isn't a state to coerce us”), and many, while good intellectually, were too cumbersome to use in everyday language. My personal favourite alternative is “individualist”, argued for by the IEA’s Steve Davies here, but I’m not convinced that we can get past the perception that we’re just selfish egoists. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Rand-fans!)

In my view, libertarianism’s central tenet is an opposition to coercion of any kind. I’m divided between picking “mutualism”, “voluntaryism” and “consentualism” as the winner, because I think all convey that tenet. In the end, I’m going to go for “consentualism”, as suggested by Simon Rigelsford. The others have their strengths, but also their baggage. Mutualism, for instance, which was strongly argued for by one commentator, is too anarcho-syndicalist for my tastes. Although I will probably not adopt it as my “ideology”, I think the exercise was useful and interesting to see the options out there. (Update: Just to clarify, I don't suggest that anybody adopts this term, as some commenters seem to think. Sorry if that wasn't clear initially!)

Interestingly, there were a couple of pleas to revert to the word “liberal”. The thinking goes, as argued in a few comments, that the word has resonance and an historical tradition in the UK, unlike “libertarianism”. I’m sympathetic, but the word “liberalism” has changed in its meaning and connotations so that it means something much more akin to the American conception of the word (ie, Rawlsian “high liberalism”) than the old conception. As one commenter pointed out, “the customer is always right”. Once you add a qualifier to a word, you’re in trouble. And “classical” is a weak one too – it sounds backward-looking, introspective and esoteric.

So what brought about the competition? Basically, I think libertarianism as an ideology is strong, appealing and potent, but as a brand is weak (in the UK at any rate), and it's hard to see how we plan on changing that. I'm reading a book called The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at the moment, which contains a line on one character: “[He] had a vice common to believers: He was all strategy and no tactics”. Pertinent words.

One of libertarianism’s greatest assets is how at ease with modernity most of its followers are. It’s important for us to remember this sort of thing – that we are not the “hippies of the right” or “conservatives who smoke pot”. We like technology, are tolerant (and hopefully encouraging) of different lifestyles, and resent attempts by people in positions of strength to control the weak. The failure of the libertarian movement to emphasise the positive aspects of libertarianism that make it more than just a market-worshipping form of conservatism is a serious limitation.

The debate over “Me” libertarianism that some online have had is relevant here. The freedom of women and most minorities (ethnic, racial and in the LGBT community) have all increased drastically in the last century. My guess is that very few of them would see themselves as being on the road to serfdom. That doesn't contradict the ethos of libertarianism, but this often doesn't inform the rhetoric and focus of many libertarians.

The American conservative Bill Buckley said that his magazine, National Review, would “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”. Libertarians should be on the other side, shouting “Faster!”.