Mere Libertarianism

 

Libertarianism is the subject of regular debate on Ricochet, both between conservatives and libertarians and — if you really want to see heated debate — among different kinds of libertarians. Taking inspiration from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, member Sal Padula and I recorded a conversation in which we attempt to distill libertarianism down to its essence and explore some basic questions about it, including:

What is libertarianism? What isn’t libertarianism? What is its relationship to conservatism (both in America and abroad)? How do contemporary politicians fare under a libertarian analysis? The results may surprise you (and are largely free of references to Rand Paul!).


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Resources: Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Salvatore Padula:Midge: “Would Trump qualify? Or at least the image Trump wants to project of himself to voters?”

    Trump is definitely not a libertarian, but I’m reluctant to describe him as conservative in any real ideological sense either.

    Like a lot of American voters, Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have a cohesive political philosophy.  He’s flying by the seat of his pants.  Within our bubble, we tend to think that everyone has an ideology of some sort, but many people do not.

    • #31
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Salvatore Padula:Midge: “Would Trump qualify? Or at least the image Trump wants to project of himself to voters?”

    Trump is definitely not a libertarian, but I’m reluctant to describe him as conservative in any real ideological sense either.

    I know what you mean. Still, his ideas about economics seem to be appealing to many conservatives at the moment.

    So who besides Giuliani is there?

    Perhaps Mark Kirk would qualify. His constituents have always wanted someone they believe will be careful with their money, but not someone too libertarian, I’m pretty sure.

    • #32
  3. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: The part I enjoyed most was that bit about Rudy Giuliani. Tiny part, I know. But so many of us aren’t used to thinking about who’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative AND not libertarian.

    This may not hold-up to scrutiny, but … Dick Cheney?

    • #33
  4. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: The part I enjoyed most was that bit about Rudy Giuliani. Tiny part, I know. But so many of us aren’t used to thinking about who’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative AND not libertarian.

    This may not hold-up to scrutiny, but … Dick Cheney?

    Dick Cheney and fiscally conservative in the same sentence. He of the infamous deficits don’t matter quote.

    • #34
  5. Barkha Herman Inactive
    Barkha Herman
    @BarkhaHerman

    Interesting discussion.  For many libertarians – the first issue is the Non aggression principle.  That decides the relationship between the individual and the state (which comes second).

    • #35
  6. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula
    @SalvatorePadula

    Good point

    • #36
  7. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    I don’t think the harm principle is at all useful but I’m not sure it’s a sine qua non of libertarianism. I mean, given a sufficiently nuanced understanding of “harm”, sure, it’s obviously true, but the closer it gets to being true, the further it is from having interesting content. I think it’s really pretty hard to define libertarianism, though the reasons why I don’t consider myself one would take awhile to write out.

    • #37
  8. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    BrentB67:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: The part I enjoyed most was that bit about Rudy Giuliani. Tiny part, I know. But so many of us aren’t used to thinking about who’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative AND not libertarian.

    This may not hold-up to scrutiny, but … Dick Cheney?

    Dick Cheney and fiscally conservative in the same sentence. He of the infamous deficits don’t matter quote.

    The infamous, but probably false, quote, for which our only source was a revenge driven Paul O’Neill trying to pretend that his opposition to tax cuts stemmed from everyone else in the White House being nuts. Cheney helped push through the spending cuts that started to be more prominent from, well, from about the time he’s alleged to have said that.

    Edit: Also, Cheney’s pretty deeply pro-life, strongly supports religious liberty, and supports school choice and home schooling. He seems reasonably socially conservative to me.

    • #38
  9. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    The podcast was well worth the 44 minutes and 23 seconds.

    I like the point that Santorum’s and Huckabee’s non-libertarianism is unrelated to their social conservatism.  Unlike those gentlemen, one can be be a social conservative and a libertarian.

    Kasich’s problem is simpler than described here.  He just isn’t very bright.

    • #39
  10. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    James Of England:

    BrentB67:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: The part I enjoyed most was that bit about Rudy Giuliani. Tiny part, I know. But so many of us aren’t used to thinking about who’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative AND not libertarian.

    This may not hold-up to scrutiny, but … Dick Cheney?

