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Austin Cline

Forum Discussion: Liberal vs. Libertarian Politics

By April 23, 2008

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Conservative atheists exist, but they are in a minority. Most atheists are liberal, libertarian, or some combination thereof. If we focus on just those two, why causes an atheist to favor one political philosophy over the other? Are there perhaps any reasons why liberalism or libertarianism might be more consistent with or supportive of atheism, skepticism, and freethought?

Tatarize writes:

According to previous political plotting most everybody on this forum are pretty staunchly liberal and libertarianism to varying degrees.

Does anybody have any good reasons to prefer liberalism over libertarianism or vice versa? Is there a good line? Does it shift? Are there good justifications for such a preference?

Doug offers a quick case for libertarianism:

Liberals and conservatives both believe that if they can just get the right people, and enough of them, elected to office, then the government can make some good things happen. What they disagree about is just what those good things are.

Libertarians don't trust the government to make anything good happen, but think it's necessary only to keep certain bad things from happening.

Iconoclast offers a defense of liberalism over libertarianism:

One thing liberals and libertarians agree upon is that the government should not interfere in its citizens' personal lives - when it comes to social issues.  So for issues that have little economic impact, such as abortion, same sex marriage, war, etc, there is no real difference. 

Libertarianism's defining feature, however, is an unabashed acceptance of laissez faire capitalism.  This includes the necessary results of  laissez faire capitalism: monopolies,  enormous gaps between the rich and poor, periodic crashes, and a permanent, desperately poor underclass.

I prefer liberalism because libertarianism must perform wild contortions to justify such a system.  They must deny the facts of laissez faire capitalism, and claim that capitalism will produce a strong middle class all on its own, and will self-regulate its crashes out of existence.  Historical precedent makes this exceedingly unlikely.  Or libertarians must deny the immorality of a system that forces a substantial portion of the population to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children.  Such a position is monstrous on its face.

Libertarianism is more rightly called propertarianism.  If you have property and capital, you're taken care of.  You have high class education, excellent health care, live in a beautiful house with every amenity imaginable, and have access to a wide variety of life choices.  If you don't have property or capital, you have nonexistent education, nonexistent health care, live in a shack, and (unless you're extremely lucky) have a single life choice: serfdom.

I find myself agreeing with the critics of libertarianism and favoring liberalism, generally speaking. What I find interesting is the degree to which libertarians — or at least the more dogmatic ones — can mirror their complaints about socialists. More extreme socialism sees capitalism as the source of all problems and the government as the source of all solutions; more extreme libertarianism sees government as the source of all problems and capitalism as the source of all solutions. Both are wrong — and for the same reasons, ironically enough.

The source of problems (or at least a major source of a lot of problems) is one group of humans having unchecked power over other humans. A principle solution, naturally, is to find ways to add checks to that power. Capitalism adds certain kinds of checks to certain kinds of power; government adds different kinds of checks to different kinds of power. Free market checks work well in some situations but not in others; the same is true with government.

Market failures may be a sign that government checks are necessary, or maybe just that the market needs to be reorganized a bit so the right checks can exist; again, the same is true of the government. It's wrong to think that a failure in either necessarily means that it's because it's the wrong venue for checking power. Because libertarianism tends to assume that only market checks are appropriate, it can cause more harm than good. Even where liberalism does go wrong, at least it doesn't start out with the premise that one sort of check on power should be primary and preferred. Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

Comments
April 23, 2008 at 1:34 pm
(1) Eric says:

I would add that most accounts of libertarianism carry the implicit assumption that loss of personal liberty at the hands of the government is somehow worse than loss of liberty at the hands of other social actors. At least in a democratic polity, the government is somewhat responsible to the public.

April 23, 2008 at 4:48 pm
(2) Andrew says:

I’m one of those atheists in the minority who considers himself a conservative; although I did take a more libertarian stance on some issues after I became an atheist, mostly the social issues.

