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An FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Liberals and Libertarians
Posted by authors, Eric Raymond and Chris Holt on 12/09/1996 at 01:53:23

FAQ: Libertarian vs. Liberal

A. Definitions, Principles and History

1. What is a libertarian?

What is a liberal?

The word means roughly 'believer in liberty'. Libertarians believe in individual conscience and individual choice, and reject the use of force or fraud to compel others except in direct response to force or fraud. Some libertarians (the so-called Le Fevbrians) reject *all* use of force, even in self-defense. The word has a number of meanings, all of which reflect aspects of liberal thought. These include 'favorable to progress and reform, as in religious or political affairs'; 'favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties'; 'open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.'; and 'characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts'. [Random House Dictionary of the English Language]. Liberals want to change things to increase personal freedom and tolerance, and are willing to empower government to the extent necessary to achieve those ends.

2. What do libertarians want to do?

What do liberals want to do?

Help individuals take more control over their own lives. Take the state (and other self-appointed representatives of 'society') out of private decisions. Put both halves of the welfare/warfare bureaucracy out of business and liberate the 7/8ths of our wealth that's now soaked up by the costs of a bloated and ineffective government to make us all richer and freer. Oppose tyranny everywhere, whether it's the obvious variety driven by greed and power-lust or the subtler, 'well-intentioned' kinds that coerce people 'for their own good' but against their will. Help individuals take more control over their own lives. This requires (a) providing an environment that does not arbitrarily remove choice; (b) ensuring that isolated failures of judgment are not catastrophic, removing choice; (c) offering enough information so that choices can be understood and made intelligently; and (d) giving people responsibility and encouraging self-reliance within a social framework. It is important to distinguish different levels of choice; alternative kinds of toothpaste are not more important than (e.g.) career options.

3. What the roots of libertarianism, and liberalism?

Modern libertarianism has multiple roots. An important one is the minimal-government republicanism of the U.S.'s founding revolutionaries, especially Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the 'classical liberals' of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were another influence. More recently, Ayn Rand's philosophy of 'ethical egoism' and the 'Austrian School' of free-market capitalist economics have both contributed important ideas. Libertarianism is alone among 20th-century radical movements in owing virtually nothing to Marxism. Modern liberalism has multiple roots. An important one is the provision of human rights, from the Magna Carta through the US Constitution to the International Declaration of Human Rights. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the 'classical liberals' of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were another influence. The recognition that the social and economic patterns of large populations are qualitatively different from those of small groups draws upon insights of Marx, Weber, and Keynes. Modern liberalism is virtually alone among 20th-century movements in trying to synthesize classical-liberal individualism with the Marxist critique of capitalism, adding a heavy sprinkling of pragmatic compromise.

4. How do libertarians and liberals differ from one another?

Once upon a time (in the 1800s), 'liberal' and 'libertarian' meant the same thing; 'liberals' were individualist, distrustful of state power, pro-free-market, and opposed to the entrenched privilege of the feudal and mercantilist system. After 1870, the 'liberals' were gradually seduced (primarily by Marxism) into believing that the state could and should be used to guarantee 'social justice'. They largely forgot about individual freedom, especially economic freedom, and nowadays spend most of their time justifying higher taxes, bigger government, and more regulation. Libertarians call this socialism without the brand label and want no part of it. Once upon a time (in the 1800s), 'liberal' and 'libertarian' meant the same thing; both were individualist, distrustful of state power, pro-free-market, and opposed to the entrenched privilege of the feudal and mercantilist system. After 1870, models of of society were being refined in terms of the structural effects of group interaction; the social environment came to be seen as a significant factor in determining the ability of large numbers of people to succeed in attaining their goals (and indeed in determining what those goals were). Libertarians felt that any attempt to solve social problems had to depend on private, voluntary effort, and that modifying social factors would inevitably lead to worse problems. Liberals felt that the problems were too serious to be passively left to chance in this way, and that government should have a role in influencing the social framework within which people act. Economically, liberals came to believe that pure free markets led to systematic abuse, so that a limited amount of regulation was needed; libertarians continued to favour the caveat emptor approach. By this time, conservatives had become comfortable with the free-market, capitalist system, so they joined forces with the libertarians on the economic (though not the social) front.

