Must Libertarians Care About More Than the State?
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, life
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