Alexander McCobin

Every month Cato Unbound presents a conversation on a big-picture topic of special note that begins with a lead essay and several responses.  I have been given the honor of participating in this month’s conversation titled, “Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism.”  Professors John Tomasi and Matt Zwolinski (who, incidentally, have each led SFL Liberty Fund Symposia) began the conversation last week with an entry titled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism” that, rather than the axiomatic justification for libertarianism from figures like Mises, Rand, and Rothbard, “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism” is the “true heir of the liberal tradition”.  Professor Roderick Long responded by arguing that the justifications for libertarianism that Zwolinski and Tomasi try to separate are not in conflict as much as they suggest.  Professor David Friedman followed with a different analysis of pre-20th century libertarians as grounded in utilitarian reasoning different from the kind of justifications that Bleeding Heart Libertarians adopt.

My response, “Let’s Reject the Purity Test”, takes a different approach to the question presented: I argue that Zwolinski, Tomasi, Long, Friedman, indeed, most libertarians, have been pulled into an ideological purity game that is both intellectually misguided and harmful to the future of a free society.  You can read the full essay at Cato Unbound, but here are the opening paragraphs:

All too often, individuals of the libertarian persuasion get caught up in debates over who is “more libertarian” than the other, or who is “actually libertarian.” The desire to “out-libertarian” one another can be a fun intellectual experiment born from a desire to take pride in our identity in the face of constant attack by others. And on the surface, it seems like this debate is of serious philosophical merit because it deals with the justification and practical application of the principles of liberty. In “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi get caught up in this game. A common criticism of the Bleeding Heart Libertarian project is that it is not truly in the libertarian tradition because it does not defend libertarianism according to strict deontological grounds for property rights and because it potentially supports a social safety net and related public policies.

Z&T play the game, arguing that the “benchmarks for ideological purity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard should be replaced by a new standard: “[T]he fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system.” Since Z&T want push to the side the question of which strain of thought is “is more defensible on philosophic and other grounds,” I shall do the same. I will argue that, in terms of the history of libertarian thought, the ideological purity game Z&T have been pulled into is deeply misconceived and should be rejected.

As I was writing my response, a friend asked whether I was approaching it from a philosophical or activist perspective.  The answer is: both.  My work with Students For Liberty is not done without reflection or purpose.  It is necessary to have the correct theoretical perspective of the world to motivate and guide one’s actions to create a more just, more prosperous world.  And it is important to act upon one’s convictions rather than simply sit on the sidelines and wonder “What if the world…”  I see my work as a philosophy student and president of Students For Liberty as two sides of the same coin.

Since the purpose of Cato Unbound is “to create a hub for wide-ranging, open-ended conversation, where ideas will be advanced, challenged, and refined in public view.”  “[T]he discussion only begins at Cato Unbound. It ends, if it ends at all, with you.”  In that spirit, I hope people will comment on my response and the other articles presented.