Are You a Pre-Con or a Pre-Lib, and Does It Really Matter?

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November 13, 2007

'We have found the enemy, and he are us!' ~ Pogo

Among the many thought-provoking talks at the Mises 25th Anniversary Celebration, one struck me as particularly germane to many debates I've either witnessed or been apart of over the last few weeks, months, and years. Walter Block talked about the value of 'big-tentism' with regard to libertarians. His subject appealed to me for several reasons, the most ironic of which dates back to my days as a black militant. (I'm sure that at least a few readers are having a hard time figuring out where I'm going, but stay tuned!)

Back in those days, I saw myself as a man of action. I've always had, I think, an action orientation and when presented with a choice between doing nothing and doing something, I almost always opted - then and now - with action. Not surprisingly, during those early days not everyone agreed upon which action was best, either in short-term or the longer term. Sometimes these tactical discussions would turn bitter. Seemingly inevitably, the people who favored a particular type of action would ridicule those who favored action of another type. Often, the selection of an 'unpopular' next action could relegate a person to 'sell out' or worse.

Regardless of which course of action I personally favored, it always struck me as counterproductive - bordering on stupid - to spend too much time fighting amongst ourselves. We were small in number and modest in influence. (Rather like radical libertarians today?) Attacking each other with near-deadly force seemed unlikely to result in the larger victory we all ostensibly wanted.

They say a little self-reflection can be beneficial, and so it seems that a similar observation can be made with regard to some facets of current libertarian thought. As it is with most families, the harshest slings and arrows come from within. For example, one of the things I've discovered recently, with the help and guidance of fellow libertarian columnist Robert Wicks, is a means by which to view the attraction of libertarianism to certain people, based upon their previous political and ideological points-of-view. It is in examining my own history of political ideology that I find order in the political ideology of others.

Splitting libertarians up into categories depending upon their apparent ideological views is far from new. Mainstream writers have spoken of 'lifestyle libertarians' and 'crunchy cons.' According to one point of view:

Crunchy cons disapprove of abortion rights, same-sex marriage, illegal immigrants, public schools, secular liberals and mothers who work outside the home. But they don't like Wal-Mart, McMansions, suburbs, pollution, agribusiness or processed foods, either.

Lifestyle libertarians, in contrast to crunchy cons, are supposedly motivated primarily by personal freedom - drug use, vices, prostitution, etc. - and have little concern for private property rights and state-sponsored wealth distribution. I've noticed a couple of other groups. For a member of one of these groups, the political ideology practiced before one became a libertarian informs one's personal logic of libertarian truth - one's epistemology - directly. What do I mean? I'm talking about two more broad and much generalized categories: 'Pre-Lib' and 'Pre-Cons.'

Ideology, the Root of All Evil?

A Pre-Lib is a person who was previously-liberal, before embracing the logic of libertarianism. A Pre-Con is a person who was previously-conservative before coming to appreciate the beauty of libertarianism. Generally, the Pre-Libs embrace libertarianism for decidedly different reasons than the Pre-Cons, and vice versa. For purposes of illustration I present these two groups via caricatures of what their views appear to be.

For the Pre-Lib, it's all about the benefit to others. Liberals generally want everyone to experience the goodness and splendor of life. Egalitarianism drives their actions. For these people, libertarianism makes sense because they believe that it is via the free market, private property, and the NAP (non-aggression principle) that everyone has the best opportunity to benefit, ceteris paribus. Of course, this is correct.

In contrast, for the Pre-Con, it's all about the benefits to them. Conservatives generally want to keep what they have, and view any attempt at wealth redistribution - even for supposedly humanitarian reasons - as tantamount to theft by an armed robber. For these people, libertarianism makes sense because they believe that it is via the free market, private property and the NAP that everyone can maintain his possessions and build lasting wealth. Of course, this is also correct. (Oh, the irony!)

Before anyone jumps to a conclusion and pulls a ligament, let me explain further. First, I'm already on record regarding my disbelief in altruism, so I am not trying to position the Pre-Libs above the Pre-Cons or vice versa, based upon their concern for others. Anyone who wants to keep what they've worked to obtain has my full support. Frankly, I am similarly motivated.

What I find fascinating is how these differing pedigrees seem to affect how each of these groups responds to various issues. For instance, to the garden-variety Pre-Lib, controlling immigration is almost a non issue, while for the Pre-Con it is something vitally important, worthy of actually supporting direct action by the State.

Using Pre-Lib libertarian logic, one might ask: 'If the market works, why would one get all wound up about people voluntarily entering the U.S. from Mexico or anywhere else?' Furthermore, if Mexicans are such a big deal, then Canadians and others are also a big deal, unless selective logic is at work. After all, the rightness or morality of an action is unaffected by the numbers of people who take part in it. That is, if a few hundred Canadians are welcome to immigrate, then several hundred thousand Mexicans are also welcome, unless Mexicans are different in some objective way from Canadians, or again, unless the market doesn't work. Consequently, to the Pre-Lib libertarian, immigrants don't threaten the freedom of the previous residents.

