Libertarianism and Liberalism and Labels

Libertarianism and Liberalism and LabelsI’ve spilled far too much ink trying to map out my politics on to the available political labels, and I fear I will keep spilling it.

Over at Bleeding-Heart Libertarians, Will Wilkinson disavows the libertarian label altogether, and basically shuts the door on the ill-named liberaltarian label as well. There are simply too many ways that he differs from standard-libertarians to take that label. “What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe,” Will writes. “So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.”

“I would encourage other decreasingly standard-libertarian libertarian-ish types to hasten their passage through the liminal “bleeding heart” stage and just come out as liberals,” he continues. “Or, better yet, to come out as inscrutably idiosyncratic. You are not alone. Well, if you’re inscrutably idiosyncratic, you are. But the similarly inscrutably idiosyncratic can be alone together. I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it.”

Meanwhile, Tim Lee counters that since he’s more libertarian than the median voter on most issues, he’s still a libertarian even if he isn’t as libertarian as Ron Paul or Gary Johnson or whatever the ‘standard’ libertarian is – and so is Wilkinson. After all, Tim argues, it’s not as if this is an either-or decision.

“It’s worth remembering that both F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman, two of the libertarian movement’s most important thinkers, were self-identified liberals,” Tim writes. “This is partly for historical reasons—Friedman and Hayek were both middle-aged when the modern meaning of the term “libertarian” came into widespread usage. But it’s also because there’s substantial overlap between liberal and libertarian ideas. There are lots of Tea Party types who self-identify as both libertarians and conservatives. There’s no reason there couldn’t be an equally large number of people—like me and Will circa 2009—who identify as both libertarians and liberals.”

I agree with both arguments. I think there’s an important wisdom in Will’s post – after all, libertarianism has long been the enterprise of the right and those of us who identify as liberals and libertarians have been puzzling out ways to put that fusionism to the sword and start fresh. The Ron Paul newsletters are one glaring example of why. The distinctly rightwing nature of the Tea Party is another.

As part of this effort I’ve wavered between some form of neo-classical liberal / bleeding heart libertarian / market liberal / liberal-tarian / etc. ad naseum but I think it makes more sense to just say that I’m a liberal and I’m a libertarian.

We’ll never be able to map our idiosyncratic positions onto our limited labeling schematic, so why bother so much? It may be helpful as a sort of exercise to think these things through, but for the most part people like Tim and Will and myself are all over the map when it comes to our politics, but we are all basically liberals who care a great deal about economic freedom and civil liberties. On a host of issues we probably disagree, but on the broad ideas we tend to move in a similar direction. On the nature of power and politics we are fairly closely aligned.

In any case, I think it’s fun in a deranged sort of way to work all of this out, which is probably why I muse along these lines so frequently. I am a liberal and I am a libertarian, and in some ways I suppose I can be a bit of a conservative, too. Part of forming coalitions and movements is the act of talking about labels. How we self-define is important, and how those definitions translate to the broader public is also important. In that sense, I think Will is basically right: libertarians are largely seen as creatures of the right by the body politic. That may never change. The question is, should liberal-libertarians fight for that label or simply work within the broader liberal camp?

 

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65 thoughts on “Libertarianism and Liberalism and Labels

  1. I would expect, Erik, that a large part of the contemporary Democratic coalition (the part consisting of well-educated professionals — the dreaded coastal “elites,” outside of the spheres of business, finance, etc.) share your and W.W.’s political and philosophical leanings.  (Andrew Sullivan, despite his dogged insistence on championing the “conservative” mantle, also seems to fit the mold.)  I for one would never embrace the term “libertarian,” however, not only for the reason you have identified in this blog post (i.e., because I associate the term with the benighted political right), but also for the fact that I have always self-identified as a Democrat, so I have always been at “home” as a “liberal.”

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  2. Will makes a very strange argument to me.  He and I agree on well over 90% of everything in politics.  No one doubts that I’m a libertarian.  So are the rare disagreements really that essential?

    I hope he’ll forgive me for suspecting that this is more an exercise in branding than in definition.

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    • It may be a matter of ideology rather than political positions.  He seems to agree with little of the rationale underlying libertarianism; if he can get to those same positions through a liberal outlook, maybe they’re largely liberal positions.

