Things I Have Learned As A Libertarian

People often use terrible, specious logic when arguing things political.  I have particularly seen this over the last 6 months.  The argument typically goes like this:

  1. I make a critique of a policy in the Obama administration, say on health care
  2. Sometimes as an opening response, or sometimes when other person is unable to specifically counter what I have said, they respond instead, "well, your guys  fill in the blank ." The latter part might be "got us into Iraq" or possibly "are pushing this birther nonsense."
  3. I respond that  fill in the blank was not something I support(ed) and that if  by "my guys" they mean Republicans, that I was not a Republican, that I do not think the Republicans have an internally consistent position, and that I disagree with many programs and policies typically advocated by Republicans.  And besides, how did this have anything to do with the original conversation?
  4. They respond to me now as if I am somehow cheating.  Confusion reigns.

I am not a student of logic, so I don't know what this technique or fallacy is called, though I have learned that such common behaviors generally do have academic sounding names.  I think of it as the sports-team-argument approach.  When my son (Yankees fan, much to the embarrassment of the whole family) argues with his Red Sox cousins, he might say "Kevin Youkilis has to be the creepiest looking guy in the league," and his cousins might respond "Yeah, well how many steroids has A-Rod done this week?"

Strictly speaking, bringing up A-Rod does not answer the Youkilis barb.  But it is understood to be in the broader context of my team vs. your team, and in that context the exchange makes logical sense, and the A-Rod comeback is a perfectly appropriate rejoinder to the Youkilis insult.  You point out a blemish in my team, I respond with a blemish on your team.

But what if you don' t have a team?

I am starting to understand better that this is how most people approach political discourse.  For someone looking for a quality discussion on key public policy questions, arguments seldom make sense.  Why does something Rush Limbaugh is saying have any bearing on the point I just made on health care or cap-and-trade?  The answer is that it does not, unless the whole point is a red team-blue team one-upmanship between the Coke and Pepsi parties.

Postscript / Disclosure: I am actually an agnostic in the Yankees / Red Sox battles, but I am a big fan of Kevin Youkilis.  The story of how Oakland's Billy Bean tried to pry Youkilis out of the Red Sox farm system in Moneyball is priceless.  According to the story, Bean knew before the Red Sox what talent they had lurking in the Minors.


  1. Victor Morris:

    I would appreciate it if you would check out my website, and to then spend a few minutes giving as honest and thoughtful response as you think it deserves.

    I'm now beginning to scan the bloggers, looking for others that think the capability of the internet gives us the resources to put together a current constitutional plan 'by the people, of the people, and for the people'.

  2. Jason Woertink:

    It sounds like the fallacy of the excluded middle.

  3. Foxfier:

    I'd call it "shifting ground"-- changing the basis of the argument. Can't remember if that's a listed fallacy, I'll go get my logic text book. All quotes are from A Concise Introduction to Logic, 9th Ed. (and if you google around you'll find some really nice software from that for teaching yourself formal logic)

    K, off the bat, there's the always popular "argumentum ad Hominem"-- though in this case they mis-identify you as the 'person' Republican. One of them advances (either directly or implicitly) a certain argument, and the other then responds by directing his or her attention not at the person's argument but at the first person _himself_

    "Ignoratio Elenchi"-- missing the point-- has a related error called the "Red Herring fallacy" that probably fits the best. The red herring fallacy is committed when the arguer diverts the attention of the reader or listener by changing the subject to a different but sometimes subtly related one. He or she then finishes by either drawing a conclusion about this different issue or by merely presuming that some conclusion has been established.

  4. Dr. T:

    The general inability to think and to argue logically and reasonably is one reason why we will never see a libertarian nation. To be a libertarian, one must be an independent, self-reliant, responsible person who is immune to group-think and popularity polls. I estimate that less than 2% of the adult population meets those criteria.

    Libertarians in a non-libertarian world have it tough. We have little influence with the public (most people will not change their opinions after hearing or reading well-reasoned arguments) and a negative influence with nearly all politicians (libertarian ideas interfere with politicians' pork and power).

    I keep hoping for a John Galt who will establish a separate libertarian society. (For those who don't know the reference, read Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged.')

  5. nom de guerre:

    interesting points, senor coyote. maybe the lesson here is 'don't waste time with political arguments'? maybe political argument has become so poisoned by 45+ years of government schools indoctrinating their charges to 'always attack those who would question the gospel we've sold you', (and, even at the risk of invoking godwin's law, it should be pointed out that pretty much all of the faculty and students of german universities in the '30's unanimously agreed on the wonderfulness of national socialism and vociferously attacked any & all doubters). the past 45+ years have also seen an enormous diminishing - almost certainly not accidental - in the foundation and formation of high-level critical thought.

