In 2016, the Overton window of British politics became unjammed. The window is now free to move. How can libertarians best capitalise on the new opportunities presented? Where are we now, who and what are we, and what are these opportunities? What are the threats?
I don’t presume to say who is and is not a libertarian, if that is even a useful question. It is easy to get diverted by attempts to draw a precise boundary around a definition rather than identifying what clearly lies within the boundary. You could say we are people who believe in the Non-Aggression Principle or those holding a general presumption in favour of individual freedom. Perhaps we are followers of Hayek, Rand or whoever. In contrast with socialism and communism, libertarianism is not dogmatic: there’s no defined set of policies such as ‘total nationalisation’ or ‘abolish private property’. Instead, it is more like conservatism: a set of habits of mind and attitudes about policy, rather than a set of policies themselves.
It is therefore perfectly possible for libertarians passionately and sincerely to disagree about important policy matters (e.g., Brexit, anti-trust) as well as more fundamental philosophical questions (e.g., natural rights, which were controversial even as early as Benjamin Tucker and Max Stirner). In the long term, there are threats to one of the primary units of analysis in libertarian thought: the autonomous, law-abiding individual.
There is no reason to suppose, a priori, that the rule of law will continue to exist. The first steps towards privatising quasi-legislative power in favour of machines were made in the 1990s in relation to copyright enforcement technologies. If you can implement a restriction on someone’s behaviour via software, anticircumvention laws will protect the behaviour of your software against their hacking. Even if your software’s behaviour violates their most fundamental rights such as freedom of speech. It is not hard to imagine an unregulatable world of software, robots, and drones which enforce the will of their owners, or their hackers, in a broad range of public and private areas of life. The prospects that the owners will all have libertarian views are slim.
Deeper than the attack on law, our concept of what is a human individual and our confidence that we have free will are both coming under more sustained scrutiny due to advances in medical science and philosophy. Advancing the notion that we lack free will in some important sense is the project of John Brockman, an influential literary agent who has drawn to himself many famous scientist authors, or authors whom he has made famous, and many authors of whom libertarians would tend to approve.
The best example of libertarian democratic success today is Senator David Leyonhjelm, recently re-elected a libertarian to the Australian federal parliament, where he has shared the balance of power in the upper house with various other minor parties. This necessarily entails compromise: he has the ability in limited cases to trade off his support for one measure against another. There is no room in such calculations for purism; all that is available is some of what libertarians want, or none of it. Not all of it.
It is my belief that it is worthwhile focusing both on theoretical goals and practical goals. We should know where we’d like to go, and the direction in which we should take our next step towards that destination. How we got where we are should matter less to us than that we are on the same journey.