Libertarianism and Liberalism and Labels
Over at Bleeding-Heart Libertarians, Will Wilkinson disavows the libertarian label altogether, and basically shuts the door on the ill-named liberaltarian label as well. There are simply too many ways that he differs from standard-libertarians to take that label. “What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe,” Will writes. “So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.”
“I would encourage other decreasingly standard-libertarian libertarian-ish types to hasten their passage through the liminal “bleeding heart” stage and just come out as liberals,” he continues. “Or, better yet, to come out as inscrutably idiosyncratic. You are not alone. Well, if you’re inscrutably idiosyncratic, you are. But the similarly inscrutably idiosyncratic can be alone together. I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it.”
Meanwhile, Tim Lee counters that since he’s more libertarian than the median voter on most issues, he’s still a libertarian even if he isn’t as libertarian as Ron Paul or Gary Johnson or whatever the ‘standard’ libertarian is – and so is Wilkinson. After all, Tim argues, it’s not as if this is an either-or decision.
“It’s worth remembering that both F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman, two of the libertarian movement’s most important thinkers, were self-identified liberals,” Tim writes. “This is partly for historical reasons—Friedman and Hayek were both middle-aged when the modern meaning of the term “libertarian” came into widespread usage. But it’s also because there’s substantial overlap between liberal and libertarian ideas. There are lots of Tea Party types who self-identify as both libertarians and conservatives. There’s no reason there couldn’t be an equally large number of people—like me and Will circa 2009—who identify as both libertarians and liberals.”
I agree with both arguments. I think there’s an important wisdom in Will’s post – after all, libertarianism has long been the enterprise of the right and those of us who identify as liberals and libertarians have been puzzling out ways to put that fusionism to the sword and start fresh. The Ron Paul newsletters are one glaring example of why. The distinctly rightwing nature of the Tea Party is another.
As part of this effort I’ve wavered between some form of neo-classical liberal / bleeding heart libertarian / market liberal / liberal-tarian / etc. ad naseum but I think it makes more sense to just say that I’m a liberal and I’m a libertarian.
We’ll never be able to map our idiosyncratic positions onto our limited labeling schematic, so why bother so much? It may be helpful as a sort of exercise to think these things through, but for the most part people like Tim and Will and myself are all over the map when it comes to our politics, but we are all basically liberals who care a great deal about economic freedom and civil liberties. On a host of issues we probably disagree, but on the broad ideas we tend to move in a similar direction. On the nature of power and politics we are fairly closely aligned.
In any case, I think it’s fun in a deranged sort of way to work all of this out, which is probably why I muse along these lines so frequently. I am a liberal and I am a libertarian, and in some ways I suppose I can be a bit of a conservative, too. Part of forming coalitions and movements is the act of talking about labels. How we self-define is important, and how those definitions translate to the broader public is also important. In that sense, I think Will is basically right: libertarians are largely seen as creatures of the right by the body politic. That may never change. The question is, should liberal-libertarians fight for that label or simply work within the broader liberal camp?