Liberaltarianism as a Disposition

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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28 Responses

  1. Plinko says:

    “Obama is in many ways much worse than his predecessor on the issues of civil liberties, war, and even government spending.”

    I really can’t fathom how one could hold this view, other than because the current president’s executive power grabs are done in the open and thus maybe more contemptuously than the last?Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Plinko says:

      @Plinko, Government spending I’d agree with you on–there has been nothing as grossly irresponsible as the unpaid-for Bush tax cuts. Obama’s health care bill raised taxes specifically in order to avoid blowing up the deficit, in stark contrast to Medicare Rx drugs for Bush. But on civil liberties, there’s at least a case to be made that Obama is as bad, because his targeting of US citizens erodes protections for a whole new class of people–check out Glenn Greenwald making the claim.

  2. ThatPirateGuy says:

    You get me.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    I very much enjoyed this essay.

    My own personal take on liberaltarianism is that it strikes me as one of the (sadly proportionally dinky) offshoots of post-theistic Christianity.Report

    • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:


      I’d like to hear you expand on that Jaybird. Or if you know of some writings that exapand on it link me.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

        @ThatPirateGuy, I’ll try to throw something together…

        We all know that there are matters of morality and matters of taste, right? For the most part, we can all agree that the mayonnaise vs. mustard debate is a matter of taste (without getting into the mayonnaise vs. Miracle Whip debate). We can all agree that rape and murder are matters of morality.

        The wacky thing is that pretty much everybody agrees that the full force of the state should come down on folks who rape or murder and the state shouldn’t give a crap about whether you ask for mayo or mustard on your turkey on wheat.

        The dance comes when you deal with stuff in the grey area. Is this a matter of taste or a matter of morality?

        Well, there’s a school of thought that everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed… that is, if you have a doubt, just treat it like a matter of taste. There’s a school of thought that says that everything that isn’t allowed is forbidden. Just assume it’s a matter of morality.

        There’s a very liberal protestant tradition (see, for example, the Unitarians) who argue that we need to be hands off and allow folks to make their own decisions and, most importantly, their own *MISTAKES*.

        What happens with folks is between them and God and it is our job to protect folks from the obviously immoral… but when it comes to the not-so-obviously immoral, God is in charge.

        Sadly, this version of Christianity is nowhere near as popular as the one that has bigger and bigger and bigger spheres of “matters of morality”.

        Or, sadly, as popular as the post-Christian post-theistic tendency to point out that mayonnaise is monumentally fattening and has been shown to be a significant contributor to heart disease in adults and, as such, the nutritional information of a teaspoon of mayonnaise ought be posted in every restaurant where mayonnaise is an option along with a notice that mayonnaise is a major contributor to heart disease and, if that doesn’t work, legislation to make sure that people have to ask for mayo rather than have it show up by default on, say, a BLT and if *THAT* doesn’t work…Report

        • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:


          Thank you,

          I’m as marginally aware of nutrition as the next american but this liberal considers the Double Down Sandwich to be something between a monument and a love poem to freedom.

          (And sadly not nearly as tasty as he had hoped.)Report

  4. North says:

    While there probably is room to debate with the assessment of Obama vs Bush Minor on the subject of executive power grabs (fundamentally of course Bush Minor’s behavior is in the past and thus set in stone while Obama still could change course since he’s still in office). That said I agree that I don’t like his behavior but then I never liked him that much (though honestly, would Hill-dawg have surrendered executive power? I sadly doubt it). Still Obama has time yet to start reining in spending and dealing with our other libertariannish objections to him. All the more reason to cavail about him in my mind, the man only moves on anything if he feels the heat at his back. Inertia seems to be one of his central policies.

    Beyond that, great post. I love it.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to North says:

      @North, I’m not big into the audacity of hype either, but I’d say that’s probably been true of most presidents- they move a lot quicker when the public blowtorch is up their butt. A lot of the initiatives that strike me as daring and innovative, I’ll read some book and find out were due to “overwhelming public pressure”.Report

      • North in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., Fair enough Rufus, but as you aptly alluded this particular President promised more than his predecessors. And worse for Obama he was specific in his promises, especially regarding torture, finance and executive power (and “fierce advocacy” to throw in a personal though less important issue).
        He promised us a roaring lion but we’ve barely gotten a disgruntled kitten on these items.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to North says:

          @North, Yeah, absolutely. But I think a big part of the problem is that his supposedly fired-up supporters seem to have lost interest once he got elected. If anyone should be out in the streets protesting, it’s them. Instead, what I hear a lot is something like, “well, maybe year three will be better…”Report

  5. Mike Farmer says:

    My only problem is that someone who promotes limited government, individual rights and a free market is thrown into the far-right, conservative camp, regardless of how truly liberal these positions are, and regardless of how innovative and game-changing a free market can be. There’s a space for this creature in the political realm which isn’t conservative, yet it’s not liberaltarian, either, as I understand the term.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      @Mike Farmer, Isn’t that just Good Old Fashioned Libertarianism? You can be left or right wing, in the current parlance, and still hold that set of commitments. If you’re more bothered about the liberties of captains of industry and suburban home-owners you’re going to end up supporting the political right in spite of being a GOFL. If you’re more concerned about the liberties of drug dealers and single mothers, you’re going to end up supporting the political left.

