News & Criticism

More on the Elusive "Liberaltarian"


Contributing editor Julian Sanchez supplies a nifty, and interesting in its own right, roundup of the most valuable chatter caused by fellow Reason contributing editor Brink Lindsey's New Republic essay on the possibilities for liberal-libertarian ideological and political fusion.

Julian's latest feature reporting masterpiece, "The Pinpoint Search," on the meaning of the latest wave of high-tech search technologies, is the cover story in the January 2007 issue of Reason–already in your hands if you are a subscriber, and if you are not, why not?

NEXT: Another Sign of How Gloriously Wealthy Our Culture Is...

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  1. “The upshot is that libertarians seem to have more in common with liberals than conservatives at the level of basic theory-which is certainly true in my case; I see my views as part of the line running through Mill and Rawls much more than, say Burke-but this ends up making relatively little difference in terms of practical policy debates, which are driven by coalitions of interest groups that libertarians lack the numbers to unsettle.”

    What the hell kind of mind altering drugs has Julian been taking? How can you possibly say that Libertarians agree theoretically more with Rawls (a guy famous for saying that even the threat of nuclear war doesn’t justify the imposition of social inequity and injustice) over Burke. Rawls is completely a results oriented social liberal. What the fuck kind of libertarianism is that?

  2. It’s really quite simple. The whole four quadrants thing. The liberals have more to offer (theoretically) on the personal liberty side, and the conservatives have more to offer (again, only in theory) on the economic side.

    Given that the government control of our money is more pervasive and direct than its control on our personal lives, most libertarians end up voting for the R’s most of the time. Even though the personal liberty issues are troubling, with a few significant exceptions, they result more in grandstanding than actual policy changes, so we see them as the lesser of two evils.

    Of course, this is all just theory, because the Republicans only talk about fiscal responsibility and shrinking the size of government. And Democrats still want the government to invade every facet of your private life, just in a slightly different way.

  3. “It’s really quite simple. The whole four quadrants thing. The liberals have more to offer (theoretically) on the personal liberty side, and the conservatives have more to offer (again, only in theory) on the economic side.”

    I’ve never thought that 2-axis thing was more than a temporary approximation of what “liberal” and “conservative” meant.

    For the past 40 years or so in the USA, it’s seemed that what the “liberal” wants is mostly what the liberal has always wanted: to upset the established, or current, order. Where that involves more freedom of choice, they’re for that, and where it involves restricting choice, they’re for that. The “conservative” just wants the opposite of what the “liberal” wants. But they both also want “the good”, so they can agree on restricting that which is “obviously not good”, such as narcotics.

  4. “Given that the government control of our money is more pervasive and direct than its control on our personal lives, most libertarians end up voting for the R’s most of the time.”

    There’s been a lot of this kind of talk around here in response to the liberaltarian meme. But is it really true that government control of our money is more pervasive and direct than control of our personal lives?

    Conservatives want to get rid of abortion rights. How many people will this affect? Well, since almost all the Hit and Run commenters are men, not very many of them directly. But every year, two out of every one hundred women between 18 and 44 have an abortion, and 48% of them have had at least one abortion. That strikes me as pretty significant for a lot of reasons, not least of all because we are talking about control over one’s body, which is the first claim to property a libertarian should be concerned about.

    Second, there’s Tom Reason Hero of Freedom Coburn, who said, “The gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country, and they wield extreme power… That agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today. Why do you think we see the rationalization for abortion and multiple sexual partners? That’s a gay agenda.” Substitute “black community” or “Jewish community” for “gay community” and see how that sounds. And no, this isn’t just atmospherics. The GOP efforts to pass gay marriage bans are more than just moral preening and opportunistic pandering; they are a violation of the principle of freedom of contract.

    And lastly, even if government control of our money is or should be regarded as more pervasive and therefore more significant, consider the ultimate Red State boondoggle: military spending. The United States accounts for 48% of the world’s military spending. This is ludicrous. We don’t need more high tech bombers or stealth fighters to fight poorly trained guerrillas using obsolete Soviet equipment. As Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “B-52s don’t make good police cars.” Is there a Democratic impulse to cut military spending? Of course not. But there is a liberal-progressive one to do so, and a libertarian alliance with this constituency might make it a bit easier to actually achieve something here.

  5. “But they both also want ‘the good’, so they can agree on restricting that which is ‘obviously not good’, such as narcotics.”

    This is disingenuous. There is far more support among liberals for liberalizing non-violent drug offenses than there is among conservatives. Seven of the eleven states that have removed penalties for growing or possessing medical marijuana went for Kerry in 2004, and I guaran-fucking-tee you that if you held a national referendum on legalizing some or all drugs, many more liberals than conservatives would support it.

