Chinese Menu Ideology


Aside from being rather tedious, the collection of stale libertarian-caricaturing one-liners Matt links below strikes me as getting one thing wrong that's not even an attempt at humor: "If Republicans and Democrats are the thesis and antithesis, Libertarians are a synthesis."

Now, I've been known on occasion to use the "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" formulation to explain to the apolitical what "libertarian" means. But if there's one thing about libertarians that is genuinely ripe for ribbing, it's our notorious rigor in extrapolating from a few basic principles. (You know you're a serious libertarian wonk if you laugh at the old joke about two Chicago School economists who spot a $10 bill on the sidewalk: One bends to pick it up, and the other warns: "Wait, don't bother—if it were really there, someone would've grabbed it already.) The picture of libs as borrowing a little from column A (Democrats) and a little from column B (Republicans) to suit our tastes is both wrong as a description of how (I think) most of us develop our views and backward historically—classical liberalism preceded the welfare-state version espoused by modern Democrats. Hence the "classical."

I was forced to IM Karol Sheinin, by the way, to grill her a bit about libs being "Republicans who can't admit it yet, but who don't want to be as noncommittal and bogus-sounding as 'independent,' " Since she's been out drinking with Kerry and me, I wanted at least a "present company excepted." And Karol clarified that she was thinking mostly of self-described libs in Manhattan, which makes a certain amount of sense: Unlike in DC, copping to being a Republican in, say, Greenwich Village is a little like tattooing "child molester" on your forehead.

NEXT: Mommy, What's a Libertarian?

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  1. Well, I’m been much happier and had more fun since I came out.. as a libertarian.

    So I guess she’s correct. We do have more fun.

  2. Perfect post.

  3. socially liberal, fiscally conservative? I thought it was liberal across the board. Then again, I don’t have a firm grasp of economic principles or the history thereof, so I’m probably off base. But I personally think of conservative fiscal policy as protectionism, regulation, etc…maybe my definition of conservative is flawed instead?

    I’m so confused! 🙂

  4. Personally, I think it’s amusing that people end up resorting to “pick-and-choose” metaphors to describe libertarianism in terms of Democratic and Republican positions, considering both “liberal” and “conservative” ideologies, where the rubber meats the road, are heaving mishmashes retrofitted to suit conglomerations of interest groups.

  5. Lowdog,

    Conservatives often claim to be free-marketers in their rhetoric, but govern as protectionists and regulators. Just like Liberals claim to be for human freedom, but govern as if we’re all racists, sexists, and misers (by using the law to control our lives). Both groups are authoritarian and, thus, evil.

  6. The most troubling aspect of the article
    is the claim that all libertarians are

    Admittedly, when the claim was repeated,
    the claim was that libertarians are more
    atheist than Democrats.

    While there are certainly more atheists
    among libertarians than in the general
    public, and probably a larger proportion
    of libertarians are atheists than Democrats, I doubt whether a majority of
    libertarians are atheists at this point.

    Once it could be said “that it usually
    begins with Ayn Rand.” While it is unlikely
    that most libertarians were atheists when
    FEE was the center of libertarian thought,
    all of those neo-objectivists who turned a
    micro-movement to a mini-movement really ramped
    up the atheist count.

    But over a decade of LP politicking on a
    “Constitutionalist” ideology has had an
    effect on who self-describes as libertarian.

    There are plenty of people who believe in
    God–and even some pretty orthodox Christians.

    Bill Woolsey

  7. As a liberal atheist I would be a lot more likely to become a libertarian than a conservative, for the simple reason that the conservatives don’t want us. Atheists, I mean.

  8. So what’s wrong with being an atheist?

  9. Speaking only from the accounts of the man in The Right Nation, it seems to me that Karl Rove’s the kind of guy who’ll take all the votes he can get – atheists, Log Cabin Republicans, left-leaning Republicans, libertarians. Granted, Rove has declared himself out of the race in 2008, but still, this caricature of any political party not wanting votes is a little far-fetched.