5. How do libertarians differ from 'conservatives'?

How do liberals differ from 'socialists' and 'communists'?

For starters, by not being conservative. Most libertarians have no interest in returning to an idealized past; we've been there, and it obviously sucked. More generally, libertarians hold no brief for the right wing's rather overt militarist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian tendencies and reject conservative attempts to 'legislate morality' with censorship, drug laws, and obnoxious Bible-thumping. Though libertarians believe in free-enterprise capitalism, we also refuse to stooge for the military-industrial complex as conservatives are so often and disgustingly wont to do. Communists understand society as interactions of groups, to the extent that they largely ignore the value and effect of individual action. Socialists, while advocating individual rights, see property-owning structures in society as inevitably leading to corruption and the ill-treatment of the poor by the rich. Both groups arose as a reaction to the abuses of capitalists, and so feel that individual acquisitiveness is the primary cause of social injustice and poverty. [This is over-simplified.] Liberals feel that when properly regulated, self-interest is a powerful and useful motivation; it should be harnessed, rather than erased.

6. What role should the government play?

Libertarians want to abolish as much government as they practically can. About 3/4 are 'minarchists' who favor stripping government of most of its accumulated power to meddle, leaving only the police and courts for law enforcement and a sharply reduced military for national defense (nowadays some might also leave special powers for environmental enforcement). The other 1/4 (including the author of this FAQ) are out-and-out anarchists who believe that 'limited government' is a delusion and the free market can provide better law, order, and security than any goverment monopoly. Liberals see the role of government as providing a framework within which individuals can develop their lives and contribute to society. Regulation of private industry is needed to ensure integrity and safety, with respect to customers and workers. Equal opportunity should be a goal, which entails a level of provision to ameliorate the effects of poverty and discrimination. Health care and education should be universally available, since without either, individual choice is severely limited. Liberals do *not* want the government to protect people from themselves, or to interfere in individual interaction, except insofar as to prevent systematic actions that cause harm.

B. Politics and Consequences

7. What are the libertarian and liberal positions on abortion?

Most libertarians are strongly in favor of abortion rights (the Libertarian Party often shows up at pro-rights rallies with banners that say 'We're Pro-Choice on Everything!). Many libertarians are personally opposed to abortion, but reject governmental meddling in a decision that should be private between a woman and her physician. Many libertarians also oppose government funding of abortions, on the grounds that 'pro-lifers' should not have to subsidize with their money behavior they consider to be murder. Most liberals are in favor of abortion rights. Although a foetus is a pre-human, and should be accorded as many rights as possible all else being equal, the quality of life of existing human beings can at this level outweigh the potential life of the baby. It is, however, a difficult question that involves tradeoffs among very important conflicting goals, so no dogmatic yes/no answer can be found; it depends on circumstances.

8. What are the libertarian and liberal positions on minority, gay & women's rights?

Libertarians believe every human being is entitled to equality before the law and fair treatment as an *individual* responsible for his or her own actions. We oppose racism, sexism and sexual-preference bigotry, whether perpetrated by private individuals or (especially) by government. We reject discrimination, whether in its ugly traditional forms or in its newer guises as Affirmative Action quotas and 'diversity' rules. A free market promotes empowerment and social mobility the best, and we trust that means to equality as much as we distrust attempts to enforce equality at the expense of individual rights. Liberals believe that every human being is entitled both to equality before the law and equal opportunity in society. Systematic discrimination causes unequal opportunity by removing choice; it is not enough to say that the victim(s) could go elsewhere, if there is nowhere else to go. It is true that legislating beliefs cannot work; but legislating that actions cannot discriminate unfairly treats the symptom while a cure is sought. The danger is that the underlying problem is then ignored or exacerbated; this is why education plays such a vital role.