    Dick Cheney and fiscally conservative in the same sentence. He of the infamous deficits don’t matter quote.

    The infamous, but probably false, quote, for which our only source was a revenge driven Paul O’Neill trying to pretend that his opposition to tax cuts stemmed from everyone else in the White House being nuts. Cheney helped push through the spending cuts that started to be more prominent from, well, from about the time he’s alleged to have said that.

    Edit: Also, Cheney’s pretty deeply pro-life, strongly supports religious liberty, and supports school choice and home schooling. He seems reasonably socially conservative to me.

    I’ve always considered Cheney a staunch social conservative. I think where people consider him differently is his support for his gay daughter and gay unions.

    • #40
  11. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    BastiatJunior:The podcast was well worth the 44 minutes and 23 seconds.

    I like the point that Santorum’s and Huckabee’s non-libertarianism is unrelated to their social conservatism. Unlike those gentlemen, one can be be a social conservative and a libertarian.

    Kasich’s problem is simpler than described here. He just isn’t very bright.

    Additionally Kasich isn’t very conservative or libertarian.

    • #41
  12. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    BrentB67:

    James Of England:

    BrentB67:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: The part I enjoyed most was that bit about Rudy Giuliani. Tiny part, I know. But so many of us aren’t used to thinking about who’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative AND not libertarian.

    This may not hold-up to scrutiny, but … Dick Cheney?

    Dick Cheney and fiscally conservative in the same sentence. He of the infamous deficits don’t matter quote.

    The infamous, but probably false, quote, for which our only source was a revenge driven Paul O’Neill trying to pretend that his opposition to tax cuts stemmed from everyone else in the White House being nuts. Cheney helped push through the spending cuts that started to be more prominent from, well, from about the time he’s alleged to have said that.

    Edit: Also, Cheney’s pretty deeply pro-life, strongly supports religious liberty, and supports school choice and home schooling. He seems reasonably socially conservative to me.

    I’ve always considered Cheney a staunch social conservative. I think where people consider him differently is his support for his gay daughter and gay unions.

    Cheney rocks.  Wish he were healthy and running.

    • #42
  13. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    BrentB67: I’ve always considered Cheney a staunch social conservative. I think where people consider him differently is his support for his gay daughter and gay unions.

    I agree that that was likely where Tom was going. I was just disagreeing with Tom. I think an 80% ally of SoCons and an 80% opponent of social liberalism is a problematic candidate for the claim that respectable and fiscally conservative social liberals exist.

    • #43
  14. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    I hereby retract the Cheney claim.

    • #44
  15. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:I hereby retract the Cheney claim.

    I shamefacedly retract the more rambunctious and unsustainable parts of my rebuttal.

    • #45
  16. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    I think the description of conservative in use in the podcast was flawed.  Conservatism got its name by opposing the progressives in the early 20th century.  The first first really conservative President might have been Taft in that he denied Teddy the Republican nomination and another crack at the Presidency.  The first President to really articulate conserving the Constitutional order was probably Calvin Coolidge.  Four years after he left office Progressivism swift the country and changed the the whole nature of the country and our relationship with our government.

    In the fifties there was reason to believe that we could conserve some of the old order but I think Lyndon Johnson put a complete end to that with his Great Society which destroyed so much of the country’s foundations.  At that point there was finally a massive backlash which lead to Reagan and then to modern politics as we know them today.

    The point being here that Conservatism is not conserving anything.  Now we are trying to apply and re-enact evident truths, that our Founders well understood, in our new modern society.  Progressives are the ones trying to conserve the new order they enacted staring in the 30s and stopping in the early 70s.

    My point being it is unfair to say either that Conservatives want to stop things in 1789 the conditions of 1789 will never be recreated in a modern society.  No conservative thinks that a cabinet of four people can administer the modern government of the United States.  At the same time it not fair to say that only Libertarians are the only people that are trying to apply Classically liberal principles to the modern age.  That is whole purpose of the Conservative movement.  That Conservatives and Libertarians disagree about how to apply and or enact Classically liberal principles is the source of tension between the two camps.

