Mike Munger On Destinationists and Directionalists

As we all know there are different factions in the libertarian movement. I feel like it’s often the case that libertarians belonging to different factions just fail to understand each other. Case and point is this latest article at BHL by Mike Munger, A Libertarian Mungerfesto: In Five Parts.

Munger believes he has libertarians figured out and divides them into two groups: Destinationists and Directionalists.

Right off the bat I have to say I’m skeptical of this characterization, primarily because I don’t know what group I belong to! Even more, however, Munger’s characterization of destinationists (as opposed to directionalists like himself) seems misinformed about what this group really believes.

He defines destinationists as such:

The destinationist starts with two inviolable moral and ethical precepts that describe the ultimate libertarian destination, or ideal society. (a) Full self-ownership, with unrestricted rights to control and alienate both one’s own body and the products of one’s labor. (b) An absolute bar on the initiation (not use, initiation) of force, even if such force would have net social benefits in consequentialist terms. The destinationist libertarian then uses these constraints as restrictions on the form and function of the state in the ideal, ultimate sense. No violations are tolerated, no trade-offs are acceptable on consequentialist grounds.[…]

Destinationist libertarians identify ideal policies, using ideal theory. For the destinationist, of course, anything other than the ideal outcome is an unacceptable compromise, because sanctioning a new but non-ideal status quo implies complicity. This is the “don’t vote, it only encourages them!” view of politics.

Now are there really that many libertarians for whom consequentialist considerations play no role in their justification for libertarianism?

Munger doesn’t name any destinationists directly but does, earlier in the article, point to David Friedman and Murray Rothbard, not as destionationists per se, but as those who have offered comprehensive views of how a libertarian society aught to work.

I can’t see how Friedman could be considered a destionationist by Munger’s definition as one for whom “no violations [of self-ownership and non-aggression] are tolerated, no trade-offs are acceptable on consequentialist grounds.”

Friedman just gave a talk earlier this year entitled A Consequentialist Theory of Anarcho-Capitslism.

A much more likely candidate is Murray Rothbard (and Rothbardians in general). But even here I don’t think the characterization is correct since Rothbard based his concept natural rights on considerations of benefit. Rothbard was heavily influenced by Aristotle and defined Natural Law as the “science of happiness” which “elucidates what is best for man — what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature.” [1]

Maybe Nozick fits this definition? But I don’t know many (if any) libertarians that self-identify as Nozickians.

Furthermore Munger defines directionalists (like himself) as those who:

are incremental, and focus on immediate policy concerns. For the directionalist, any move that increases self-ownership, even marginally, and harms no one, is an improvement. Improvements should be supported by the libertarian, according to this destinationalist perspective, even if the policy is not “truly libertarian.” In fact, it’s not clear what “truly libertarian” even means. Things are more or less, not all or nothing. Any policy that increases the liberty and welfare of one or more individuals, while harming no one, is better than the status quo. If most people are indifferent, and a few are better off, moving from the status quo to a new policy is justified for the directionalist.

Again this just doesn’t seem like a valid distinction. Are there really libertarians out there that would oppose a reduction in taxes, say, because it differs from the ideal of no taxes or because it represents an “unacceptable compromise, because sanctioning a new but non-ideal status quo implies complicity”? It’s hard to imagine this applies to very many libertarians, if any. Not even Rothbard went that far:

There is not a single abolitionist who would not grab a feasible method, or a gradual gain, if it came his way. The difference is that the abolitionist always holds high the banner of his ultimate goal, never hides his basic principles, and wishes to get to his goal as fast as humanly possible. Hence, while the abolitionist will accept a gradual step in the right direction if that is all that he can achieve, he always accepts it grudgingly, as merely a first step toward a goal which he always keeps blazingly clear. The abolitionist is a “button pusher” who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed. But the abolitionist also knows that alas, such a button does not exist, and that he will take a bit of the loaf if necessary – while always preferring the whole loaf if he can achieve it.[2]

If I had to guess what’s going on here is that Munger is misinterpreting the lack of support for his favored strategy as dogmatism on the part of dissenters.

Munger writes that “Directionalist libertarians identify a path that leads from the status quo toward ideal policies, using pragmatic and consequentialist considerations”. By reading the article one could conclude that the path includes becoming active in electoral politics, supporting the Libertarian Party, and running for public office (Munger ran for Governor).

Of course another possibility is that instead of opposing such a strategy because it’s inconsistent with “true libertarianism”, destinationists do so because they just don’t think that is an effective strategy.

Especially running for office under the Libertarian Party. One could argue the probability that will do anything meaningful to advance the cause of liberty is precisely zero. Yet, there are very real opportunity costs. In my opinion (and certainly in my case) the lack of support is due to a cold weighing of costs and benefits rather than dogmatism like Munger appears to suggest.

In my case I prefer a two-fold strategy:
1) Changing public opinion through education and the spread of libertarian ideas.
2) Building alternative institutions that can both serve to provide people with more freedom in the present and demonstrate the feasibility of our alternatives.

Consider how a few years ago nearly all pundits thought the idea of a free market currency was lunacy despite decades of libertarians trying to convince them otherwise. Along comes Bitcoin and all of a sudden the idea of a free market currency doesn’t seem so out-there. Of course there are plenty of skeptics, but even now some of the skeptics are now admitting the possibility that it could work, and we’ve only just begun.

Not to mention building alternative institutions is just way more fun than obsessing over the minutiae of electoral politics.

Mike Munger promises, “In the next four parts of this essay, I will try to argue for some analytical criteria for making those sorts of “less bad” incremental improvements, and make an argument for two policies that will make my destinationist friends shriek and rend their garments.”

Maybe he’ll flush out the difference in more detail in the other essays, but so far it seems that Mike is likely misunderstanding the motivations of other libertarians rather than providing a useful distinction.


[1] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press, 1998), p. 12.

[2] Murray N. Rothbard, Do You Hate the State? The Libertarian ForumVol. 10, No. 7, July 1977.

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