9. What are the libertarian and liberal positions on gun control?

Radically opposed. The revolutionaries who kicked out King George based their call for insurrection on the idea that Americans have not only the right but the *duty* to oppose a tyrannical government with force --- and that duty implies readiness to *use* force. This is why Thomas Jefferson said that 'Firearms are the American yeoman's liberty teeth' and, in common with many of the Founding Fathers, asserted that an armed citizenry is the securest guarantee of freedom. Libertarians assert that 'gun control' is a propagandist's lie for 'people control', and even if it worked for reducing crime and violence (which it does not) it would be a fatally bad bargain. The conflict here involves distrust of government, individual responsibility, and attitudes towards violence within society. Giving everyone a mechanism to hurt other people quickly, easily, and at a distance is dangerous; people are more likely to do it. On the other hand, a basic liberal principle is that people should be trusted, and that large organizations should not. One approach to resolving this conflict is the Swiss system, in which large numbers of people own guns, but they are registered such that usage can be easily traced; such weapons are kept in a manner that reduces the possibility of sudden, irrational use. Many liberals prefer the outright banning of guns intended only to kill people, on the grounds that such weapons are by now ineffective in dealing with abuse of power by government.

10. What are the libertarian and liberal positions on art, pornography and censorship?

Libertarians are opposed to any government-enforced limits on free expression whatsoever; we take an absolutist line on the First Amendment. On the other hand, we reject the 'liberal' idea that refusing to subsidize a controversial artist is censorship. Thus, we would strike down all anti-pornography laws as unwarranted interference with private and voluntary acts (leaving in place laws punishing, for example, coercion of minors for the *production* of pornography). We would also end government funding of art; the label of 'artist' confers no special right to a living at public expense. Liberals are opposed to government-enforced limits on free expression; this, the First Amendment of the US Constitution, is the issue on which they come closest to taking an absolutist line. This extends to the propagation of ideas; in our mass media age, an opinion or argument that is not conveyed to large numbers of people is effectively censored. Thus, not only should anti-pornography laws be removed, but the active promotion of alternative and controversial viewpoints should be encouraged and financially supported. This can give people a better idea of the arguments both for and against a given position.

11. What are the libertarian and liberal positions on the draft?

The draft is slavery, pure and simple, and ought to be prohibited as 'involuntary servitude' by the 13th Amendment. Any nation that cannot find anough volunteers to defend it among its citizenry does not deserve to survive. The argument against the draft is that it coerces people, and it reduces the overall effectiveness of the army. The argument for the draft is that in an emergency, manpower may be required that otherwise would not be available, and depending entirely upon supply and demand places the poor at risk more than the rich. In ordinary peacetime, the draft should not exist. In foreign adventures, some liberals feel that only volunteers should be sent to fight. In genuine emergencies that threaten the nation, where volunteer forces are not sufficient, the draft is preferable to simply increasing wages until enough people are willing to fight.

12. What are the libertarian and liberal positions on the 'drug war'?

This country went through Prohibition once, and its only long-term result was to corrupt law enforcement and create a vicious and entrenched criminal class. It's happening again, and (just like last time) selective enforcement is making the 'war on drugs' a war against the poor and black and downtrodden and a pretext for dangerous expansions in police power (through confiscation laws, 'no-knock' warrants and a thousand other 'anti-drug' measures). In any case, the government has no right to tell us what we can or cannot put in our bodies. Only the individual can decide to 'say no'; the drug problem is not one of supply but of *demand*. Total legalization of everything is the only way to break the drug gangs. This country went through Prohibition once, and its only long-term result was to corrupt law enforcement and create a vicious and entrenched criminal class. It's happening again, and (just like last time) selective enforcement is making the 'war on drugs' a war against the poor and black and downtrodden and a pretext for dangerous expansions in police power (through confiscation laws, 'no-knock' warrants and a thousand other 'anti-drug' measures). In any case, the government has no right to tell us what we can or cannot put in our bodies. Only the individual can decide to 'say no'; the drug problem is not one of supply but of *demand*. Total legalization of everything is the only way to break the drug gangs. However, restriction of access to children should be ensured, as with tobacco and alcohol; and taxes should be used to reduce the potential for abuse.

