Stephen Emmott once wrote that “Science is essentially organized skepticism.”
The quote is rather thought-provoking. It describes a way of thinking that takes nothing at face value, that analyzes and re-analyzes seen and unseen consequences, that combines open-mindedness with structured reasoning. I’d suggest that Emmott’s phrase is equally applicable to the philosophy of liberty.
Let’s look at this idea in its two parts: skepticism and organization.
The philosophy of liberty is a very frank paradigm. It implies the individual as being accountable and capable of using his or her own knowledge and reasoning to direct their own life, but no one else’s. This concept is magnified when the individual is given the coercive power of the state. In the words of Lord Acton, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This leads those who subscribe to this philosophy to question all human endeavors, but especially those of the state. When the government rolls out its latest expansion of the nanny state or foreign intervention, libertarians are quick to respond with the simple and dangerous questions, which bear all the power of common sense:
Why is this necessary?
At what cost is it worthwhile?
Has this worked in the past?
Is this really the proper role of government?
It’s easy to just stand around and ask ‘Why?’ all day, so some sort of structure is necessary for this skepticism to be coherent and relevant. This structure that organizes the idea of liberty into a cohesive perspective is reason.
Reason is the tool with which individuals can distinguish between the real and the unreal, the faith and the facts, the good intentions and the rightful consequences. Drawing these distinctions is the starting point to all rational thought, political or otherwise. To quote Alex Berezow, editor of RealClearScience, in USA Today, “libertarians deal with the world the way it is, rather than the way they want it to be.”
Obviously, there are many different paradigms of libertarianism, and this is just another way of viewing the philosophy. However, thinking about libertarianism as “organized skepticism” can be an effective method of explaining this incredibly broad philosophy to those new to the ideas of liberty.
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