  6. Why don’t libertarians just stick to themselves? Stay on the outside and attempt to move elite opinion through academia, think tanks, etc. and the masses through cultural stuff and occasionally diving into the political fray on single issues with conservatives and liberals where it suite us?

    Personally if there’s gonna be any new fusionism with libertarians I’d prefer it to be with the Left — Reason and Counterpunch joining arms and storming the barricades — edeucate, organize, smash the state!

    Because like South Park’s Matt and Trey pointed out here on this site: we hate conservatives but we really fkn hate liberals.

  7. Conservative politicians and parties, I believe, can more easily CHANGE the prohibitionist views they may hold on drugs – it would not require a philosophical revolution, and they could draw on the individualism that is a genuine part of their intellectual heritage.

    Liberals neither believe that individuals can make good decisions for themselves, nor that individuals have a principled right to make bad decisions.

    The only way a liberal could be persuaded that people should be legally allowed to take drugs is if a majority of Americans WANTED to take drugs, in the same sense that a majority of adult Americans occasionally use alcohol.

    A good counter-example: as smoking rapidly becomes a behavior of a dwindling minority of adult Americans, liberals become more aggressive about criminalizing it.

    Teen sex is OK, because liberals assume most teens want to have sex (probably correctly!)

    Abortion is OK, because liberals presume (rightly or wrongly) that most women prefer to have the option.

    For a liberal, only majorities in fairly large categories have rights worth defending IN PRINCIPLE.

    Liberals may defend minority status when it is inherent, or overwhelmingly assigned by culture: race, sexual orientation, ethnicity etc.

    But they don’t really care about minorities of belief, preference or behavior. They don’t care about the Amish man or the Roman Catholic, the Conscientious Objector or the drug user.

    If they stick up for CO’s it’s because they disapprove of the war – if they stick up for Moslems, it’s because they really view them as a non-Western ethnic group.

  8. Very well said, Andrew. I think you’ve summed up modern “liberalism” extremely succintly.

  9. liberals..young liberals like college students all think they hate the government like libertarians…they may here a vague description of libertarism and say ”well..i’m for that” but they’ll never get behind the 2nd amendment and other things of that nature. they just ignore the fact that william s. burroughs and hunter s. thompson loved guns etc.

  10. I know a guy that calls himself an “anarchist” and then applauds when someone throws a trash can through a Gap window. I’m, like, “You’re not an anarchist, pal – you’re a vandal.”

    – Rick

  11. Virginia Postrel and Dan Drezner both note that the theme of the recent elections seems to have been a shift to a more populist breed of Democrat, which bodes ill for a liberaltarian alliance. Maybe. But it may also mean that there are elements within the Democratic party, similarly uneasy about this development, that could sorely use some backup.

    The further that the Democrats lurch into populism, the more likely they are to become the just-as-sickening mirror image of the “Terry Schiavo” Republicans. If there is anything that libertarians are not, it is populists.

    And with all due respect to Julian, the Democratic machine responsible for giving the Dems “similarly uneasy about this development” the backup they need instead spend their time throwing genuine reform candidates like (here in Ohio) Paul Hackett (who would have gotten me out of my apartment to vote) to the curb so they can support anti-trade pro-union scum like Sherrod Brown for the Senate.

  12. Before Goldwater, was individualism a part of the Republican’s intellectual heritage?

    Before FDR, was socialism part of the Democrat’s?

    I think I know the answers to these questions, but can any political history buffs show me why we should believe the parties’ beliefs are static now?

    Good libertarian candidates have, I believe, the same chance of winning and effecting change within either party.

  13. Hey–
    “Conservative politicians and parties, I believe, can more easily CHANGE the prohibitionist views they may hold on drugs – it would not require a philosophical revolution, and they could draw on the individualism that is a genuine part of their intellectual heritage.

    Liberals neither believe that individuals can make good decisions for themselves, nor that individuals have a principled right to make bad decisions.”

    Historical or philosophical citations, please. Your armchair diagnosis seems like nothing but a manifestation of your own personal antipathies.

    “But they don’t really care about minorities of belief, preference or behavior. They don’t care about the Amish man or the Roman Catholic, the Conscientious Objector or the drug user.”

    Seriously dude, do you have any interaction with any flesh-and-blood liberals? Or have you ever read The Nation, Mother Jones, or In These Times? They are all very fervently AGAINST the drug war and in SUPPORT of the rights of conscientious objectors.

  14. highnumber:

    For the Republicans, you had the pre-New Deal Presidents like Lincoln and Grant, although by the time of McKinley the GOP had totally lost any respect for individual rights and only got it back by rebelling against the New Deal. Wendell Wilkie and Thomas Dewey come to mind, although each had flaws.

    For the Democrats, how about William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson?

  15. From Lindsey’s piece: “An honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.”

  16. jf,

    I still don’t see much of a thread through either party over the years.

