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  • Max Stearns

No, Nick Gillespie, the Last Few Days Explain Why I’m not Libertarian (and You Shouldn’t be Either)

Updated: Dec 23, 2019

Perhaps the single most important proposition that I try to convey to my students is this: Be most critical when evaluating content with which you are viscerally inclined to agree, and be most willing to seek insight from content with which you are viscerally inclined to disagree. This is a vital skill not only for lawyers, but more generally for critical thinkers and a probing electorate. I will confess that in today’s political climate, it is also harder to follow, and I’m not immune to the challenges, but it remains vital if we aspire to be a free and open society.

This past week, Nick Gillespie, Editor-at-Large of Reason, a libertarian magazine, published an essay, titled: The Last Few Days Exemplify Why I'm Libertarian (and Why You Should Be Too). The essay is, ironically, poorly reasoned in all the ways I teach my students to identify in their readings and to avoid in their writings. It is not merely a bad essay, although it is that; it is vacuous in the specific sense that one can take the very premises and data on which the author relies to argue for the precise opposite of the conclusions he reaches. Despite this, I have seen it favorably posted and “liked” among various friends and acquaintances who identify with Gillespie’s libertarian world view in a sadly uncritical way.

I welcome, indeed encourage, my readers to read the original essay, but for those disinclined to do so, here’s the gist:

Our politics suck. We are stuck between Trump’s hateful rhetoric, exemplified in his recent egregious comments telling four freshman, minority, Congresswomen to go home, despite their already being here, coupled with Trump’s incessant demands, across the board, for complete and total loyalty, on one side, versus the socialist progressivism that Gillespie primarily associates with the world view of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seemingly embracing an all encompassing regulatory agenda, and likewise eschewing even good faith disagreements with leaders in her own party, on the other. Either choice, Gillespie maintains, locks us perpetually into a world of politics, which he defines as “the systematic organization of hatreds.” Gillespie posits that “[There's] ultimately not a lot of wiggle room” between these dire poles, and that, likely for this reason, this recent Gallup poll finds only 27% of respondents today identify as Democratic, and only 26% identify as Republican.

Gillespie states, cynically yet accurately, that if Donald Trump read books, Gillespie would encourage him to read the 1970 Albert Hirshman classic, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” From this, Gillespie argues that Trump insists upon a false binary: express undying love toward him (loyalty) or leave the country (exit). Instead, remaining and protesting (voice) is not merely a viable, but commendable and historically American, third way of bringing about benign change. Despite this, Gillespie reasons, the close-mindedness of the two extremes (“not a lot of wiggle room”), compels the conclusion that the only morally compelling move for thoughtful citizens (“and you should be too”) is to reject both parties altogether in favor of joining him as a Libertarian.

I’ve previously defined libertarianism, and I have explained why I am not a Libertarian, but here I will present Gillespie’s own perfectly fine definition:

“Libertarians are not anarchists but believers in limited government. Certain rights cannot be voted away but we believe that there are areas of life where consensus legitimately rules and that policy should be set by the group rather than the individual. Precisely because politics is a form of force and coercion, though, the parts of our lives governed by consensus should be as small as possible, limited to essential services such as basic infrastructure, law enforcement, safety standards, welfare for the indigent, and some education. The government should treat all people as individuals and all individuals as equal before the law.”

Within the bounds of reason, and consistent with treating others with respect, humaneness, and dignity, people certainly should be free to embrace whichever moral philosophy gives meaning to their lives. Yet, for critical thinkers, choosing a philosophy must not be confused with accepting all arguments, especially those advocating political action, simply due to agreement with their conclusions. Analysis should always, indeed especially, matter among like-minded persons.

Let’s unpack Gillespie’s argument:

Yes, our two major parties are presently at risk, in the case of Democrats, and have already succumbed to the risk, in the case of Republicans, of being captured by extreme elements. This has led to deeply divisive rhetoric and, on the Republican side, has effected deeply problematic, indeed vile, policies by Donald Trump’s administration. Gillespie fails to acknowledge, and thus fails to refute, is that ours is a baked-in two-party system, as I have explained on this blog and elsewhere. This implies that those eligible to vote confront a serious choice as we head into the vital 2020 election. And this includes especially the primary/caucus cycle on the Democratic side.

Voters can either remain in one of the two major parties, or, if they are not already in a major party, they can join, especially if their own state rules disallow primary voting by non-party members. Such voters can then do the hard work, including actually voting consistently with their convictions yet within the genuine constraints of our politics, of pulling their preferred (or least disfavored) party away from such extremes and toward the center. Doing so, using Gillespie’s terminology, if not his reasoning, would precisely seek to ensure a huge amount of "wiggle room" between the positions of each party. Or, instead coupling Gillespie’s reasoning and terminology, they can exit those parties, thereby leaving only each party’s most extreme elements to define the juxtaposed positions that the electorate will inevitably confront in the 2020 general election.

Gillespie relies on Hirshman to argue that the four freshman Congresswoman have a right to stay, and not be told to “go home.” Absolutely. Yet Gillespie somehow manages to miss entirely that the far more compelling reliance on Hirshman, on Gillespie's own terms, is to demonstrate the vital need for “voice” within each of the two major parties right now. If there is a compelling moral obligation among eligible voters, that is the one. For the very reasons Gillespie advances, one should entirely reject his conclusion encouraging voters to abandon the major parties and embrace an ideology, and political party, that, although it might make the voters feel self-righteous, even morally superior, will in no manner contribute to avoiding the very pathology Gillespie identifies. No, the moral obligation is to stay and to use our voices, loudly and without apology, rather than to abandon and disclaim responsibility for producing the very results to which such acts of rigid self-righteousness tragically contribute.

Gillespie ends his essay, advocating party abandonment, with this: “Who can blame us, really? Especially when there is a legitimate alternative to reducing your entire existence to political grudge matches between repellent teams who explicitly tell you to check your brain at the door?” I can, and I do. One does not have the moral right to claim that stepping out of our most vital politics absolves responsibility for its outcomes. Quite the contrary. Politics is not about making voters feel good; it is about doing the right thing, no matter how hard, so as to avoid the worst possible results. Now is the time to step up, not step out. That’s Hirshman’s real lesson. And it is a lesson that Nick Gillespie has managed to mangle.

I welcome your comments.

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