  10. In my totally anecodtal observation, political culture in DC is even more monolithically leftist than in Manhattan. Obviously, you have conservative and libertarian think tanks, publications, politicians etc. which are based in DC and have far fewer in New York, but I think the people who work for those places either mostly live outside of the district or are ashamed to admit that they work for them. Kerry got an even higher percentage of the vote in DC than in Manhattan keeep in mind. While you’re more or less right in your crack about Greenwhich Vililage, I bet there are more libertarians/conservatives/whatever who live there – closeted or otherwise – than in Dupont Circle.

  11. Real Bill – I’m not talking about rhetoric or perceptions, but to what the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ really mean. To reiterate: I personally think of conservative fiscal policy as protectionism, regulation, etc.

  12. Lowdog,

    Words “really mean” what most people (in the applicable time period) understand them to mean.

  13. Good post by Julian. I think the Chinese menu approach to understanding libertarianism reflects an inability for most people to even imagine that there is an approach to politics that stands apart from their own preoccupation with political tribalism.

  14. fyodor – calm down, dude.

    Why are libertarians considered fiscally conservative? What is conservative about not wanting regulations on markets, for being against subsidies and protectionism, etc?

    I’m trying to understand, so why are you jumping all over me? Still mad about my definition of fascism? 😉

  15. Ok, I’ve done a little digging, and I guess I can see where the fiscally conservative tag comes from, but I still don’t buy it.

    I guess it’s just better to think of myself as a classical liberal, eh?

  16. Lowdog,

    What in the world makes you think I need calming down or that I’m “jumping all over” you??? I don’t even remember what you said about fascism…well, I didn’t, it’s coming back to me now. In a word, you’re plain wrong (okay, two words) if you think there’s some platonic ideal of words that stands apart from the way most people understand them. The meaning of words is how most people understand them. I don’t know how to tell you this any more calmly! 🙂

    Ask most people what the “conservative” position is on regulating the market, and they’ll tell you conservatives are against it. Ipso facto. I think such an understanding derives from the fact that most people who consider themselves “conservative” hold this position. “Conservative,” as the word is currently used by speakers of the English language, generally refers to whatever views are held by the group of people who identify themselves as such, rather than any particular philosophy that stands apart from this group of people. That the set of views held by this group may have no underlying theoretical consistence should come as no surprise to those who frequent this blog.

  17. I guess it’s just better to think of myself as a classical liberal, eh?

    Feel free! As for usage, I would say the unfortunate thing about that term is that pretty much only other classic liberals will understand you!! 🙂 OTOH, those outworlders who bother to ask you what you mean by it might actually learn something!!

  18. Republicans smoking pot.

    As it should be.

  19. A lot of things are generally assumed to be libertarian – by most libertarians – that aren’t necessarily. “fiscal conservative” is one example. I take a fiscal conservative as someone who believes it is immoral for governments to borrow money on credit markets. I can’t see why a city, state or nation run by a libertarian party necessarily wouldn’t borrow money at times.

    Some other examples: gay marriage, activist/isolationist foreign policies, abortion…etc. are all issues people who willingly call themselves might disagree about. I can’t see how appealing to libertarian doctrine would necessarily settle it.

    Even greater divergences emerge when people who would describe themselves as libertarians discuss what they would be more or less willing to compromise about. For some, the right to bear automatic weapons and dynamite might not seem terribly important, for others public smoking bans.

    Issues are more or less popular here. How many H/R threads about music down-loading, or Affirmative Action?

    “copping to being a Republican in, say, Greenwich Village is a little like tattooing “child molester” on your forehead.”

    Kinda that way here, sometimes.

  20. It’s ok, I think you realise I’m trying to be silly. I don’t think there’s a platonic ideal meaning of any words. I’m happy to admit that sometimes I don’t know what they mean, exactly, especially since there is no such ideal. A word could mean one thing to one group of folks you’re speaking with, and another to a different group. Which is why conversation can be a bitch and semantics can be very important.

