Must Libertarians Care About More Than the State?

The tension between two libertarianisms in the big tent


It's rocky times for the conservative-libertarian partnership that characterized American right-of-center politics in the second half of the 20th century.

Considerable attention has recently been paid to the rise of post-liberalism: the right-wing populists, nationalists, and Catholic integralists who fully embrace muscular government as a force for good as they define it. But there's little evidence as yet that most conservatives share such an affinity for big government. The simpler explanation is more banal: Often, when conservatives reject libertarianism, it's because of the cultural associations the word has for them.

Conservatives, after all, are much more likely than other ideological demographics to believe in God and say faith is an important part of their lives; to feel unapologetically proud of American greatness; and generally to hold views regarding personal morality that might be described as socially conservative. Of course they would be reluctant to throw in with a group famed in large part for its licentiousness, hostility to religion, and paucity of patriotic zeal.

But what if those associations are mistaken? If libertarianism properly understood has no cultural commitments, shouldn't that open up room to parley? Such a hope seems to have animated Murray Rothbard when he wrote in 1981 that "libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy, confined to what the use of violence should be in social life." As such, he added, it "is not equipped" to take one position or another on personal morality or virtue.

How convenient it would be—for this Catholic libertarian as much as anyone—if that were the end of that. But the big tent of libertarianism clearly houses many adherents whose self-understanding goes quite a bit further than Rothbard's. In fact, one useful way to divide and corral the unruly menagerie under our great circus pavilion is to ask the question Rothbard begs: Is individual liberty merely the highest political principle, the thing for which government exists, or is it a philosophical north star by which to direct all aspects of our lives? Let us call the two groups "political libertarians" and "comprehensive libertarians."

(What of "lifestyle libertarians" who think we should maximize liberty in our private lives but say the state may prioritize other goods—equality, say, or security—ahead of freedom? I submit that these are not libertarians at all. They're libertines. Libertarianism requires a commitment, at minimum, to prioritizing liberty in the governmental sphere.)

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In a thought-provoking 2015 book, the McGill University political theorist Jacob T. Levy differentiated between two tendencies in the liberal tradition. Pluralism places a high value on individuals' freedom to form associations that will then shape—even constrain—their lives in diverse ways. Rationalism, meanwhile, is concerned with the protection of individual freedom even when private or voluntary institutions threaten it.

John Stuart Mill could be the patron saint of rationalist liberalism. His On Liberty, Levy wrote, "aims to defend individuality, not merely—not even primarily—formal freedom from state regulation." Liberals of the Millian type are not quite coterminous with the group I'm calling comprehensive libertarians. Levy acknowledges that rationalists often support the existence of a powerful central state, equipped with authority to step in and rescue individuals from tyrannies visited by religious organizations, patriarchal family structures, and other private institutions. Expansive support for government interference in private life may be "liberal" in this sense, but it isn't very libertarian.

Still, there is significant overlap between Levy's rationalists and comprehensive libertarians. It's not uncommon in libertarian circles to hear that although a private entity has every legal right to behave in a certain manner, we have an obligation to use our nongovernmental powers to oppose it. For comprehensive libertarians, it's not enough for the state to allow drugs or gay marriage or music with explicit lyrics; we should do what we can to ensure that new forms of creative expression and experiments in living are accepted, even celebrated, at a cultural level. If traditional manners and customs and institutions are in the way, in this view, our job is to stand against them, just as we stand against the government when it infringes on people's liberty.

Violence and the threat of violence are hard infringements on freedom. But culture can limit people's freedom in softer ways, and comprehensive libertarians think that should matter to us too.

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From this perspective, lifestyle freedom is just as much a component of libertarianism as is political freedom. That makes comprehensive libertarianism a "thick" worldview, as laid out in a much-debated 2008 blog post by the philosopher Charles W. Johnson.

"Should libertarianism be seen as a 'thin' commitment," Johnson asked, "which can be happily joined to absolutely any set of values and projects, 'so long as it is peaceful,' or is it better to treat it as one strand among others in a 'thick' bundle of intertwined social commitments?" A thick libertarian might think, for instance, that libertarians should also be feminists out of a desire to free people from the patriarchy.

