Curious about Libertarians

Some of my closest friends are libertarians. I love them to bits. Yet, their politics strike a chord in my heart that makes me shudder. Since i’ve been taking the Lakoff class, i’ve been faced with the dichotomy between conservatives and progressives. It always makes me wonder where the libertarians fit in.

In Moral Politics, Lakoff argues that libertarians are fundamentally conservatives ++ (read this chapter if you’re a libertarian!). Barlow concurred, telling me that’s what he used to think that he was. He’s always told me that the approach libertarians take boils down to “leave us the fuck alone.”

In thinking of the values of libertarians, the first that immediately comes to mind is meritocracy. Interestingly, most of my friends who espouse to be libertarians are some of the most privileged intelligent folks that i know. I’m not convinced that meritocracy gave them that privilege. From a meritocratic value system, everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. It is their responsibility to work hard; if they do, they will have access to the fruits of success. Another strain says some people are more intelligent and they simply should have the rewards of that.. this is the outright elitist strand. The work-ethic value comes straight out of conservative thinking. In either case, both go against my own progressive value system.

I strongly believe that the world is inherently unequal and unfair. I believe that fairness is essential and that no one should suffer simply because of the position they were born into. I believe that we must work to make access open to everyone. I believe that a diverse community offers different perspectives, all of which are exceptionally valuable. This means diversity across all axes. A pure meritocratic system consistently excludes people from lower socio-economic classes and poorer countries. This bothers me.

In theory, libertarians and i have the same views on a lot of policies. We’re both pro-choice on lots of topics. We’re both anti-military. Yet, our motivations behind these stances are fundamentally different. Take the military. Libertarians simply don’t want to pay for it. I think that we need to be a part of an international community and that cannot be done by force. Libertarians would never be in favor of working with outside agencies for anything. Most of the libertarians i know are mostly of the civil liberties style. They don’t want the government to curtail their liberties. I don’t want the government to curtail equality or opportunity, which often boils down to not wanting the government to curtail liberties.

While we have similar beliefs, no libertarian that i know is in favor of social programs of any sorts. Education. Housing for the poor. Affirmative action. Economic support for working mothers. Environmentalism. Yet, these are all policies that i’m adamantly in favor of. And my motivation comes down to my strong belief in equality, fairness and opportunity.

The thing that i cannot resolve is why so many of my younger libertarian friends think that they’re more aligned with progressives than conservatives when they don’t believe in any of the underly motivations of progressive and their underlying motivations are more attuned to conservatives. What am i missing? What don’t i understand about libertarians?

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18 thoughts on “Curious about Libertarians

  1. Eric Nehrlich

    I’m not a libertarian myself, although I sometimes have such inclinations. But I would guess that since the overriding desire of libertarians is to be left alone, as you note, that fits in better with a consensus-driven progressive approach rather than a hierarchical conservative approach. Lakoff points out that conservatives are driven by a moral hierarchy, where everybody higher up has the right and duty to tell the people below them what to do. Since that violates the prime directive of libertarians, they choose the progressives by default, since progressives don’t tell anybody what to do, leaving each of us the right to choose our path. It’s a theory, at least. And, yeah, Lakoff’s analysis of libertarians as conservatives with a different emphasis on metaphors was pretty interesting.

  2. Dan G

    Ok, you’ve insisted that I’m a libertarian several times (which, compared only to the choices of liberal or conservative is probably correct).

    Some of us are aligned with progressives because we belive that a lot of what you say are important goals. For example, with some of the policies you listed above (e.g., education, affirmative action, economic support for working mothers, environmentalism), I belive that we have a moral imperative to support those things.

    What I disagee with is the method. I don’t belive in the government forcing people to participate in their centralized system for accomplishing those goals.

    So, I would say that someone living in a relatively libertarian society who doesn’t contribute towards those goals is an immoral person. But someone who uses the power of government to comply with their particular vision is also a bad person.

    Second, there’s a huge amount of good data showing that improving the overall size of economies increases most people’s weath far better than changing the distribution. On an empirical basis, I supposed a more distributed/emergent economy as the best way to help everyone. (I am too busy to dig up references at the moment, but I’m quite happy to when I have more time.)

  3. Dan G

    I should add that, I’m probably unrepresentative of libertarians, but I think that my set of “frames” might be useful. I tend to agree far more with the liberal frames that Lakoff presents.

    However, I am strongly against the compulsion aspect of it. I apologize that this isn’t clearer, but I haven’t figured out how to mesh it with the family model.

  4. Dan G

    Sorry to post so many quick comments, but thinking about it for a minute, I actually do think I understand how it fits in with the family model.

    The two models presented are the “strict father” and the “nuturant” model. Neither of these is a great model for my family (and I remember thinking that several years back when I first read Lakoff). My family might be more of an “independent” family.

    We certainly didn’t have a “strict father” model — outside of the normal kid basics, there wasn’t any big hierarchy. But on the “nuturant” side, we weren’t smothered; my parents disdained overprotective parents.