April 23, 2008 at 5:23 pm
(3) Dean says:

I’m a libertarian and we often get confused with our fellow travelers, the anarcho-capitalists. I strongly believe in a government focused on protecting our rights, but that is obviously not the focus of our current government. As a realist I will be quite happy if our government stops mestastasizing (50% increase in 10 years, does ANYONE think that is sustainable?). The Fed turned a recession into a Great Depression and is now bankrupting us financing a needless war. In this case Austin has it exactly wrong: Liberalism DOES start out with the premise that one sort of check on power should be primary and preferred–the government. I think this is a good analogy: liberals like the fruit of capitalism but disapprove of much of the tree. Conservatives admire the tree but disapprove of some of the fruit. Libertarians like the fruit and appreciate the tree.

April 23, 2008 at 5:53 pm
(4) Austin Cline says:

In this case Austin has it exactly wrong: Liberalism DOES start out with the premise that one sort of check on power should be primary and preferred–the government.

In that case, perhaps you can cite some standard political science texts where this is made explicit?

April 24, 2008 at 10:39 am
(5) tracieh says:

We had a guy in Texas who ran for office and lost. He ran as Libertarian. He came to present a lecture as part of the ACA lecture series, so I went to see him talk. I’ve always admired the libertarian view of self-responsibility and extremely limited gov’t intervention. But, like this article’s contributors, I had issues with their take on the free market and it’s ability to self-regulate. I wondered if they’d ever read The Jungle?

So, my biggest interest was to hear his economic policy views with regard to corporations. Someone asked about regulation, and I was very surprised to hear him say that it would be ridiculous for a person to think that regulating business should not be a function of government.

If I understood him correctly, his stance was that reality requires such regulation and that Libertarian philosophy is not about being stupid in regard to reality vs. philosophy–and corporate abuses have to be curbed by legislation.

On the one hand, I found it interesting because it certainly wasn’t the answer I expected. It was like saying, “I’m a vegetarian–but I’m not a nut about it. I like a good steak now and again as much as the next guy…” What?!

I guess he was Libertarian with regard to personal rights/liberties/social programs, but more liberal with regard to business regulation and the free market.

I probably would have had to talk to him further to understand where he draws these lines. But just to note that I found out “Libertarian” seems to have a range of ideas (at least among people who use the label) that I was unaware of previously.

April 24, 2008 at 2:46 pm
(6) Dean says:

I don’t think I could cite a textbook to back me up, but I could cite a good number of people who are considered liberals. Liberalism, and any political doctrine, is defined by the actions and statements of its advocates, isn’t it? However, as tracieh noted, a political label actually encompasses a large range of positions. I have no doubt that YOU personally are honestly reporting your perception and your own position…I just don’t think that position of liberalism is as representative as you do. I get much of my view of liberal postions from liberals you see on TV, such as on CNN, and from liberal columnists. They’re probably not representative either, but they ARE the public voice of liberalism. I may be wrong of course, maybe another liberal who agrees that the Free Market is as important a check on power as the Government can chime in to add to the discussion.

April 24, 2008 at 3:53 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

I have no doubt that YOU personally are honestly reporting your perception and your own position…I just don’t think that position of liberalism is as representative as you do.

I wasn’t reporting about myself. I was describing political liberalism. Some individual liberals might have decided that the primary and preferred check on power should be government, but liberalism as a political philosophy doesn’t start out with that premise. You won’t find it in any textbooks.

This is analogous to how the personal beliefs of individual atheists are ascribed to atheism itself, even when atheism doesn’t require such positions. I’ll bet you hate it when theists do that, so why do it to liberalism?

April 24, 2008 at 6:28 pm
(8) Dean says:

1. Can you cite the standard political text that makes it explicit that libertarianism tends to assume that only market checks are appropriate? There’s more to life than markets and government. On second thought, forget the citation request, it’s snarky, I’ll assume you only asked it of me in a moment of irritation.

2. I could ask the same question about your treatment of libertarianism, but I concede it’s unfair to apply a criticism true of some to a political philosophy that includes people with a great diversity of opinions, so I recant my claim that liberals consider government the paramount check on abuses of power. It seems to me that you’re holding yourself and Iconoclast to a somewhat different standard from what you’re asking of me.

April 24, 2008 at 8:05 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

Can you cite the standard political text that makes it explicit that libertarianism tends to assume that only market checks are appropriate?

