The Many Faces of “Libertarianism”

In the past few years, it has become very common to define oneself as a libertarian. With Gary Johnson having fully bucked social conservatism and become the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, many libertarian-leaning individuals are hoping to break the Democratic-Republican lock on American politics and establish their party as a major electoral player. In light of this development, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss what exactly libertarianism entails, how libertarian I consider myself to be, and how certain individuals and entities have libertarian leanings but are not fully libertarian. On one end of the spectrum, we have Jeffersonian conservatives. At the other end, we have the ACLU-style left. Both of these groups have libertarian elements, but neither are completely libertarian. They are united pretty much only by a feeling that the federal government is too powerful, though both groups often object to much of the War on Terror and government support for big business. The Jeffersonian conservatives tend to be racist, homophobic, and traditionally religious. They also tend to be sympathetic to big government social policies at the state level, favor sealing the borders, and identify with the Confederacy. (Read my post, “Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Neo-Whigs, and the Jeffersonian Conservative Menace” back in June.) Of the political parties in America, the Constitution Party most closely represents their views. The ACLU leftists tend to take liberal or socialist stands on the economy and support some federal role in promoting equality for women, racial minorities, and gays, as well as protecting the environment. The Green Party most closely represents their views. Full libertarians, by contrast, see all of these policies as excessive government. Libertarianism calls for the absolute minimum amount of government possible, across the board. Libertarians, for instance, are pro-gay marriage and anti-gun control. They are for legalizing drugs and against national health care. They favor Brown v. Board of Education but oppose the workplace provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The divergence between different libertarian-leaning individuals can be underscored by looking at Ron Paul and Barney Frank. Ron Paul is, of course, a folk hero to many libertarians for his opposition to the War in Iraq, the War on Drugs, and the Patriot Act. He also supports the big government Defense of Marriage Act, the distinctly authoritarian Confederacy, and allowing states to ban sodomy. And his position on immigration is arguably more pro-government than George Bush or John McCain, both of whom are only slightly more libertarian than Fidel Castro. Barney Frank has pretty much the same stances as Ron Paul on Iraq, the Patriot Act, and pot legalization. He has also gotten grudging respect from libertarians for his efforts to repeal the law against online gambling. Taking a stand for individual rights that would make the Clintons cringe, Frank said, “In a number of areas, I am a libertarian,” Frank said. “I think that John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a great statement, and I was just rereading it . . . I believe that people should be allowed to read and gamble and ride motorcycles and do a lot of things that other people might not want to let them do.” Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, David Boaz, wrote that when he gave members of Congress libertarian rankings, Barney Frank outperformed seven of the eleven members of the Republican Liberty Council’s advisory board. And the Republican Liberty Council is supposed to be a libertarian group! Yet Frank is also a proponent of workplace protection laws, affirmative action, and hate crimes legislation. As a young man, he was involved in Freedom Summer in Mississippi, a campaign that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act, which Ron Paul opposes. His economic policy has more in common with FDR, LBJ, and Hubert Humphrey than with Ayn Rand, Albert Jay Nock, and Milton Friedman. Both Congressmen have some libertarian views, but neither can be described as “libertarians.” I am reluctant to be pigeonholed, but my beliefs can best be described as a mix of liberal and libertarian. Reflecting this, I am very leery of the Tea Party and am a member of the ACLU. I actually tend to call myself a “liberaltarian.” Hardcore libertarianism has major aspects that I cannot identify with. My biggest disagreement with hardcore libertarianism is that I believe that discrimination in areas such as housing and the workplace is a significant enough injustice that government should have a strong role in combatting it. I also believe that, after several centuries of government discrimination against women, gays, blacks, and Native Americans, affirmative action is needed. And I think the libertarian movement would do well to cease praising the Founding Fathers, since enslavement of human beings is far from libertarian. Because my priority is civil rights, I staunchly support Obama, despite the fact that my economic, foreign policy, and civil liberties views are much more libertarian than those of the president. And indeed, who a libertarian-leaning individual lionizes can tell you a lot about where they fall on the spectrum. Let us look at the case of Roger Nash Baldwin. At first glance, Baldwin might seem similar to Ayn Rand. Baldwin was active in protesting World War I, while Rand opposed U.S. participation in World War II. Both strongly opposed conscription. Neither one was a follower of traditional religion—Baldwin was a Unitarian, Rand was an Atheist. In fact, both condemned racism. Yet while Rand was a radical laissez-faire capitalist, Baldwin was an Anarcho-Communist. He once said, “I am for socialism, disarmament, and ultimately for abolishing the State itself as an instrument of violence and compulsion.” He at first supported the Soviet Union. He later opposed it, but his opposition came from the government’s human rights and civil liberties violations, not its economic policies. You will not find many Tea Partiers lionizing Baldwin. I live in Atlanta, so I am very familiar with Neal Boortz, a talk radio host who is libertarian except when it comes to a handful of issues like capital punishment, racial profiling, immigration, and foreign policy. I was quite shocked when, back in 2010, he endorsed the socially conservative Nathan Deal for governor, even though the Libertarian Party was running a serious candidate, John Monds. Boortz’ statement of endorsement made it apparent that he was endorsing Deal pretty much solely because of his anti-teachers union stance. Of course, I cannot be too hard on Boortz. After all, I want to get my picture taken with President Obama, and I wish I could have had the chance to vote for Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller, neither of whom were exactly flaming libertarians. At any rate, when someone identifies as a libertarian, it is a good idea to ask them for clarification, since the term can mean quite different things to different people.

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