    Instead, we were all expected to figure out what we were interested in and do it. Approval came from acheiving something, but it didn’t matter whether that something was inventing a gadget (my parents still have no understanding of any of the technology stuff I do) or my brother doing well running in a race. The key is that you are expected to find something that you want to make happen and do it; the rest of the family will help once you’ve taken that step.

    Likewise, helping others is something that one should do, and is approved of, but not compelled. One seeks to be a good person.

    Aside from that, we’re pretty anti-authoritarian.

    Now, I do understand that there is a certain amount of privelege that one needs to be able to be independent. However, beyond a pretty basic point, I think it’s an equally valid (though far less common) family structure to the two named.

  5. Joe Grossberg

    “While we have similar beliefs, no libertarian that i know is in favor of social programs of any sorts”

    That’s a common misconception about libertarianism.

    What libertarians disagree with is forcing people to support those programs (e.g. through taxation) rather than relying on consent.

    Now, whether or not private contributions would be “enough” to finance good causes (or what “enough” means or what causes are worthwhile) is another story … but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a libertarian who disagrees with the morality of, say, a privately-funded scholarship program.

    As Dan G. says, they are “strongly against the compulsion aspect of it”. You think that XYZ is a good cause? More power to you — I suggest you do what you can to support it. But don’t demand that others do the same, even if they disagree with it.

  6. Pete Jordan

    “Libertarian” in the sense you describe seems a peculiarly North American way of being. My impression, admittedly based on a small sample, is that most people who identify themselves so are largely right wing (in European terms), but their presence in the libertarian-as-opposed-to-authoritarian side of the political plane still brings them closer to those of us with a non-Stalinist social welfare perspective: a socially liberal perspective is certainly more comfortable to be around than even the best intentioned of stateist social control freaks.

    But whether the thoughts of an ageing UK left-Anarchist are of any relevance, I know not 🙂

  7. Alex Halavais

    Libertarians believe in civil rights, until they interfere with their “natural” property rights. It is the assumption that property is anything but a construct of the state that makes libertarians scary, IMHO.

  8. Joe Grossberg


    “the assumption that property is anything but a construct of the state”


    If I catch a fish, plant a crop or paint a portrait, are you telling me that the products of that labor are somehow not “naturally” my property?

    I suppose that pronouns like “mine” and “yours” don’t exist in stateless socieites?

  9. Kevin Marks

    You comment about outright elitism is interesting, as there is another strand of this that derives from Plato originally, and drives the liberal mode too.
    This is that people will make poor choices without the wise guidance.
    Plato did a remarkable job in following through the consequences of this impulse when combined with a directed-rule frame, and ends up with some policy proscrpitions that would seem like reductio ad absurdum, had we not seem them carried out so often in the last century:

    The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.
    Yes, he said, that must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure.

    How will they proceed? They will begin by sending out into the country all the inhabitants of the city who are more than ten years old, and will take possession of their children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents; these they will train in their own habits and laws, I mean in the laws which we have given them: and in this way the State and constitution of which we were speaking will soonest and most easily attain happiness, and the nation which has such a constitution will gain most.

    The countervailing frame is not of central rule but of bottom-up emergence; that people can and should be trusted to make their own choices, and not be told what is good for them by a wise elite. How we structure society to provide fairness

    Two other things on contrasting frames worth reading – an essay (by my father from 1985) setting out the emergent vs top-down case with reference to Hayek.
    Also Jane Jacobs frame of ‘Guardian’ vs “commercial’ mindsets in Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics

    Different ways of approaching the framing issue from Lakoff.

  10. Alex Halavais

    Joe: “If I catch a fish, plant a crop or paint a portrait, are you telling me that the products of that labor and investment are somehow not ‘naturally’ my property?”

    I am taking this as a question in earnest, and not just a troll.

    No, I am saying that the idea of property itself is difficult or impossible to imagine outside of the state-sanctioned or inflicted violence that supports it. What makes the fish yours? That you gave birth to it? That you owned the lake it came from? That you captured it? That you had a license to capture it? That you have it in your personal possession (poissession?) at this moment? Caught it from “your” land? Maybe you invented the species? Or fed the fish as it grew?

    Are other things that end up on your hooks also yours?

    What does it even *mean* that you own the fish? That you can eat it? That you can keep it as a pet? Torture it? Rent it out? License its image? (Uh oh, portraiture difficulties there, no?)

    Even those who accept that property is a good thing (and clearly I have a problem with that) will admit that it there is little in “natural” law that will help us to understand how it should be defended in practical terms.

    So the difficulty here is one of deep-running axiological and ontological assumptions. If I accept your assumption that property is somehow natural, then color me a libertarian.

    (P.S. Monsanto wants to know where you got that seed. It may be “theirs.”)

  11. p-trick

    Although I agree with Pete Jordan that Libertarianism is right-Wing in the European sense, I find this rough and almost too simple classification more revealing:

    Republican (conservative): state should not provide social programs, but should set some moral standards.
    Democrat (liberal): state may provide some social programs, but should not set moral standards (e.g. pro-choice)
    Libertarianism: state should be absolutely minimal, ethically and economically.