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      • It’s that, or he’ll be explaining why Obama’s Terrorist Detainee Camps (population estimate: 10,000, with Republicans calling for more) aren’t really that bad.

        Labels do funny things to people.

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    • Jason, I’m going to make up some new terms here. A ‘front end libertarian’ is one who thinks that policy ought to trend, whenever possible, in the direction of market mechanisms (proper incentives) and less mandated prohibitions on individual behavior (less governance). A ‘back end libertarian’ is one who adopts a robust theory of first principles based on the anti-coercion principle, property rights and an apriori theory of ‘free’ markets as the normative ideal, and derives the limits of government and ‘good policy’ from those premises.

      I think you’re a front end libertarian in that your arguments are usually of the form that a) all other things being equal, the libertarian premise of less government X ought to be in play, and b) when things aren’t equal, the libertarian premise can often be applied to make things better according to some pretty standard and widely agreed upon metrics. Given this (and it may be wrong, of course) your type of libertarianism and contemporary liberalism aren’t fundamentally at odds. In fact, I think their only contingently at odds and in ways that can be rectified for the most part by liberals taking the front-end libertarian critique of government seriously.

      The same can’t be said about back-end libertarianism, since the fundamental premises which those theories are based on are (fundamentally!) rejected by liberals.

      At the end of the day, tho, I would suggest something much like Wilkinson is suggesting here: once you cleave off the back end theory (which I think is justified for a variety of reasons) and focus on policies and such, libertarianism reduces to more-or-less Liberalism 2.0: that is, contemporary liberalism with the addition of important libertarian policy principles that currently aren’t adopted, but which really should be.

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      • I think this is more-or-less right for a certain kind of liberalism. As Chad says in the first comment, there’s a certain kind of liberalism that can easily incorporate libertarian policy prescriptions. But there are other kinds of liberalism – in particular support for public service unions is becoming a touchstone for parts or the wider liberal coalition and that’s more or less antithetical to many libertarian ideas. Education is one obvious area where its hard to see how libertarian influenced reforms could be carried out by Democrat politicians, but the ideological conflict runs deeper. There’s a cluster of policy perspectives withing liberalism that say the role of the state is to make sure everyone gets a fair share. Although libertarian policy prescriptions would tend to support that, they don’t guarantee it, and that triggers alarm bells for conventional liberals for whole government policy is all about guaranteeing things.

         

         

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          • Obama’s “Race To The Top” is a more liberaltarian school reformist policy than NCLB was – its based on incentives and competition rather than mandates.

            Education policy is one area where I will always be considerably more leftist than elsewhere, though, due (as mentioned elsewhere) to suffering for several year under Jeb’s botched (but profitable for Neil Bush) pseudo-reforms – as Erik once quoted me about in Forbes!

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      • I’d sign onto this.

        In his forthcoming book Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi talks about using markets as a strategy — never mind, he urges, that we have never seen a perfectly free market and never have a reasonable hope of seeing one either.  We don’t need to build an ideology that details and supports every last bit of some utopia that none of us have ever seen.  Markets work in a mixed world, too, and they should be tried more often.

        I’ll have a lot more to say about Tomasi’s book when it’s officially in print.  On the one hand, I love getting advance copies.  On the other hand, I want to write about them now.

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  3. ” I am a liberal and I am a libertarian, and in some ways I suppose I can be a bit of a conservative, too. Part of forming coalitions and movements is the act of talking about labels.”

    Erik – I find it interesting that you go through the process you do here, ending with the first sentence above – and find that this is proof that labels are important.  When I reach that first sentence above, it seems to me proof how unimportant they are.

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  4. Based on what WIlkinson says about his own views, his position makes sense.  I’ve never found the “taxation is theft”/”all government is violence” argument a particularly reasonable or useful one.  Taxation is the price we pay to live together in a stable society.  Government is the way a democratic people decide what that society should be like.  Given that economic and social power tends towards being held by a small number of people, a properly constituted democratic system ought to produce a government which can check that imbalance and produce a more even distribution of economic and social power.  If the democratic system is abused to further concentrate economic power among a small ruling class, the rules of that system need to be modified to correct that (e.g: stricter rules on corporate donations, plus public campaign financing).

