Pragmatically Toward Libertarianism

by Conor Friedersdorf

In concurrence with the creed of The Atlantic, I consider myself to be "of no party or clique," and the best insight I can offer into my work is its premise: that a writer's job is to strive for the truth, and to remember that he'll sometimes be wrong. As a result, I am reticent to characterize myself politically on occasions when I'm really being asked, "Whose side are you on?" The answer to that question should never be "the liberal side" or "the conservative side," unless the person being questioned is naive enough to think that one ideology or the other has a monopoly on truth.

A question I don't mind is "Which tradition of political philosophy do you find most useful or persuasive?" In shorthand, my answer is that I'm both a conservative and a libertarian, or some combination. A longer answer is that I embrace aspects of classical liberalism too, and if you find yourself thinking that these terms mean very different things to different people, I agree. That's why I try to be introduced on radio spots as "a California based writer" rather than "a conservative" or "a libertarian," but anyone who attempts it knows these labels are impossible to escape. I sometimes even slip lazily into their use in spite of myself, though I'd banish them tomorrow if I could.

Today is another matter, because I cannot express this thought otherwise: I now think of myself as a libertarian more than a conservative when I reflect on how my ideological beliefs map onto the political coalitions whose success I desire.

This isn't one of those overwrought, more-in-sadness-than-anger essays that true believers write to announce an ideological conversion. The respect I have for conservative insights remains intact, as does my belief that Edmund Burke and friends remain important guides in our pursuit of prudent governance.

I also retain the reservations I've long had about describing myself as a libertarian and leaving it at that. Bruce Bartlett says that he is "basically libertarian but tempered by Burkean small-c conservatism." It's a characterization I find appealing. Were I able to banish government's role in marriage entirely, I'd refrain, though I do want gays to be able to marry, largely for the conservative reasons so eloquently expressed by Andrew Sullivan. I favor legalizing drugs, but slowly, and with lots of attention paid to how my expectations track the real world results of that policy. I regard the family unit as pretty damned important to a functioning society. Existing institutions matter.

These are but four incompletely articulated examples, but I trust you get the idea: I identify partly as a libertarian, but my failure to automatically support the whole libertarian line as a matter of first principles would cause some who go by that label to kick me out of the free state (an improbable project whose success I'd cheer).

It is precisely this grounding in pragmatism and real world consequences that is pushing me toward libertarianism generally, and especially the brand you find at the Cato Institute and Reason (not that there is anything like consensus within those institutions, which helps explain their increasing attractiveness). It may sound strange to advocate for libertarianism as a practical matter, when conservatives and liberals dominate the political landscape, and it's a struggle to elect even a single libertarian (not that any competitive candidate would call themselves that) to the Senate.

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