"Free Exchange":

I don't like most of the terms used to describe libertarian beliefs:

Free markets? Not everything is about economic markets, and left-wing critics have a field day pointing out that government itself establishes the underlying rules of the market.

Market liberal? Again not everything is about economic markets, and just generally, yuck.

Classical liberal? Kind of like a secret handshake, only those in the know have any idea what this means. Besides, many of historical figures often identified as classical liberals wouldn't know what to make of modern libertarianism.

Individualism? Socialism would actually be a better description, if it hadn't been captured by collectivists. At one time, libertarian types were called socialists, and Marxists called themselves libertarians (Chomsky still calls himself a libertarian, last I heard). Too confusing to try to undo this one.

So I thought about an alternative. I like "political pacifist," except that pacifism has never been very popular.

So what do I, and other libertarians, believe in? Free exchange! Or, if you prefer, liberty of exchange. People should have the freedom to exchange goods and services in a market. They should also have the presumptive freedom to volunteer (or not), to pursue the occupations or avocations of their choice, to make whatever love and sex arrangements they want, to use psychoactive substances, to terminate pregnancies, to travel, write, think, create art, and exchange any of their goods, talents, and whatnot for whatever suits them. Of course, there are many caveats to all this, and libertarians will disagree among themselves as to what the limits of free exchange are. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that our underlying common ideology is free exchange.

I'm not expecting this phrase to get into general circulation, but you never know.

UPDATE: Yeah, I know this has the potential to be confused with a shoppers' platform, but do you have any better ideas?

What Should We Libertarians Call Ourselves? How About Libertarian!

David's post raises the perennial issue of what term libertarians should use to refer to themselves. I propose the radical option of embracing the term by which we are already known to 90% of the people who know about us at all: libertarian.

If I were writing on a blank slate, I would argue that we should opt for the terminology favored by F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman and still used in Australia and many European countries: what we call libertarians should be called "liberals," today's liberals should be called "social democrats" (as they are in most of Europe), and the nonlibertarian right can continue to be known as "conservatives," while the word "conservative" should NOT be used to refer to libertarians. Hayek even wrote an essay entitled "Why I am Not a Conservative" to explain the differences between conservatism and liberalism/libertarianism; most of his points are highly relevant today.

However, Hayek and Friedman lost this terminological battle a long time ago, and I'm not sure we should want the term "liberal" back today even if we could have it. After all, the word now has such negative associations that even many liberals (in the modern sense of the word) no longer use it and have instead taken to calling themselves "progressives."

Sticking to "libertarian" avoids the substantial annoyance and cost of trying to change the language. Moreover, the term has important positive connotations because of the link to the word "liberty," traditionally perhaps the most important of American values and among the most important principles of Western civilization more generally. The other terms proposed by various people are either awkward ("market liberal"), confusing ("classical liberal"), or lacking in any positive connotations ("minarchist," etc.).

Regarding David's suggestion of "free exchange," I think it's clever, but has several shortcomings. Most important, many of the freedoms defended by libertarians do not involve any kind of exchange. Moreover, the term is more awkward and has fewer positive connotations than libertarianism. Indeed, for many people, the word "exchange" may conjure up negative images of evil capitalists or scam artists.

Libertarians today face many daunting obstacles, but I don't think that the need for a new name is one of them. The one we have is perfectly fine, especially compared to the available alternatives.

UPDATE: David e-mails:

I didn't say libertarians shouldn't call themselves libertarians. I was raising the question of what a libertarian should say when asked what he believes in. "Liberty," in my view, doesn't quite cut it, nor, as I blogged, do individualism, classical liberalism, etc.

I apologize for misinterpreting his post. I think the misunderstanding arose from the fact that most of the terms he discussed (e.g. - classical liberalism, market liberalism, etc.) are usually thought of as substitutes for the term "libertarianism" rather than as explanations of its meaning.

Nonetheless, I think most of my original points stand, to the extent that they were directed at the general debate over what libertarians should call themselves rather than at David's arguments specifically. Regarding the term "free exchange," I think most of my reservations about it apply even if it is used only in the way David envisions. If I had to come up with a short explanatory phrase about what libertarianism means, I would prefer something like "maximizing liberty" or "minimizing the power of government." Obviously, these would require explanation in order to apply to particular issues (and even libertarians will disagree about the applications among themselves). But the same is true of any brief phrase - as David pointed out in his original post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. What Should We Libertarians Call Ourselves? How About Libertarian!
  2. "Free Exchange":