    It seems to me that main difference between Libertarians and Conservatives is that Libertarians have a “utopian impulse” that pushes for the ideal on principle while Conservatives are more focused on what works in the grubby reality what works and can endure with the facts as they are on the ground.

    Very engaging podcast and I salute you giving us this podcast as gift.  The work you did here is exactly the kind of thing that Ricochet was meant to do.  In my opinion anyway.

    • #46
  17. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    I’m for all Liberty commensurate with Civil Society and I know that is a standard that is impossible to define globally. Each person will draw the lines a little differently. Still it’s the best I can come up with.

    I do believe the best way to approximate achieving this goal is to limit government with, I don’t know, maybe, a written Constitution, defining limited powers, adhered to by Congress and Executive branches and supported by the Courts?

    • #47
  18. Blake Anderton Member
    Blake Anderton
    @BlakeAnderton

    Brian Wolf:I think the description of conservative in use in the podcast was flawed.

    I agree – the take-away I got was that supposedly conservatives are just traditionalists, but anytime they espouse a classical liberal viewpoint they’re channeling libertarianism. That doesn’t seem right – maybe they’re just a different sort of classical liberal than a libertarian?

    I hope a future podcast can address the issue in more detail, because I really did enjoy this.

    • #48
  19. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Brian Wolf:Conservatism got its name by opposing the progressives in the early 20th century. The first first really conservative President might have been Taft in that he denied Teddy the Republican nomination and another crack at the Presidency. The first President to really articulate conserving the Constitutional order was probably Calvin Coolidge. Four years after he left office Progressivism swift the country and changed the the whole nature of the country and our relationship with our government.

    In the fifties there was reason to believe that we could conserve some of the old order but I think Lyndon Johnson put a complete end to that with his Great Society which destroyed so much of the country’s foundations. At that point there was finally a massive backlash which lead to Reagan and then to modern politics as we know them today.

    I agree with this narrative.

    Brian Wolf:…The point being here that Conservatism is not conserving anything. Now we are trying to apply and re-enact evident truths, that our Founders well understood, in our new modern society. Progressives are the ones trying to conserve the new order they enacted staring in the 30s and stopping in the early 70s.

    I think we’re having a semantic disagreement here. I agree that the conservative project is largely one of re-building much of what the Left has torn down.

    • #49
  20. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Brian Wolf: My point being it is unfair to say either that Conservatives want to stop things in 1789 the conditions of 1789 will never be recreated in a modern society.  No conservative thinks that a cabinet of four people can administer the modern government of the United States.

    At the same time it not fair to say that only Libertarians are the only people that are trying to apply Classically liberal principles to the modern age.  That is whole purpose of the Conservative movement.  That Conservatives and Libertarians disagree about how to apply and or enact Classically liberal principles is the source of tension between the two camps.

    I don’t think that was Sal’s point and I wouldn’t agree with him if was. However, I took him to mean that conservatives contend that — in terms of political philosophy — things were basically figured out by 1789 and that the project since then has been to complete and preserve the Founders’ vision. With the exception of slavery and race relations, this has largely been a matter of applying some polish.

    • #50
  21. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Blake Anderton: I agree – the take-away I got was that supposedly conservatives are just traditionalists, but anytime they espouse a classical liberal viewpoint they’re channeling libertarianism. That doesn’t seem right – maybe they’re just a different sort of classical liberal than a libertarian?

    I concede we weren’t wholly consistent on that matter (as Sal said, it’s easy to fall into the trap of claiming people who you esteem as one of your own).

    To expand on my last comment — and on something I said in the podcast — I see libertarians and American conservatives as half-siblings: they’ve got the same mother (classical liberalism) but different fathers.

    • #51
  22. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Blake Anderton: I agree – the take-away I got was that supposedly conservatives are just traditionalists, but anytime they espouse a classical liberal viewpoint they’re channeling libertarianism. That doesn’t seem right – maybe they’re just a different sort of classical liberal than a libertarian?

    I concede we weren’t wholly consistent on that matter (as Sal said, it’s easy to fall into the trap of claiming people who you esteem as one of your own).

    […..]

