Varieties of Libertarianism

A lot of people like to call themselves libertarians.  It was actually kind of trendy a few years back.  Some of those people have, at best, a tenuous connection to libertarian philosophy.  In addition, a good number of folks have taken to using the word pejoratively, seeing the entire lot of us as apologists for evil corporate interests.  We are either naive, evil or both.  In trying to define libertarianism, one must be careful not to exclude those whose views may differ in some significant ways from our own.  It is that sort of internal squabbling which limits our growth as both a movement and a party.  So today I wanted to simply describe some of the different types of of libertarians.

Many libertarians see themselves as direct philosophic descendants of the classical liberals of the 18th and 19th century. They take their cues from people like John Locke, Adam Smith and the Founding Fathers.  They believe that government is necessary and proper but must operate within proscribed limits.   It is there to protect our natural rights and to provide a common framework of law and justice within a society.  Beyond that, we must be cautious.  These people tend to support a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a greater role for state and local governments.  You might call these people libertarian conservatives.  A good example might be the think tank known as the Cato Institute.

Other libertarians might best be described as cosmopolitan libertarians.  They tend to be pragmatic instead of dogmatic. The idea that libertarianism is “socially liberal” and “fiscally conservative” likely originated here.  There is an old stereotype of libertarians as pot smoking investment bankers and this is the group that most fits that description.  This group includes Reason magazine, the largest libertarian periodical, two-time Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Gary Johnson and celebrities like Drew Carey and Penn Jillette.

On the other extreme are the paleo-libertarians.  They include people like Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell.  Economically, they are associated with the Austrian school of economics and the Mises Institute.  Politically, they tend towards minarchy or even anarchy.  They are supportive of secessionist movements, past and present.  Socially, they tend to be quite conservative, opposing immigration and abortion.  Some in this group flirt with the alt right and are associated with conspiracy theories.  Many supported Donald Trump in his 2016 Presidential campaign.  

Another controversial group and one that would not want to be called libertarians are the Objectivists.  They are the followers of author-philosopher Ayn Rand.  They support a minarchist State, limited to the protection of life, liberty and property.  They view anarchism as evil and they are philosophic atheists and egoists.  In recent years, Objectivists have been associated with an activist foreign policy and have been supportive of the war on terror and radical Islam.  

A fairly recent group that has embraced the libertarian label are perhaps best characterized as left-libertarians.  They have been very critical of many traditional libertarian views, particularly as regards economic matters.  They are likely to look favorably on ideas like a guaranteed income and to see issues like climate change and social justice from a perspective we might associate with the political left.  

The last group I will describe is the radical libertarians.  Traditionally very active within the Libertarian Party, this is the group most associated with the anarcho-capitalist ideas of economist Murray Rothbury.  Many of the arguments I have advanced in my discussions of libertarian thought  come from this perspective.  They have tended to see themselves as the vanguard of the liberty movement, seeking to educate and convert sympathetic individuals.  They see the modern nation-state as the greatest threat to human freedom and war as its greatest scourge.  

I have left out many other varieties of libertarianism but these are some of the most prominent groups.  We all share a common love of liberty and arguments.  We love to take on any other political viewpoint but often direct our venom at one another, which is unfortunate.  Going forward, hopefully we can focus on what unites us and not what divides us.

Hopefully this was a helpful article.  As time goes on, I may explore some of our libertarian differences more but I would rather focus on our similarities.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

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2 thoughts on “Varieties of Libertarianism

  1. Libertarians of all stripes should be willing to collaborate with just about anybody that believes that we should have more freedom than we now have (in terms of negative liberty, at least). I agree, broad collaborations amongst the various strands of libertarianism is essential, one of the great things about libertarianism seems to me to be that it isn’t dogmatic and people are much more willing collaborate with and support libertarians of different orientations, provided that they do actually aim for more freedom and are not just using the term to describe something else (as modern day liberals do with the term liberal).

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