Yet comprehensive libertarianism and thick libertarianism are not quite synonyms, either. The first is an example of the second, but it isn't alone. Plenty of libertarians see their political worldview as embedded in a larger moral philosophy that their fellow libertarians ought to share, but they don't all agree about what that comprehensive philosophy is.

Consider virtue libertarianism, which recognizes "a duty to respect our own moral nature and to promote its development in others in proportion to the responsibility we have for them," according to a 2016 essay by the political scientists William Ruger and Jason Sorens. "In some cases, this means providing approbation and disapproval of certain choices to foster a culture consistent with human flourishing and a free society."

Clearly, comprehensive libertarians and virtue libertarians both have worldviews in which political and nonpolitical commitments are bundled together. Taken as a whole, however, those bundles are at odds. While members of the two camps will agree that prostitution should be decriminalized, say, they may disagree about its moral valence, with one side viewing sex work as liberating (and thus worth normalizing or even applauding) and the other side viewing it as degrading (and thus worth lamenting or even working to end through noncoercive means).

Political libertarianism would seem to encompass Johnson's thin libertarianism, but it may coincide with some fairly thick worldviews. A political libertarian can believe, as I do, that a virtuous society is important. But political libertarians see our opinions about how the nongovernmental sphere of life should be ordered as falling outside the scope of libertarianism per se, which for us, as for Rothbard, is "strictly a political philosophy" about "what the use of violence should be in social life." Someone who shares all of my political commitments but dissents from my broader moral outlook is no less a libertarian for it.

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There is at least a loose consensus among libertarians about the proper role of the state. Not so when you move beyond government policy and start asking what it means to build a good society or to live a good life.

For comprehensive libertarians, as we've seen, a good society is one in which people are maximally free to be who they want to be, pursuing the good life according to whatever that means to them. Comprehensive libertarians are reflexively opposed to both hard and soft infringements on liberty. The only limit—though it is a crucial one—is that someone's pursuit of happiness can't forcibly interfere with anyone else's. (Kinky sex? Groovy, if that's what you're into. Rape or human trafficking? Of course not! Do you understand libertarianism at all?!)

Political libertarians don't have this sort of straightforward heuristic to fall back on. On any given question in the non-governmental domain, we might see liberty as one of many competing values. It won't always be the most important. Faced with decisions that have nothing to do with the use of coercion—how to structure a business relationship, which causes or community organizations to support, whether to go along to get along with our neighbors—freedom gives us a choice, but it doesn't help us choose.

To be sure, greater cultural freedom can be a wonderful thing. None of us, regardless of our politics, should want to live in a society in which religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities are denigrated or excluded. In this, we can learn from our comprehensive libertarian friends not to undervalue social advances that allow more people to live fuller lives of dignity. The fact that women today can choose among a far wider array of professional opportunities than we once had access to makes this a freer society, and also a better one.

At the same time, political libertarians are on strong footing when we insist that other goods must sometimes take precedence. It is often noble to sacrifice some aspect of your freedom for your family, country, or religion. Yet a strict comprehensive libertarianism would leave no space to appreciate the triumph of loyalty or honesty or bravery or humility or piety or generosity over liberty.

Nor does comprehensive libertarianism grapple with the reality that people can (and frequently do) exercise their liberty in ways that are immoral and/or destructive. Not every free choice is a good choice. Even when the harms from someone's actions are wholly internalized, they still may be tragic: A life is a terrible thing to waste. And don't kid yourself: Bad choices are rarely fully internalized. An absentee father's actions affect his kids, and a culture that is affirming toward men who abandon their families will end up with more of them. The men are arguably freer, but is the society better off?

As good libertarians, we know better than to ask the state to solve these sorts of problems, but we don't have to pretend they aren't real. To say that a good society just is a free society and a good life just is a free life is to miss all of that. Greater freedom from force and fraud is always a positive thing. Greater freedom from cultural constraints may not be.

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For questions in the nongovernmental sphere, comprehensive libertarians have a default answer. Political libertarians have a parable about a fence.

