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What is a Libertarian?

A Libertarian, in the modern American sense of the word as defined by Dean Russell of the Foundation For Economic Freedom in 1955, has several similar meanings.[1]

Libertarian can be used as a substitute for Classical Liberal. Classical liberalism, in brief, centered on the twin ideas that there ought to be equality under the law, (meaning there should not be different laws for rulers, commoners, men, women, foreigners, slaves, etc.), and maximum individual liberty (meaning that the government should not interfere with people's lives unless they are violating someone else' rights.)

It can also be defined more broadly, as an adjective, as being the opposite of an authoritarian.

Or it can be defined more narrowly as the Non-Initiation of Force Principle or the Non-Aggression Principle.

Under all definitions, Libertarians believe that you have the right to live your life as you wish, without the government interfering -- as long as you don't violate the rights of others. Politically, this means Libertarians favor rolling back the size and cost of government, and eliminating laws that stifle the economy and control people's personal choices.

Are Libertarians Liberal, Conservative, or Progressive?

Libertarians are in the Liberal tradition, although, as discussed below, there are some differences with Modern Liberals.

Difference with Conservatism

As described by Russell Kirk, Conservatism should be thought of as a persuasion. It is a bias towards old, time tested customs, institutions, and order with the purpose of protecting against turmoil. Conservatives believe a society needs a historical continuity in order to function. Without historical continuity, society would be chaotic and life would be meaningless. Although change may become necessary, Conservatives generally believe that some level of evil and suffering is tolerable and preferable to the chaos that may come with change. In other words, Conservatives prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't. If change becomes absolutely necessary, any change must be slow and cautious.

Conservative ideology is always historically dependent. Late 1700s Conservatives were Monarchists and Mercantilists. In the first half of the 1900s, Conservatives were Classical Liberals. Self described Conservatives of the modern era can either draw from World War 2 era Modern Liberals or Progressives of the same generation.

The Modern Liberal influence on some of today's Conservatives can cause Conservatives to occasionally use Libertarian sounding rhetoric. But, the chief sanction of individual freedom and private property to a Conservative is not its philosophy. The appeal to Conservatives is its antiquity. Support for private property, support for privacy, opposition to economic leveling, and opposition to a strong central government in favor of more local government control with general community agreement is a time tested method for stability.

There are two factions of modern Conservatism which have no Liberal influence: NeoConservatives are the political descendants of mid 1900s Cold War Progressives and Social Conservatives draw from the Progressivism of the early 1900s Prohibition Party.

Difference with Progressivism

Progressives, in a generic sense, advocate the improvement of society through government action. There are many varieties of Progressives, all of whom have this in common: they are well-intentioned and have no confidence that individual liberty and free markets will solve the problems they perceive in society.

Although Progressives and Liberals have polar opposite confidence levels in the power of government to do good, they can occasionally have shared goals when one faction of Progressives uses the power of government to achieve some end of which another faction of Progressives disapproves.

For example, one faction of Progressives might use the power of government to attempt to cure society of the perceived problems stemming from drugs or alcohol by banning those substances. While another faction of Progressives, after seeing the negative effects on society stemming from Alcohol Prohibition and the War on Drugs, might share the Liberal position and seek to end the government ban. But, while Liberals seek to end such prohibitions because of a philosophical dedication to individual liberty, Progressives who seek to end those prohibitions do so merely because they believe that removing the prohibitions would bring a net improvement to society. The Progressive belief in the power of government to do good remains intact.

There are several notable factions of Progressives today:

  • Socialist Progressives are an economic Progressive faction which is typified by Bernie Sanders. Although not the only issue they are concerned with, the distinguishing characteristic of Socialist Progressives is their sympathy toward the socialist ideal of economic equality.
  • Social Justice Warriors are a cultural progressive faction in the Democratic Party which advocates for government enforced respect and equality for women and minority groups. The perceived social ills which they want government to eradicate are nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry.
  • Social Conservatives are a cultural progressive faction found in the Republican Party. Social Conservatives concern themselves with attempting to rid society of a constellation of perceived social ills, including: drugs, pornography, prostitution, abortion, gay marriage, gambling, assisted suicide, and any sex education in schools other than abstinence only. The claim to Conservatism, rather than Progressivism, is due to the age of this faction and its historical record of success. The advocates for these positions dropped the 'progressive' label in favor of 'conservative' around the 1950s.
  • A fourth faction of Progressives is referred to here as Progressive Hawks within the Democratic Party and as NeoConservatives within the Republican Party. It has an international outlook and can be traced back as far as Manifest Destiny, through the imperialism of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then to Woodrow Wilson's goal of making the world safe for Democracy, through the various engagements during the Cold War, and then on to the War on Terror today. This faction is concerned with ridding the world of what it perceives as evil ideologies and replacing those ideologies with what it believes to be a more moral way of life. Although this faction often uses non-violent propaganda and political pressure, it frequently resorts to military force. Within the Democratic Party this faction is typified by people like Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. Within the Republican Party it is typified by people like Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and John Bolton. The only substantive difference between the two factions as they exist today are that the Progressive Hawks are relatively more tolerant of Social Justice Warriors than Social Conservatives and the NeoConservatives have allied with Social Conservatives for electoral purposes.