    Of course, the framework may be extended with socialism and even left-wing liberalism, both marginal in the US, but common views in Europe.

    Whereas some people tend to claim that the left-right distinction is disapearing, I think that we merely should distinguish between ethical and economical views. Which in my opinion shows that the conservative view is quite inconsistent: people should take care for themselves, but cannot decide what is morally right.

  12. kevin r

    Any sufficiently broad extrapolation/exploration/comparison of a stereotype, like Libertarian or Conservative or Progressive, is ultimately going to yield confusion (and trigger curiosity in any good blogger like yourself.)

    Stereotypes do not scale down well. People make choices about how to balance the human condition of being an individual who exists in a community. Once they find a balance, it is easier to express the generalities using the stereotype, but the specifics are going to be all over the map.

    How might my odd view of politics address your question of (to paraphrase) libertarian’s aligning with progressives when they are more clearly categorized closer to conservatives?

    Lets say that people place a good deal of effort reaching for their desired individual/community balance. That leads me to believe they would like that balance to be maintained without having to change the individual part of the equation too much. That is, they would like the community to move (or move back) to a place where they can keep their desired individual beliefs, morals, money, etc.

    To get to that point, I think your “younger libertarian friends” feel “aligning with progressives” is more effective in moving the community closer to their desired equilibrium point than playing with conservatives.

    …Of course once donna becomes president their leanings might be different. 🙂

  13. Autumn

    I’m taking a political rhetoric class at Foothill College (a community college in Los Altos, CA). Someone posted on Livejournal about your blog of the Lakoff class, and I wanted to say THANK YOU! I’m envious! I’ve been paying him and his work a lot of attention lately, and I’ve linked to your information on the Yahoo group for my class. Please keep up the good work!

    Regarding Libertarians… as a liberal freak, I know a lot of Libertarians. When I was a teenager, I listened to a presentation about Libertarianism, and found myself drawn in. Now that I’m older, I’ve started to strongly disagree with a lot of their ideology. For example, having learned about the fundamental attribution error significantly changed my politics.

    I grew up in an upper middle class family in Palo Alto – meaning, we were some of the poorer people in the school district. I actually believed that we (who owned a house in Palo Alto and two cars – not a mansion and not Cadillacs, but still) were lower middle class until I was maybe 20. The funademental attribution error – that a person’s ability and drive is the sole factor in their success or lack thereof – was central to my politics and view of the world. I believed that all homeless people were crazy and/or addicted and that poor people could always do better for themselves given enough hard work.

    A lot of this changed when I moved out of state and lived in a poor neighborhood and worked a low-paying job. I started to realize that this was a job I could get at 18 because I was clever and had access to all kinds of opportunities as a kid, but that for many of my co-workers, this was it, their bread and butter, the job they were going to have for years. It wasn’t that they were dumb or even uneducated, it was that I had grown up expecting money to come to me and knowing how to get along in an upper middle class world – and managers like that. I started to realize that intellect, education, and drive really weren’t all they’d been made out to be.

    The other thing that really pushed me away from Libertarianism was an understanding that as much as I might dislike others, I still have to live with them. I don’t want kids and even if I had them, I could probably afford to educate them on my own. So why should I pay for public education? Ultimately, the answer is that I value an educated society, and I don’t want to live in a country full un- and under- educated people. The same with health care – I don’t want to live in a country full of plague, so I’d better be prepared to pay for things like treatment for the destitute or free vaccinations.

    Anyways, that was a little long. Thanks for sparking these thoughts, and again thank you for blogging the Lakoff class. Please continue to do so, I’m finding your notes really valuable.

  14. Irina

    I come from a country that had approximately 70 years of what “was yet to be” communisim, “working towards a bright future”. Show me a country that got the utopian ideals of socialism to work before decrying the ideas of “property” and requiring the fisherman to “birth the fish” before claiming ownership. Its easy to scream “equality” when you were never forced into one.

  15. Lawrence Krubner

    Libertarianism is inside of the liberal tradition that started with Locke, and which includes the social reformism of Bentham. Christian fundamentalists are outside of that tradition. Therefore, no matter how much you disagree with them, libertarians still have more in common with you than they have with the fundamentalists.

    I’ve noticed that among left-wing teens everyone nowadays is calling themself an anarchist, instead of calling themselves marxists. I think the anarchist thing is the left-wing version of the libertarian thing. There has been a generational shift against government, young folk look to it for less now than 50 years ago, it doesn’t matter if they are left or right.

  16. zephoria

    Btw: i wanted to take a moment to thank everyone for this thread. I haven’t been commenting because i don’t know much and i wanted to see where it would go. I really really really appreciate the ration and diverse perspectives brought to the table here. It’s really refreshing to have a thread on a political topic be educational and not devolve into hell.

    I’m definitely fascinated by the stereotypes. I actually really like stereotypes because they make me think about the cognitive models in my brain and that’s just fantastic fodder to chew on.

    Thank you again.

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