The Skeptical Libertarian: Skeptic of the Skeptics

April 15, 2013 § 1 Comment

First of all, I’m not a big fan of libertarian internal “politics”. As a result, I’m not very interested in the different instances of libertarian infighting, and I typically don’t take sides in these internal debates. More often than not they aren’t very productive. In other words, I’m not doing this because I enjoy it. Rather, I’m doing this because I think there are certain things which need to be said about the Skeptical Libertarian (I will refer to them as TSL) and its (albeit minor) role in the liberty movement.

Put simply, I’m a ‘skeptic’ of The Skeptical Libertarian. As Tom Woods notes, TSL are in fact skeptical of actual skeptics. So I suppose that means I’m skeptical of skeptics whom are skeptical of skeptics. This raises an important question: at what point is language useless? Anyway…

A Disservice to Libertarianism

Libertarianism has nothing to say about conspiracy theories, GMO’s, or religion. The only “libertarian” opinion on such topics would be to remove the state from the picture. Anything beyond that is the opinion of an individual. It’s true; some people have some bat shit crazy opinions. And yes, some of these people happen to be libertarians. But having a wacky fringe is not unique to libertarianism. Conspiracy theorists can be found at the fringes of the left and the right. If someone has a problem with conspiracy theories, they don’t have a problem with libertarianism per se; they have a problem with the opinions of specific individuals.

That’s part of the reason I find TSL’s self-described mission perplexing. From their website:

“But the more the spotlight turns toward the “liberty movement,” the more concerned libertarians should be about the unsavory, conspiratorial, and pseudoscientific beliefs being spread under the banner of the libertarian and antiwar movements….Instead of trying to silence or ignore the crazies in our midst, we ought to confront them and expose the lunatic fringe for what they really are: peddlers of fear, falsehood, and paranoia, just like the politicians they claim to oppose. We cannot sit passively next to the people in tinfoil hats screaming about chemtrails and FEMA camps and still expect to be listened to when we try to speak about our real concerns on foreign policy or personal liberty.”

Within a couple paragraphs, TSL managed to passively define those with a fear of chemtrails and FEMA as “peddlers of fear, falsehood, and paranoia” whom are “unsavory, conspiratorial, and pseudoscientific”. In other words, they’re extremists whom TSL founder Daniel Bier would like to make an example of. Why, how nice of Daniel Bier! He has volunteered himself to be the new libertarian thought police!

I’ve never been a fan of conspiracy theories, but there is nothing distinctly un-libertarian about them. It shouldn’t be surprising that libertarians are typically very skeptical of power and the potential for abuse that it carries. As a result, there may be some conspiracy theorists within our midst. My response: who the fuck cares? How many wacko pinkos are out there waiting for a reason to riot? How about the hordes of conservative conspiracy theorists?

By bringing up some of the goofiest libertarians for sacrifice in front of a large audience, TSL is actually doing libertarianism a disservice. Could you imagine MSNBC running a series on leftist de-fluoridation wackos? Or how about Fox News doing a segment on anti-Obama racism within the Republican Party? Do you know why they would never do that? Because they realize that airing out their dirty laundry would accomplish nothing. The fact is, every movement has weirdos. By painting the picture that libertarianism is somehow unique in this respect, TSL is accomplishing the exact opposite of its intended purpose. I find it extremely hard to believe that Bier and company are naive enough to miss this important point.

Skeptical of Libertarianism?

Perhaps Bier simply wants libertarianism to be treated seriously by the mainstream. As a result, he’s isolating its goofballs in an effort to make the most essential libertarian ideas more palatable to the American mainstream. Okay, let’s give him that much credit.

Surely, he must be using this platform to present unabashed libertarianism to the mainstream.

But wait, there’s more! Not only does Bier spend his time criticizing the lunatic fringe of libertarianism, but he also preaches to his audience about the extremist libertarians, or “ideological purists”. Who are these menacing individuals? Why, they’re the no good rebel rousers who take such controversial stances as:

Anyone who dares utter a phrase in favor of these detestable ideas is put on TSL’s short list. Why? Well, it’s simple: you’re being a stubborn fundamentalist! Well, that, and the fact that you disagree with Daniel Bier. Remember, we’re trying to rid libertarianism of these wackos who disagree with Mr. Bier. It’s only fair.

Now, it could be said that Daniel simply doesn’t understand (or has never heard of) some of the most basic arguments in favor of the positions listed above. Surely, his excuse must be ignorance. In which case, I’ve provided links which can educate him on these topics. As a wise man once said:

“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”

It appears that Bier’s most glaring folly is to mistake genuine skepticism for fears of a completely centralized evil plot. It’s true, there are some very odd characters who call themselves libertarians. However, suggesting that an industry with a few large corporate players (which are isolated from competition via the state) may not be the product of simply “competitive scientific discovery” is not lunacy. It’s an extremely sensible conclusion based upon the evidence we have.

Radical Empiricism

Finally, let’s move to the heart of the matter.

A cursory glance at The Skeptical Libertarian’s Facebook page, blog, or twitter provides a clear insight into what exactly Daniel Bier is all about. To the untrained eye, it may seem like a harmless, perhaps annoying attempt to dig up libertarianism’s fringe groups for public sacrifice. But a closer look reveals something much more menacing. In just about every attempt to expose the so called “extremists”, Bier stresses the importance of empirical evidence. Indeed, every single one of The Skeptical Libertarian’s critiques focus on the lack of empirical evidence to support the supposedly controversial claims. Be it gun control, big pharmaceutical firms, or religion, Bier places all of his weight behind the “empirical” evidence which he believes invalidates the “peddlers of fear” as “pseudoscientific”. By insisting on the use of empirical data to decide upon both scientific and social issues, Bier clearly is embracing a form of radical positivism.

This is where he should be careful.

In 1962, Ludwig von Mises published The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science.  The final chapter of that book, “Positivism and the Crisis of Western Civilization” should be added to Mr. Bier’s reading list. In that chapter, Mises rejects logical positivism (the precursor to today’s positivism) as a “misinterpret[ation]” of mankind’s history.

There is certainly nothing objectionable about analyzing empirical evidence when dealing with the natural sciences. Indeed, only a dogmatic fool would reject the empirical scientific facts which support evolution, for example. However, the use of empirical evidence is much less stable when dealing with social topics, especially economics. This is because humans are the only beings on earth which act. To deny this is to deny the whole of Austrian economics. Thus, there are two potentialities: either Bier is once again in a state of ignorance, or he is knowingly rejecting the economic basis for much of modern libertarianism.

Either way, it’s probably best if Bier were more clear about these issues. Otherwise, skeptics are left wondering.


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