Unnecessary; libertarian efforts to decrease the size and power of the government only leaves the market to check the power of others. Then again, it would be difficult to find any citations about libertarianism in standard resources because they usually don’t take it seriously enough to bother saying anything at all about libertarianism. It’s not listed in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought nor in Routledge’s Politics: The Basics. It’s only mentioned a couple of times in passing in the Blackwell Compnanion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory.

David Miller devotes all of a couple of pages to libertarianism in his Very Short Introduction to Political Philosophy, including the statement: “In the absence of the state, firms would offer to protect clients and their property, and this would include retrieving property that had been stolen, enforcing contracts, and obtaining compensation for personal injury.”

It seems to me that you’re holding yourself and Iconoclast to a somewhat different standard from what you’re asking of me.

Not at all. I’ll provide citations to back up my claims. If you can find citations in standard reference works which give a completely different picture of libertarianism, feel free.

April 25, 2008 at 11:32 am
(10) Dean says:

Well thanks, Austin, for doing all that research. Wikipedia might have served you better in this case, IMHO. As I pointed out in my first post, libertarianism is often confused with anarcho-capitalism. Anarcho-capitalists, who wish to eventually do away with the government entirely, are no more (or less, I suppose) representative of libertarians than borderline socialists are representative of liberals.

I’m still having trouble believing you’re serious about government and the market being the only social forces that can affect each other. Education, press, public opinion, and so forth have negligible impact in your estimation? I thought you were providing this valuable service of education on nontheism because you believe it makes a difference. Is your only impact outside the spheres of government and the market? I can’t be understanding you correctly. In any case, I have no desire to get rid of the government.

I apologize, I must not have expressed myself well: the citation thing is not the standard I was referring to. I was referring to the fact that you can see why I should be nuanced when talking about liberalism but you don’t seem to see that you should be the same when talking about libertarianism, if you want to be consistent. I am not in any way in conflict with libertarianism for wanting a government large enough to defend us and protect the rights of every citizen. Libertarianism as a political philosophy does not require any form of anarchy or even minarchy.

I won’t be providing any citations for the above, if you want to dismiss the claims of a libertarian about libertarianism on the grounds that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t match the reference material you find acceptable, it’s nothing I haven’t encountered before as an atheist from some guy with a dictionary.

April 25, 2008 at 11:46 am
(11) Dean says:

If anyone is interested in the difference among libertarians, here is a list of libertarian schools of thought from the Wikipedia page on Libertarianism:

Agorism, Anarcho-capitalism, Autarchism, Christian libertarianism,
Geolibertarianism, Green libertarianism,
Individualist anarchism, Left-libertarianism, Left-Rothbardianism,
Libertarian feminism, Free-market anarchism, Minarchism, Neolibertarianism
Paleolibertarianism, Progressive libertarianism, Propertarianism,
Right-libertarianism, Rights libertarianism, and Voluntaryism. I most, but not perfectly, identify with Progressive libertarianism.

April 25, 2008 at 4:28 pm
(12) Andrew says:

I have always considered libertarianism as wanting as much freedom as possible, both economic and penrsonal.

April 25, 2008 at 4:35 pm
(13) Austin Cline says:

Well thanks, Austin, for doing all that research. Wikipedia might have served you better in this case, IMHO.

Wikipedia is hardly a high-quality resource, especially in this context. What’s needed here are more neutral, academic discussions of political philosophies – perspective that adopt a broad view of movements as a whole.

I’m still having trouble believing you’re serious about government and the market being the only social forces that can affect each other.

I never made any claim even remotely close to that.

I was referring to the fact that you can see why I should be nuanced when talking about liberalism but you don’t seem to see that you should be the same when talking about libertarianism, if you want to be consistent.

I don’t believe that “nuance” is relevant to anything I have said about either libertarianism or liberalism. I’m trying to work from standard, academic definitions of the concepts as political philosophies.

