November 05, 2003

Give me Liberty, but Don't Call me a Libertarian

My husband likes to say that I remind him of that Monty Python sketch where a bunch of people chant, "We're individuals! we're individuals!" and then one lone voice pipes up, "I'm not." I oppose an ideology of radical individualism on principle. But in practice...well, let's just say I like my space. Needless to say, my desire for autonomy and individuality doesn't also merge seamlessly with my duties and responsibilities as a mother. But my son and I engage in an ongoing process of negotiation and for the most part get along quite amicably.

Anyway, I thought about this gap, shall we say, between principle and practice (or between belief and temperament) when I came up as some sort of libertarian on this Political Compass survey (click here to see a graph which plots the results of bloggers like myself who were geeky enough to enter our results). Yes, of course, these surveys are at least a little bit silly, and not to be taken entirely seriously. But all the cool kids were doing it, and since I'm not really a libertarian I just had to follow suit. My "score," if that is term for it, was -5.25 on the "Economic Left/Right" spectrum, and -6.10 on the "Libertarian/Authoritarian" spectrum. Well, I'm certainly not an authoritarian, but I would never describe myself as a libertarian either. I like Daniel Davies's suggestion that libertarianism should be called "propertarianism" (though I can't agree that liberal natural rights theory is inconsistent with all forms of liberalism except liberal natural rights). Not that I'm a communitarian, but I'm a great admirer of Charles Taylor (so sue me). It seems that support for fundamental personal and civil liberties is being defined here as "libertarian." To this I object.*

*Since the survey seems to originate in the UK, I wonder if "libertarian" has a different meaning and resonance in a British context?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 5, 2003 08:26 PM

It seems that support for fundamental personal and civil liberties is being defined here as "libertarian."

This is what I've always understood by "libertarian." I realize there are a lot of money-grubbing capitalist types who like to appropriate the term for themselves, just as there are a lot of callow window-smashing youth who like to appropriate the term "anarchist," but that doesn't mean the terms themselves are corrupted. A libertarian is surely one who desires liberty. What else?

Posted by: language hat at November 5, 2003 08:49 PM

For an ethnic Canadian philosopher, Taylor is quite good.

I'm kidding. I once was reading some Spanish poetry, and a sort of society woman I knew said that she had spent her junior year in Spain and had read some of their ethnic poetry. (XX c. Spanish poetry as spectacular -- if you like poetry, I mean.)

Posted by: zizka at November 5, 2003 09:40 PM

What sort of liberty? I've always been astonished by what I can only call the authoritarianism of some libertarian thinkers--Harry Jaffa comes to mind, but also some of the folks associated with Hillsdale. (I'm not sure what the technical term is, but I'm talking about the libertarians who restrict liberty to "the virtuous," with virtue itself often grounded in natural law.)

Posted by: Miriam at November 5, 2003 09:48 PM

"For an ethnic Canadian philosopher, Taylor is quite good."

As an ethnic Canadian, I have to agree.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 5, 2003 10:12 PM

Talk about confusing, when I took that test, I scored at almost exactly the middle.

Posted by: bryan at November 5, 2003 11:02 PM

I am a libertarian and scored about zero on the libertarian/authoritarian axis. I think one reason is that any agreement with traditional Christian morality is counted as "authoritarian." The test producers ascribe nearly identical scores to Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II, even though one is a tyrant and mass murderer and the other a friend of liberty who contributed to the liberation of Eastern Europe and democratization of Latin America.

I believe that the axis really should be labeled "Secular Liberal Individualist" (in place of "Libertarian") and "Disagrees with Secular Liberal Individualism" (in place of "Authoritarian"). From your score, IA, I take it you are not religious.

Posted by: pj at November 5, 2003 11:20 PM

My scores were nearly the same as yours, IA, and I think pj's onto something when he points out the religion aspect. I think the thing maps out what it views as tendencies or affinities well beyond the political sphere. With apologies to AKMA, most religious doctrine is more or less authoritarian by definition. I would suggest that their definition of libertarian is affirmatively articulated as "resisting subjection to unaccountable authority of any sort" rather than in terms of people who call themselves political libertarians.

Posted by: MisterBS at November 5, 2003 11:35 PM

To throw a small wrench in the supposition that a high religion "score" puts you higher up on the authoritarian scale, consider my 7+ ranking on the "Secular Liberal Individualist" scale.

After taking into account my own fairly conservative religious views, I have to suspect that religion is not the answer (ha!). Following MisterBS, I wonder if the correlation between religion and authoritarianism changes based on one's preference for submission to an authority instead of a personal or relational view of God?

Posted by: Andrew at November 5, 2003 11:48 PM

Correction, my authoritarian scale was below -7, not about +7. This is why I suggested a weak, or at least different, relationship between the authoritarian scale and religion.

Posted by: Andrew at November 5, 2003 11:49 PM

I scored a -8.12 on the economic scale, and -5.49 on the libertarian/authoritarian scale. So I'm to the left of Ghandi, but no where near Stalin. I feel so ... much better now.

Posted by: Chris at November 6, 2003 10:37 AM

I found quite a few questions on the survey hard to answer because they bring in all sorts of ill-founded preconceptions. Thus my answer would be more like "disagree, I guess, but mostly the question makes little sense". Examples:

1. The inflation versus unemployment question. No serious economist after about 1970 actually believes there is a stable and consistent trade-off. That is, there is really not a simple choice in the first place.