    Now that we’re in agreement there, let’s move on! 🙂

    I guess my point is, and again you seem to be agreeing here, is that the term ‘conservative’ when applied to fiscal policy is probably not correct, other than the fact that the so-called ‘conservative’ party claims to follow a hands-off fiscal policy, even though they don’t in practice. Because if conservative implies ‘keeping the status quo’ then protectionism, tariffs, etc is exactly how you would ‘keep the status quo’. Now if by ‘fiscally conservative’ you mean ‘not spending more than is raised’, or ‘being tight with money’ then I suppose that libertarians should be considered fiscally conservative. Obviously, I was supposing the former (conservative = keeping the status quo), which is why I was (am?) having trouble.

  21. I would ask for a follow up story in two parts:

    1) What is a Democrat?
    2) What is a Republican?

    People don’t know what those are, even though they use the words all the time. They are arbitrary collections of policies set in opposition by a winner take all system. With two parties defined as the only effective means of advancing any given policy, of course you can find policies within the dominant parties that match the libertarians.

    Describing libertarians as being a synthesis of two random bags of preferences seems amazingly uninformative to me.

  22. Andrew, good point that government does not violate libertarian principles when it borrows money. A government may raise money anyway it likes other than through coercion without violating libertarian principles. That said, I usually think of “fiscally conservative” to imply being less inclined to spend, especially on what is seen as non-imperative (ie, non-security oriented) government services. THAT said, a government may also SPEND as much as it likes without violating libertarian principles as well, as long as it doesn’t collect the money by intitiating force or spend it on the same.

    Notice a pattern here? Yep, I’d say the core of libertarianism is the non-initiation of force, the rest is window dressing. That’s why I don’t get a woody over the idea of “smaller government” as many here do. I’m not concerned with the size of government so much as what it does. That said, the enormity of present day government is pretty intrinsically tied to coercive funding and activities.

  23. I consider myself a libertarian. To me it means that I believe that government should get the hell out of my life! Regulate only what has to be regulated. Raise money only for defense and the infa-structure,ie highways and bridges. I figure that if it doesn’t harm me and mine then it is not a whole lot of my business. I figure that if the rest of the country took that attitude we would have a lot less problems. Gays want to marry?Fine with me. 10 commandments in a court house? Being a deist I don’t really believe in all of those thou shalts but don’t figure it harms anyone that does believe in it. Believe whatever they want-just don’t try to force me to believe it.

    By the way, I heard that story about the 10 dollar bill kind of different. Seems it was two democrats, new to town, who were walking down the street in Chicago. One started to pick it up and the other said not to work the first day in town.

  24. My take on the “meaning” of the word libertarian is that libertarians generally take an approach of wanting less government, and they do it with greater consistency than either of the 2 parties. One need not be a purist, but one should at least consistently favor less government rather than more in all (or at least most) cases. If one only wants less government in some cases but more in others then you probably have more in common with one of the 2 major parties than with libertarians. If you want less government in most cases, but not necessarily the nanoscale gov’t advocated by libertarian purists, then you have more in common with us.

    And I have no real objection to the phrase “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” While it certainly doesn’t hit all of the nuances, it’s still a decent soundbite description. It might not get to the core of our philosophy, but it’s a decent synopsis of how we tend to come down on issues.

  25. I’m a libertarian, so I believe that all relationships among adult should be voluntary.
    (OK, I’ll entertain arguments for a state force limited strictly to protection of property and rights)

    I believe that all capitalistic acts among adults should be legal, as well as any consensual acts that do not infringe on others rights and property.

    I’m a registered Republican because I find a better fit with those views in that party than in the Democratic party. The Bush regime has made that disparity shrink, but I don’t have to vote for that big government ***** (just fill in the blank).

  26. You know you’re a serious libertarian wonk if you laugh at the old joke about two Chicago School economists who spot a $10 bill on the sidewalk: One bends to pick it up, and the other warns: “Wait, don’t bother if it were really there, someone would’ve grabbed it already.” -Julian Sanchez

    Hee hee! I guess I’m a “serious libertarian wonk”! Actually I’ve never heard that one before…But I’ve heard a similar joke:

    Question: How many Chicago School economists does it take to change a light bulb?