    one thing *I* have learned as a libertarian is that, at least in the libertarian blogosphere, dissent is no more invited or tolerated than it is on the most hardcore leftwing sites. (**not here**, let me hasten to add.) i can think of 2 major 'libertarian' blogs that have recently announced they'd instantly delete/ban comments about a certain political issue; and i've been banned from several liberty blogs for the crime of disagreement with the author. (polite, non-cussing disagreement.)(but then again, what kind of 'libertarian' announces he's supporting the proven most liberal member of the senate in the upcoming presidential race? not in the cynical "this guy's so bad, he'll bring the whole rotten mess tumbling down" sense, but because he actually *believed* that a statist gungrabbing chicago pol was going to change things for the better: that a hood like THAT would invalidate his entire historical political agenda and take actions that would make us more free.) i disagreed. i got banned, as did others.

    am not sure what exactly all this says about libertarianism, but it ain't good. it's like patrick henry on acid: "i disagree with what you say, sir, but i shall fight to the death to prevent you from ever saying it again!"

  6. DMS:

    I think you're thinking of basically the tu quoque fallacy; you can't criticise a (e.g.) liberal opinion because of the fact that you've previously held liberal views. (Not you personally; "one can't")

  7. Mesa Econoguy:

    I’m very interested in the rejuvenation of what is boiling down to a severe left-right debate, with very little middle ground. The old Keynes vs. Hayek string is particularly interesting and relevant given present circumstances, and while it vastly oversimplifies the debate, it really does boil down to left-right, statist-individualist.

    What we’re seeing in the micro debates about healthcare and financial controls and CO2 emissions is a distillation of the individual vs. state argument (or realization of Huxley’s and Orwell’s and Hayek’s predictions), and with the abdication of the Republican party from the defense of individual liberty, there’s not much left in what could remotely be called a middle, or center-right. With the complicit media, anyone defending private property is now a right-wing extremist.

    Economically speaking, there is next to nothing – including and especially Krugman’s Nobel – to support “liberal” (nothing to do with true classical liberal) economics. The history of the 20th century is the history of failure of collectivism, writ large, but the programs and agenda of this administration are nothing but expansions and amplifications of these failures.

  8. Lorenzo:

    A lot of political commitment is actually a form of tribalism. It is indeed politics as football game. The most obvious sign of this is X being a terribly evil thing when Blue team does it but a reasonable, if unfortunate, concession to reality if Red team do it (or vice versa). X gets its qualities from which team does it, not as a thing in itself.

    It is a problem for libertarians, both because they do not have a team in office in that sense and because they think government actions tend to have some inherent problems no matter which team does it. The latter is, indeed, a very "sideways" move compared to the Blue v Red team contentions.

  9. Mike Walsh:

    Those of us who are libertarian(or libertarian leaning independents) are usually assumed to be republicans by the lefter folks. It's quite amusing. A huge number out there thinks there are only two points of view that are legitimate. What's even more interesting is that most of them subscribe to the whole checklist of points/platform of whatever side they happen to be on.

  10. Not Sure:

    " A huge number out there thinks there are only two points of view that are legitimate."

    I blame public education. Think- pep rally.

    By the time they're in high school, kids have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that it's "us" vs. "them", whoever "they" are at any particular point in time- "they" are a flexible opponent.

    I'm pretty sure this is just the way the people who are running the country want it.

  11. Dave:

    You're overthinking this. The explanation is that, to most people, political belief is binary: you are either a democrat or a republican. According to this naive logic if you repudiate the one you necessarily support the other.

    There is no depth to this problem other than the fact that most people can't engage with political belief in any manner more sophisticated than binary thought.

  12. Stan:

    Krauthammer -- the difference b/w Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans think Democrats are wrong and Democrats think Republicans are evil. Painting with a broad brush, he's right. Essentially, Democrats think anyone who disagrees with them is evil, including and perhaps especially libertarians. This is why their standard tactic in every election cycle is slander. Try to imagine an election campaign without the Democrats resorting to slander. Can't do it. I can't and I've been following elections since 1960.

    As for the particulars of their specific responses -- we can only hope that anything Obama does turns out as well for this country as the war in Iraq has. And the birthers haven't cost me a dime or infringed on any of my liberties. If we could get BO-zo to do the same, he can traffic in all the conspiracies he wants.

  13. Foxfier:

    I would argue that libertarians aren't actually "without at team"-- they just define their teams differently.

    "Government vs Individuals" is a pretty common shorthand, although "collective or individual" might be a bit more accurate.

  14. Jeffrey Ellis:

    It's a combination of ad-hominem (attacking the person, in this case by attacking a position held by the group the person is a member of) and a red herring/digression fallacy. All of which amounts to an attempt to change the subject.

  15. Mike Walsh:

    Here's two we got just last night. Typical....

    July 26, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    When did this blog become a magnet for idiot libertarians? Seriously, it kills any attempt at legitimate debate when they troll the threads. Can’t they just go back to SpeakUp to commiserate with the other angry suburbanites looking to blame the government for their big smoking piles of life fail?

