Lumping Liberals and Libertarians

Will Wilkinson remains on the right track in looking for similarities between (some) liberals and (some) libertarians, while continuing to face objections. He debunks one common objection:

The Lump of Liberalism Fallacy

That’s what I’m going to call the error I sense lurking beneath a lot of resistance to moderate libertarianism. The fallacy is based on an implicit denial of the fluidity of ideology and political identity. The bounds of “right” and “left” have shifted immensely over the past two generations. Yet political conversation at any time tends to proceed as if the ideological inclinations and cultural assumptions of the “left” and “right” are natural, essential, and fixed. So, just to pick an example out of the air, the argument that the considerable intellectual, cultural, and psychological overlap between moderate classical liberals and market-friendly modern liberals ought to be given more coherence as a political philosophy and political identity is invariably met with the claim that this is compltely pointless because these groups have traditionally been part of different partisan coalitions, and these coalitions are essentially this or that way. So in order to make something liberaltarianism a going concern, you’ve basically got to find enough libertarians and natural Democrats both willing to sell out everything they believe in and good luck with that. It’s basically the same reasoning that says it is impossible to introduce to market a successful new brand of cereal because all the preexisting cereals brands already have 100 percent of the market share. But there’s something pretty obviously wrong with that way of thinking. I’m a big fan of Kashi U.

I’ve noted many times that there has been a major change in the definitions of left versus right in this country, especially when trying to apply a simplistic single definition for each group. These trends have been going on for a while and greatly accelerated during the Bush years.

Conservative increasingly came to be defined in terms of social conservatism and support for the neoconservative foreign policy (along with its associated restrictions on civil liberties). Those identified as liberals have increasingly been those of us who oppose the war, oppose the restrictions on civil liberties, and oppose the social policies of the religious right. All of these are areas in common with many libertarians.

Economic views, especially before the recent economic crash, have had far less significance in dividing liberals from conservatives. Considering the Republican support for corporate welfare and collusion between big business and government when Republicans were in power, liberals often were stronger supporters of free market principles than Republicans. In light of these trends, it makes perfect sense for Wilkinson to see a greater affinity between libertarians and liberals as opposed to conservatives.

Of course this gets more complicated when looking at the reality of vastly different groups often falling under these same  labels. Besides the social conservatives, there are still some conservatives who are more concerned with limiting government and preserving civil liberties. Unfortunately they now have minimal influence in the Republican Party, making the party a poor ally for libertarians. (A totally separate argument is whether libertarians should work to try to make the Republican Party more libertarian).

Liberals vary in terms of terms of their concentration more on civil liberties/social issues versus more traditional economic liberals, as I discussed here. Wilkinson is correct in his separation of liberals based upon whether they are more or less market-friendly.

There is also a wide variety of people who fall under the libertarian label. Ron Paul has some views in common with liberals, such as his opposition to the war, but ultimately he holds a number of conservative views which are contrary to promoting freedom. There are many libertarians who fit the stereotype of merely being “Republicans who have smoked marijuana.” The most extreme Libertarian Republicans even back the war along with massive restrictions upon civil liberties in support of the “war on terror.” These are clearly not the libertarians Wilkinson has in mind in forming any sort of common ground with market-friendly liberals.

We often have groups of people adopt common opinions which do not necessarily have to go together. This often occurs due to who they wind up associating with as opposed to any inherent need for these positions to be lumped together. There is no inherent reason for social conservatives to also adopt fiscal conservative policies. We are even seeing some breakdown in this, with conservatives such as Mike Huckabee often frustrating fiscal conservatives as much as Democrats do.

Similarly there is no reason that those who are liberals based upon opposition to the war, restrictions on civil liberties, and the social polices of the religious right must hold any specific economic views. This provides a logical opening for libertarians such as Wilkinson to seek communication with liberals who are not hostile to free market ideas.

The reverse might also be true. While hard core believers in pure laissez-faire capitalism may be unwavering in their view, generally based more on a quasi-religious ideology than actual evidence, I wonder how many other libertarians have adopted this view based upon a more general support of freedom and lack of seeing other alternatives. To some libertarians Republican views on social issues, civil liberties, and foreign policy make them an unacceptable choice.

Traditional Democratic views on economic policy excluded them for many libertarians, especially as propagandists on the right has often been successful in making Democratic policies appear even more anti-market than they actually are. Some libertarians are more concerned with economic policy, with many gravitating towards the Republicans, even if based more on rhetoric than actual policy. Many of them have winding up becoming overly tolerant of other Republican views after associating with them.

Libertarians whose fundamental concerns were over civil liberties and social issues may have adopted the more extreme economic views of libertarians from associating with them. Some might have been more accepting of a liberalism which concentrated on civil liberties and social issues and is generally market-friendly, even if not supporting total lack of government activity in the economy.