April 25, 2008 at 6:07 pm
(14) Andrew says:

April 27, 2008 at 10:20 pm
(15) Dean says:

1.Yet your sources didn’t have much to tell you about libertarianism. Wikipedia does. It’s accuracy is sometimes greater than popularly believed, and the completeness of textbooks is sometimes lower than popularly believed.
2. Not even remotely close?
“Unnecessary; libertarian efforts to decrease the size and power of the government only leaves the market to check the power of others.”
3. Look: reducing the size of government does not equal ‘only market forces’. Eliminating it entirely might. Only reducing waste might not affect the government’s relation with market forces in any bad way. Reducing certain parts of the government might allow other parts to more effectivly check corporate corruption. Limiting government doesn’t necessarily mean reducing it, it could mean halting or even just slowing its expansion–at this point, hoping for more than that seems unrealistic. I also believe government is not the only check on market forces: businesses have to cater to their customers, they are affected by public opinion, they can be boycotted, and so forth. And again, like many if not most libertarians, I am not in favor of no government or businesses being allowed to engage in force, fraud, or theft. Maybe if I had said that in the first place we wouldn’t have talked past each other so much. To me it sounded like you were lumping libertarians together in the anarcho-capitalist camp just as I lumped liberals together in the ‘government is the best way to affect social change and keep capitalism in its place’ camp.

April 28, 2008 at 6:17 am
(16) Austin Cline says:

Yet your sources didn’t have much to tell you about libertarianism. Wikipedia does.

And you have no idea how to gauge the reliability of the material in question. It might have been written by an academic scholar, or a partisan political ideologue. Except for whether you agree with it or not, you have nothing to go on.

2. Not even remotely close? “Unnecessary; libertarian efforts to decrease the size and power of the government only leaves the market to check the power of others.”

If you’ll note, that quote is about the same thing which the original article is about: having the size and power to check the power of others. What you claimed I said is that the government and the market are the “only social forces that can affect each other.” It doesn’t take much to realize that “affect each other” isn’t even remotely close to “check the power” of people and institutions which have power over us.

Look: reducing the size of government does not equal ‘only market forces’. Eliminating it entirely might.

Except when one wants to “reduce” the size of government to the point where it has little impact on one’s life anymore.

April 28, 2008 at 3:20 pm
(17) Dean says:

1.You can follow up the references provided and view the process of content development, which I think offsets those weaknesses sufficiently to make a visit to Wikipedia fruitful when your primary sources have little to offer. For an academic source you might try Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia–though again, his ideas don’t give you a complete picture of the breadth of libertarian thought.

2.I believe the press and the public can constitute a check on the power of the government and the market. If you don’t, that’s that–it’s merely disagreement.

3.You would have to reduce the size of government mightily for that to happen. I would LIKE to reduce it to the size it was forty years ago, and I seem to recall government having an impact on our lives back then. I would be reasonably satisfied with reducing it to the size it was ten years ago, and I don’t think doing so would have any negative impact on the average person’s life…the vast majority of us couldn’t tell the difference, except that maybe the government wouldn’t be able to launch us into a protracted expensive war against countries that aren’t an immediate threat to us.

If it makes you feel any better, at this point I AM sorry I disagreed with you. My contentiousness in defense of libertarianism has left me with over half-a-dozen posts to my credit on a comment section that probably no one is reading any more but you and I.

April 29, 2008 at 11:44 am
(18) John Hanks says:

A libertarian prefers the tyranny of corporations and human weaknesses to the tyranny of the government.

April 29, 2008 at 9:23 pm
(19) John Halloran says:

Any effectively unchallangable power block has the potential to obliterate liberty. As Eric indicated above, libertarians seem focused on the repressive potentials of goverments above, say, corporations, organized religions or criminal gangs. I think this is understandable in view of the fact that government, sometimes prodded by or allied with religious organizations, has been the principal vector of repressive control over people throughout history.
As a potential abusee, however, it matters little to me what sort of office—governmental, religious, corporate, military—is represented by the hand holding the whip. If anything matters, it’s whether I have a fighting chance to oppose the oppression.
It seems to me that the powers have to be balanced and played off against each other if the average person is to enjoy a life of anything approximating freedom.

May 4, 2008 at 4:35 pm
(20) Daniel Connolly says:

You’re a cool atheist, Cline. I appreciate the atheism. But you’re not really an economist or political philosopher. And I don’t like how you’re supporting the “liberal and atheist” stereotype. That’s why I like Michael Shermer, even if he, too, is not a economist or political philosopher and occasionally speaks out for libertarianism. He breaks the stereotype!

