Fair Questions: What is a civil libertarian?

A long time ago, a friend posed the question: What is a libertarian?  My answer had to cover a lot of ground because there are many different branches on the tree of liberty, or less metaphorically, many different perspectives as to how we can most effectively maximize liberty for all.

To add to the confusion surrounding libertarianism, which is a descriptor of a set of political philosophies which set out to create policies to maximize liberty in general, there is also civil libertarianism.  What makes it so confusing is that all libertarians who believe in the State and civil liberties are civil libertarians, but not all civil libertarians are libertarians or Libertarians.

Whereas libertarians often see the reduction (minarchism) or elimination (anarchism) of the State as the means of maximizing liberty, civil libertarians who are not also libertarians don’t always think that this is necessary.  For the civil libertarians who are not also libertarians, they are generally civil libertarians because they value civil liberties more highly than other interests which society and the State might have, though they might also see those interests as legitimate.

Whether they happen to be anarcho-syndicalists like Noam Chomsky, free-market minarchists like Ron Paul, or folks who fit into the larger American progressive and American conservative movements (though in the American conservative movement they are usually trying to conserve the tradition of classical Liberalism), civil libertarians are interested in preventing the rise of authoritarianism and also advancing the strength of personal liberty within the context of civil society.  (It’s worth noting that for anarchists of the many varieties of anarchism, civil libertarianism is a position taken only because the person currently exists within the confines of the State, not because they recognize the legitimacy of the State.)

Civil libertarianism is a position that is orthogonal to other American political movements, and so there are a diverse set of views that civil libertarians hold, but most of them are unhappy with the status quo and the conditions which preceded it.  Civil libertarians generally advocate for an expansion of the current civil liberties rather than merely a conserving of them, even among those who are part of the American conservative movement.

Which is not to say that civil libertarians are not interested in conserving existing civil liberties.  They are, though this is generally in the interest of halting the progress of authoritarians on both the left and the right, which generally wins them no friends amongst the more authoritarian members of the American conservative and American progressive movements, movements of which they are sometime a part.  Interestingly, authoritarians are to a large degree the ones who support Donald Trump in the current Presidential election cycle.

Civil libertarians don’t even necessarily agree on whether we should have positive rights in addition to negative rights, though they tend to favor negative rights in general.  For example, some might suggest that the right to free speech is not just a negative right (a right to be free of government restrictions on speech), but also a positive right (a right to equal power in speech).  As our friend at Women Writing for a Free World points out, civil libertarians tend to favor negative rights because they do not conflict with one another as easily or harshly as positive rights do.

Making all individuals equal in their power to engage in speech generally requires the violation of the civil liberties of individuals so that others can have access to their platforms, but making everyone free of government restrictions on speech does not require this violation of civil liberties.  Some civil libertarians believe that it is a worthwhile trade-off, but not all do.  Even among those of us who believe that ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups need to have a greater voice in society, there is no simple consensus on the question of whether negative or positive rights are better at advancing that goal.

Like libertarians, civil libertarians could probably accomplish more to advance civil liberties if they weren’t so divided amongst themselves on important questions.  As someone who considers himself a civil libertarian but not a libertarian, this seems unfortunate to me, but even among civil libertarians I have an unusual political philosophy, so I can’t cast stones; I’m certainly not a joiner sacrificing my principles for the achievement of short-term goals.  And for better or worse, that’s probably what would be necessary to advance civil liberties.

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