    Lincoln is not high on a lot of libertarians’ lists, or at least many things he did are disliked by many libertarians. Aside from freeing the slaves, some people claim he stomped on both civil rights and states’ rights. I don’t see much of a connection with Goldwater style conservatism.

    Wilson & Jennings Bryan don’t really convince me that the Dems were proto-socialists. In the early part of the 20th century, it seems like everyone was a progressive, or corrupt as can be. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, was the biggest mf-ing progressive there was.

    Ashish George,

    If we want to tout the Democrat’s recent record on civil rights, I think that has to be tempered not only with their economic redistribution plans, but also their use of legislation to force their definition of civil rights into private transactions.

    On the other hand, Democrats had Jefferson, and he trumps everyone.

  17. There is no way to dance around it; neither “liberals” or “conservatives” believe that anything more than majority support is needed, to legitimate any coercive measures the majority takes to force a dissenting individual or minority to submit to the majority’s will, for no other reason than the majority believing it would produce the result the majority prefers. “Liberals” and conservatives” are thugs, and people who think that the fundamental organizing principle of a good society should not be morality or fairness, but rather liberty, can only make the most tenuous, temporary, and pragmatic alliances with them.

  18. I think spur said it best (though I disagree with the South Park quote of hating one side more than another)….

    We should view ourselves not as a political party, but more as a philosophy of interpreting the events of the world around us. As soon as you submit your ideas to a larger group of some sort, you stop thinking for yourself (trust me, I know… I used to be a partisan dope for years!). There should be no “libertarian position” on any issue; just a personal pursuit of freedom. There is room for libertarian arguments for and against pretty much all of the hot button issues: abortion, gun control, gay rights, etc.

    I think we should be libertarians, not Libertarians… I hope you all know the difference. If not, check out the Radio Free Liberty podcast… it’s fantastic libertarian listening. (

  19. Wake me up when liberals pass Econ 101.


  20. Seven of the eleven states that have removed penalties for growing or possessing medical marijuana went for Kerry in 2004, and I guaran-fucking-tee you that if you held a national referendum on legalizing some or all drugs, many more liberals than conservatives would support it.


    Would that legalization also expand to include cigarettes? Hmm?

  21. Wake me up when libertarian ideologues realize that their economic determinsim makes about as much sense as marxist economic determinism did.


  22. What strikes me as interesting is how similar the comment made by Jonah is to the debate among objectivists and Objectivists – the former to which I claim some minor affiliation, the latter which I dispise… It’s also moderately interesting how much libertarian philosophy and the philosophies of Ayn Rand coincide and have many of the same historical roots. Yet, Libertarians avoid any mention of Ayn Rand and Objectivists decry Libertarians as a bastardization of decent philosophy. Perhaps one should start by looking for more ideological allies before we start going to the major political parties which are consistently more in line with statist, fascist and socialist viewpoints than anything (and I do mean BOTH republicans AND democrats). As libertarians, why not quit worrying about “Party Affiliation” and just worry about finding and educating more people – starting with our ideological friends, the Objectivists?

    I always like to remind people that our first, and possibly my favorite, President warned very explicitly against political parties and especially against the polarizing effects of only TWO of them. With the age of immediate, high-speed mass communication, those parties have only managed to create more false dividing lines and more readily smear their opponents. Washington was DEAD ON. Libertarians don’t need a party – a party inevitably turns into a majority controlled (or financially controlled) collective relinquishing individual thoughts for a group “win” – this turns us into everything we (at least I) hate in politics.

    Better that we just focus on educating.

  23. “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition.” – Lord Acton

  24. The association that Lord Acton speaks of may be dangerous and potentially disastrous, but so are many useful things. It is interesting, though, to note that the issue currently under debate is by no means novel.

  25. “Wake me up when libertarian ideologues realize that their economic determinsim makes about as much sense as marxist economic determinism did.”

    Can you elaborate a little on this, Pragmatist?

    – Rick

  26. I love TNR, they turned me into a hybrid driver. Not that I wanted to be one, but this is just another thing that makes me ‘more caring’ than others!

  27. “Seriously dude, do you have any interaction with any flesh-and-blood liberals? Or have you ever read The Nation, Mother Jones…”

    Excuse me, haven’t you watched Fox News and listened to reputable journalists like Coulter and Limbaugh. If you did you’d know that liberals are people who fervently hate America, despise all religion except Islam, love terrorists and criminals, want to steal all your money, and take away all your civil rights.

    If you were more informed you’d know that no matter what, liberals are always wrong and good, decent conservatives are always right (like when we stopped another 9/11 by getting the WMDs in Iraq). They may take on phony causes, like rambling on about the mythical so-called “pollution.”
    You’d also know they form conspiracies in order to turn the US into the Soviet Union (why Kennedy loved the USSR and allowed it to do what it wanted), such as taking over the media, which is why the media loves Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck so much…


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