As an atheist and political moderate, I’d just like to see you stick to the atheism. That’s why we’re all here! I think that people like Dawkins and Harris and Shermer weaken their cases when they digress from their usual positions (anti-religion, pro-science) and start getting more into politics. I think we should just stick to the common ground while we’re all here.

May 4, 2008 at 5:05 pm
(21) Daniel Connolly says:

To augment my comment, I just read and confirmed that Shermer is an economics professor. Who would have guessed? Well Shermer is indeed a well-rounded individual. Still, his blatantness toward libertarianism makes me uncomfortable, as would any other person’s blatantness toward liberalism when they’re “supposed to be” plain atheists. Although, I recognize that I’d be a big baby to cancel my Skeptic subscription, and I have nothing against libertarians or liberals or anything between. If anything, I hate the man who says, “I’m not subscribing to Shermer because he’s libertarian” or “I can’t bear to read Dawkins or Harris because they’re liberal” MUCH more than anything. OK, I’m just babbling at this point; I’m done.

May 4, 2008 at 5:44 pm
(22) Austin Cline says:

You’re a cool atheist, Cline. I appreciate the atheism. But you’re not really an economist or political philosopher.

If you have any substantive objections to anything I have written, feel free to offer them.

As an atheist and political moderate, I’d just like to see you stick to the atheism.

Atheism is the disbelief in gods, nothing more and nothing less. That’s it. There’s really nothing more to say about it. Everything else is philosophy, theology, politics, science, economics, etc.

Is that what you had in mind, to reduce the entire site to a single sentence?

That’s why we’re all here!

Curious how you presume to speak for others. Anyway, everything there is to learn about atheism can be learned in 5 seconds. I’ve repeated it often enough that you’ve definitely read it before. So, you must be coming here for some other reason.

I would venture to say that it’s unlikely that anyone else comes here just to keep reading the definition of atheism, either. I won’t presume to read anyone’s mind, of course, but since the pages with the definitions of atheism aren’t the only ones visited, I’m pretty sure that most atheists are interested in more than just what atheism is. I think that atheists also have political, philosophical, and religious interests — all of which are covered here in various ways and at various times.

I think we should just stick to the common ground while we’re all here.

All atheists disbelieve in gods. That’s it. There is no more common ground between atheists, and this common ground isn’t substantial enough to serve as a basis for much of anything.

as would any other person’s blatantness toward liberalism when they’re “supposed to be” plain atheists.

1. No one is just a “plain” atheist. Every atheist has a multitude of political, moral, philosophical, economic, and other beliefs.

2. Who is “supposed to be” a plain atheist, and why? Upon what basis can you justifiably expect any atheist to do nothing more than just keep repeating what atheism is? Do you do that? I doubt it. Find me a single atheist blog or site where the writer does absolutely nothing but keep going over what atheism is — nothing political, philosophical, economic, etc. I’ll bet you won’t find one. The reason is simple: such a site would simply not be interesting enough, either to the writer or to readers. The writer would be too bored to continue after 3 days and the audience would have left after one.

September 18, 2010 at 10:18 am
(23) Adrian says:

“… includes the necessary results of laissez faire capitalism: monopolies, enormous gaps between the rich and poor, periodic crashes, and a permanent, desperately poor underclass.”

You stated that history has shown this to be true. This is false.

Firstly, Laissez-faire policy was never absolute in any nation and has always been regulated, the Mixed Economy.

However this caused the greatest increase in population, wealth, longevity and standard of living in the 19th century. This was accompanied by a greater middle class.

Regulation was ever increasingly present in order to prevent a life truth. Shit happens. This of course is impossible and akin to preventing a bruised knee by outlawing all running under the age of 10.
The relevant data, however, is that more unfortunate circumstances are created in the runaway effort to regulate away their causes. Panic and fear allows the hierarchy to disvalue the concept of going back to the best solution, the one causing the least and smallest ‘bruises’ and the original one; Laissez Faire Capitalism.

The government’s only function should be to protect individual rights that can only be violated by physical force or fraud.

Secondly, history shows that monopolies have always been accompanied by government interference.