    Given that the US system is generally more strongly skewed towards the powerful than the systems of other democratic nations, I see the capture of government by corporations in the US as the product of errors in the US’s specific form and method of democracy rather than as the inevitable result of having a government at all.

    (This is not to be seen as a critique of the US Constitution as a whole, which has shown fairly impressive staying power, given that France, the second modern republic after the United States, went through seven or eight forms of government within the century following its revolution.)

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  5. It sounds like former libertarians who don’t want to be identified with the right wing of American politics are embracing better managed statism, which is actually what it means to be a Democrat.

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  6. Erik –

    Part of forming coalitions and movements is the act of talking about labels. How we self-define is important, and how those definitions translate to the broader public is also important.

    I don’t know that either of these points is true. What I got from WW’s post was his discovery that labels are actually counterproductive to forming any meaningful coalitions. (I mean, the label he settles on for himself is idiosyncratic individual.)

    I come to LOOG to get perspectives I don’t get from other blogs I read.  I’m often taken aback by how much ink is spilled here on defenses against labeling that is thought to unfairly tarnish through application with too broad a brush. The labels obfuscate more than they illuminate.

    Coalitions and movements should be formed on shared objectives – labels be damned.

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      • I’m sorry if I’ve misread your intent.

        However, I’ve read enough of your writing to take it as self-evident that how you define yourself is important to you.  You open with such an admission in this very OP:

        I’ve spilled far too much ink trying to map out my politics on to the available political labels, and I fear I will keep spilling it.

        You’ve mapped out enough of your positions for me to know that we broadly align, though the available political labels you have variously chosen for yourself have only hindered bringing that to light for me. Wilkinson is pointing to a way out you could embrace, thus freeing time to write more specifically about policy objectives.

        As to the discussion of the usefulness of labels in coalition building, I offer a case in point against.  Both the Tea Party and the OWS movements share a desire for a dramatic weakening of the collusion between government and Big Business. Yet they will likely NEVER work together toward that common objective. I’d contend that is due, in great part, to the labels – self-applied and/or assigned – given to the respective coalitions.

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        • Re: OWS and the Tea Party I think labels do matter but cultural signaling matters more. The goals may appear similar as well but I think exist for dramatically different reasons which ultimately transcend labels anyways.

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          • I agree the shared goal for the Tea Party and OWS exists for dramatically different reasons.

            This is my point.  Any similarity in the ends both groups seek is buried under piles of labels, cultural signaling and arguments about cause, so that any movement toward the shared goal is undermined. In the end, both groups would be delighted by diminished government/business collusion, but they won’t help each other get there, because of all this other stuff.

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    • I think the real problem with political labelling is that the labels commonly employed cover a very narrow range in practice.  Using the US as an example, you are either a Conservative (you agree with the Republicans), or a Liberal (you agree with the Democrats), or a Moderate (this could mean anything, and often means nothing at all), or you fall into one of the small weird groups like Libertarian, but even in this case people will assume you agree with everything a given libertarian says.

      What we need is an understanding that ideologies are big tents, there is a wide spectrum of belief in each label because there are billions of people on Earth, none of them will exactly agree on everything and we can’t have billions of labels.

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      • Mebbe because Will Wilkinson is a liberal, and he’s finally admitted it to himself instead of pretending he’s above it all?  Or that

        “as Alfred Bester might put it, [he] has some mysterious mutant strain in [his] makeup which it makes [him] different…”

        is an infantile fantasy?

        Props to WW, then on his voyage of self-discovery.  We all have “libertarian” leanings—who doesn’t hate Leviathan? [Exc Hobbes of course, altho I sometimes suspect our Mr. Murali is cool with it.  And it beats the alternative of privation and anarchy.]

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        • Strictly speaking the Leviathan is not Leviathan because it goes around interfering with all aspects of our lives (although it does tend to do that). Rather what makes something the Leviathan is that it is so badass that it is able exert an effective monopoly on the use of coercion. It is the badassery which is able to limit the war of all against all. So of course the state should be both badass and limited in scope: not doing so many different things, but doing what it should do effectively and efficiently.

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  7. I see my self as a Classical/Economic Liberal Libertarian and a student of the Austrian School of Economics.