    July 26, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    I think when every thread just ends up with the same loonies rambling on about free market anarchy being the solution to every problem man has ever been presented with, normal people just stop bothering to contribute."

  16. Gino:

    you nailed it.

    so many times, like... all of them, my very Obamafetishistic extended family will respond with an attack on Limbaugh, like thats supposed to hurt me or something.

    I listen to Rush. yeah, so what? I also disagree with him at times. I watch O'rielly,too. I disagree with him lots of times.
    things is, i'm not threatened by hearing their points of view, and their schtick is waaaaay more entertaining than the offerings from the committed left.

    but they cant think outside of their little neat boxes that have been assembled for them.
    they bitched and moaned for 8yrs about Bush's deficits, but think Obama's deficit is righteous, but cant explain why.

    what am i?
    sometimes libertarian, sometimes conservative, been called an angry paleocon, but all that does is leave me without a team to defend, which is liberating in a way.

    i registered GOP to vote for ron paul, and dropped a reregistration to independent in the mail on the way home after that.

    what am i?
    does it matter?
    just debate the topic, or shut up...

  17. drank:

    One has to thank Mencius Moldbug for the unforgettable observation that tu quoque is to progressive argument as cilantro is to Mexican cuisine.

    I think that such commenters are intending to commit a nice, tasty batch of TQ, but fail because they mis-identify your side in the debate. So in practice, their comments tend to be a "red herring" or simply a non sequiteur.

  18. Eric Hammer:

    I think it is actually a combination of "Guilt by Association" and "Appeal to Motive."

    I don't think that it is tu quoque as they are not saying that the proposition is false because you do not act in a manner fully consistent with it. That would be more of a "How can you say adultery is wrong when you have committed it yourself?" sort of thing.

  19. Jim Collins:

    Those on the Left can't debate the issues because they don't know what they are. They are just repeating the last 20 second sound bite that they heard from the media. The funny thing is that this doesn't stop with the drone on the street, it reaches up the entire line. Look at what happens when some reporter corners Pelosi. She falls back on criticizing Bush. This has happened so much that it is becoming a joke. I've heard people asking "Can she be that dumb?".
    I don't think it is a matter of being dumb, I think it is so that she doesn't spill the beans on the real agenda.

  20. rob sama:

    Agreed, it's Ad Hominem To Quoque:

    That site has a good list of fallacies and explanations.

  21. ettubloge:

    I am trying to introduce to society this response to someone sneezing:

    "Green bless you". You have to say it fast. You get my meaning.

    It's my attempt at "Who is John Galt?".

  22. Jens Fiederer:

    Although it might be a "logical fallacy" if you have agreed to hold a debate, I'm not sure the other person here ever agreed to hold such a debate. If the other person doesn't have anything pertinent to say on Obama health care, it's perfectly natural for them to move onto a subject with which they feel more comfortable, such as just how much libertarians suck.

  23. Bill:

    Us indedpendents have experienced that too and it is annoying but also hilarious.

    Democrat: "Who are you going to vote for?"
    Independent: "Obama, because I think there is less of a chance of us going to war with Iran if he wins."
    Democrat: "Yeah, and McCain's health insurance plan is crazy!"
    Independent: "I actually prefer it to Obama's"
    Democrat: " . . . but, so, well, pay taxes on benefits . . . insurance corporations . . . Palin!"

    It works the other way too:

    Independent: "Well, I agree Roe v. Wade is not a good legal decision, and that courts shouldn't be requiring states to pass gay marriage legislation."
    Republican: "I know, courts should respect the right to life and the fact that this society is based on traditional values"
    Independent: "I'm actually pro-choice and pro-same sex marriage"
    Republican: "Wait, but, so . . . liberals . . .sanctity . . . marry your sister . . . founding fathers!"

  24. Henry Bowman:

    Well, Kevin Youklis is indeed one of the premier players in either league. However, he is pretty close to the ugliest, as well. Perhaps he would look better without the shaved head.

  25. Jeff:

    Republicans want to borrow a ton of my money and spend it on crap.

    Democrats want to borrow and tax a ton of my money and spend it on different crap.

    That's the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

    Neither party is for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  26. spiro:

    This is one of the reasons why this site is still on my ever shortening list of websites I visit daily (which may be a good thing re: productivity).
    I find myself in this situation when trying to discuss topics with friends either via email or that giant "networking" site. What kills me is the knowledge that these friends are very practical and reasonable in every other aspect of their lives. Yet, even though they have known me for years, and know that I am a pragmatist, I cannot engage them in intelligent discussion of anything political/social without getting a barrage of ad hominem and non sequitur(sp?). This past election was especially fun, since my concerns over Obama's inexperience and perception of the Constitution as being 'flawed' automatically made me a racist.
    Apparently, voting for a guy BECAUSE of his race = ok (it's 'historic' right? and who wouldn't want to be a part of history?). Not voting for that same guy because of his platform/ineptitude = racist.