There is a debate between two camps I’ll charitably call Reasonable Libertarians and Educated Libertarians.* Reasonable libertarians care about being respectable. Educated libertarians are concerned with being correct.
The key differences between the two groups become more evident in a crisis. In fact, the insights described in this article were developed during past crises including 9/11, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the bank crisis/housing crash, and several mass shootings. This article was written during a global pandemic.
Reasonable libertarians believe that their ideology is a helpful guide, but they gobble up and consume reported facts to arrive at a more scientific conclusion. Educated libertarians are suspicious of first through door “facts” because experience has taught them that future information – which appears long after the drive-by media has moved on – undermines and even contradicts the earliest reported facts. To state the difference more bluntly, reasonable libertarians are reading today’s New York Times, and educated libertarians are reading history books.
The two groups also look at authority figures differently. The reasonable libertarian wants to seem, well, “reasonable,” given that all the news seems to point in a given direction. They’re worried that doctrinaire libertarianism will leave a bad taste in most people’s mouths. The educated libertarian often doesn’t enjoy going against the tide, but they’ve learned that libertarianism has predictive power to see what the media isn’t telling us. Eventually, everyone comes around. When that happens, the educated libertarian wants their friends and family to ask, “How did you know?” To sum up the difference, as news breaks, the reasonable libertarian is more likely to cite establishment authorities, while the educated libertarian is more likely to be suspicious of them.
Both reasonable libertarians and educated libertarians are capable of nuance, and they each value precision. But the reasonable libertarian is a bit more likely to cite a statistic while the educated libertarian is a bit more likely to lean on logic. And this gets directly to how they analyze a societal challenge.
The reasonable libertarian will say that facts are your friend. They are willing to accept those facts as evidence that government action is valid. But they would insist that the resulting policies be narrowly tailored to make them as libertarian as possible. Their research shapes their response.
The educated libertarian will say that principles are your pal. They would instinctively reject any State interventions as fear-based power plays with damaging consequences. Their libertarian response shapes their research.
I happen to be an educated libertarian. I truly love my reasonable libertarian brothers and sisters. The reasonable libertarians tend to have advanced degrees and tremendous intellects. They are part of the expert class. They use their scholarly skills to make me think. During normal times, I spend a great deal of time absorbing their thinking because it’s so rational and sound. But in a crisis, in the dark alley of doubt, I want an educated libertarian at my side who won’t succumb to the hysterical hype of the moment.
Postscript: The Educated Libertarian is confident that the Reasonable Libertarians will find evidence that the State actually failed after the crisis has passed. As a complement to this editorial, the author recommends Socialists and their Silly Stories by Donald J. Boudreaux.
* There’s also a third libertarian group, not covered here. This group presumes Emmanuel’s Law – “never let a crisis go to waste” – is in effect. Their views often include some degree of conspiracy.
Jim Babka is the Editor-at-Large for Advocates for Self-Government and the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project.