The libertarian liberal


By Joe Campbell
December 9th, 2007

Liberty Bell

[digg-reddit-me]My post of a few weeks ago got a bit of attention. I was called a Communist by one person. Someone else suggested I was a secret member of the long-defunct FBI program COINTELPRO. Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos approvingly linked to it from the main page of The Daily Kos. The Freedom Democrats had a small discussion, including the notation that they could tell that “the person who wrote it is not really a libertarian.” Enough people on reddit believed the post would cause damage to the candidacy of Ron Paul and down-modded it.

I have written this article in response to a few comments:

Libertas questioned:

Umm.. how exactly does ‘Kos Libertarian’ differ from the standard Democrat, other than opposing the various lobbies?
…What you are describing is not Libertarianism; it is the noble, but slippery slope to government expansion and to the loss of freedom.

A “Jay” opined:

It appears then that ‘Libertarian Democrats’ need to go look up the definition of ‘corporation’. If you would have done that first you might not have made an ass out of yourself and completely discredited yourself with such an absurd quote.

symphonyofdissent argued that:

… there is a real distinction between a progressive and a left-libertarian…Progressivism does not view the individual as the critical unit, but instead views society as a whole. The sacrifice of individual liberty is justified if it benefits society on the whole Libertarianism views individuals as the primary unit of interest.

erw wrote:

i think checking corporate power is seen as a non-issue for libertarians, since they believe:

1) the place to check corporate power is in the courts, if and when they harm you or your property.
2) corporate lobbies and special treatment are all by-products of a large federal government…

i think it just shows how much influence ron paul has. he is pulling democrats into his camp with fearless stances.

Fred Fnord had a thoughtful comment, which you should read in full.

This post is responding to a number of these points. As always, feel free to comment. 1


The essence of libertarianism
I cannot do justice to the philosophy of libertarianism in a single post, and I will not try. But I think we can all agree that there are two main ideas at the base of a libertarian politics:

  1. I exist as an individual and I own myself; and
  2. “Where the State begins, individual liberty ceases, and vice versa.”2

In a pragmatic sense, the goal, or the teleological end, of libertarianism is the promotion of individual liberty.

Coming to the libertarian liberal philosophy

To summarize the point both I and Markos Moulitsas were making:

Kos Libertarians3 believe we do not need a government small enough to drown in a bathtub as Grover Norquist famously said. Rather, we need a government that is as small as possible, while still allowing it to act as a check against corporate power. In other words, Kos Libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our life, but that guards our rights against others.4

History has proven time and again that individuals and liberties will be trampled upon by the powerful without preemptive action by the government. Corporations take advantage of their special status5 in order to circumvent legal responsibility for their actions. The kind of libertarianism favored by many towards the right-wing of the political spectrum involves going back to the 1890s, when corporations were first granted the rights of individuals and had few regulations imposed on them; and also when the government had fewer powers and intruded less on the life of the ordinary person.

But the changes that occurred after that point happened for a reason. The traditional libertarian remedy of requiring individuals to bring suit against companies for any harm done to them failed. Corporations exerted enormous power and subverted the courts to their will. They forced workers to toil in unsafe conditions; they made faulty products; they exploited natural resources without giving anything back to the community; they polluted the air, water, and soil. If the government had not stepped in in the early 1900s under Teddy Roosevelt and in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, the capitalist system of free markets guided by “an invisible hand” would have perished. Government began to assume more power in a large part to act as a check against the corporate abuses of their growing power.

Yet by the 1980s, it was obvious to many Americans that the government could do great harm, even when it was trying to act beneficently. The welfare program helped entrench people in ghettos; the Vietnam War, fought to save the Vietnamese from Communism, had accomplished nothing; the national security system created to respond to the domestic and international threat of the Cold War had turned against dissenters and political opponents; the growing domestic spending led to huge deficits and inflation. The government was clearly a problem.

The libertarian liberal philosophy is a response to this moment in history – synthesizing the critique of capitalism inherent in the New Deal and the critique of government inherent in the Reagan Revolution.

What does a libertarian liberal believe

At the heart of American liberalism, there has always been a contradiction. American liberals have long fought for individual rights against the state – especially in matter relating to criminal law, civil rights, minority rights, and free speech.6 At the same time, American liberals fought for greater state intervention in the economy and daily life of the nation. The American liberal tradition had not acknowledged that by giving the state greater power, we were in effect conceding individual freedoms. Even if that power was required to be used to help individuals, it would inevitably have negative side effects, making these individuals dependent on the state and giving the government more power and ability to manipulate individuals.

Today, many liberals have come to see this reality. While we still believe that government can be used for good, we are much more cautious about what government can and should do.

The libertarian liberal approach is pragmatic rather than ideological. It is about maximizing individual liberty with one caveat: the moral duty to empower the impoverished and the disadvantaged. Maximizing individual liberty means using the government as a check against corporations; it means setting up checks and balances within the government itself; it means a strong media, willing to challenge the government and corporations; it means strong individual rights to keep the government and corporations in check; it means elections that are meaningful. To maximize individual liberties, we need to constantly balance the many competing forces in such a way as to give each person the rights that are their birthright.

