Jeff Tucker has a post on his Liberty.me page about why people leave libertarianism. As with almost all of his writing, it’s worth considering.
Beyond what he said, I think there’s another reason that some people leave libertarianism. For most people getting into it—here I’m speaking from personal experience as a young libertarian and as part of the leadership of my college libertarian group—libertarianism is all about the Non-Aggression Principle. There are so many behaviors, policies, and institutions that one can find looking around the world that a) are obviously destructive and b) violate the NAP that it seems like its power as a guideline will never run out. At some point, especially once the young libertarian gets a real job, goes to graduate school, or simply starts thinking about things that young people never think about, one starts finding complicated situations that aren’t obviously one way or the other with regard to the NAP, or that pass the test but still seem problematic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a self-described libertarian seriously engaged in the field of law & economics, for example, who thinks that the NAP is a sufficient guideline. And what about the impact of broader social trends in technology or interpersonal relationships, any small instance of which may seem good but the accumulation of which might lead to undesirable consequences? A person who seriously worried about this possibility would find himself adrift within popular libertarianism, and may very well stop considering himself part of it even if he still supports all the other policies it recommends. In my own experience, many of the people who leave libertarianism “leave” but don’t go far.
I like being a student of social science for just this reason. When the going gets too tough for the NAP to provide a comprehensive set of answers, there is social science. Economics, in particular, has a whole range of answers that have nothing to do with the NAP. Why is private property good? Without any reference to Locke, Nozick, or self-ownership, private property is the most efficient way yet discovered of minimizing disputes and maximizing prosperity in a modern, impersonal economy. Why is government interference in most things bad? Without any reference to Rothbard, government action is subject to a host of knowledge and incentive problems that typically result in less efficient use of resources, leading to subpar social outcomes. You can take the NAP or leave it and still come up with a libertarian worldview.
I think it may come down to differing opinions on a simpler subject. How capable is society of allowing emergent orders to flourish that efficiently and robustly address universal human problems? If one takes the view that the possibilities are dim, various flavors of non-libertarian thought are the result depending on what parts of society need the most guidance from on high. If one takes the view that the possibilities are good, one ends up in the libertarian camp. Getting theoretical and empirical guidance about where on the spectrum we should fall is what social science is for; if you want to advance libertarianism, advance social science. There’s the possibility that advancing social science would hamper libertarianism, but we should be looking for the truth anyway and in my experience so far libertarianism comes out looking better and better the deeper you dig.
Other people who leave libertarianism, then, are people who agree on many things but at some point reach an issue where they think substantial government direction is needed, which leads them to change their minds on some of the earlier points too. To use an unrealistically bad example, one may come to think that such widespread marijuana use as exists today really is so socially destructive that it needs to be banned by government action, at the very least to prevent its increase. With this conclusion he may go back and revisit his support for privacy from government eyes in the face of this threat. Here’s where we can make real contributions to libertarian thinking. Is that issue really so dire? Are there other ways to address it? Will the solution be restricted to the narrow problem it’s intended to address without creating a lot of collateral damage? We don’t know the answers in advance, but if people are worried about them they’re worth finding out.
I know that some publications have lately taken to beating up straw man versions of libertarianism, and one of the common themes I see is that people “grow out of” libertarianism. This is all backwards from my view. The more I learn about how complex human civilization is, I think the odds of successful central management of it become exponentially harder to pull off. No expert or group of experts, no matter how smart and motivated they may be, has any substantive understanding of how most of society works. I grant that a lot of things could be better. How policies to make them better can be imposed from the top down is a separate question, one that has far fewer reasonable answers.
I’m not any kind of expert in psychology, so there’s surely more to say on this issue. Speaking only speak from personal experience and observation, this is my 2¢ contribution.