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A libertarian is someone, usually a Westerner or some other kind of American, who uses freedom as the criterion for evaluating social policy and/or believes that free markets should be used for distributing all resources. If we are having a conversation and you drop your libertarian leanings, I'm going to quietly start trying to fit you (get you to fit yourself) into one of three boxes. They work great---better than I've expected---and I haven't yet found a need for the fourth box called "This guy is a smart, sharp, actual libertarian." When you come out with the word, I'm going to spend the next few minutes trying to figure out whether you

  1. are crazy and disgruntled,
  2. haven't thought hard enough yet, or
  3. aren't really libertarian.

I've lowered my standards enough that I'll pass most libertarians if they make it into the third box instead of the first two. All the really smart, sharp libertarians have made way too many compromises, and practice a unique, reasonable, ideosyncratic belief system that they continue to mislabel, usually for sentimental reasons or because they are antiwar. I'd love to know that the fourth exists beyond the brave embattled image that the first three sometimes hold for themselves. I'll let you know what I find.

I'm still learning, of course---I discerned a new subdivision only last night. Among the people who aren't really libertarian you've got

  1. The ones who have thought long and hard about making decisions with people in a complex world. They have therefore compromised their single-minded passion for markets or freedom, and disqualified themselves from libertarianism. They hold onto the name though.
  2. The ones who only want push the pendulum toward the middle. They call it pushing the pendulum through to some opposite extreme, but you can't get them to attack, defend, or nuance the social safety net, taxes beyond the military, or even some redistribution. This type often reduces to type 2 above.

But if you've disqualified yourself from libertarianism and you keep using the term, you're doing something wrong. I'm not sure if its a sentimental attachment to the term, the joy of identifying with something simple, maybe the joy of trying to make a complex world fit into it. But what it reduces to is saying things you don't mean. If you think that government should be thinner, or if you don't like the way that social norms are enforced in large-scale social systems, or you value freedom better than other valenced abstractions, just say one of those things. By naming these little things by the grand term libertarian, you imply that they imply each other, and you take on a whole other bunch of commitments that you can't defend.