The difference between a liberal and a libertarian liberal

The goals of liberals and libertarian liberals are similar if not the same. The difference is in the approach. For example, let’s look at health care. As a traditional liberal, Dennis Kucinich does not see value in a libertarian view of the problem. Government, for him, cannot be the problem; it must be the entire solution. He wants to eliminate the system as it is and impose a government-run health care plan on everyone, whether they want it or not. To take another example of a more pragmatic traditional liberal, Hillary Clinton, does not want to eliminate the system, but wants to work within it. She wants to take a number of steps to make it easier for the average person to buy health insurance, including opening up the plan used by members of Congress to the population at large. But she also plans to mandate that every person get and maintain health insurance.

Barak Obama’s plan is similar to Hillary’s but with one crucial difference. He too plans on taking a number of steps to make health insurance more affordable, and to open up Congress’s plan to the rest of the country, to invest more in health care infrastructure, and take a number of steps to reduce costs. But he will not force anyone adult to get health insurance. 7 This is the difference between a traditional liberal and a libertarian liberal. 8 Both see a problem – a problem that the free market is making worse – and both believe that the government must act. Neither believes that a complete overhaul of the system can happen – for pragmatic reasons, if nothing else. Both lay out similar steps that need to be taken – to reduce prices, to enable individuals to afford health care, and to make it more available. But Hillary believes the government needs to force independent and competent9 people to get health care; Obama does not.

There are arguments to be made as to why the government should force people to get health care – Paul Krugman has been harping on these for some time – but if one believes that the government should only use force when it is absolutely necessary, as a libertarian does, then Obama’s program is better because it respects individual rights. The best use of government in a libertarian liberal view is when it is able to empower individuals and act as a check against corporate abuse of individual liberty. Obama’s plan does this; with Hillary’s plan individuals are empowered to act against corporations, and corporate power is checked – but the government is given yet more leverage over every individual, creating another regulation for individuals to comply with, and another reason for the government to penalize the exercise of freedom.

Other comments

Some other worthwhile, or otherwise interesting, comments:

The Naked Man in the Tree had a few interesting observations.

smatty1 of reddit questioned the motivation of my original piece:

Nice article to “divide and conquer” libertarians. One of the oldest tricks in the book is to cause infighting and dilute the message and the movement. I’m calling this article out!

Later he made the charge that the article was “a mastubatory exercise at the expense of a revolution”. Nice touch.

Adam Ricketson wrote, regarding my “Favorite Conspiracy Theory” section of the former piece:

As for conspiracy theories, I think that libertarians are particularly immune to conspiracy theories, since libertarianism itself is largely based in institutional analysis, focusing on the distribution of power within society.

Mario said:

Socialism does not need big government. If workers could elect a majority to the board of directors of their companies, that in itself would move the country farther to the left than even Venezuela.

Mike said of the previous post:

This is one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read…A real libertarian, that means a Ron Paul libertarian, believes that the government, through the police and court system, gets involved ANYTIME someone’s rights are violated, including on those occasions when a corporation is the perpetrator of the act of violence/coercion/fraud.

Matt Moore wrote:

The main difference between right libertarians and Kos libertarians: the former actually exist. Seriously, this left libertarian thing is just old-style, big government progressives who glommed onto the libertarian trend because it was obviously on the upswing…In a sentence: A libertarian that isn’t hostile to government isn’t a libertarian.

Related articles

  1. As some people have noticed, your comment will not appear until I have approved it. This is only an anti-spam measure. I approve every comment that is not clearly spam; and I try to check as often as possible. []
  2. By Mikhail Bakunin. I don’t mean to cite Bakunin as a typical libertarian, but only to take this quote and use it to express in a simple form one of the main precepts agreed to by all libertarians. I thought of using Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not the solution, it is the problem,” but that seemed a bit too specific. It was a conclusion, rather than a base. []
  3. I think the term “Kos libertarian” best describes the current movement of libertarian-minded Democrats, but that the term “libertarian liberal” best describes the pragmatic politics and philosophy. []
  4. As a commenter pointed out, the original phrasing (“that protects our rights against others”) can be read as an unfair interpretation of traditional libertarianism. Traditional libertarians would see the courts as the appropriate place for the government to mediate between parties and protect basic rights. What I should have said was that “Kos libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our individuals lives, but guards our rights against others.” Libertarians liberals believe that the government must take an active role in pro-actively guarding individual rights. []
  5. Specifically limited liability provisions. And in response to “Jay”, although corporations are legally considered individuals, this is something commonly called a “legal fiction.” Philosophically, morally, pragmatically, physiologically, psychologically, and in every other way they are not. They are collectives. []
  6. The American liberal’s record on free speech in the past twenty years though is significantly more checked. []
  7. There is a rather large debate going on now between Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Robert Reich, and Hillary Clinton about this. Hillary is saying Obama’s plan won’t cover everyone because it won’t have a mandate; but Hillary’s plan actually won’t either – it will just require that everyone get insurance. Krugman has stepped in to attack Obama mercilessly again and again and again as the Clinton shill he has become; and Reich stepped in to look at both sides, and come down on the side of Obama. Jaydiatribe has a good overall view of the conflict. []
  8. I wouldn’t necessarily say Obama is a libertarian liberal, but on this issue, it fits. He also seems closest to the position of all the current crop of candidates. And certainly, as a member of a different generation, he has learned the lessons of the 1980s better than Hillary. []
  9. Added “independent and competent”. I, for the life of me, cannot think of the correct term to use here. There is a philosophical term on the tip of my tongue used to describe people who are able to make independent, self-conscious decisions. []