The Kinda-Coolness of Liberty

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There’s a lot of confusion, these days, about who is, and who is not, a libertarian. It has actually become fashionable to apply the term to oneself, sometimes on the most tenuous of bases.

Many conservatives (and some liberals) think that liberty is kinda cool. Because they believe in the kinda-coolness of liberty, and recognize that, especially these days, they don’t have enough of it, they consider themselves libertarians. They don’t realize there’s more to the definition than that.

Most of those who use the libertarian label, based on its hip cachet and kinda-coolness, are conservatives. Liberals who worship at the shrine of statism love to point at them and cry, “See? All libertarians are really big old rightwingers!” Albeit, perhaps, rightwingers who smoke pot or like gays.

When my liberal friends identify libertarian-leaning conservatives as “typical libertarians,” it brings out the English major in me. I diagram the term for them. “Conservative” is a noun, and “libertarian-leaning” its modifying adjective. Therefore libertarian-leaning conservatives are still conservatives. I always hope this helps, though it usually doesn’t.

I understand why, to liberals who find libertarianism threatening, the temptation to confuse us with conservatives is so compelling. It’s a lump in which they may tidily dispose of us. They’ve got an argument they deem satisfactory against every conservative idea, and they don’t want to have to scrounge up a whole set of new ones to contend with us.

Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them.

Some of the things “libertarian” conservatives say, I must admit, can be rather troubling. I recently invited a friend of mine — a gay conservative blogger — to a meeting of our local chapter of Outright Libertarians. We’re a gay and lesbian group, striving to promote libertarian ideals in what is euphemistically termed “the community.” She got into a flame-war, on our website, with some Outright members, and emailed me in an awful funk. Why, they actually committed the heresy of opposing America’s glorious War on Terror!

Her argument against our point of view boiled down to this: “My brother is over in Afghanistan, fighting for your freedom of speech. So shut the hell up!”

What was I to do? As gently as I knew how, I told her she probably wouldn’t be a good fit for our group. That she is not, so far as I can see, in any way, shape, or form a libertarian, I suppose I need to let her figure out for herself. Modern-liberal statists determined to toss all dissenters into the same, convenient dumpster have no incentive to figure it out.

On a blog where I regularly comment, I was told — by a “progressive” who dislikes libertarians — that he was wise to the despicableness of my convictions. His proof? Some college kids, who identified as libertarians, told him they didn’t care if the poor starved. Or something like that.

Why is it that “progressives” can’t believe anything said by those on the right of the political center, on any subject — from global climate change to whether it’s going to rain next Thursday — yet find so credible the name they choose to bear? At least, as long as it’s this particular “L” word. They can be taken at face value about absolutely nothing else, but when they call themselves libertarians, their word is gold.

I think we know the answer to that question. Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them. And if they want to survive the next generation, they’d better do it a lot.

I have learned something rather interesting, however, about liberals. Once I’m able to speak to them, one by one, they’re less hostile to libertarian ideas than I was told they’d be. Rightwingers warn that liberals will never listen to us when they cozy up to our kinda-coolness. But once they find out that many of our beliefs are actually quite similar to theirs, my leftist friends and relatives begin to open their minds.

One special surprise has been that even deep in the woods of Obama’s rule, far more liberals express concern about government overreach and the erosion of our freedoms than I remember conservatives displaying when Bush II was in power. We can, perhaps, tell more about people’s affinity for liberty when their “side” holds the upper hand than we can when they are out in the cold. Outright Libertarians, I know, are attracting far more interest from those to the left of us than we are from conservatives such as my snarling friend with the brother in Afghanistan.

Maybe that’s why dedicated leftwing statists are so afraid of libertarians. The field may be riper for poaching than we realized. That is a very interesting discovery. And for this former progressive Democrat, it is a heartening one.




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Comments

Rob Power

Let's face it. A smart leftist can be "turned" with enough empirical evidence and/or reason, but a rightist who bases their beliefs on "because the bearded man in the sky said so" is a tougher sell.

Not that Obamacare is libertarian, but it is at least more market-oriented than the single-payer solution that the left was pushing twenty years ago. They heard that their plan for making health care a "right" (ugh -- I gag typing that) lacked efficiencies inherent in a free market. Their buddies in academia whispered to them, "you know, the other guys have a point about that." And so the next time around, they adopted the "conservative" counter-offer of an individual insurance mandate from twenty years before. It's still not libertarian, but it's incrementally more market-oriented.

In the same 20 years, have the rightists come as far on any issues? If anything, they seem to have gone backwards on the individual rights of women, economic migrants, and basically everyone in general who wants to get on an airplane. And they've even gotten less libertarian on economic issues, e.g. Medicare Part D.

We need to mine the left for new libertarians. The right seems tapped out.

Rocketman

The way that I see it is a least a few Republicans are starting to lean libertarian (Rand Paul, Jason Amash, Mike Lee and so on) while there are NO Congressional or Senate Democrats that lean towards the libertarian viewpoint. A while back in 2012 I read of a young man who wanted to run as a Democrat in the state of Tennessee for Congress. This young man was nearly thrown physically out of the democrat party headquarters despite being highly intelligent, articulate and had plenty of money to finance his campaign. Why? Because he was a a lifelong Democrat but also a Christian, a gun owner and someone who believed that the Constitution was the supreme law of the land.