    Answer: None. If the light bulb needed changing the market would have already done it.

    Hmmmm…I think that I may have read that light bulb joke (as well as some others) over HERE

  27. Andrew:

    Some other examples: gay marriage, activist/isolationist foreign policies…How many H/R threads about music down-loading, or Affirmative Action?

    My take on these is…

    Gay marriage:

    The libertarian out look is to minimize state interference so that because marriage affords legal latitude, it should be granted to Gays as well. However, the issue is clouded because marriage itself implies government sanction.

    Foreign Policy

    The only just reason for a foreign action by our government is for defense against a real threat. A non-interventionist foreign policy is implied in libertarianism. Private and voluntary interaction, even of a highly organized nature, with foreign entities is, of course, permitted.

    Affirmative Action:

    A government imposed dictate upon a selection process on racial or gender lines runs counter to the precepts of libertarianism.

    Music Down-Loading:

    This falls into the copyright-patent debate, and it is indeed a lively debate among libertarians. Now, music down-loading seems harder to defend since, because of its mass participation nature, the permission granted by someone who actually paid for a song is much harder to track…

  28. …Further consideration on Gay marriage: From my libertarian perspective, I wouldn’t have a problem with an arrangement for Gays that wasn’t called “marriage” but still conferred the same legal status as marriage. Would that make it so it didn’t get some folks so riled up about it?

  29. The problem when anyone describes themselves as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” is, when you look closely at their political stands, when those two principles conflict, “fiscal consevatism” almost always loses. My experience tells me such people are not to be trusted.

  30. MayDay72:

    Nice link! I found a joke there I can adapt and retell for liberterian purposes.

    A boy goes around the neighborhood with a photo of a mother dog and some very tiny puppies. He asks a neighbor, “Would you like a puppy? They aren’t ready to leave their mother yet, but they soon will be.”

    The neighbor says, “Sure. What kind of puppies are they?”

    The boy says, “They’re a mix. Republican puppies and Democrat puppies.”

    A few weeks later the boy comes back, pulling a wagon with a box of puppies on it.

    “What kind of puppies did you say they were again?” the neighbor asks.

    “Libertarian puppies!” the boy says.

    “But I thought you said they were Democrat puppies and Republican puppies,” the neighbor says.

    “They were,” says the boy. “But they’ve opened their eyes since then.”

  31. What is wrong with atheists?

    While I do think their is something
    wrong about their views, my point
    is nothing like that.

    It is rather that it is a false claim
    to say that all libertarians are atheists.

    It is probably a false claim to say that
    most libertarians are atheists.

    I suppose I especially care about this matter
    because most libertarians (as I understand the
    term) do not self-describe as libertarian.

    Falsely claiming that to be a libertarian,
    one must be an atheist, will make it more
    difficult to get more libertarians to so

    I believe that getting more libertarians to
    self-describe as libertarian will help
    get libertarian policies implemented.

  32. The term “fiscal conservative” has been getting more and more usage lately to mean opposing tax cuts that lead to higher budget deficits. And, to a lesser degree, supporting tax hikes (especially on the rich) to finance addtional government spending.

    When libertarians began using the term as a rough description of the “economic freedom” aspect of the libertarian view, it was supposed to mean support for lower government spending- along with less taxing and borrowing.

    “Fiscal” is not a synonym for “borrowing.”

    One a related matter, “socially liberal” can be a bit confusing. Thoreau, I think, quoted someone who claimed that there was a conflict between fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Two people in a canoe paddling different directions.

    That only appears puzzling if one assumes that the writer understood that “social liberalism” refers to the personal liberty aspects of libertarianism. Larry Elder, I believe, once
    lambasted the notion of “social liberalism” in
    a way that suggested that he thought that social
    liberalism entailed support for spending lots of
    money on social programs. Perhaps the person writing about canoes had such a notion–libertarians support spending more on social programs without taxing or borrowing? It would be possible–just cut other sorts of spending. Of course, libertarians generally favor cutting just about all sorts of spending, at least some.