    Indeed. If the founding is the epitome of classical liberalism, then I’ve long argued that libertarians are not as close to it as they think they are. As Sal has said in the past, libertarianism applies to all government regardless of level, to town just as much as to federal. The founders manifestly did not share that belief, or at least they did not think that that belief necessitated minarchy or anarchocapitalism. Even if every one of them would have chosen a minarchist government for their own towns, it seems that few if any of them thought that a more involved local government would be an inherent affront to liberty.

    • #52
  23. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Brian Wolf: It seems to me that main difference between Libertarians and Conservatives is that Libertarians have a “utopian impulse” that pushes for the ideal on principle while Conservatives are more focused on what works in the grubby reality what works and can endure with the facts as they are on the ground.

    There definitely is a streak of utopianism among libertarians — or, at least, some libertarian strains —  but I wouldn’t quite put it that way. Rather, I’d say that the more conservative one is, the more likely one is to be focused on rebuilding the social institutions ruined by progressivism. In contrast, I don’t think libertarianism connotes a similar preference for what kind of society should reemerge, which is why you get some libertarians who are conservatives who really hate the progressive state and others who are much more radical in a let’s-buid-a-new-society kind of way.

    BTW, thank you all for the comments. For our next episode, we’re considering a taxonomy of libertarianism — i.e., describing the various tribes under the label — but what would you folks like to hear?

    • #53
  24. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:[…..]To expand on my last comment — and on something I said in the podcast — I see libertarians and American conservatives as half-siblings: they’ve got the same mother (classical liberalism) but different fathers.

    Perhaps. I could agree with that to the extent that anarchocapitalism is not libertarian. Once that gets thrown into the mix, though, we have unrelated things. I think the same could be said for many modern-day liberals; they too share common ancestry to the extent that progressives, socialists, and communists are not to be considered liberals.

    • #54
  25. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    I’ve always wondered how I would answer the question: what is a conservative? As with anything else there are multiple senses of the word along with multiple varieties, and I’m not sure I could adequately identify a common thread through it all. More and more lately I’ve come to think of my conservatism as de facto: I know I’m not of the left and I know I’m not a libertarian.

    • #55
  26. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    I am somewhat of a traditionalist. Deference to tradition makes sense; it’s not some blind adherence but there is wisdom to slow change and keeping things of value.

    I am a conservative in the sense of actually wanting to conserve something. In this case I’d like to conserve the system we inherited here in the US. More accurately, I’d like to restore it.

    I am somewhat of a reactionary. The 20th century was the liberal century. Much of modern American conservatism is about opposing and trying to roll back those victories. That primarily means returning these issues to more local control and reimposing the limits on federal authority and activity more in line with the founding documents.

    • #56
  27. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Barkha Herman:[…..] That decides the relationship between the individual and the state (which comes second).

    I’ve always mostly just nodded along in agreement with this framing, but I’ve been coming to the conclusion that it’s inadequate at best. It seems to me that both individuals and “the state” (in quotes because that term itself is subject to meaningful variety and diverse interpretation) are part of some larger whole.

    I think this is where libertarianism has something in common with leftism: for both, the whole is always subordinate to parts of the whole in some way. To leftists it’s the state that is primary while to the libertarian it’s the individual that is primary. Neither of these views are satisfying to me; neither seems to comport with my own observations of the world.

    • #57
  28. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Ed G.:I’ve always wondered how I would answer the question: what is a conservative? As with anything else there are multiple senses of the word along with multiple varieties, and I’m not sure I could adequately identify a common thread through it all. More and more lately I’ve come to think of my conservatism as de facto: I know I’m not of the left and I know I’m not a libertarian.

    Since returning to Ricochet I am convinced I am not a conservative and probably never was. However, I make no claim to libertarian ideology.

    -Manning the far right edge of the reservation and happy out here.

    • #58
  29. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Sal, for the benefit of Flyover Country and this Mere-Libertarianism podcast, I am tempted to start a pool among the Ricochetti to get you a nice gamer headset so you can sit your butt in a chair at a computer!   :)

    • #59
  30. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Ryan M:Sal, for the benefit of Flyover Country and this Mere-Libertarianism podcast, I am tempted to start a pool among the Ricochetti to get you a nice gamer headset so you can sit your butt in a chair at a computer! :)

    Our stretch goal is a toy to fidget with.

    • #60
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