13. What would libertarians and liberals do about concentrations of corporate power?

Create a more fluid economic environment in which they'd break up. This happens naturally in a free market; even in ours, with taxes and regulatory policies that encourage gigantism, it's quite rare for a company to stay in the biggest 500 for longer than twenty years. We'd abolish the limited-liability shield laws to make corporate officers and stockholders fully responsible for a corporation's actions. We'd make it impossible for corporations to grow fat on 'sweetheart deals' paid for with taxpayers' money; we'd lower the cost of capital and regulatory compliance, encouraging entrepreneurship and lowering the optimum size of the business unit. Provide a regulatory mechanism to ensure that abuses of power towards both customers and employees carry severe penalties, and offer a whistle-blowing office to encourage the reporting of breaches of human rights, in terms of safety and environmental consequences. It is not feasible to abolish limited liability, because people are going to be manipulating resources well beyond the scope of individual repayment, and assuring them of disaster if they make a mistake simply ensures that such officers are drawn only from the imprudent. However, no liability whatsoever is also to be avoided.

C. Standard Criticisms

14. But what about the environment? Who speaks for the trees?

(Libertarian) Who *owns* the trees? The disastrous state of the environment in what was formerly the Soviet Union illustrates the truism that a resource theoretically 'owned' by everyone is valued by no one. Ecological awareness is a fine thing, but without strong private-property rights no one can *afford* to care enough to conserve. Libertarians believe that the only effective way to save the Earth is to show everyone economic incentives to save their little bit of it. (Liberal) The environment is important both for quality of life, and for the preservation of resources that are as yet unvalued. However, it should not be given absolute priority over human welfare. Changes that need to be made to deal with the environment include the widespread introduction of quality of life into economic evaluations, and the idea that economic decisions need to err on the safe side whenever it is known that there is not enough information for an accurate evaluation to be made. Such radical changes to standard economic analyses can only be brought about through legislation; otherwise short-term interests will outweigh longer term considerations.

15. Don't strong property rights just favor the rich?

(Libertarian) No. What favors the rich is the system we have now --- a fiction of strong property rights covering a reality of property by government fiat; the government can take away your 'rights' by eminent domain, condemnation, taxation, regulation and a thousand other means. Because the rich have more money and time to spend on influencing and subverting government, they can enlarge their own turf at others' expense. A strong government *always* becomes the instrument of privilege. Stronger property rights and a weaker government would weaken the elite that inevitably controls it --- an elite far more dangerous than any ordinary criminal class. (Liberal) Property is a social convention that allows people to claim priorities for certain kinds of interactions with their environment. To own something is to be able to use it in particular ways. The kinds of changes that a person can make to an object depends on its value to others, and the degree of ownership. For example, renting a house confers a certain amount of freedom in remodelling it, owning it (but not the land it rests on) adds to this freedom, and owning both it and the land adds more. If the house is of value to the community, this restricts the possible modifications; if the house is sufficiently important to be of value to the nation as a whole, this adds further restrictions. Property rights are always a compromise between those who are most directly involved and others whose interest is indirect.

16. Would libertarians just abandon the poor? And would liberals just give them money?

No, though abandoning the poor might be an improvement over what government has done to them. As the level of 'anti-poverty' spending in this country has risen, so has poverty. Government bureaucracies have no incentive to lift people out of dependency and every incentive to keep them in it; after all, more poverty means a bigger budget and more power for the bureaucrats. Libertarians want to break this cycle by abolishing *all* income-transfer programs and allowing people to *keep* what they earn instead of taxing it away from them. The wealth freed up would go directly to the private sector, creating jobs for the poor, decreasing the demand on private charity, and increasing charitable giving. The results might diminish poverty or they might leave it at today's levels --- but it's hard to see how they could be any *less* effective than the present system. No, though paying the poor might be an improvement over what government has done to them. As the level of 'anti-poverty' spending in this country has risen, so has poverty, because so much money is being spent on bureaucratic administration. Liberals want to break this cycle by eliminating marginal tax rates of over 100%, allowing the poor to *keep* most of what they earn instead of removing it by reducing benefits. The simplest scheme to administer is universal welfare, combined with a relatively high flat rate income tax. This removes the demeaning aspect of receiving charity, which encourages dependency, and ensures that the inadequate levels of charity offered are not stretched to the breaking point in trying to cope. It is important to remember that education and training also need to be provided to offer a realistic way to find jobs.

