Is classical liberalism the same as libertarianism?

Classical liberalism is a big tent with many entrances. Libertarianism is but one.

9197C72F-EE9B-48DF-BC15-94C879640DF5
© Dave DuBay

YouTube talk show host Dave Rubin likes to ask what, if any, is the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism. The most common answer is that there is none.

Classical liberalism used to be called just plain old liberalism. But while modern American liberals favor individual freedom in the social sphere, they are often anti-capitalist. Besides, the left today seems to increasingly favor the term “progressive,” which is more straightforward. Meanwhile, conservatives are stronger on economic freedom but weak on civil liberties. But libertarians favor both laissez-faire capitalism and a high degree of personal freedom.

Classical liberalism, like democracy, human rights, and capitalism, resulted from the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality, science, and reason. At its core, classical liberalism is the belief that individual rights are the basis of universal human rights.

After all, if I don’t support human rights for others then I have no reason to expect others to support my human rights. From this it follows that everyone—regardless of identity group or demographic profile—must be equal under the law.

Further, the things I have a right to are things that inherently belong to me. My life, my identity, my speech, my religion and beliefs, my innocence, and so on. Rights, then, restrict government from telling us that we can’t say certain things, that we can’t worship a certain god (or that we must worship a god), that we’re guilty without due process or a fair trial, and so on. But of course, government can restrict us from doing things that deprive others of their rights.

In other words, rights are about what government can’t do, not what government must provide. But this doesn’t prohibit government from providing certain things.

Checks and balances—mechanisms for each branch of government to override the others—also limit governmental power. And decentralization is important. Something should be up to the individual if it’s best handled by the individual. If a municipality can best handle something then the state or province should step back. And the national government shouldn’t intervene if the state or province can handle it.

This freedom extends to free enterprise. But how limited should government involvement in the economy be? Short of anarcho-capitalism most would agree that some government involvement is necessary. Libertarians limit this to property protection. But I think some government regulation of externalities—such as environmental protection; and the provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—is ideal.

This is not a libertarian position. But it’s still within the framework of classical liberalism.

Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer writes for Quillette that “the prevailing emphasis on the group over the individual” departs from classical liberalism. The left categorizes people as oppressed or oppressors based on the intersection of identity groups they belong to. And the right “sort[s] people into collectivities according to religion and national origin.” This “self-factionalizing into groups” encourages “increasingly militant political and ideological movements rooted in personal identity.” Because they are so entrenched in identity politics, neither Democrats nor Republicans are liberals in the classical sense.

Shermer lists the essentials of classical liberalism as:

  • Democracy with voting rights for all adult citizens
  • Rule of law
  • Protection of civil rights and civil liberties
  • Police and military protection
  • Property rights and a secure monetary system
  • Free internal movement for all
  • Freedom of the press, speech, and association
  • Education available to all

To this he adds “adequate public spending to help the needy,” noting that he didn’t support this in his younger, libertarian days. But with a middle-age perspective he sees this as essential to a society that enables the individual to flourish.

Another example of a non-libertarian classical liberal is New York Times columnist David Brooks. A former Republican, he lends his support to the centrist Modern Whig Party. Brooks writes, “If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.”

The original Whig Party collapsed in the early 1800s over the abolition of slavery. Whether Modern Whigs will become a political force remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

Whether the classical liberalism of Democrats like Bill Maher will prevail over progressive identity politics remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

But perhaps the biggest question of all is the future of the Republican Party. Young people avoid the GOP. But the large majority of millennials who remain don’t support President Donald Trump—the exact opposite of their elders. Millennial Republicans are also more supportive of marriage equality and legalizing marijuana. Will millennials root out right-wing identity politics? Maybe.

 

Advertisements

How the GOP Shot Itself In the Foot

The Republican Party is being hijacked by a bigoted demagogue because the Republican establishment fell asleep at the wheel.

Let’s take a trip back in time when Democrats were more racist than Republicans. Though Barry Goldwater and five other Republican senators voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 21 Democratic senators voted against civil rights.

