Liberal, Not Conservative, Libertarianism

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Ilya Repin-What freedom! // Public domain

 “Why are libertarians so frequently ready to make alliances with the right & excuse deep differences, but the slightest difference with the left means we can’t partner at all, even if our overlapping concerns go to the heart of what it means to live in the liberal society we want?” – Professor Steve Horwitz

Libertarians have never been a mass movement, and therefore have often had to work with their own competitors, both conservatives and liberals (in the American sense of the word), to advance their ideas.

In the past, we could found common ground with conservatives in the area of economic freedoms and conversely with liberals in the area of individual freedoms. The debate about the relationship and importance of social and economic freedoms is certainly not a phenomenon of our time, some might even argue that this schism has been with freedom advocates since time immemorial. Of course, the divergent preferences for these freedoms imply a willingness to work with the two groups mentioned above. Some form of cooperation in advancing our policies is certainly necessary. But what path should a champion of liberty take today?

Dialectic Conservatives

In recent years much more cooperation with the conservatives can be observed, which is somewhat paradoxical given that the conservatives are becoming, thanks to their nationalist tendencies, an increasingly anti-freedom movement. And that includes also the economic freedoms. They actively oppose globalization, i.e. the interconnection of world markets and the free movement of goods, people and capital. Under the pressure of the current energy crisis, they are even sliding towards price controls, huge public spending or nationalization. Does that sound familiar? Yes, national conservatives could shake hands with socialists on these issues.

Until the rise of socialism, conservatism was the main opposition to the advocates of an open society. Note, however, that the conservatives themselves never offered their own alternative social order. Conservatives merely defend the social order under which people have lived up to now. However, we cannot say that this social order is a product of conservatism as such; the latter only puts itself in the role of advocate, not author, of this order.

As a result, then, this ideology is relative to the time and society in which it operates. Conservatism can therefore only be described as a kind of antithesis of liberalism, changing its ideological content as liberalism changed it. When liberalism still served as a label for advocates of both economic and personal freedom, conservatism opposed both. In the moment when liberalism began to unite only advocates of personal liberty, conservatives ceased to oppose the economic one. As can be seen now, however, it was only an ad hoc alliance, and conservatives are returning to their unfree roots.

Different in Path, Same in Goals. Freedom Is What Matters

There is much less talk of common themes and possible cooperation with modern liberals. Even given the fact that many of today’s liberals fight for a free society (although our definitions of freedom are different, we come to the same conclusions on key issues), liberals and libertarians differ in many cases on how to achieve these goals.

Should this stop us from cooperation? Definitely no, although we may find it very difficult to find agreement with these egalitarians on economic issues, we still share with them the struggle for personal freedoms. And even if one prefers economic freedoms more, it must be remembered that conservatives are not great supporters of the free market either.

So where, specifically, can we find agreement? There are three areas in particular. Libertarians and liberals clearly share a dissenting view on military conflict and foreign intervention. One of the greatest pioneers of the common peace movement was none other than Murray Rothbard. During the ongoing Vietnam War, he was not afraid to work with outspoken communists in order to overcome one of the most bloody and illiberal war conflicts of 20. century.

Another freedom in which we stand on the same side is represented by love, more precisely the freedom to love people of any gender. Here liberals and libertarians have been on the same side since the beginning of time.

Some may stress the fact that our opponents/potential allies from the liberal left side are often accused of supporting the aforementioned personal freedoms, but on the other hand are very negative about, for example, the freedom to own guns. But is this part and parcel of their ideology? It can be shown by several examples that it is not.

We can observe from the example of Makhno’s anarcho-communist Ukraine that the right to own a gun is even a condition for the functioning of left society. Not only was there no ban on arms, but every member of the society owned a gun in order to protect the entire union of communes and together they formed an ‘invincible army’.

A similar situation can be seen in another anarcho-communist bastion, Catalonia, where defense was also based on individuals owning guns. The negative attitude towards weapons is therefore not really an integral part of egalitarian ideologies, on the contrary. Furthermore, in the light of recent and unfortunately lasting incidents of police brutality against members of minorities, the right to own guns seems as a logical consequence of resistance to and protection against racism.

Double Standard

Even if we were not living in a time when conservatives are turning away from economic freedoms while continuing their tradition of trampling on personal ones, one fact remains. And that is the irrational unwillingness of most libertarians to cooperate with liberals in the areas of personal liberties to which they, unlike conservatives and economic liberties, have always been loyal and thus represent, at least in this area, a reliable ally. If libertarians spent the same effort they sacrifice on finding differences between us and liberals, rather than on advancing the issues we share, we would certainly be closer to a free society.


Written by Filip Blaha - analyst at CETA (Centre for Economic and Market Analysis).


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