There seems to be a popular, but mistaken, opinion that Libertarianism is somehow a neutral position—that it does not take a stance on a variety of issues. Consider the following statement by Penn Jillette in his article ‘I don’t know, so I’m an atheist libertarian’:
And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.
Since Jillette doesn’t know how the government should help people, he concludes that any philosophy attempting to dictate the government’s behavior in this area is problematic. So, he’s not going to advocate any specific governmental stance.
I sense we’ve just entered a cul-de-sac. Notice that this position is at once a denial that any approach is valid and is itself a recommended approach. Libertarians do not lack a moral, economic, or political stance. No, they advocate very specific stances. For this reason, the idea of purist laissez faire is a self-defeating and absurd principle.
So, where do we go from here?
First and foremost, let’s stop pretending that the debate is about the level of government intrusion. We aren’t ready for that yet. The debate is really about what goods should flourish. Government involvement is not itself virtuous or vicious; it is merely a means to an end. It requires context.
If we turn our attention back to Jillette’s article as whole, we should be able to recognize that his isn’t really an opinion based on not knowing, as he claims. Rather, it is based on his feeling that coercion is vicious. Thus, since government intrusion is coercion, it should not be allowed. This is a very different argument than saying, ‘I don’t know, so I’m not going to take a stance.’
Once we recognize that this is really the context of our disagreements, I think some real progress can be made. Of course we will disagree about the level of government involvement in public life when we are working from different conceptions of the good! That is where we should focus our discussion instead.