  33. thoreau,

    I wouldn’t claim to own the word libertarianism, but I would ask, what, specifically, is the point of “less government?” How much less would be less enough to meet a libertarian standard? My understanding of libertarianism is based on a recognition of the inalienable personal and property rights of individuals and the limiting of government force to cases of taking action against only those who have violated the personal and property rights of others. Now, such a limitation would likely reduce the size of our government immensely, but I think we should get away from fixating on government “size” per se. This is the point I tried to raise with Joe about Russia, that when a government is failing to address its legitimate functions properly, one can hardly say that the government is operating on libertarian principles, whatever that government’s “size.”

  34. Regarding “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” I think that works fine when trying to explain stuff to someone who is simply not going to understand any further nuance beyond that and isn’t likely to think hard about what that even really means, to boot. But it’s hardly accurate and may be misleading to anyone who does actually think it through, especially the latter half, since “socially liberal” could easily imply statist solutions such as gun control, state enforced affirmative action, PC speech codes, state establishment of daycare centers, etc. Unfortunately, liberals hardly want to limit state power to taxation for social spending.

  35. fyodor-

    Fair enough about how vague I was on “less government”. I admit that I was trying to be somewhat vague because I wanted a “big tent” definition of libertarianism.

    As to the problems with the phrase “socially liberal”, I freely grant that it isn’t perfect, but I challenge anybody to produce a better soundbite than “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” I once heard somebody say that candidates and activists should have 1 sentence, 30 second, 1 minute, 2 minute, and 5 minute versions of their stances. The nuances ignored by my soundbite can be addressed in the longer versions.

    Maybe another good version would be “Economically conservative, socially tolerant.” I freely admit that the phrase “fiscally conservative” is being abused by some Democrats who want to eliminate the deficit with higher taxes, and I can see how “socially liberal” might conjure up notions of affirmative action, gun control, and subsidized ethnic studies departments. But “socially tolerant” doesn’t carry that baggage.

  36. thoreau,

    Interesting that you speak about “big tents” (I’ve never camped in a tent that held more than two people myself!) and how politicians need to communicate their platforms. But then, you back the LP! I see libertarianism more as a guiding philosophy. Politics is another matter entirely. I’d likely be willing to cooperate with anyone who agrees with me on a particular issue regardless of whether we agree on anything else at all, but I’m hesitant to dilute what *I’m* talking about when I talk about libertarianism (which I don’t necessarily strictly adhere to, but fairly close).

    As for quality sound-bites, I kinda like, “I’m pro-choice on everything!” Of course that leaves out the anti-legal abortion libbertoids, but I think we can agree no sound-bite is going to cover it all. As for “Economically conservative, socially tolerant,” it’s technically more accurate that “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” but I don’t know if it would play as well, for the odd reason that it’s not as much of a cliche and therefore would make people think and might confuse them. But then, this is what political consultants are paid to do, I don’t know that I should infect my brain with such thoughts…. 🙂

  37. Because if conservative implies ‘keeping the status quo’ then protectionism, tariffs, etc is exactly how you would ‘keep the status quo’. . . . . Obviously, I was supposing the former (conservative = keeping the status quo), which is why I was (am?) having trouble.

    So you think a conservative is someone who supports whatever policy is currently in place?

    I view conservative as someone who supports the policies that predate the modern welfare state. Calvin Coolidge was a conservative. You need to view things through a wider window than the last 20 years.

    More generally, I consider anyone who wants to enforce the origional intent of the Constitution a conservative.

  38. Don:

    To some extent, except as cognates for Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal don’t mean anything anymore. Statism has become the status quo, so by rights a conservative should be in favor of maintaining the current big government structure. Once upon a time, a liberal was in favor of individual liberty, but that hasn’t been the case since at least the Wilson administration. Both sides appeal to state power to enforce the kind of morality they prefer, whether it would be the cons’ traditional outlook or the libs’ mandates on things PC.

    I like to say that I’m for individual freedom, whether in the economic sphere or elsewhere. That means having a government whose scope is narrow, even if we can make it effective for the few tasks that we delegate to it.


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