A common practice amongst libertarians is categorization of ourselves into various little factions. Attempts to draw up classification schema of “types of libertarian” are a popular pasttime, and although one may argue this only serves to encourage infighting, it can also be useful for illustrative purposes.
I wish to make my own proposal. At risk of Yet Another Objectivist Cliche, I’m going to indulge in some trichotomic analysis and suggest that libertarians can be divided into three basic kinds.
I am dividing libertarians on the basis of three different broad lines in libertarian argumentation. All three kinds of argument have overlap with each other, so by no means is this system perfect, but I believe it has some use.
In essence, my scheme divides libertarians on the basis of which argument for liberty they most strongly emphasize. Whilst libertarian thought is very diverse and rife with internal disagreements, I think it would be fair to describe it as having three underlying “currents” that dominate the discourse.
1) The Argument from Natural Rights (“Radical Libertarianism”)
This argument proposes that because of human nature, people can be said to possess a natural right of self-sovereignty (also known as self-ownership). As such, it is wrong for any individual to intrude on the self-sovereignty of any other individual.
This is the oldest argument for libertarianism and is generally credited to John Locke. Other thinkers associated with it are Ayn Rand as well as Murray Rothbard and the Rothbardian free-market anarchists. Religious libertarians will often be of this kind and argue for rights granted by God. The most famous statement of the Radical Libertarian argument is from the Declaration Of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
2) The Argument from Consequentialism (“Utilitarian Libertarianism”)
This argument proposes that liberty is good because it creates the most positive consequences for the widest number of people. As such, any curtailment to liberty will produce negative outcomes.
This is the second oldest argument for libertarianism and emerged most fully during the British Enlightenment. This argument tends to be associated primarily with Adam Smith and most pro-market economic analysis. Milton Friedman is probably the most famous modern proponent of this argument. Free market anarchists are typically Radicals, but David D. Friedman is an example of a Utilitarian free market anarchist.
3) The Argument from Anti-Utopianism (“Skeptical Libertarianism”)
This argument is the newest of the arguments for libertarianism and, whilst having historical roots in the British Enlightenment, emerged most fully as a counter to the dominance of Marxism during the early 20th Century. This historical context is crucial for understanding the argument, for this argument is principally a negative argument disputing any alternatives to libertarianism rather than a positive argument for liberty per se.
This argument proposes that totalitarianism is doomed to fail because it is invariably based on a rationalistic impulse to construct utopia out of a grand sociological theory; whilst this may look good on paper, it always fails in real life because human beings cannot be perfectly understood by theory.
Probably the first clue to this argument lies in the work of J.S. Mill. Whilst Mill was an Utilitarian, his case for liberty was dependent on the proposition that only each individual knows what will generate the most subjective utility for themselves. Therefore, the best results will be generated by letting individuals live their own lives and solve their own problems and pursue their own happiness.
This argument emerged fully during the Economic Calculation Debate, where Mises and Hayek argued that the price system collected subjective preferences of market participants and eventually produced prices which guided the efficient allocation of capital; in the absence of these prices (which, as Hayek stressed, were impossible to replicate because they were grounded in individual preferences (a kind of information which was tacit and essentially impossible to gauge without the use of a price system)) there could be no efficient allocation of capital.
Hayek consistently expanded this argument into an indictment of rationalistic, deterministic social theories like Marxism; he ultimately accused these theories of abusing human reason, divorcing it from reality, and underestimating its fallibility.
This line of thought has been expanded by many thinkers including the philosopher Karl Popper.
It needs to be emphasized that none of these arguments are mutually exclusive. The vast majority of libertarian thinkers have employed all three arguments at various occasions depending on context. It should also be stated that in many respects, these arguments tend to be logically compatible. For instance, Radicals can argue that evidence from the Utilitarian case substantiates their argument that human nature demands liberty; after all, the conditions under which any organism thrives are determined by the nature of the organism. J.S. Mill was an Utilitarian, but his emphasis on only individuals understanding what can bring their own happiness was a clear precursor to Hayek’s Skeptical critiques of attempts to design Utopia. And, whilst Radicals have often shown hostility to Skeptical libertarians (Rand and Rothbard’s attacks on Hayek, for instance), but the Skeptical libertarian indictment of rationalism shows the epistemological origins of totalitarianism and vindicates the empiricist roots of Radical Libertarianism. Additionally, by emphasizing how human reason is not suited to totalitarian societies, Skeptical Libertarianism only backs up the Radical Libertarian appeal to human nature as the basis of rights.
But typically, one of these arguments will be the focal point. One will be predominant and the others will be used as support (or in some cases, attacked as sham ‘pseudo-libertarianism’). One argument will be cited as the fundamental justification for liberty.
And it is on this basis that I divide libertarians up. They differ in amount of overlap with other categories (how frequently they employ non-primary arguments), and matters of degree with respect to political program, but a division on the basis of intellectual subspecies makes the most sense.
As for classifying myself, I am a Radical, but I acknowledge and respect both the Utilitarian and Skeptical cases. Unlike most Objectivists I actually think the Skeptical case is perfectly in accordance with the Objectivist argument since the Skeptical case targets Rationalism, which Objectivism considers intrinsicism.
So, where do you guys fit? And do you think this classification system has any use or is it just another useless set of quaint little categories?