Jon Harrison

But on social issues -- gay rights, women's rights, legalizing marijuana -- it's the Dems (generally) and not the Repubs that lean libertarian. Do you see libertarianism as limited to "economic man" alone? Aren't personal freedom issues an important aspect of libertarianism?

Visitor

Are you surprised that each side only gets about half of it right? I'm certainly not.

Jon Harrison

No, I'm not surprised at all.

Johnimo

I remember my Liberal friend telling me that Bush was spending, "like a drunken sailor." Of course this same friend expressed suspicion that Bush (and Cheney) had flown a cruise missile into the Pentagon while also engineering the downfall of the World Trade Center towers.

Thus, I must admit that I was not as critical of Bush's spending ad expansion of government amid the conspiracy insanity from the left. I plead, "Guilty." However, it was necessary that I concentrate my energies in defending Bush against the nonsense, as I would have and did any President. So, it may not really be a measure of libertarianism to judge partisan swipes folks take at a sitting President.

Unlike you, I find VERY few liberals willing to contemplate privatizing eduction, social security, or healthcare. I think you're a little too generous with your judgement on that score. Overall, however, your editorial is sound. But try asking your liberal friends if they want universal education vouchers as they have in Sweden, and I think you'll find those with an iron in the fire universally opposed to even this modest reform proposal. "Less hostile" on a one to one basis is still hostile.

Lori Heine

Whenever a Republican is in the White House, derangement syndrome seems to take over the Democrats. The reverse happens when a Democrat is president.

When W. was in office, I worried about the erosion of our civil liberties after the 9-11 attacks. I was a Democrat at the time, but I always thought the conspiracy-theorists were pretty unhinged.

The Bush II Administration did more than anything else to make a libertarian out of me. But I see Obama's abuses of power as a further descent into madness.

Jon Harrison

I self-identified as a "libertarian conservative" until the Bush II administration came along. As far as I'm concerned, Bush, Cheney, Rove, the neocons, and people like Hannity have ruined the term conservative. How can conservatives be in favor of reckless spending, massive social programs, and wars of choice accompanied by nation-building? And yet that was what the Bush II administration was all about. The Republican Party lost me forever after 2000.

I could never be a Libertarian with a capital "L" -- first, because I disagree with the concept of laissez faire, and second, because from a practical point of view Libertarianism (note the capital L, please) is going absolutely nowhere. Devotion to any Libertarian program, in the face of massive popular indifference or hostility, amounts to political onanism. Onanism provides some people with private pleasure and relief from personal frustrations, but it leaves one, in the deepest sense, unfulfilled.

Of course, I'm not in favor of joining or supporting the Democrat Party. Rather, I think libertarians should do what they can to achieve those goals that are achievable -- by writing, speaking, forming alliances, and supporting candidates/officeholders of any party who support the libertarian side of a particular issue. We should NOT refuse to support persons or groups because they are less than 100% ideologically pure. I see no other way forward for libertarian ideas. And goals should be realistic. We've already seen what can be achieved in gay rights, for example, by working with others who might not be ideologically compatible in other areas. Reforming or abolishing drug laws, expanding school choice, fighting for a balanced federal budget, and working to restrain interventionism in America's foreign policy are among the libertarian ideas that could very well become reality IF libertarians work with others across ideological lines/barriers. Abolishing Social Security, returning to the Gold Standard, and similar utopian brainwaves are not only unachievable, they mark L/libertarians as cranks. Cranks stay home and wear out their hand (by blogging, I mean). People who seek results in the real world engage the rest of society, looking for ways to make the achievable happen.

Jon Harrison

Milton Friedman described himself as a libertarian with a small "l" and a Republican with a capital "R". He also stated that government's share of GDP should be about 15% (as opposed to about 20% at the time he said it).

Was Milton Friedman a libertarian?

No one is scared of libertarians. They constitute about 1% of the population. They scare liberals or anybody else about as much as Unitarians do.

Libertarians are cool? Nah. Libertarianism as a catchphrase has some coolness to it, and some ideas adopted or co-opted by libertarians (like drug legalization) are "cool." But few of the truly cool of our time would support Rand Paul or the next LP candidate for president. They might have read Ayn Rand when they were 15 or 16 years old, but generally they've outgrown her. These same people may support a noninterventionist foreign policy, but they rarely justify their beliefs on ideological, libertarian grounds.

The faux libertarianism of the Tea Party is where virtually all of the growing interest in libertarian ideas is coming from. Tea Party libertarianism is, for the most part, about restricting government benefits to "real Americans," i.e., white, straight, Christian folks. It's actually a proto-fascist movement -- wolves in sheep's clothing. To the extent its influence increases, it will be as a white, Christian movement masquerading as libertarianism.

Visitor

Tea Party libertarianism is proto-fascism?

That's a vicious slur, Mr. Harrison.

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