On a fundamental level, political philosophy exists to pursue a better understanding of how society ought to be organized. So it is rather unsurprising that students of the subject tend to view themselves as proponents of a certain kind of social order: socialists, social democrats, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, etc. And to some degree, within communities of political philosophers and those who seek to emulate them, it makes sense to adopt these comprehensive positions and to debate their merits with those who advocate opposing views.
But in a world where most people do not think in terms of any coherent and complete political paradigm, this kind of approach to advancing one’s ideas makes less sense. It is, in a sense, like trying to get a person to buy into a particular diet as the objectively correct diet for human beings. Even if there were such a thing, most individuals would not even know how to begin to evaluate the idea being presented to them. They would immediately search for flaws, and cling to any lack of clarity or certainty as reason to reject the diet completely. And tellingly, we might expect this from someone whose existing diet is in all likelihood a really bad diet by any reasonable standard!
In advancing the cause of liberty, we have all experienced exactly this sort of thing. People don’t understand certain features of our standpoint, and accordingly reject the whole thing. I submit that this is not because of some flaw in our argument, or a persistent indoctrinated stubbornness on their part. Rather, it is simply a normal part of dealing with people who are not, and do not want to be, political philosophers.
Up to this point, I think that libertarians have largely focused on the idea that central governments should not be involved in various parts of our lives. The justification for these positions generally takes two forms, often advanced simultaneously in the same argument. First, there is a moral position that argues that there is something unjust about using the State mechanism to bring about a desired solution, and that people must realize this fact and respond accordingly. The second is a pragmatic position which points out that central governments are inherently ill-suited for dealing with the kinds of tasks with which they are entrusted, and accordingly, we should be not rely on them in the capacity under consideration.
It occurs to me that by making these two positions part of the same argument, libertarians have created a major hurdle for themselves. This is because the moral position they have been advancing is one which requires one to put herself into the role of political philosopher, and ask what sorts of principles ought to govern our social relationships. Most people are inherently ill suited for this kind of thing, and will too often either become recalcitrant or brainwashed.
Ultimately, neither is desirable. But by making the moral position a part of the core of their viewpoint, libertarians have created a set of circumstances where practically the only lay-people who acknowledge the other part of the core – the practical position – are the people who are on board with the moral argument. Those who reject the moral argument overwhelmingly seem to be ignoring or rejecting the practical argument.
There are a number of reasons why this is a regrettable state of affairs. Perhaps most significant of these is the fact that the practical part of the core is completely consistent with almost every other viewpoint. It is uncontroversial even among socialists that we cannot always know the best policy solutions to social problems, and that there are problems with entrusting centralized governments with the reigns of society. It is therefore perfectly in line with everyone’s viewpoint to consider the possibility that decentralized action might be the best way to deal with social issues, by their own standards. And if libertarians are right about the idea that decentralized solutions are more effective than centralized ones, this will appeal to everyone.
This leads to another critically important reason why the current state of debate is unfortunate. In a world where people understood that decentralized decision-making is often superior to central planning, we could reasonably expect people to be substantially more open to the possibility that freedom to determine one’s own course of action is a good thing. The person that says, “There’s no objective solution to this problem, so let’s try and work something out together,” is going to be someone who can easily be shown that imposing solutions on other people is a problematic way to deal with social problems. Essentially, what I am saying is that coming to terms with the practical part of libertarianism is actually a really effective way to get people to see the virtue of the moral part.
So what I’m proposing is that we organize ourselves to study how decentralized solutions can be found for social problems, and how government action is not necessarily the best way to deal with things. This seems like something that can appeal to people way outside of the libertarian circle, and I think we should take full advantage of that fact to bring the discussion into the mainstream arena. What I have in mind, essentially, is something like an Institute for the Study of Decentralization.
The appeal here, again, is twofold. First, it would serve the cause of liberty by helping to foster a mindset which seems likely to bring people closer to being open to the philosophy of freedom as a moral position. And second, it could help to bring a core part of the libertarian agenda – getting central governments out of their roles in social decision-making – into the mainstream policy arena, where it could form a basis for consensus between libertarians and even their most bitter opponents.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that we could do this as a sneaky way to get people to be more vulnerable to being converted. My point is that we can legitimately argue that even if we’re wrong in our moral positions, our practical ideas are important and deserving of consideration. And further, we can say without controversy that once people come to appreciate our practical ideas, they’ll probably be able to see why we take the moral positions that we do.