In 1929, the English Catholic G.K. Chesterton asked his readers to imagine "a fence or gate erected across a road." He then described two reformers: "The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'"

This story has given aid and comfort to many an arrogant conservative in possession of exactly half the point. It's true that it counsels respect for tradition—for the wisdom, dearly bought, of those who came before us. Manners and customs and institutions can be obstacles to the cultural liberalization that comprehensive libertarians desire. They also may reflect lessons learned through trial and error, evolved solutions to genuine problems. If we smash any aspect of the culture that isn't fully committed to the project of maximizing lifestyle experimentation, we are meddling in something we do not understand.

Religion arguably is the archetype of soft infringements on personal freedom. Should we favor a culture devoid of religious faith and fervor? Or is it possible that hostility to religion draws people away from a deep source of meaning and belonging in their lives, producing alienation, deaths of despair, and a toxic politics in which people desperate for spiritual succor invest their identities in cult-like movements and embrace power-hungry leaders who assure them they're on the right side of a battle with apocalyptic stakes? We should care about such questions.

Nevertheless, the moral of Chesterton's parable is not that tradition is sacrosanct. The lesson is to use our brains: "Go away and think." He's telling us to reduce our own ignorance, especially by looking to the past—at which point we may reasonably conclude that the fence was ill-considered in the first place, or that it once served a purpose that no longer obtains, or that the problem still exists but there are better ways to address it, or that the potential upside to clearing it away is worth the calculated risks. We are not slaves to those who came before. We need not defer to the way things have always been done.

Chesterton is calling us to exercise prudence, "​​the charioteer of the virtues." That is, he's calling us to use ​​practical reason to discern the best path forward, ends as well as means, in light of the particular circumstances. Some fences continue to serve valuable purposes. Others—like the one that informally barred generations of women from most careers—deserve to come down. Comprehensive libertarians commit themselves to a blanket fence removal policy. Political libertarianism leaves open the possibility of a more prudent approach.

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Rothbard's definition of libertarianism as "strictly a political philosophy" appeared in a 1981 essay challenging the late National Review literary editor Frank S. Meyer, whose ideas, nearly a decade after his death, continued to have outsize influence on the blossoming conservative intellectual scene.

Meyer's position was that conservatives in America should commit themselves to two nonnegotiable pillars. First, that government exists only to protect life, liberty, and property—nothing more. Second, that people exist to pursue rich and upright lives, traditionally understood, a task made easier when the state does its job well. Against Meyer's will, this philosophical orientation took on the sobriquet fusionism because of the way it joined an emphasis on freedom (in the governmental realm) with an emphasis on virtue (in the nongovernmental realm).

Rothbard wasn't having it. "At the heart of the dispute between the traditionalists and the libertarians is the question of freedom and virtue: Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual?" he wrote. "Frank Meyer was, on this crucial issue, squarely in the libertarian camp." Thus, Rothbard concluded that "the fusionist position is simply the libertarian position," that "Frank Meyer was not a 'fusionist' but quite simply a trenchant individualist and libertarian," and that fusionism "is no 'third way,' but simply libertarianism."

This surely isn't right. While Meyer's first pillar is practically indistinguishable from political libertarianism, fusionism is distinguished from political libertarianism by the addition of a second nonnegotiable pillar. The word fusionist carries extra information, identifying a subset of political libertarians with a particular commitment to virtue (and a Chestertonian respect for fences) in the private sphere.

It's well and good to point out that there's space for fusionists of Meyer's kind under the libertarian big top. I too want my small-government-conservative friends to know they have a place in the libertarian movement if they should want it, particularly as movement conservatism continues its frightening post-liberal drift.

But Rothbard seems to think he can use smoke and mirrors to erase comprehensive libertarians from sight, writing, for example, that "only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life." This claim, which would come as a surprise to any number of my associates, offers a poignant reminder of why Rothbard is remembered as many libertarians' least favorite libertarian.

In truth, there are a variety of libertarianisms. For better or worse, our big tent has always contained a messy congeries of views. So walk the stalls and see what appeals to you. Welcome to the show.