      In recent times there’s been much more alignment between the right and libertarianism and functionally most people who call themselves libertarians are right-wing in practice. This has gone so far that the right has coopted libertarian rhetoric and uses it in places where it doesn’t make a lot of sense – “get your government hands off my medicare” is only the most egregious example. And there’s a lot of not-very-thoughtful libertarianims out there that end up being right-wing by default by assuming that nothing about the current world really changes except some part of the government goes away.

      To me liberaltaranism is a corrective, in that its pointing out the possibility of having libertarian and moderate left-wing commitments at the same time. Whether you can be libertarian and neither left or right I’m not sure. A lot of it comes down to where you would start reforming things or what particularly bothers you. Its more a matter of disposition, as Jason’s post says.Report

      • Mike Farmer in reply to Simon K says:

        @Simon K,

        It depends on what you’re calling right and left, the definitions aren’t clear anymore. But as far as principles go, defending individual rights run from property rights to the rights of drug dealers, and any other individual who has his/her rights violated — it makes no sense to defend individual rights according to whether the issue falls on the left or the right — the issue is rights, not the political stance.Report

        • Simon K in reply to Mike Farmer says:

          @Mike Farmer, The right wing wants everyone to have the opportunity to be successful and to enjoy it when they are. The left wants to protect everyone from the possibility of disasters that are not their fault. Or at least that’s how I was using them above, and it seems to be the primary wedge between the two parties in US politics.

          It may not make sense to favour right-wing or left-wing causes in persuing a libertarian agenda, but its been my observation that most of us do it. I’m personally not that bothered about income taxes and quite concerned about cops shooting people’s dogs and taking their kids away for owning a baggie of pot, but I do know people with similarly libertarian commitments who feel the reverse. In my ideal world there would be neither income taxes nor drug laws, but given a choice of one or the other, I know which one I think is the greater violation of liberty.Report

      • Mike Farmer in reply to Simon K says:

        @Simon K,

        To be honest, I don’t see any commonality between what’s called a liberal position today and libertarians as understood by classical liberalism, except in some areas of rights, but “civil” rights are no more than individual rights –it’s the equal application of rights, and this is where the split between liberals and libertarians is pronounced — liberals will cheerfully violate the rights of individuals outside the polically correct protection zone.

        On issues re: the relationship between the State and the individual, or the State and the private sector, most modern liberals are diametrically opposed to the libertarian position. But, then, as far as conservativism goes, the libertarian position and the conservative position are also at odds, if you look at how conservatives have governed — if the new conservative positions of limited government and free markets are to be believed, then there’s commonality there, but conversatives are also fine with the violation of rights if the individuals in quesion fall outside the morally correct protection zone.

        So, yes, it’s possible to be a libertarian outside the modern duality of left and right — in fact, it’s necessary until the individual rights of everyone are protected.Report

        • Simon K in reply to Mike Farmer says:

          @Mike Farmer, I agree with your point that both modern-day liberalism and conservatism are at odds with libertarianism.

          I disagree that liberals hold the opposite view from libertarianism on the appropriate relationship between the state and the individual. This is something of a misunderstanding of the liberal position on the part of libertarians and conservatives.

          Modern liberals, even modern social democrats (as opposed to old-school socialists and communists), do not believe that the state has an unlimited right to interfere in and direct economic life, let alone individual private life. Rather they believe there’s an obligation for the state to use its monopoly on legitimate force to help those faced with overwhelming disparities in power.Report

          • Mike Farmer in reply to Simon K says:

            @Simon K,

            Disparities in coercive power can only be accomplished through government, so if liberals want to do something about that, they can stop corporate welfare. In opne competition, if one company gains advantage through better performance, then their greater economic power needs no leveling by government — that would be the type of violation of rights I’m talking about.Report

            • Simon K in reply to Mike Farmer says:

              @Mike Farmer, Well, no dispute from me that liberals would do well to consider scrapping corporate welfare. The reasons they don’t are much the same reasons conservatives don’t – money and coalition building. Its politically a lot easier for liberals to create more laws to manage the unintended consequences of past ones, and create new unintended consequences in the process, that to repeal or revise the old ones that inevitably have support from established interest groups. Healthcare reform is an obvious example.

              On the philosophical point about differences in coercive power only being created through government, that’s obviously basically true. But equally obviously when the government protects property rights that in itself can create very large power differentials. I’m not convinced, personally, that all of those power differentials can be justified in the name of liberty. Doubly obviously this is a point where I’m at variance with the majority of libertarians.Report

  6. You’ve got me nailed on this one, Jason. I’m half-tempted to just delete all of my posts on this subject, and just start linking to this whenever someone asks me what I believe and what kind of libertarian I am.Report

  7. Simon K says:

    Hear hear!Report

  8. gregiank says:

    I really like this discussion of dispositions. As much as we like to argue our philosophical/political ideas a lot of our politics is about vaguer, although no less deeply felt, beliefs about how the world should be.

    Great post.Report

  9. Koz says:

    “Liberals and libertarians want basically the same thing — maximal empowerment for the individual to pursue diverse, possibly discordant, and highly unpredictable life plans, each of their own choosing, within a framework that aims at maximal freedom of choice for all.”

    Given what we’ve seen of liberals for the last fifty years or so, I think allegiance to the welfare state is the fundamental property of liberals.Report