Difference with Modern Liberals

Modern Liberals are a derivative of Classical Liberals which developed in the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s. Modern Liberals advocate for a higher level of government services than do Classical Liberals, and Modern Liberals are willing to use the tax and redistribution power of government to secure those services. The programs and services advocated by Modern Liberals are more or less universally available and include things like government guaranteed retirement income, indigent safety nets, minimum education standards, environmental protection, workplace safety requirements, and federal infrastructure projects.

Like Classical Liberals, Modern Liberals still largely adhere to the core idea of individual liberty and free markets. Modern Liberals, for example, will never support a military draft or any sort of mandatory 'volunteer' service, and they are opposed to restrictions on speech, including hate speech and Equal Time laws. Modern Liberals are permissive of things like drug use, gay marriage, gun ownership, immigration, and free trade.

Liberalism within the Democratic and Republican Parties

In the 19th century Liberals were much more prevalent in the Democratic Party. However, most Liberals, both Modern and Classical, abandoned the Democratic Party during the Progressive takeover, which can be dated to roughly between the 1896 Presidential nomination of William Jennings Bryan and the aftermath of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s.

There have been few Modern Liberals within the Democratic Party in recent decades. Some notables include former US Senator Mike Gravel, who went on to seek the Libertarian Party Presidential nomination in 2008, and former US Representative Tim Penny, who went on to work for the Cato Institute.

Upon abandoning the Democratic Party, Modern and Classical Liberals reformed within the Republican Party where they would later become known as the Old Right. They experienced some success there, including securing the Presidency for Calvin Coolidge.

In the 1940s and 1950s, due to the existential crisis posed by the USSR and the threat of global communism, the Old Right split into three allied factions called the First New Right. The factions differed in their proposed solutions to the threat as follows:

  • Libertarians advocated a society like a shining city on a hill - a perfectly free society which would cause the communist world to implode as it attempted to keep up. They supported free trade, diplomacy, few domestic regulations, low taxes, few restrictions on immigration, and so forth.
  • Buckleyites largely agreed with the libertarians, but wanted to add aggressive, illiberal anti-communist efforts. These anti-communist efforts included Joseph McCarthy's methods for weeding communists out internally and William F. Buckley's favored external strategy of "rollback" of the USSR. This faction still exists and is typified by Ted Cruz.
  • PaleoConservatives also largely agreed with the libertarians, but they wanted to add illiberal defensive measures. PaleoConservatives wanted to build Fortress America and, except for a few chosen allies, they were willing to let the outside world rot as America prospered behind its walls. They were anti-immigrant, advocated protectionist tariffs, and supported a generally isolationist foreign policy. Internally they still favored low taxes and few regulations. PaleoConservatives are typified by Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump.

The strong anti-communist rhetoric coming from the PaleoConservatives rapidly attracted a large number of communism-is-a-Jewish-plot conspiracy theorists. The equally strong anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the PaleoConservatives attracted another class of racist. And the racist Dixiecrat Democrats spent several decades beginning in 1964 migrating over to the Republican PaleoConservative camp. Due to the corruption of the equality and individual freedom based Liberal ideology into an ideology based on hierarchy and nationalism, many liberals no longer considered PaleoConservatives to be operating within the Liberal tradition. That corruption happened very rapidly. William F. Buckley attempted to expel the PaleoConservatives from the First New Right alliance as far back as 1962.

The First New Right alliance was held together by the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign. It fractured when the PaleoConservatives were expelled, and ended in 1969, when Young Americans for Freedom, a Buckleyite group, expelled Libertarian members because the Libertarians opposed the Vietnam War. Those expelled Libertarians went on to help found the Libertarian Party in 1971.