    As a member and supporter of the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, currently in the Coalition with the UK Conservative party, I am seen as being on the Right of the Social Liberals in the Liberal Democrat party.

    The problem in America is that they see Liberals as left wing i.e. Social Liberals, but in the UK, the Labour party are seen left wing more than the Liberal Democrats.

    Liberalism for me in the true sense is probably a bit more right wing than the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK.

    I guess I would be with either the Republicans or Libertarian party if I were American as I believe in low or no taxes, small government, more personal freedom, non-interventionist foreign policy and of course free markets.

    Those on the right and the left need to educate themselves better in order to understand political beliefs and not confuse liberalism as being on the left and thinking conservatives are not always butting their noses in social issues.

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      • Hear Hear! In fact it would be wonderful if you would submit an OP to Erik via his email link Mr. Shawki. The terms liberal and conservative have taken a pejorative demeanor in the US, with the “labeling” getting in the way of intelligent discussion. The League attempts to get beyond this, primarily because both “left” and “right” can come here to discuss “other”, where said “other” is really a strawman of what “libertarian” means. Or at least that’s my (admittedly short term) observation.

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    • Welcome Howie! Nice to see a fellow Brit around these parts, although I confess to having moved to warmer and more lucrative California.

      How do you deal with the very wide range of views represented by the Liberal Democrats when you vote in national elections? For the benefit of our friends here, the Liberal Democrats range from people who’d qualify and pragmatic libertarians here (like the current leadership) to solidly on the left of the Democratic party.

       

       

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  8. All these political and economic stances don’t amount to much without being placed in context.   What do we do about the PATRIOT Act?   The Liberal in all of us says it’s a monstrous invasion of our privacy but the Conservative in us says PATRIOT Act did consolidate a host of nasty little bureaucratic fiefdoms into one cohesive entity which can be better-controlled.   The Libertarian sides with the Liberals for the most part, but for different reasons:  he’s against the idea of government taking yet more power unto itself, which isn’t quite the invasion of privacy complaint voiced by the Liberal.

    Any given issue comes apart along these lines.  Though we might exhibit a host of preferences and tendencies which might be congruent with some political -ism, remember, folks, these words like Liberal and Conservative and Libertarian are first adjectives.  Only when we choose to wear the mantle do they become nouns.

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      • I’ve always been under the impression that Trotsky was basically Stalin’s ruthlessness without his paranoia or stupidity. Somewhat akin to a Russian Zhou Enlai. I’ve never quite understood the romanticism associated with him other than that he wasn’t Stalin. Is this view mistaken?

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        • Yes and no. Trotsky was ruthless, particularly during the civil war, but by that standard, pretty much everyone in a leadership role among the Reds, Whites, Greens, Blacks, and Cossacks was a Stalin (I recommend the Tikhiy Don epic for an interesting look the civil war). But philosophically, he differed from Stalin in significant ways. For example, Stalinists basically invented “socialism in one country.” Trotsky and his followers saw this both as an oxymoron and an invitation to despotism. Looks like they were right, eh? I’m not a Trotskyist, and I don’t think Trotsky is someone to be admired on every level, but he was very different from Stalin in important ways that, had he taken over upon Lenin’s death (as it seems Lenin wanted him to), things would likely have been different. People would have died, because anyone who came into a leadership role in Russia at that time was going to kill people, but the nature of the Soviet state would have been different (not necessarily better) in several ways.

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        • I’ve always been under the impression that had Trotsky axed Stalin first, we could sit here today talking about “what about that Stalin fella? Maybe if he was in charge instead of Trotsky…”

          Maribou has a somewhat different take. Stalin was being Stalin and so he stabbed Trotsky for being Trotsky.

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          • I don’t see it. I don’t think Trotsky wasn’t ruthless — he was quite ruthless, both towards the old regime and towards those who opposed the revolution — but I also don’t think he was ruthless in the way that Stalin was. Stalin consolidated power, by eliminating threats at his boundaries (the Kulaks) and threats in his regime (the officers and later the doctors). Trotsky was ideologically ruthless, Stalin personally ruthless. I don’t see Trotsky starving the Kulaks, though he would have executed some, and I don’t see him purging the Party the way Stalin did. He’d still send a lot of people to Siberia, but it would have been quantitatively and qualitatively different in the Soviet Union had Trotsky followed Lenin instead of Stalin.