2. The very first question talks about "domnination by transnational corporations". What exactly does this mean? To answer that question straightforwardly you have to buy into a whole lot of baggage. Hell, I am
not even sure what "globalization" means. By many measures, the world was more globalized at the turn of the last century. It would be a lot more meaningful if they could try to identify who is helped and who is harmed. And no, it is not that simple. Check out Paul Krugman's (no right-wing ideologue, and no libertarian either) critique a few years ago of all the protests
about Nike's labor practices.

Bottom line is that if we want to isolate values and beliefs, we had better ask questions where the underlying facts are well-understood!

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 6, 2003 11:21 AM

Sayeth IA: "Not that I'm a communitarian, but I'm a great admirer of Charles Taylor (so sue me)."

Why so defensive about Charles Taylor, clearly one of the greatest English-speaking political and moral philosophers currently living? Is communitarianism a taint so dreadfully to be avoided? (Speaking here as just about the only blogger who ended up in the upper-left quadrant, and proud of it. Here's to social justice and civic morality!)

Regarding the role of religious faith in the quiz, I would suggest that the test questions simply reflect a very common presumption in modern society: namely, that "religion" (churches, demoninations, dogmas, theologies, etc.) is restrictive and thus by definition poses a problem for individual liberty (expressed overwhelmingly in negative terms), whereas "spirituality" (a "relational view of God," in Andrew's words) is empowering. I think that view is nonsense, but what do I know? Apparently, I'm an authoritarian.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at November 6, 2003 11:39 AM

"Why so defensive about Charles Taylor, clearly one of the greatest English-speaking political and moral philosophers currently living?"

'Cause I've had too many conversations (in real life, not in the blogosphere) where I've had to defend Taylor against such statements as "How can such an intelligent man be a practicing Catholic? He can't really be serious." Sigh. By the way, having had the opportunity -- I might even say the privilege -- to hear his Gifford Lectures on "Living in a Secular Age," I can only agree with your assessment.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 6, 2003 11:49 AM

I envy you. I got the inside scoop on those lectures from one of his former students--Ruth Abbey--soon after he delivered them, but I still wish I could have heard them directly. I also fervently hope that the monstrous book on secularism and identity that Taylor is developing out of those lectures gets finished someday.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at November 6, 2003 12:12 PM

Wasn't 'libertarian' originally a parlor politeness for 'anarchist'? I know I should look it up myself, but it would be so much easier if this tickled the memory of an actual humanities major...

Posted by: clew at November 6, 2003 03:14 PM

Despite my having pointed out that Taylor was a member of a despised ethnic group, he's someone I admire and probably the best of the communitarians. I really oughta read more of his stuff. I think that he suffers popularity-wise by being too serious and sensible, compared to Zizek, Deleuze, Paglia, Madonna, Ludicris, Eminem, and other competing philosophers.

Posted by: zizka at November 6, 2003 05:29 PM

I thought Charles Taylor had been sent into exile in Uganda.

Libertarian was coined in the 1960's by the Friedmanites because the term liberal, which is the historically correct term, had been taken over by socialists and social democrats.

As far as the test is concerned I think Gerald is right, but I would go further to say that the majority of questions were beyond bad. Rehashes of old bumper stickers.

I got like -5 and +2 but I could have answered many of the questions quite differently without any real distortion.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 7, 2003 12:07 AM

+.25 left/right, -4 up/down.

I've always thought of myself as far centre, and now I have proof! It's kinda fun being in the quadrant with no world leaders.

Posted by: Dave at November 7, 2003 11:13 AM

Oops---this post was meant to go on the Life After Academe post. Sorry!

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 11:53 AM

Hana, I moved your comment to the relevant entry.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 10, 2003 12:13 PM

That was fun! I placed -9.00 on the economic left/right and -5.28 on the libertarian/authoritarian. I'm considered a libertarian leftist according to the graph.
But I do agree with concerns other posters have raised. I'm a religious person, and I don't necessarilly see the automatic equation of authoritarian with religion. However, I do think that extreme religious views can contribute to authoritarian thinking, especially the questions that address a willingness to challenge the views of authority, for example. Some religious people will not question the authority of the state or gov't officials, yet we also have liberation theologists who believe strongly in resistance, a la Paolo Freire. It can be a mixed bag, so to speak.

Posted by: Cat at November 11, 2003 02:06 PM

I was also thinking that if a similar quiz could be done to place where one stands philosophically, now THAT would be a feat! Where would you even begin?

Posted by: Cat at November 11, 2003 02:46 PM

Shouldn't the question of "liberal Natural rights" theory address Locke's arguments from Second Treatise of Government? ( Anyway.... the label is so poorly defined by so many different factions it's hard to differentiate a given 'libertarian' tree within the forrest of 'liberal' traditions.

What do other posters think is the basic 'genus'? What distinguishes particular members within that genus? It seems there's a general consensus to be found somewhere that would at least allow all of us 'liberal/libertarian' types across the spectrum to arrive at a minimum common ground... even if we part dramatically from there.

Posted by: A Crawford at November 12, 2003 04:54 AM

I checked the OED; 'libertarian' goes back to at least the 1780s in the philosophical sense, and the 1870s in a political sense.

Posted by: clew at November 12, 2003 04:24 PM