Goldwater didn’t think government had the right to tell businesses what to do. And though Goldwater opposed the Ku Klux Klan, a lightbulb went off in the KKK’s head. White racists realized that arguments about limited government and states rights generated more public support than explicitly racist arguments did.

The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War because it was the Republican Party that defeated the Confederacy, abolished slavery, and were early champions of civil rights legislation. Back then, Republicans were more popular in the North. Still, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed despite immense opposition from Southern Democrats.

Johnson remarked that the Democratic Party had lost the South. And in the 1968 presidential campaign this was too good of an opportunity for Republican candidate Richard Nixon to pass up. Today, thanks to Nixon’s Southern strategy, Southern whites are predominantly Republican.

But the Republican establishment seemed to think it could get the votes of right wing extremists down South without ceding control of the GOP to them. Meanwhile, Republicans like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and others used the airwaves to spread an extreme right wing message to workers throughout the country who were devastated over the replacement of good paying manufacturing jobs with low paying service and retails jobs.

The Southern strategy also meant courting evangelical Christians. In 1994 Goldwater supposedly said, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me.”

Soon the racism that had been directed at African-Americans became generalized xenophobia reminiscent of the nativist “Know Nothing” party of the 19th century. Today, Muslims, Mexicans, and women are also major targets.

Donald Trump’s populist presidential campaign is the culmination of this, and it shows that the Republican establishment has lost control of the party. Ronald Reagan belonged to the Republican establishment, though he courted the extreme right. George W. Bush was born into the Republican establishment, but he felt more at home among right wing populists. That is, Bush had a foot in both worlds. But the last two Republican candidates for president (John McCain and Mitt Romney) were establishment Republicans, and both lost badly.

The Republican establishment has run out of steam, but right wing populists are energized.

Still, Trump has received only 37% of Republican primary votes – a plurality, not a majority. In the general election against Hillary Clinton, Trump is anticipated to lose by a similar margin.

Also notable is that Trump’s support is highest among older voters. He has very few supporters under 30. I’ve written before about the Republican Party’s aging and therefore shrinking voter base. It’ll take another 20 or 30 years before today’s 20-somethings are in their voting prime and the older, more conservative voting block is no longer politically significant. Between now and then we can expect more disarray from the GOP as it faces an identity crisis in a changing world.

 

Lack of Diversity in Social Science Research

In college, friends majoring in biology told me I should switch majors because social science isn’t real science. It’s too subjective. Your personal biases will cloud the data.

They had a point. But researchers from a wide array of backgrounds can question each other’s assumptions, which can mitigate personal bias somewhat. Over the past 50 years universities have done a laudable job of trying to encourage more women and minorities to enter white male dominated fields. And while fields such as physics still lack diversity, 60% of biology degrees go to women, and psychology has an even larger number of women.

But contrarians say we’ve overlooked something. What about political diversity? Yet, academia has spent the past half century trying to purge conservatives, or even those who are not die hard liberals.

Does social psychology really prove that conservatives are unethical dullards? Can we trust the objectivity of a field that has almost no non-liberals? (Non-liberal because not every alternative viewpoint is conservative, or even libertarian.) Imagine for a moment that almost all social scientists were evangelical Christians, and their research found that atheists really are nasty people. Would you think something is amiss?

Jonathan Haidt writes that a century ago, the social sciences were almost evenly split between liberals and conservatives. But the gap started to widen, slowly at first, but then rapidly after 1990. Today, the ratio of liberals to conservatives is almost 14 to 1.

Unchecked biases degrade the quality and validity of research. Chief among these biases are negative presuppositions and confirmation bias (failing to critically examine or search for contradictory evidence for something you already believe). This can lead to “mischaracteriz[ing] liberals and conservatives alike.”

This doesn’t affect most aspects of social science research, such as personality theory or the psychology of decision making. But these biases are notable with areas of liberal concern, such as sex and gender, race, inequality, and moral and political psychology. And it can leave unexamined areas outside of liberalism’s concerns.