Wilkinson is essentially correct in his post. If we look at the old stereotypes of liberals and libertarians as fixed lumps the two will have a hard time coexisting. If we look at the wide variety of views held by individuals falling under these labels then there are some libertarians and some liberals who do have a lot more in common.

Related Posts:

Libertarians and the Republican Party
A Libertarian Joins The War of Words Against the Republican Party
Moving In A More Liberal and Libertarian Direction
Liberaltarians: Liberals and Libertarians Uniting

Will Wilkinson on Liberaltarianism

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. 1
    Fritz says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I do not find myself becoming more tolerant of the anti-freedom beliefs of Republicans when I associate with them — in fact, just the opposite.  I have to monitor myself for rudeness and eventually have to hang out with Democrats to detox.

    And associating with Democrats does not make me more tolerant of idiots like this:

  2. 2
    Barry says:

    Fight ignorance with economic education:

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I particularly enjoy these pieces on libertarianism and liberalism because of my own political education and evolution. I started as a Republican, with strong social libertarian tendencies, and found myself becoming more ‘liberal’ in the total sense as I became more and more of a civil libertarian. I simply stopped believing that the Republicans, as a political party, would do anything to advance libertarian values. As I actually learned more about economics, my economic libertarianism actually decreased as my knowledge increased. I’ve come to believe a free market is impossible in the modern corporate-commercial world without government regulation to protect it from the excesses of capital overpowering market tendencies.

    So I really think Wilkinson is onto something.

    Sadly, I also think he is onto it too late. I believe that most of the ‘soft’ libertarians like myself who would gladly make common cause with liberals already have, also like myself, and are mostly Democrats, Greens, or members of  Natural Law now.

    I think the rump of the Libertarian Party that remains consists of ‘hard’ libertarians whose views on economic ideology and government makes paleoconservatives like Bob Barr and Ron Paul their natural kindred spirits.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:


    I’m not saying it applies to you, but it is true of many libertarian-leaning people. Both situations occur. There are some who come to look more like Republicans, and there are others who have become increasingly repelled by Republicans, contributing to them being thrown out of power.

    There will always be idiots in both political parties.

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    The timing isn’t perfect for Wilkinson due to the current concentration on economic policy, but political/economic issues of the moment are different from long term consideration of political philosophy. More comments on this wound up in the comments to a different post.

    When I write about libertarians I also consider the Libertarian Party types to be just one type of libertarian. My involvement with libertarianism predates the founding of the LP. At the time the party was proposed many libertarians were opposed to it, for reasons which have turned out to be valid.

    When questioning if Wilkinson is right strategically depends a lot upon what your goals are. I’m primarily concerned with putting out ideas, not with whether one coalition will actually have more influence than another. Hard core libertarians make up a tiny percentage of the electorate and I’m not going to worry if most of them agree or disagree. Writing in the liberal blogosophere where most readers are liberals, or libertarians with similar views of liberalism, my concern is strengthening the more libertarian aspects of liberalism with regards to civil liberties while concentrating on more pragmatic approaches to economics. Free market economic thought both has a lot to offer for liberals who have not considered it, but also has limitations which hard core libertarians ignore.

    I’m not concerned about whether the “soft libertarians” are already spoken for. People’s views change with changing conditions and with greater exposure to more information. Liberals might accept more free market economic policy and libertarians who look at matters more pragmatically might come to realize that there are limitations to the free market, and a need for a certain amount of regulation to work. There are also young people whose views are not set.

    Again, this lack of concern is because I’m primarily writing about this in terms of considering ideas, not out of any attempt to promote a winning electoral strategy. Still there are benefits to this approach. There are many people who do oppose the recent anti-freedom actions of Republicans and the actions of the religious right who might not go to either ideological extreme on economic matters if offered another choice.

  6. 6
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I admit to some degree of concern because I am interested in electoral strategy up to the point where one has to win in order to achieve meaningful reform based on one’s ideas. I admit that after that point, I believe politics has to stop and ideas have to matter more (rather than less, as so often seems the case) once one has the ability to implement them. This is the crux of my constant disappointment with the Democratic Party, win or lose. Which is probably why I am a blogger and not a politician.

    Beyond that, I agree with you. I just can’t help but comment on my view of Wilkinson’s strategy as a strategy, because it is my nature. If I could keep my opinions to myself I wouldn’t be a blogger. 😉

    As someone whose primary question in economic, foreign policy, and social issues is social and individual civil liberty, I am very happy that someone is exposing liberals to libertarian ideas.

1 Trackbacks

Leave a comment