             

            I find this to be an interesing exercise in counterfactual history, though:

             

            http://www.revleft.com/vb/group.php?do=discuss&gmid=43983

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              • No, I don’t think he was like Mao, either. Mao wanted a cultural revolution throughout China, and had no problem killing off workers. Trotsky hated “kulaks,” and railed against them in his writings and speeches, and would likely have fought them as counterrevolutionaries, but I don’t see forced starvation being part of it. It would have looked more like 1918-1919 in the far western portion of the union.

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                • “A new phenomenon arose to oppose the Kulaks, the Narodniks, and Trotsky was among them. Somewhat naively, the Narodniks dreamed of the Good Old Days of the Khutor feudal system. In the olden days, men were governed by the Obshchina, rather like the English Shire system, only somewhat better, for the Obshchina was governed by the full assembly of its members. Farmland and forest were assigned year by year to families, justice was meted out, taxes collected, soldiers levied for the Tsar. The Obshchina was their sunrise and sunset, it ruled their lives completely. It was all the Russian serfs had ever known, and though it had failed miserably, the Narodniks wanted to restore the Obshchina model.

                  Obshchina means “commune”. God in heaven punishes those who pray unwisely and the Russians would eventually get their communes. They would not like them.”

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  9. It’s worth noting that many people in the conservative camp already view libertarins as liberals. About 10 years ago I was at one of Grover Norquist’s Wednesday Meetings when some guy, I think it was one of the hard-core strategic missile defense guys, pointed at me and the guy from Cato and began his statement with, “And our left-wing friends here…” He meant it earnestly. In a friendly way. But earnest.

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  10. I don’t really get this.

    I know you must have gone out of your way, at this point, to engage in substantial discussion of policy with modern liberals?  For the most part, they are completely sold on centralized, technocratic economic management to the point that where they cannot fathom market-based policies being rationally preferable to anyone who isn’t on a Koch payroll (Wilkinson, ironically has been ridiculously labelled a libertard for his Koch connections) .

    Meanwhile, conservatives are beginning to be more cosmopolitan, or maybe cosmopolitan independents are becoming more conservative.  Whatever the case may be, I find the social libertarian argument much more amenable to conservatives than I find the free market amenable to liberals.

    I am by no means a conservative, but I can’t engage liberals on economic policy (which I consider consistent and inseperable from my other political positions) without it being implied or said that I have some sort of induced or inherent mental deficiency.

    Ultimately, using Wilkinson’s words for my own conclusions:

     Standard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally. This conviction, that the protection of robust economic rights is essential to any regime shaped by a genuine concern for liberty–is essential to a fully liberal regime–is more than enough get you branded a sort of libertarian by many standard liberals. But one can hold to that conviction while siding with standard liberals against libertarians on many, many other important questions.

    Note:  Wilkinson quite explicitly lays out that he prefers (a non-libertarian) sense of freedom where economic freedom is both mean and end.  He then correctly states that holding economic freedom as a mean to freedom generally is outright dismissed by many liberals (I would say that it is implicitly dismissed by the vast majority of modern liberals).

    Therefore, I find this whole thing to be bunk (which is disappointing coming from Wilkinson) that amounts to Will Wilkinson gutting his politics because he thinks conservatives can be icky.

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    • But what about long-term goals? There was a concerted effort to unite libertarianism under the banner of the right that is, to be honest, paying some dividends. Unfortunately for many of us who align much more closely with the liberalism, the authoritarian nature of the right is far more than a thorn in our proverbial side. Steering liberalism in a more classically liberal direction has more long-term potential, I think, than rightwing fusion. Maybe in the short term too few liberals share economic ends, but I’m not even sure that plays out in the reality on the ground. Which Democrat has rolled back free trade? Which Democrat wants to move in a less economically liberal direction?

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      • Clearly you’re not on the secret liberal mailing list.

        We liberals are secretly plotting to return to centralized, 5 year plans on how to run the economy. Don’t you see that all the admiration of China in the liberal media, and the push back that China has many problems is just a ploy to argue for more centralized control over the economy and less market oriented solutions?

