By Jerry Taylor
When we launched the Niskanen Center in January 2015, we happily identified ourselves as libertarians. Sure, we were heterodox libertarians, but there are many schools of libertarianism beyond those promoted by Charles Koch’s political operations. The school we identified with was a left-libertarianism concerned with social justice (a libertarian perspective that I’ve defended in debates with more orthodox libertarians here and here). That worldview lacked an institutional voice in 2015. Our ambition was to create a space for it and, in so doing, redefine what it meant to be libertarian in the 21st century.
I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call “motivated cognition,” which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism — which is to say, it threatens freedom.
The better alternative is not moral relativism. The better alternative is moderation, a commodity that is rapidly disappearing in political life, with dangerous consequences for the American republic.
My hope is that I might best convince you to leave ideology behind by holding up a mirror to an ideological culture that is likely not your own — the world of libertarianism — and discussing the reasons why I left it behind. I suspect that, for those who hold to an “–ism,” the ideological culture of my old world doesn’t look too terribly different from your own.
I do not aim here to settle old scores or to criticize friends and former colleagues. After all, the beliefs that I find wanting today are the very beliefs that I myself held for most of my adult life. I simply mean to put in stark relief the pitfalls of ideological thinking, to illustrate those pitfalls in the world I know best, and to make the case for something better.
Ideology = Motivated Cognition
The first pangs of doubt about my old ideological attachments arose from my loss of faith in the case against climate action. As I began to express doubts about the narratives offered by climate skeptics, I found it impossible to offer an argument that resonated with my libertarian colleagues. But just how, exactly, does an ideological commitment to limited government, free markets, and individual dignity inform an understanding of atmospheric physics or paleoclimate records? And what does libertarianism have to contribute regarding the case for hedging against incredibly dangerous risks stemming from the misuse of a common pool resource, such as the atmosphere?
Libertarians have nothing at all to contribute to the conversation about the science of climate change as libertarians. They could, however, marshal ideological insights to suggest the best means of addressing global warming if it indeed turns out to warrant a policy response (as I believe it does). For libertarians, that could mean a carbon tax, but for other, more hardline libertarians, it could mean that greenhouse gas emitters should be held liable for climate-related damages via common-law legal proceedings.