Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Comments on Liberal and Libertarian

Anyone who spends any times here knows I spend lots of time reading on the internet and that I do so from a wide variety of sources. I do not pull my news from "conservative" sources or "liberal" sources" or blah blah blah. I read across the spectrum. If I find something of interest from a source I know has a definite slant or that I know others strongly believe has a definite slant, I will go find other sources to confirm the details (unless I'm commenting on the article itself and not on the news in the article, of course). I read sources with which I definitely do not agree because I believe in the maxim Know Thy Enemy. Because of this, I come across all kinds of goofiness and strange stuff.
Two things I've been seeing large doses of lately are misuse of or pointless arguments about the words "liberal" and "libertarian". Much of this comes from idiots who are just trying to make an ideological statement. Some, however, comes, from people who are trying to "prove" how educated they are by quoting classic French Libertarian philosophers (as though philosophies never change or a modern political movement would be 100% based in a single classic philosophy) or by pointing that that America's Founding Fathers were "liberal" (as though using the same label equals standing for the same things). Because I do believe that both of these are important words, allow me to take a few minutes to clear up some misconceptions.
We'll start with "liberal" because that, in this case, will be the easier one. For one thing, you'll rarely see me use the word. Unlike most commenters, I fully understand that it is a highly-charged word that has multiple meanings. Put simply, it potentially means so much that it practically means nothing. You cannot say "liberal" and have anyone actually understand you unless you also apply various other conditions to clearly present context. Yes, the Founding Fathers were quite liberal for their time (that accented phrase is quite important here) but that does not, in and of itself, mean that they would agree with or support someone who was liberal for another time. The term "liberal", in this usage, is entirely context dependent. Without a statement of when and where, it has no meaning and differing points of when and where can give it very different meanings. Yes, Classic Liberalism is the foundation of the concepts of equal and civil rights (going all the way back to the ancient Greeks) and yes the Left often (though far from always) gets a better scorecard in this area. Yes, it has been the modern Left who have spearheaded the civil rights and equal rights movements (and they do deserve praise for this), but it has also been the modern Left who have hijacked the civil and equal rights movements to turn them into an Animal Farm "some are more equal than others" agenda (and they deserve condemnation for this). In addition to this, Classical Liberalism has nothing to do with environmentalism, socialism, welfare, or any number of other ideas that define the modern Left. This is why you will rarely see me use the word "liberal" when speaking of the Left and this is why making comparisons between the modern Left and the Founding fathers - comparisons based solely on the fact that both can be called "liberal" - is just plain silly.
Libertarian is a bit more tricky because it is a loaded term with which few people are truly even familiar. I've seen people - including some of those smarties quoting French philosophers - who equate Libertarianism with anarchy. While this may or may not be true in that French philosophy class (I don't think it is, but I haven't studied enough French philosophy to say for certain - I can say that the French Libertarian philosophers I have studied certainly did not equate their philosophy with anarchy) it is adamantly not true in the modern political movement that calls itself Libertarian. It is a centerpiece of the political Libertarian platform that there is a legitimate role for limited government. While the stress there should be on "limited" (as in, as tiny as you can get away with), accepting a legitimate role for even a minuscule government is miles away from anarchy. In fact, it is worth noting that, when Libertarians and Anarchists have to make common cause with other political groups, you can almost depend on self-professed Libertarians lining up with the Right and self-professed Anarchists lining up with the Left. You do the math.
There are those who laugh at Libertarians saying such things as, "How can you believe government is too inefficient to handle welfare but is more efficient at warfare?" Well, you kind of missing the point. Government inefficiencies are not the reason for the belief in limited government. They are simply one point that even non-limited-government types can grasp and go along with. Government may or may not actually be more efficient at warfare (though governments as a whole have certainly had plenty of practice) but warfare is one of government's only legitimate roles. Those classical and neoclassical philosophers who espoused the ideals of liberty and equality upon which the Libertarian movement is based all taught and demonstrated that one of the only reasons that free people accept a government is defense of the people. Defending from threats both external (military) and internal (police) fits squarely within the Libertarian definition of limited government, not for reasons of efficiency or inefficiency, but because it is a legitimate function of government.
I had to laugh when I read one of those smarties who was equating Libertarian with anarchy ask another commenter, "Have you even read Ayn Rand?" First of all, Rand was not the founder of modern American Libertarianism. She was the founder of Objectivism. There is a big difference. While the two share many points in common (and some of the principles of Objectivism, as stated in Rand's novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, were the starting points of Libertarianism), the former is a political philosophy that seeks to define the limited and legitimate function of government while the latter is a moral and ethical philosophy that seeks to define proper behavior for all thinking people. You might notice a difference in goals there. However, in answer to the question (which wasn't asked of me, but I'll answer anyway), yes I have read the books, numerous times. Have you? Rand stated repeatedly that the military, the courts, and the police were the only legitimate functions of government. Not, apparently, an anarchist.
To use one of Ayn Rand's favorite phrases (it seems appropriate here), words have meaning. If you use them without knowing their meaning or use them incorrectly despite knowing their meaning then you are a fool who hurts not only your own cause but all other causes around you as well. There are many of things for the Left and Right to argue about but, since neither side seems very skilled with the use of a dictionary, I would suggest that labels not be one of them.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, many libertarians do regard Rand as a founder of modern libertarianism, although Rand herself despised them.