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      • Long-term goals is precisely the point. Will Wilkinson, me, and most (if not all libertarians) believe that economic freedom to be a means to greater freedom generally.   How does one support greater freedom generally if one throws their support behind a group of people who “badly understate the importance of a primary mean to the freedom that he (and I) hold paramount?

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      • Steering liberalism in a more classically liberal direction has more long-term potential

        I for one think steering liberalism in a liberal direction is a horrible idea. Clearly liberalism needs to be steered in a conservative direction… ;)

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    • Odd BradP, my own experience is the exact inverse of yours. Perhaps it’s an age thing? Liberals purportedly want to make people in general better off and happier. That’s generally their asserted goal. There’s nothing in markets that is fundamentally opposed to that goal. Many liberals, if convinced that markets are the best way to achieve their goals, support markets. Those who don’t support markets generally believe that markets cause problems or have issues that make people less well off or more unhappy. Liberals want the same end regardless of the means that they think would best achieve that. I may part company with liberals on the means but generally I agree on the ends (generally).

      With conservatives, on the other hand, many of the issues I part company with them on are questions of the ends, not the means. You have Santorum, for example, who wishes to force socially liberated minorities back out of society, ban abortion and initiate additional wars with foreign backwater theocracies. Maybe he has some laudable means to get to those ends but damnit those ends are awful.

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  11. North, allow me to be clearer:

    I agree completely with your assessment of typical liberal approach to markets:

    Many liberals, if convinced that markets are the best way to achieve their goals, support markets. Those who don’t support markets generally believe that markets cause problems or have issues that make people less well off or more unhappy.

    I also believe what Wilkinson says applies to most libertarians:

    This conviction, that the protection of robust economic rights is essential to any regime shaped by a genuine concern for liberty–is essential to a fully liberal regime

    There is, however, a large and fundamental difference between the two:  namely the consolidation of economic decision making power and the way that effects economic freedom. 

    The liberal approaches the free market as a manner to pursue a goal, the libertarian approaches the free market as a manner of determining goals.  Presumably, Wilkinson believes that decentralized economic decision making and goal setting is of the utmost importance to continued and expanding freedom.  Liberals either reject this or “badly understate” it, which means they reject or badly understate a key component of Wilkinson’s final goal.

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    • Ah Bradp, but you appeared in your initial comment to be conflating libertarians with conservatives as if they’re one and the same. In my experience the former are massively different from the latter. No matter how much conservatives like to pretend it is so, libertarians are not conservatives.

      Now I’ll agree that libertarians have some principles that seem to be ends to themselves. Taxation is theft, for instance, is a common one and even if you could demonstrate that people overall are better off with a government that operates using a taxation system some libertarians would say that nevertheless taxation is a bad thing.

      I’d also quibble with your characterization that Liberals largely rejecting or in some cases badly understating the value of decentralized economic decision making. Perhaps this might have been characteristic of liberals in the past but I’ve seen relatively little movement among most liberals now days towards centralizing economic control or rejecting markets. If anything many true believer liberals (at least on the internet) complain that the centrist liberal masses that actually have political power in this country are excessively comfortable with the ideas of unfettered markets.

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      • No, I don’t mean to say libertarians are more appropriately conservative or liberal, as far as modern terms go.

        This makes sense to me: Libertarians are to modern conservatives and liberals what agnostics are to Christians and Buddhists.  They generally differ at a higher level concept that causes lower level agreements to be coincidental.  In the same way, I believe it is important that the higher-level distinction, which is very much a similar epistemological statement about human fallibility, be emphasized and not downgraded for convenience.

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          • Though, based on what you’ve subsequently said I take it both these paragraphs are pretty much negated?

            I know you must have gone out of your way, at this point, to engage in substantial discussion of policy with modern liberals?  For the most part, they are completely sold on centralized, technocratic economic management to the point that where they cannot fathom market-based policies being rationally preferable to anyone who isn’t on a Koch payroll (Wilkinson, ironically has been ridiculously labelled a libertard for his Koch connections) .

            Meanwhile, conservatives are beginning to be more cosmopolitan, or maybe cosmopolitan independents are becoming more conservative.  Whatever the case may be, I find the social libertarian argument much more amenable to conservatives than I find the free market amenable to liberals.

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