March 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm
(24) Paul Revere says:

The liberal view on capitalism is wrong, because you can not trust anyone in a position of power over the economy or regulating industry, All it takes to buy off the system is enough money.
We have more legal monopolies now than we have ever had in history. Anything owned by the government or ran by the government is crony capitalism because then laws are set in favor of that entity. The only fair market is a truly free market. You have just as much chance to succeed as I do.

March 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm
(25) Austin Cline says:

The liberal view on capitalism is wrong

There is “the” liberal view on capitalism? Just one? I didn’t know that. What is it?

because you can not trust anyone in a position of power over the economy or regulating industry

But you can trust a person of power over… a company or industry if they are in the private sector?

All it takes to buy off the system is enough money.

…which is never a problem in the private sector.

We have more legal monopolies now than we have ever had in history.

And as you are about to explain, the current era is one where “the liberal view on capitalism” completely dominates, completely excluding anything else. Right?

Anything owned by the government or ran by the government is crony capitalism because then laws are set in favor of that entity.

And “crony capitalism” is… liberal?

The only fair market is a truly free market.

…because the results of a “free market” is always just, right?

You have just as much chance to succeed as I do.

…assuming there is no racism, no sexism, not institutionalized discrimination, and no one has any chance whatsoever to cheat. And, under those conditions, whatever happens to is exactly what you deserve. It would be wrong for the government to interfere to make sure you have enough to eat, have medical care, get training to embark on a new career, or anything like that.

Because that would be… cronyism. Or liberal. Or something… but definitely wrong.

March 10, 2012 at 12:40 am
(26) Sally says:

There is no such thing as a ‘free market,’ Pau Revere – if there were, you would be out of a job because your boss would have replaced you with someone from a third-world country who would work for even less money!

February 23, 2013 at 3:39 pm
(27) David J Parry says:

Conservative atheists exist, but they are in a minority. Most atheists are liberal, libertarian, or some combination thereof.

Conservatism and libertarianism are not incompatible; it is possible to be a libertarian conservative. In fact, Edmund Burke, the ‘pioneer’, if you will, of Anglo-American conservatism, was a libertarian conservative.

“One thing liberals and libertarians agree upon is that the government should not interfere in its citizens’ personal lives – when it comes to social issues. So for issues that have little economic impact, such as abortion, same sex marriage, war, etc, there is no real difference.”

Iconoclast, I think, somewhat misconstrues libertarianism here. What (s)he says is true of some libertarians, but not so true of libertarian conservatives. Libertarian conservatives certainly believe in minimal government intervention in economic affairs, but tend to be less keen on extending this idea to the social sphere.

February 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm
(28) David J Parry says:

Also…

“Libertarianism’s defining feature, however, is an unabashed acceptance of laissez faire capitalism. This includes the necessary results of laissez faire capitalism: monopolies, enormous gaps between the rich and poor, periodic crashes, and a permanent, desperately poor underclass.

I prefer liberalism because libertarianism must perform wild contortions to justify such a system”

Once again, I think Iconoclast misrepresents libertarianism. Right-wing forms of libertarianism, including libertarian conservatism, certainly endorse laissez-faire, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and seem to regard its consequences (massive social inequality, huge poverty, etc) as something that we should resign ourselves to. Libertarian socialists, on the other hand, seek the overthrow of capitalism, not by the state, but by the direct seizure of control of the means of production through spontaneous, collective action (e.g. strikes), and are as disgusted by the results of unfettered markets as social (aka ’20th-century’) liberals are.

Furthermore, I think Iconoclast misrepresents liberalism. The implication here is that liberalism is inherently and necessarily opposed to unbridled capitalism. This is simply false. Indeed, it was liberals who were originally the most vociferous defenders of free markets, believing that if markets were left to their own devices and individuals sought to enrich themselves and their families through hard work, talent and effort, then there would be a net benefit for everyone (the idea of utility maximisation). It was only from the late 19th century onwards that some liberals, such as HG Green and JS Mill, began to take a more sceptical view of the market, recognising, that, in and of itself, it could not deliver prosperity and that it was necessary for the state to intervene toward that end (e.g. through social welfare).

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