Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Different Kinds of Libertarians

Reason cover Posted by Picasa

(Note: The term “Libertarian” was originally used by anarchists/socialists such as Joseph Dejacque and Mikhail Bakunin, whose position was in opposition to both capitalism and state communism, and is still known in much of the world to apply to the anarchist Left. In North America since the post-WWII era, however, it has come to apply to an anti-government movement that could be described generally as being on the economic Right side of the political spectrum. This analysis is about the modern American sense of the word).

Libertarians have been described with several different idiosyncratic-sounding phrases: “Marxists of the Right,” “Individualists United,” “Republicans who smoke pot.” In reality, libertarians are, like those of many other political ideologies, harder to pin down than a simple phrase or characterization. There is less a single creed of “Libertarianism” than an amalgam of positions and worldviews that are often described together and usually work together. However, they sometimes differ from one another: there are disagreements, sub-factions, and tactical alliances, and there are different kinds of people that make up this broad group; when someone talks about “libertarians” as a broad sweeping category, it may not always be clear who he/she is talking about.

I’ve decided to post my personal analysis of the different viewpoints and strains of thought that tend to make up Libertarianism, using some distinct categories I’ve observed and expanded in my interaction and association with many libertarians, and my studies of the works of important libertarian thinkers. A libertarian may be and usually is a combination of any of these categories, and some of the differences between them are subtle but significant. The representatives I’ve chosen for each were the best I could think of for that category, although they still may strongly represent other categories as well. I’m generally not a fan of categorizing or pigeonholing people overly much; it should be remembered that these categories refer to general strains of thought that have been observed and people who have expressed those strains of thought--not (with the exception maybe of the first category) definite personality classes.

Meet John or Jane Galt. While most card-carrying Objectivists assert that they are not libertarian in name, the movement started by Ayn Rand (author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) was and is an important influence on the thought of modern American Libertarianism (Cathy Young says that “Libertarianism, the movement most closely connected to Rand's ideas, is less an offspring than a rebel stepchild.”). They imagine an individualist/collectivist and egoist/altruist dichotomy and put it at the heart of their entire worldview as the supreme good vs. evil (along with some peculiar axioms like “A is A” and “existence exists”). According to those influenced by Randian Egoism, greed is a virtue, while compassion is a deadly sin. The word capitalism can stimulate a spontaneous orgasm.
They are prone to histrionics and delusions of grandeur.

Novelist Ayn Rand, her successor Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand Institute President Yaron Brook, Objectivist philosopher Harry Binswanger, Neo-objectivist leader David Kelley, economist George Reisman, psychologist Nathaniel Branden, and political writer and critic Alex Epstein. Also, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, Rush drummer Neil Peart, comic creator (Spider-man co-creator) Steve Ditko, and Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan. Capitalism Magazine is an associated publication.

Business giants and empire-builders, moguls, magnates and tycoons who don’t want antitrust laws, industry watchdogs, trade unions or environmental, worker, or consumer regulation to get in the way of their ambitions. They often fund libertarian and right-wing think tanks and organizations. Silicon Valley had many Dominationist younglings in the 90’s until most of them perished tragically in the bursting of the dotcom bubble.

Newscorp Chairman Rupert Murdoch, Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, Whole Foods Market Chairman and CEO John Mackey, Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet Chairman Mark Cuban, and Virgin’s Richard Branson (although Branson is distinguished in being an environmental philanthropist, as well as wooing both Tory [Conservative] and Labour governments).

Market Fundamentalists
Focused on libertarian theories of economics/political economy, Market Fundamentalists believe the capitalist free market is best for the common good, and any interference with said market is contrary to the common good. They frequently use concepts like “the wisdom of the market” and “the invisible hand,” etc. Austrian and Chicago schools, neoclassical economics, neoliberalism, etc.

Economists Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and political writers Virginia Postrel and Brink Lindsey. Reason magazine is an important publication.

Naïve Libertarians
This was a hard to name category (I also considered “propagandist libertarians”). Naïve Libertarians are like Market Fundamentalists, except they usually parrot Market Fundamentalist arguments and harp on “how liberals are weakening America” instead of coming up with arguments and ideas of their own. They believe hardship doesn’t befall people who do what they should do, the environment isn’t in any real trouble and environmental/pollution problems are negligible, and big corporations are really responsible and good on their own (“Greenhouse gas emissions? Those are just ‘unrequested carbon surpluses’”). They are likely to listen to/host right-wing talk radio or do/follow right-wing journalism, and usually amount to little more than apologists for the Right.

