For a policy proposal to be deemed pro-liberty, it must meet a simple requirement: to increase liberty, not decrease it.

Policies are not implemented in a sterile lab environment, they are implemented in the world as it exists now. If a policy increases liberty in some theoretical world, but decreases liberty in the present world, can we really consider it to be pro-liberty? 

Libertarians love discussions about the theoretical, where the variables are predictable and constant. These discussions can be useful for working out where to go, but they have little to offer on how to get there in our current political climate.

Policies must be judged on their practical effects

We should not measure whether a policy allows more freedom or less in a theoretical world; we should measure its results for liberty in the real world. 

From poverty levels, to how much trust there is in government, to cultural norms, and everything in between, the real world has changing variables that affect the outcome of policies. We ignore those variables at our own risk.

For example, national divorce may look like a libertarian solution; after all, isn’t all decentralization good? But without the restrictions of the Constitution on states, the states would be allowed far greater ability to impose on individual liberty. Decentralization of power is good; decentralization of the restrictions on power can be bad.

So our judgment of whether or not national divorce is a libertarian policy should be based on what its results would actually be. If a state secedes, and it turns into a theocracy or dictatorship, then that secession was clearly not a libertarian solution. Nor would forcing people to move from their property to protect their liberty be a pro-liberty solution. 

Nullification is also something that appears to be, and often is, a pro-liberty solution. We should be strong advocates for cities and states nullifying laws that impose on individual liberty. Sanctuary cities, and states banning federal gun and drug laws from being enforced are all good examples of nullification being a pro-liberty solution. The increase in individual liberty is proof that they are libertarian.

But the nullification of laws that protect private property in some large cities is resulting in a reduction in individual liberty. Refusing to enforce laws that protect individual liberty is not a pro-liberty solution. Again, our support for nullification is based on whether or not the results lead to an increase in individual liberty.

Theory vs outcome: pro-liberty solutions for the real world

A policy that is truly libertarian is one that advances liberty for the individual and protects their rights. School choice is an excellent example of a policy that in a lab environment is not necessarily a pro-liberty policy, but it is absolutely pro-liberty in our current world. Parents are free to use their tax dollars more effectively, and it reduces government control over education.

Oftentimes, lovers of liberty are left with few good choices, so we must prioritize some policy solutions over others. When supporting the reduction of the welfare state, we should consider those who are unable to work because of government lockdowns or regulations. Our primary focus should be on removing the government imposed restrictions that keep people out of the labor force before we pull the welfare rug out from under them.

This isn’t a call for an unprincipled and toothless “pragmatism” with no clear principles or goals. This is a call for realism; our support for policies should be based on their real world outcomes. Burning the train down is not “principled libertarianism;” it’s suicidal. Power vacuums do not create libertarian nations.

From inflation, to wars, to crime, liberty has the solutions that Americans are looking for. Policies that require a perfect utopian setting to be libertarian only serve to distract from the real world solutions we have to offer. Application in a theoretical world is not enough. For a policy to be libertarian it must increase individual liberty in the real world.

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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.