Why libertarians are not “social liberals”

Politico ran a story today from conservative writer Kevin Williamson on why Senator Rand Paul’s brand of libertarian-inflected conservatism will have trouble appealing to voters.

I don’t know about the politics, but Williamson makes an interesting point about the difference between libertarians and social liberals. Libertarians are sometimes described as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” but Williamson says that liberals actually don’t like Paul’s brand of leave-us-alone social libertarianism:

If the fair-weather fiscal conservatives don’t like Rand Paul, the phony social liberals are going to loathe him. Here’s where the English language fails us: “Liberal” and “libertarian” come from the same linguistic root, meaning “liberty,” and many libertarians will describe themselves among friends as “classical liberals”—political heirs to the Whigs and the Manchester free-traders. But “socially liberal” and “socially libertarian” today mean almost precisely opposite things. If there is one thing our “social liberals” hate, it is liberty. In their view, you’re free to do as they please.

Take the case of the Christian bakers and photographers who do not wish to participate in same-sex weddings because of their religious and moral views. Paul takes the classical liberal view, which is that people should be allowed to make their own decisions based on their own values, and that if a baker’s belief offends you, then you can criticize him, boycott him, give him the full Duck Dynasty treatment—but you cannot use the strong arm of the state to compel him to put two tuxedoed gentlemen on top of a cake.

America’s so-called social liberals think that amounts to Jim Crow for gay people. Paul’s instinct is to get marriage entirely out of the federal tax code and to let the states define marriage for themselves. For social liberals, that is, at best, a punt. On the subject of gay marriage, they do not want a skeptical federalist—they want a president who is categorically in favor of gay marriage. They do not want somebody tolerant, but somebody committed, and willing to use the federal government to make their own preferences national policy. They don’t want marriage written out of the federal tax code—they want gay marriage written into it. They demand a pro-gay president even if, like Barack Obama in 2008 and 2010 and half of 2012, he claims to be against gay marriage for reasons of cynical political self-interest. Liberalism is a subculture; they know their own. Rand Paul isn’t one of them—and probably won’t get their votes. In fact, whether it is abortion, guns, public-school curricula or the all-important issue of dropping the federal civil-rights hammer on noncomformist bakers, Paul can count on bitter, unified opposition from liberal social-issue voters.

Minus the tendentious characterization of liberalism, I actually think Williamson is on to something here. Broadly speaking, liberals care about social equality, while libertarians care about non-interference from the government. This is why, for example, you get liberals arguing that business owners shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation, while libertarians say that property owners should be free to discriminate in whom they serve (or hire).

Sometimes these views overlap in their policy recommendations–for example, both liberals and libertarians generally oppose locking up nonviolent drug users. But it’s worth understanding that these are based in different philosophical viewpoints. Liberals do not see non-interference by the government as the highest political good. In fact, they think that government action is often warranted to ameliorate social inequalities. From a liberal point of view, libertarian “non-interference” leaves people, particularly less powerful people, at the mercy of private concentrations of power–corporations, bosses, intolerant religious and social majorities, etc. Certainly liberals think liberty is an important good, but they don’t see government as the only, or even necessarily the main, threat to liberty.*

Incidentally, this is why I think the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” formula is ultimately incoherent. If social liberalism is about social equality, then you can’t be a social liberal without supporting the material conditions of equality. This means not only that government may need to step in to thwart discrimination, but also that it should ensure access to the basic material conditions of participating in society on an equal footing. This includes such essential goods as education, health care, and a minimum level of income (though liberals disagree on the ideal mechanisms to provide access to these goods). Liberals and libertarians may share some philosophical forbears, but at this point they’re really different species.


*It’s worth noting that J.S. Mill’s classic liberal manifesto On Liberty was in large part concerned with non-governmental forms of coercion.

3 thoughts on “Why libertarians are not “social liberals”

  1. It does seem to me that libertarians and liberals are almost opposites. Liberals care about the common good but libertarians seem like social Darwinists. I wonder if there are any poor libertarians.

    1. Liberals care about the common good but libertarians seem like social Darwinists.”

      “Not only is there no such thing as the “common good” unless if would prove that a good is so common that it entails voluntary actions completely and would not need force or threats thereof by government, but libertarians also are not “social Darwinists”; they simply aren’t going to make excuses (like liberals and conservatives do) for the kind of governmental behavior that would be accepted by no one if exhibited by private citizens (theft, murder, torture, imprisonment for victimless crimes etc). Libertarianism has nothing to say about being philanthropic or an egoist; it merely forbid anyone from using force to impose his or her PERSONAL views on others. There would not be many social darwinists; but they will make the point that they have a right to be, simply to make clear that it ought not be up to liberals and conservatives, to use the state as a mechanism of violence to impose their own ideological views on the rest.

      “I wonder if there are any poor libertarians.”

      One is responding to you right now. So what are the odds i happen to be the only one? So much for that simplistic wealthy vs poor socialist class struggle rhetoric. A common mistake of people who think of everything in terms of money instead of actual ideals and principles. Liberals are just as obsessed with wealth as the greedy rich people they seem to hate so much.
      In so far as libertarians talk about wealth, it’s not about being rich, but the RIGHT to be rich, without having state violence directed at you by the agents of envious people.

  2. Pingback: Libertarians are fiscally libertarian, and socially libertarian | The Individualist

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