In the social sciences, the narrative of liberal progress is like water to a fish – it’s everywhere but often goes unnoticed. But this can lead to misinterpretation of non-liberal value statements. For example, social scientists might label someone unethical for not siding with a coworker who has filed a sexual harassment claim. But without someone to question the assumption of misogyny, the judgment of moral inferiority is unexamined.

In a previous post I wrote about a friend who received a sexual harassment complaint for using the phrase “OMG.” I think her claim was frivolous. My reasons are that I think a person is innocent until proven guilty (and the burden of proof is on her), and her failure to present any evidence other than her personal opinion is not sufficient evidence. But my perspective contradicts the liberal notion that an alleged victim must always be believed. This is not misogyny, however. Due process is a human right.

Too often people present statistics from dubious sources or which lack context, often arguing that numbers don’t lie. But numbers do lie. Ever made a math error? And too often someone will cite one study as if that seals the case, failing to question the researcher’s methodology, possible biases, and (most of all) failing to understand that studies must be replicated numerous times before being accepted as true.

Social science has a significant blind spot, and any research findings with political implications should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Is Gamergate Conservative or Liberal?

Opponents say GamerGate has a conservative agenda. And though GamerGate supporters often deny that they are conservatives, the conservative media has mostly supported the movement.

Allum Bokhari, however, says his research shows that most GamerGate supporters are liberal.

In brief, GamerGate is the claim by video game enthusiasts that the gaming media is corrupt. But opponents of GamerGate accuse supporters of misogyny and online harassment.

I’m not interested in engaging that debate, and as a non-gamer I know little about it. I’m interested in the question: Might GamerGate be a symptom of a larger issue?

Bokhari’s research finds that GamerGate supporters overwhelmingly favor gay marriage and abortion rights. They endorse women’s rights as well, but disagree that America is a rape culture. But GamerGate supporters also oppose popular social justice activist tactics such as censorship, witch hunts, and “call-out culture.”

Here’s the twist: Although almost three-quarters of GamerGate supporters identify with the left or political center, almost half of those on the left identify as left-libertarian rather than liberal.

The divide, then, is between establishment liberals and libertarian liberals. Libertarianism is usually associated with conservatives, though this is only true with economic issues. Left libertarians are more concerned with social freedom, however, and often are fine with regulated rather than pure free market capitalism.

More importantly, left libertarianism has a different foundational philosophy than establishment liberalism.

Establishment liberalism focuses on oppression as the primary political issue (often called “Cultural Marxism” by critics). This viewpoint not only claims that capitalism is destructive, but it extends this narrative, interpreting most things in terms of this group oppressing that group. As such, the power of dominant groups must be diminished while oppressed groups must be lifted up to create a level playing field. Critics often describe specific measures as social engineering, and allege that it represents a soft, manipulative type of authoritarianism.

But the individual is primary for left libertarians. For example, left libertarians support gay marriage because of individual rights, but are less interested in the oppression narrative. Critics of the libertarian viewpoint say it ignores the suffering of social injustice, fails to acknowledge the moral duty to rectify oppression, and will lead to the atomization of society. For example, left libertarians often oppose affirmative action as coercive and discriminatory, while establishment liberals strongly support affirmative action as necessary to compensate for white, cis-male, heterosexual privilege.

While it’s clear that conservatives have lost the culture wars – Roe v Wade is not going to be overturned, and gay marriage will only gain more states – the war isn’t over because the two main camps on the left, which were united in defeating the common conservative enemy, have now turned on each other.

And those conservatives who accept their defeat are making the best of the situation by allying with liberal individualists and against the so-called “Cultural Marxists.”

Establishment liberals have enormous power on college campuses, and within the Democratic Party and the media. Meanwhile, Republicans are still holding on, but their failure to attract Millennials means their demographic clock is ticking.

Where will this lead? My guess is that this rift will continue, but control of the Democratic Party will remain with establishment liberals. Meanwhile, Republicans will suffer increasing defeats in the 2020s as their aging voter base shrinks. The few young Republicans remaining will be economically conservative but socially libertarian. To survive, Republicans will woo left libertarians who previously voted Democratic, thus making the GOP less socially conservative. The elders in the Republican Party won’t like this, but as 2030 approaches they’ll be too small in number to matter.