ABC journalist John Stossel, talk radio’s Larry Elder and Neal Boortz, comic creator Bruce Tinsley, New York Times columnist John Tierney, and “Junk Science” environmental skeptic Steven Milloy.

“Liberty” Libertarians
Their libertarianism arises primarily from their ideas on the metaphysics of personal liberty, around concepts like “non-aggression” and “self-ownership.” Libertarian philosophers are usually in this category, some of whom were founders of the modern American libertarian movement.

Philosophers Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, Tibor Machan, and Albert J. Nock, and Sci-Fi author Robert A. Heinlein.

Libertarian Republicans
More traditional conservatives; Republicans who are against neoconservative big government and/or the religious right; conservative critics of the Bush administration. They consider themselves the true conservatives, and usually base their libertarian ideas on their perspective on the U.S. Constitution. “Goldwater conservatives;” Republican Liberty Caucus.

Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and authors and political commentators William F. Buckley and Andrew Sullivan (the latter of whom calls himself a “South Park Republican”).

Crazy Libertarians
Primarily concerned about gun rights and privacy. Many survivalists, conspiracy theorists, tin-foil-hatters, etc. tend to fall into this group. They are likely to live in a rural area, with an impressive arsenal and weeks worth of food stocked up to secure against a New World Order threat.

Survivalist and blogger Claire Wolfe, Mormons who have the complete writings of Ezra Taft Benson and belong to the John Birch Society, and anyone who has ever belonged to an armed or militant libertarian group. The peeps seem to fall into here at least a bit.

Lifestyle Libertarians
Like the Crazy Libertarians about guns, but also for drugs, sex, alcohol, uncensored material, not having to recycle, driving without a seatbelt, driving without a seatbelt at 100mph, driving without a seatbelt at 100mph while receiving oral sex, etc. They are basically people who want to do whatever they want. If conservatives want government to be your daddy, and liberals want government to be your mommy, Lifestyle Libertarians want to get rid of daddy and mommy and stay up all night eating ice cream and watching after-dark cable.

Shock jockey Howard Stern, author/political writer and humorist P.J. O’Rourke, humorist Dave Barry, South Park creators Trey Parker & Matt Stone, and illusionist duo Penn & Teller.

Localist Libertarians
Anti-Federalists, they would rather have autonomy distributed to the community level, like town halls, local school boards and churches, than a strong federal government or any centralized power. More Main Street than Wall Street, they are communitarians and traditionalists, largely Catholic, often Scouting enthusiasts, people with Norman Rockwell paintings throughout their homes, etc. More compassionate and worker-oriented than other libertarians, and more likely to be concerned with local environmental problems.

Political writer Bill Kauffman.

A special category. Left Libertarians believe big, powerful government is as oppressive and bad as big, powerful corporations. They are anti-war (including the War on Drugs), pro-choice, and against government favors for corporations (or against large corporations altogether). They usually favor participatory action and mutual aid over government for social justice and environmental causes, as well as smaller, more local businesses and community-centered marketplaces. They may caucus with right-libertarians (“vulgar libertarians” is a commonly used phrase) for strategic purposes, which is the primary reason they are on the list at all. They are also likely to work with Green parties. Often Georgist on physical property and against extensive and restrictive intellectual property (and a major front behind Open Source), they are related to others of the broad libertarian left--agorists, mutualists, libertarian socialists, cyberpunks and anarchists; also “Buddhist Economics.”

Comedian/talk-show host and political commentator Bill Maher, novelist Robert Anton Wilson, cyberculture icon R.U. Sirius, psychologist and psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary, philosopher/Eastern religion scholar Alan Watts, political philosopher Karl Hess, writer Samuel Edward Konkin III, and Loompanics publisher/editor Michael Hoy.

A few notes on other prominent libertarians:

-“Anarcho”-capitalist economist Bryan Caplan could be argued to fit into the Randian, Market Fundamentalist, and “Liberty” categories (pretty much every other economist at George Mason University could, to varying degrees, be described as falling into the Market Fundamentalist and “Liberty” Libertarian categories).

-Economist and political theorist Thomas Sowell is somewhere between Market Fundamentalist and Naïve.

-Political writer Lew Rockwell, an anti-war paleolibertarian, is a mixture of Market Fundamentalist, Republican Libertarian, and a pinch of Localist.

-Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds is a mix of Naïve, Libertarian Republican, and Lifestyle.

-Extropian philosopher Max Moore is largely Randian, but also “Liberty” Libertarian. He, along with Glenn Reynolds and Reason science editor Ronald Bailey, subscribe to Libertarian Transhumanism (which I would consider a subcategory).

-Libertarian Godfather Murray Rothbard actually ventured closer toward Left-Libertarianism at one point before going back to the right (toward Market Fundamentalism), all the while being an important philosophical “Liberty” Libertarian.

Another note:
I associate partly as Left-Libertarian, which is much of the reason I care in the first place.


Anonymous Eric Dondero said...

PJ O'Rourke belongs in the Libertarian Republicans category. In fact, the entire "Lifestyles Libertarian" category belongs in the Libertarian Republicans category. We Libertarian Republicans are fiscally conservative/socially tolerant. Emphasis on the socially tolerant. Most of us - practically all the leaders of the Republican Liberty Caucus - come from the 1970's/80's Punk Rock movement. We're Punk Rock Republicans, if you will.

Also, we consider Neal Boortz, and Larry Elder to absolutely be part of our coalition.

So, you should eliminate those two categories and just combine them with "Libertarian Republicans."

Eric Dondero, Founder
Republican Liberty Caucus

8:21 AM  
Blogger Joey said...

Actually, I believe you're right. P.J. O'Rourke does belong in the Libertarian Republicans category, and many of his writings over the past decade have shifted from fast living to more (though still humorous) political treatises on Republicanism and classical liberalism (I think age has had that effect). But since he started out largely as what I consider a Lifestyle Libertarian, and such a great example of one at that, I thought I'd put him in that category to illustrate. Like I said, some representatives may strongly fit into other categories as well.

But I think Libertarian Republicans have the distinction of considering themselves conservative (or, the "true" conservatives), which I don't think is as prevalent or definitive in Lifestyle Libertarians (for whom it is primarily FOR the lifestyle aspect). That's why I chose Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and Andrew Sullivan as illustrations of Libertarian Republicans--they all make a point to call themselves conservative, and make specific points about fiscal conservativism and limited government. You'd be less likely to hear Howard Stern or the others I listed as Lifestyle Libertarians (with the exception of modern P.J., as you aptly pointed out) consider themselves conservative.

As for Larry Elder and Neal Boortz... well, they fit in pretty well with the Fox News crowd. That's why I called them Naive Libertarians; I think there's a significant ideological difference between Goldwater-style Libertarian Republicans, who are classical conservatives, and Elder-style "Republitarians," who are neolibertarian.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Joe, where do I fit in? I am not quite sure-maybe lifestyle-maybe or semi conservative. Hmmmmm interesting:)

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Kurt Horner said...

There are some problems with this taxonomy, starting with the fact that it makes the libertarian movement appear to be a bunch of disparate groups huddled together by a vague (and unstated) mutual agreement. There appears to be no intellectual core. Moreover, you lump together many figures of the movement who had strong disagreements. For example:

Nozick and Rothbard are in the same category despite one being minarchist and the other anarchist. Reisman is in the Randian camp despite being strongly associated with the Mises Institute. Brink Lindsey (?!) is labeled a Market Fundamentalist, the survivalists get their own category, etc. Many of the Naive Libertarians are really just conservatives (especially Boortz).

The other problem is the names you choose. Dominionist is extremely confusing, since an actual movement with an entirely different motivation (Christian theocracy) exists with that name. Market Fundamentalist, Crazy Libertarians and Naive Libertarians are all highly pejorative and fail to really be distinct categories. Libertarian Republicans contain a lot of people like Lew Rockwell, who are not and never will be Republicans.

Overall, this taxonomy draws attention to the surface features of various libertarians without getting into actual philosophical differences. No mention of consequentialism vs. natural rights, minarchism vs anarchism, etc.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

The problem with your critique of my commentary is that, while you are primarily concerned with philosophical distinctions, my commentary is from the viewpoint of a sociological analysis. It's about the different kinds of people that seem to approach libertarianism from different angles. The idea that an objective and clear-cut set of premises is what differentiates one political group of people from another is one that I don't share, as it excludes the fact that *people* are ones who hold political ideals, not abstract philosophical entities, and there is an essential subjective nature to them. (The idea that an objective philosophical position tells all is, in my opinion, similar to Randian nonsense).