In contrast, the Pre-Con libertarian sees illegal immigration generally - but Mexican illegal immigrants (apparently) - as a threat to freedom. Using Pre-Con logic, one might ask: 'How can anyone support the unavoidable increase in state-sponsored theft that will be required as illegal aliens use resources such as: Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps, and hospital emergency rooms?' Almost all Pro-Con libertarian assertions begin with some expression of horror at the prospect of a hoard of semi-literate welfare wannabees pouring over the U.S./Mexican border like extras from a Cheech and Chong movie.

A second point in many of these objections to immigration typically includes the rather convenient supposition that as long as we have a State, it might as well protect us from the horrors of something called 'forced integration.' Suffice it to say that from my view, for a radical libertarian to find a way to gain an advantage via the guns of the State while simultaneously adhering to a paradigm that supports the complete dismantling of the State requires a level of cognitive dissonance that would make Aronson proud.

I may as well admit it: I'm a flaming Pre-Lib. (I suspect that comes as no surprise!) Certainly my presentation here of the qualities of Pre-Libs and Pre-Cons reflects this rather virulent personal bias. That failing aside, I tend to judge the quality of any State program via one filter and one filter only. That filter, forged in hearth of Walter Block's plumb-line libertarianism, evaluates all state programs to the same conclusion: They all stink. The state programs that happen to enrich me stink just as much as the ones that take my money away to benefit others. The state programs that ostensibly protect me are just as immoral as those which infringe upon me, particularly since they are all - every one of them - funded in exactly the same way. I'm not interested in trying to justify the State when it benefits me only to attack it when it does not.

All that said, does it really matter if one is a Pre-Lib or a Pre-Con? Not so much.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Why doesn't it matter? To answer that question, I need to get back to why Doc Block's big-tentism speech struck me as so interesting. To do that, I'll need to call upon a hypothetical situation. Imagine that six (6) people are gathered. They all wish to reach FreedomLand, which is known to be 1500 miles away, as the crow flies. They have a map, a good weather report, several compasses, and all the needed individual supplies - canteen, hat, mosquito repellent, knife, ammo, etc. As might be expected, there is disagreement among the people as to the best methodology to reach their shared goal.

Some people think they should just start walking directly toward FreedomLand immediately. Other people think they should walk backward to the road they see on the map and attempt to catch a ride with a passing car. Some people think they should go over to a junkyard near their current location, find some car parts, and build a vehicle. There are pluses and minuses to each approach. There is violent debate. In addition to the current opinions of those assembled, they also have ancient writings from people who have considered the voyage to FreedomLand from a theoretical standpoint, although not one of these people has actually been there.

How should they proceed? Should they combine their talents and do one thing, no matter what it is? Should they debate the issue until a resolution is reached no matter how long it takes? Should they vote and succumb to the tyranny of the majority? Should the best speaker or the person with the best grasp of logic and argumentation gently coerce everyone to an approach that he favors? Should they 'pick sides' like kids in a schoolyard and fight until one group submits to the will of the other? Should they engage in a round-robin tournament of Rock, Paper, Scissors?

Just as important, what should happen in the aftermath of any decision? If they do not arrive at consensus, should those who select a particular path forward decry those who have made a different choice? Should they, as a result of this past disagreement, whine as they go about the tasks selected by the majority? Should there be 'hard feelings' among them if everyone doesn't do the same thing? (As an aside, why is it that concepts like division of labor only seem appealing in the abstract?)

I'd assert that it doesn't matter if they reach consensus or not. Nor do they all need to take the same path. The group that wants to walk should start walking. The group that wants to 'thumb' should do that. The group that thinks they can build a car should do that. If everyone has food and time is not of the essence - either because so much time has already passed or because there is no impending loss of food or other supplies - why would consensus be important? I say it isn't! But in every similar situation I've been in, particularly in (ironically) academic settings, there is an apparent necessity for someone to 'win.'

I'd further assert that winning is only important in cases when very little will happen either way. This is the paradox of arm-chair theorizing. In a case such as my hypothetical, any action could be judged directly against an objective rubric. Any movement toward the goal is directly measurable. Unfortunately, in the quest for liberty, the data - objective or otherwise - is somewhat harder to come by and even harder to agree upon relative to what it means.

What about after everyone departs? If, after some long amount of time has passed, the people who started walking look back to see a car closing on their position, a car driven by they folks who stayed to build it, should they expect to get a ride or duck for cover? Should the car-builders plan to run over the walkers who didn't help? It seems to me that a lot of unnecessary bitterness at the beginning of any quest leads almost inevitably to permanent damage to 'the cause' longer-term. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary.


Where does all that leave us? Let us each just take the steps we each think are best. Let each of us, as individual freedom allows, pursue that which we desire as if we 'knew' it was the next best action anyone could take. Let us not attack each other to feed our egos. And let us not seek to point the guns of the State toward someone else for our own benefit. There is room in the 'tent' for walkers, car-builders, and hitch hikers too. (Heck, if anyone shows up driving an El Camino with salsa stains on the seats, I'm alright with that too. For future reference, I'll be the one eating the fried chicken.)

Better to be happy with the journey than burn a lot of emotional energy before one even gets started on the journey.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.