The New Two Libertarianisms

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Liberty once famously published an article called “The Two Libertarianisms,” which, as I understand it, are moralist (natural rights) libertarianism and consequentialist (utilitarian) libertarianism. This reflection takes another look at the idea that there are two schools of libertarian thought.

Let’s consider two possible definitions of the term “libertarian.”

  1. A libertarian is someone who is on the Right on economic issues and on the Left on social issues; in other words, a libertarian is fiscally conservative, and socially liberal.
  2. A libertarian is a free-market anarchist.

Instead of debating which is the preferable definition, which I view as a matter of subjective choice, I want to suggest (1) that the two definitions are, on their face, incompatible, but (2) that there are today camps of libertarians who might use either one to define themselves.

The second point first. In my experience, libertarians don’t argue within themselves very much about this matter of self-definition. If someone presses the point, they might say something like, “Let’s get on the train for less government, and see how far it goes.” They are unlikely to use the word “anarchist,” but if you ask them if they are, to use Thoreau’s term, “no-government” people, they will nod “yes.”

Now, a free-market anarchist could be on the Right on social issues. He or she might, for example, be opposed to abortion, gay marriage, free entry at the border for immigration, or recreational drug use, in which case, he or she would satisfy the criteria of definition 2, but would fail the test of necessary and sufficient conditions to satisfy definition 1. The goals of the first type of libertarian are quite different from the goals of the second. A different ideal of “libertopia” is implied.

The first-definition libertarian takes pride in the fact that he has transcended the Left-Right spectrum in order to take some Left positions and other Right positions and blend them into one.

 

For the true market anarchist, nothing less than the elimination of all government, including fascist, socialist, feudal, and democratic governments, including democracy itself to the extent that democracy is a type of government, would satisfy. And he or she requires not merely anarchy, but anarchy with capitalist economics attached.

The aims of the first type of libertarian are far milder: simply that a nation move to the Right on economic policy — cut taxes, deregulate, have more market freedoms and less government interference, use money backed by gold, support the right to work without joining a labor union or acquiring an occupational license, and so on — while moving to the Left on social issues such as drugs, prostitution, abortion rights, gay marriage, and so on, all of which could be accomplished either with market anarchy or with a small, limited government, especially a democracy.

The market anarchist is anarchocapitalist by essence, whereas the choice between a small government and no government at all is not essential to the “fiscal Right plus social Left” libertarian. The first-definition libertarian takes pride in the fact that he has transcended the Left-Right spectrum in order to take some Left positions and other Right positions and blend them into one. The second type of libertarian, in contrast, takes pride in his transcendence of the feeling that some or any government is preferable to the state of nature, and takes pride in his belief that he and his family would survive, indeed would be better off, in a civilization with no state whatsoever.

There exists a name for the second type of libertarian, namely An-Cap, short for anarcho-capitalist. There is not, as far as I know, a good name for the first type when used to compare and contrast it to the second type, other than “libertarian.” I propose the term “classical libertarian.” Of course, some libertarians love to refer to themselves as classical liberals, reminding us of an older era when, in industrial Europe, the people who called themselves liberals would have been today’s libertarians, and today’s so-called liberals would have been their socialists.

The second type of libertarian takes pride in his transcendence of the feeling that some or any government is preferable to the state of nature, and in his belief that he and his family would be better off in a civilization with no state whatsoever.

 

I view the term classical libertarian, C-Lib for short, as a similar historical reference. When I was first exposed to libertarian ideas, in the late 1990s (yes, it was a long time ago, wasn’t it?), the term “libertarian” was understood, in popular culture, to mean “someone who is on the fiscal Right and the social Left,” although, even back then, within more sophisticated and knowledgeable circles, libertarians were known to be, or to include, An-Caps. But I feel that the classical libertarian was the libertarian of the 1990s and the 2000s (and even the 1970s and 1980s), while the libertarian of the 2010s, and today’s libertarian of the 2020s, tends to be one who more strongly refers exclusively to “An-Cap” when he uses the word “libertarian.” For me, the word “classical libertarian” is a perfect word to describe that older type of libertarian.

But who is the “real” libertarian? Is it the An-Cap? Is it the C-Lib?

I won’t enter that debate here. I will say that some An-Caps would seek to delegitimize any such debate, first saying that the An-Cap is the real libertarian and the C-Lib is not a real libertarian, because, for example, libertarian leader Murray Rothbard was an An-Cap, and most libertarians today are An-Caps. Without addressing those substantive points, I would assert that the debate itself is legitimate, and a reasonable person could take either position with respect to which definition is correct (or hold that both definitions are correct, in different contexts); the word has been used in both ways, by many people, during the past 40 years, and there are arguments to be made on both sides.

The next step, after saying that the debate is not legitimate, would be for the An-Caps to try to kick the C-Libs out of the libertarian movement, in one of the infamous purity purges that we have every so often. I would counsel strongly against this. Alienating potential supporters is a very poor way to win a political struggle.

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