A few other things:

-it is meant to be partially humorous

-I didn't say Lew Rockwell is a Republican

-Reisman _is_ an Objectivist

-the difference between libertarian "minarchism" and anarcho-capitalism, based on a dubious distinction between government and corporation, isn't as significant in my book as the angle from which libertarianism is approached.

-the libertarian movement partially *is* a bunch of disparate groups huddled together by a vague mutual agreement--although I only emphasized that with Left-Libertarians. In fact, the main motivation for this commentary was the observation that not all libertarians are the same.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Kurt Horner said...

The idea that an objective and clear-cut set of premises is what differentiates one political group of people from another is one that I don't share

However, even the great majority of people whose politics are culturally acquired base their ideals on philosophical concepts. Sure, not everyone is a premise-checking Randroid (even among libertarians) but these philosophical differences are definitely meaningful.

-I didn't say Lew Rockwell is a Republican

Yes, but you put him in a category labeled "Libertarian Republican" because he is socially conservative (by attitude, if not by policy). I was quibbling with the label, which perhaps should be 'True' Conservative or perhaps Traditionalist Libertarian.

-Reisman _is_ an Objectivist

True, but he also gut screwed over by ARI and his economic views have shifted his location in your spectrum.

-the difference between libertarian "minarchism" and anarcho-capitalism, based on a dubious distinction between government and corporation

. . . is very significant to some libertarians and indicates a deep philosophical distinction in the movement. Also, I might point out that some of the harshest criticism of corporations within the movement has come from the ancaps. It's the minarchist former right-wingers that typically apologize for economic power centers.

In fact, the main motivation for this commentary was the observation that not all libertarians are the same.

They are different, although it might be worth figuring out what exactly is this "liberty" that attracts such a diverse group of people. There is a strong sense that we believe in the same notion of the good society and only disagree on how to apply that ideal. Or is that feeling false? Is libertarianism just a political refugee camp?

3:36 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

"even the great majority of people whose politics are culturally acquired base their ideals on philosophical concepts."

Yes, I do agree--everyone does have their own philosophy, a philosophy which motivates their politics. But, it is usually that personal philosophy that preceeds the political philosophy, such that underlying ideology can be the same despite differences in policy positions.

"some of the harshest criticism of corporations within the movement has come from the ancaps. It's the minarchist former right-wingers that typically apologize for economic power centers."

True (and I did state as much in reference to Rothbard, who at one point ventured that way). However, anarcho-capitalists sometimes argue in favor of private security forces that essentially amount to a money-driven justice system. They also apologize (not all, but many) for the monetary power centers, which are a huge factor in the strength of the economic power centers.

"it might be worth figuring out what exactly is this "liberty" that attracts such a diverse group of people. There is a strong sense that we believe in the same notion of the good society and only disagree on how to apply that ideal. Or is that feeling false? Is libertarianism just a political refugee camp?"

There are Democrats who differ very much from other Democrats, and Republicans who differ very much from other Republicans, on the notion of of what society should be like, and I would say this is even more so for libertarianism. I think the main thing that attracts this diverse group of people is opposition to the government in one form or another (they are joined by anarchists of all stripes). In actuality, I believe this "liberty" is largely irrelevant for the identity of the movement as a whole, as it is a different liberty that everyone seeks--the different kinds of Libertarians seek their own kind of liberty, just as different kinds of Democrats and Republicans seek theirs. (In fact, I think George Orwell listed "liberty" as one of the English words that have become semantically meaningless and prone to manipulation--and that was like three-quarters of a century ago). This isn't to say that a particular person's view of liberty is meaningless, of course--I certainly wouldn't say that for myself--just that the descriptive power of the word itself is too limited. So with "libertarian."

5:00 PM  
Blogger Adam B. Ricketson said...

I appreciate this list. It gets at some issues that I tried to address at the Libertarian Wiki. I don't know if it is as much "humorous" as it is "mental masturbation". Either way, it's enjoyable.

One note, is that there is an Egoist tradition emanating from Max Stirner, which arrived in the USA via Benjamin Tucker. I think it's very different from the Randian egoism. There's even an Epicurean egoism (which influenced Thomas Jefferson), which is also very different from Rand.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous JEREMY said...

Joseph: I found your blog via Kevin Carson and enjoyed this article. Since you identify as left libertarian, I'm going to aggregate your blog at If this is a problem, feel free to contact me at jeremy at 6th density period net and I'll take it off. Thanks!

1:18 PM  

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