17. What about national defense?

(Libertarian) This issue makes minarchists out of a lot of would-be anarchists. One view is that in a libertarian society *everyone* would be heavily armed, making invasion or usurpation by a domestic tyrant excessively risky. This is what the Founding Fathers clearly intended for the U.S. (the Consitution made no provision for a standing army, entrusting defense primarily to a militia consisting of the entirety of the armed citizenry). It works today in Switzerland (also furnishing one of the strongest anti-gun-control arguments). Think about the Afghans, the Viet Cong, the Minutemen --- would *you* want to invade a country full of dedicated, heavily armed libertarians? :-) (Liberal) This issue is inevitably combined with that of foreign aid; to what extent does it make sense to give money to others so that they won't be inclined to attack us? The bottom line seems to be human rights; a country in which human rights are respected is far more stable than one in which they are not. In the latter, a ruler is more likely to seek external adventures, so as to bolster internal support; and also, dictators are more likely to support one another in pacts against potential victims than rulers of democratic republics. The goal should be to maintain a defense against potential threats, but to spend most of the defense budget on increasing the standard of living and level of democratic participation in other countries.

D. Prospects

18. How can I get involved?

(Libertarian) Think about freedom, and act on your thoughts. Spend your dollars wisely. Oppose the expansion of state power. Promote 'bottom-up' solutions to public problems, solutions that empower individuals rather than demanding intervention by force of government. Give to private charity. Join a libertarian organization; the Libertarian Party, or the Advocates for Self-Government, or the Reason Foundation. Start your own business; create wealth and celebrate others who create wealth. Support *voluntary* cooperation. (Liberal) Think about freedom, and act on your thoughts. Spend your dollars wisely. Oppose the expansion of corporate power, and state power when it exceeds its limits. Promote 'bottom-up' solutions that encourage local solutions to local problems, within a universally agreed framework, and that empower individuals to make decisions affecting their lives. Join a liberal organization; the ACLU (NCCL in the UK), Amnesty International, Oxfam, Shelter. Encourage others to think about issues without stereotyping and oversimplifying; show what being a liberal means by example. Support voluntary cooperation.

19. Is libertarianism likely to get a practical test in my lifetime? Is liberalism?

No one knows. Your author thinks libertarianism is about where constitutional republicanism was in 1750 --- a solution waiting for its moment, a toy of political theorists and a few visionaries waiting for the people and leaders who can actualize it. The collapse of Communism and the triumph of capitalist economics will certainly help, by throwing central planning and the 'nanny state' into a disrepute that may be permanent. Some libertarians believe we are headed for technological and economic changes so shattering that no statist ideology can possibly survive them (in particular, most of the nanotechnology 'underground' is libertarian). Only time will tell. Many non-liberals seem to think that liberalism is what is currently being practiced in the Western world; of course they are mistaken. Your author thinks that liberalism is on the brink of a revival, with the collapse of command economies in Eastern Europe and the failure of the voodoo economics of the '80s; the alternative is further bloodshed, suffering, and a retreat towards 'strong' leaders who can get the trains to run on time. Some liberals believe that the fundamental changes in society over the past few decades will make most of the favoured ideologies obsolete, just as the industrial revolution did. Only time will tell.

Credit goes to...

Libertarian questions and answers prepared by... Eric S. Raymond ( Mad mastermind of TMN-Netnews) Send your feedback to: Eric Raymond = Liberal questions and answers prepared by... Computing Lab U of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
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