Real and Fake Libertarians

Libertarianism (and variants, such as communist-anarchism and libertarian socialism) is a long-standing economic, legal, and moral philosophy of continental origins that puts personal sovereignty and the full development of human potential at the center of the system of civil liberties and rights. Here, rights are not defined strictly in the negative sense, as they are under classical liberalism (of which the so-called right-wing libertarianism is an unfortunate subspecies), but rather they are defined in a positive sense, that is, not simply “freedom from” (state and religious control), but “freedom to,” that is effectively realizing one’s purpose in the world together with those whom your actions will likely affect. This complete view of personal freedom means that the well-being of people comes before, say, the interests of capital. 

To illustrate, whereas under the liberal conception of freedom Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, private business, wielding contract law, can and do make rules sharply restricting speech, which the state machinery upholds in the interests of capital over against the interests of the individual. In contrast, in societies operating on the basis of libertarian principle, one has free speech in both public and private spheres and, moreover, access to fora in which to make her speech potentially effective. That means an effective right to the means of communication. This arrangement is not free press in the private media sense, but free press in the sense that all individuals have access to it. Media corporations go away under these arrangements and the means of communication becomes a public resource (like the free internet). There is no copyright or trademark. Individuals are free to access the social product together through democratically-negotiated processes (democratic, not majoritarian). Individuals are free to combine the ideas found in society in any way they wish to advance the interests of the community, not some subset of it. 

Clearly this is the diametric opposite of the libertarianism advocated by the political far right. For the latter, property rights are the most important rights. They trump our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For example, Ron Paul argues that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is bad law because it forces white property owners to serve and hire African Americans in establishments of public accommodations. He contends that capital should be able to determine who it serves and hires free of popular or community interests, and especially of social justice concerns. From the original libertarian position, Paul’s argument represents a desire for tyranny of capital over persons, here a type of tyranny specifically designed to exclude individuals from public accommodations on the basis of race. There is another word for this: segregation. How could a real libertarian argue for tyranny? Clearly this paradox exposes something very wrong with their use of the term. 

In fact, “libertarianism” as used by Ron Paul (and Murray Rothbard, Frederick Hayek, Milton Friedman, the Cato Institute, etc.) is a propaganda term introduced in the 1950s, becoming deployed in a widespread manner in the late-1960s and early-1970s, to differentiate those liberals who advocated neoclassical economic theory and neoliberal public policy (manifest in the push for privatization) from the social welfare liberals of the New Deal tradition, who, advocating some form of Keynesian political economy, called their own brand of liberalism “New Liberalism” to distinguish themselves from classical liberalism.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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