Fair Questions: What is a libertarian?

@SerenaDante asked a very fair question in her blog title.  I responded with a comment, but I think a fuller treatment of the subject is worthwhile.  When I was in college I started becoming more politically aware and my views got much more complex.  One of the things I stumbled upon early in the process of my expanding political awareness was a wide variety of libertarian political philosophies.  As is my wont, I researched a wide variety of these philosophies to understand them better.  And at that point, I was working nights with a computer in front of me in a place where nothing was happening, so I had lots of homework and reading time.

First, we need to understand some basic distinctions.  Second, we need to do some reading.  I’ll make the distinctions, and you are welcome to do the reading.  I already have.

It helps to make a distinction between the Libertarian Party in the U.S. and libertarian thought in general.  The Libertarian Party in the U.S. tends towards ending corporate welfare and social welfare in an effort to establish free-market capitalism and tends to favor what in the U.S. would be described as socially liberal policies (i.e. an emphasis on civil liberties, drug legalization, etc.), though they tend to be very divided on the issue of abortion in my experience.  Their approach to government is generally that government has the function of enforcing the minimum laws necessary to protect our rights and providing for the common defense.  They also tend to favor a strong Separation of Church and State, though there are differences of opinion about what that means on a practical level. 

Many libertarians in the U.S. are paleolibertarian, which for the uninitiated means that they are culturally conservative while being in the political sphere what we might describe as socially liberal in terms of their emphasis on civil rights and equality of opportunity.  Many are also Christian libertarian.  This reactionary and/or religious element to the Libertarian Party is probably why conservatives and Libertarians in the U.S. tend to get along better than liberals and Libertarians in the U.S.

Sadly, my experience has been that folks who describe themselves as libertarians in the U.S. often have no idea how useless a term that is without making some basic distinctions.  Of course, there are also the folks who think that believing we should legalize marijuana and believing in lots of conspiracy theories makes them libertarian.  Those people make me facepalm.

On the other hand, the full breadth of libertarian thought in general is quite staggering, including a wide variety of anarchist perspectives (i.e. anarcho-communism, anarcho-socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-capitalism, anarcho-primitivism, etc.) and a wide variety of positions that are more moderate and fall broadly into the left libertarian and right libertarian approaches without advocating the complete absence of rulers (i.e. Marxist libertarianism, minarchism).  I think it’s fair to say that among academics in the U.S. and Europe left-libertarian thought is more popular and that right libertarian thought has significantly more grassroots popularity in the U.S. than in Europe. 

It’s also been my experience that among people who identify as libertarian and actually understand the term, there’s an astounding amount of fighting over economics, justice, and the meaning of freedom.  It seems very confusing simply because it is.  It’s possible that if the various groups of libertarians got together more often and worked toward meaningful social change they might be able to move our societies in a more libertarian direction generally, but the constant back and forth over economics and philosophical quibbling make it hard to really accomplish anything terribly useful.

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11 Responses to Fair Questions: What is a libertarian?

  1. lanney says:

    Personally I’ve found most groups to be that way — reasonable people, extremists, and space cadets all using the same label.  The groups which end up having power are generally the ones with money and a charismatic speaker with a talent for inspiring, non-specific rhetoric.  If we’d stop all this blasted grouping, the country could tackle each issue individually and we might be able to get something done. 

  2. SerenaDante says:

    What I’ve also noticed is that there are “Libertarians” who like Ron Paul and others who like Gary Johnson and others who like (on a smaller level) Bruce Olsen and Jonathan Dine. But all of these candidates for office have radically different ideological views and would do radically different things with policy if in office. Maybe it shouldn’t bother me so much that people can just say, “Hey, I’m a Libertarian and that’s better than the other two mainstream parties because we haven’t fucked up the country yet, so vote for me. Oh yeah and I want to implement ____ policies, which other Libertarians may not agree with but they’re not real Libertarians.” But it does.

  3. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @SerenaDante – It’s fine if it bothers you.  The bickering just amuses me.    Parties in the U.S. generally operate as umbrellas for various groups with similar goals but a large variety of intellectual positions and policy proposals for accomplishing those goals.  I think @lanney made a great point about the nature of such groups in her comment.That sort of ideological hodgepodge problem is why some people suggest a parliamentary system similar to what is more common in Europe, though to be fair that approach has its own set of problems.I notice you mentioned some candidates for specific state positions (AR Governor and MO Senator) here in the U.S. Were you asking about the LP policies because you were considering voting for a libertarian candidate, or just out of curiosity?

  4. I believe the problem with the Libertarian thought is the degree of fearfulness and what minimum laws are necessary to protect their rights. From one candidate to the other, they go from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on the priorities or fears of each. What they fear most seems to depend on the level of their testoserone. With the most fearful being the ones with the lowest level. It is a scientific fact, testosterone levels dictate a man’s fearfulness. They are very fearful of government interferrence whether it be taxes, control of guns, drugs, terrorists, religions or idealogies different than their own. But depending on their hormonal level, their degree of fear of the government, IRS, next door neighbor or any authority vary greatly. Yes, Libertarians definitely must have very low testoserone levels. They are very fearful. They should really have their levels checked by a trusted physician, if they can find one. I’m thinkin’ maybe this could apply to other political parties also.

  5. crazy2love says:

    @Iamsurrounded – I’ve known some of these things, but not all of it, I did learn some things. I think the debating of things is good, because there hasn’t been such a system in existence. I think it’s especially helpful to debate about the economics, because there hasn’t been true capitalism and it’s a lot of speculation on how it would really work and operate.I’m an anarchist because I don’t believe in the immorality of initiation of force and that people should govern themselves. There are other aspects I look at, but that’s the main point.

  6. @Iamsurrounded – *ROTFLMAO @ ‘hormone levels’* Now I’ve heard it all.

  7. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @Iamsurrounded – Again, I’ll point to what @lanney mentioned about the composition of political groups.  It’s certainly the case that there is a reactionary wing of the Libertarian Party in the U.S.  It’s also certainly the case that some of them are paranoid conspiracy theorists.  It’s also certainly the case that many of them simply believe that liberty and responsibility are more valuable than security and comfort.  Values drive political choices, and generally our fears are driven by that which we value.I think you’re right that fear plays a significant role in the decision-making processes of many political parties.  They’re often interested in protecting what they see as valuable and threatened, whether it be economic security, traditional moral values, a culture of tolerance, ecological balance, or personal freedom.The testosterone bit was pretty funny.

  8. n_e_i_l says:

    It’s always struck me that part of the confusion here owes to how those at the extremes of the political spectrum are closer to each other than they are to the middle. One of my high school teachers illustrated that by drawing the spectrum not as a straight line, but as an arc around most of the circumference of a circle and then inscribing the isosceles triangle formed by the endpoints and the midpoint of the arc. E.g., however little else they may have in common, anarchists and free-market absolutists do share a fundamental faith that government be scrapped, which most other people don’t. So it’s not too surprising they’d end up together in a category, even if the category isn’t a natural kind.

  9. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @n_e_i_l – That’s a nice way of representing the political spectrum.  I dig that.  Thanks for the insight! 

  10. Pingback: Fair Questions: Why are people authoritarian? | Isorropia

  11. Pingback: Fair Questions: What is a civil libertarian? | Isorropia

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