Ask ten libertarians for a definition of libertarianism, and one is likely to receive about ten different answers.
Indeed, libertarians have something of a reputation for internecine battles over who the “real” libertarians are.
Most of the world, however, couldn’t possibly care less about these battles over how to correctly slice and dice the different types of libertarians.
When it comes to use of the term libertarian out “in the wild” among mainstream, non-libertarian pundits, the use of the term is surprisingly consistent. It nearly always refers to an ideology that pushes for greater economic freedom in the form of less regulation of economic life, lower taxes, and freedom in trade.
Most writers on political and public policy matters, however, are not friendly to this sort of ideology so the term “libertarian” is also often expressed with an air of disapproval.
A Sampling of Media Coverage
This definition of libertarianism was made more clear than usual in the wake of the death of industrialist David Koch. Koch was known to support a number of libertarian political initiatives around taxation and government regulation.
To say that Koch was savaged for these views in the press and in social media would be an understatement. But the criticism also helped to bring out how mainstream media organs view libertarianism, and how they define it.
After Koch’s death, Salon declared we “live in the brothers’ libertarian utopia” thanks in part to the political machinations of Koch and his brother Charles.
What does this utopia look like? According to Christopher Leonard, a reporter known to have written a “secret history” of the Koch brothers, the assumed victory of libertarians has led to a world in which environmental regulations have been eviscerated, social programs are impoverished, and wealthy corporations wield vast power over workers. Indeed, according to Leonard, this Kochian libertarian program seeks a return to the days before the New Deal, allegedly a “capitalistic free-fire zone” characterized by starving workers lorded over by corrupt plutocrats.
But thanks to libertarians like Koch, the progress forged by the New Deal has largely been brought crashing down.
Similarly, the Washington Post refers to Koch’s “libertarian” empire responsible for pushing the Republican party further in the direction of low taxes, fewer government programs, and what the author refers to as anti-government extremism.
Needless to say, we don’t actually live in a “libertarian utopia” and its unclear if Koch did the things attributed to him. But for our purposes in this article what matters is that the mainstream view of libertarianism is clear: libertarianism is an extreme pro-capitalist ideology.
This view extends well beyond a handful of articles about the Kochs.
For example, Darren Dochuk at Politico writes this month on the now-forgitten Pew brothers who were influential political operators behind the scenes in the mid-twentieth century. The brothers, Dochuk notes, “spent their oil fortune remaking the GOP in their libertarian and conservative Christian image.”
Both the Christianity and the libertarianism are apparently meant by the author to be seen as nefarious aspects of the brothers’ agenda. The nature of the libertarian side of their agenda is consistent with what we see said about libertarians elsewhere: the Pews’ libertarianism impelled them to oppose the beloved New Deal, especially its “encroachment on their corporate sector.” Capitalist dystopia allegedly ensued.
From Guns to Free Trade
The title “libertarian” can also be used to encompass those who take an excessive view of the freedom to own firearms. For example, Georgetown historian Robert Curran writes “Our scandalous gun policy is the inevitable consequence of libertarian ideology.” Libertarian laissez-faire, we’re told, doesn’t just encourage oppression of hapless workers. It encourages murderers as well.
Other writers have claimed to be appalled by the callousness of libertarian ideology. For instance, consider David Masciotra’s confession about once being libertarian, but eventually coming to his senses. Masciotra describes libertarians as “individuals myopically pursuing their own interests have no solution to ecological catastrophe, thousands dying for lack of health insurance, lethal disparities in the public education system, and the unending terror and devastation of racism.”
The context makes it clear that these are problems government regulation and control could solve, but libertarians dogmatically insist on their idiosyncratic views of how government regulation and funding in areas such as health care and education are a bad thing.
Other references make it clear that the term “libertarian” can be generally used to describe any organization that, on the whole, favors even a marginally pro-market political economy. This often involves applying the term to a variety of organizations that are also often just regarded as mainstream “conservative” organizations. As Max Moran writes at the American Prospect :
Democrats, if you’re reading, here’s a shot of reality: Google doesn’t just donate to think tanks on the center-left of the political spectrum. It also funds libertarian and right-wing institutions like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.
To many libertarians, organization like the Heritage Foundation may hardly qualify as libertarian. But from the outside looking in, Heritage is libertarian because it takes a low-tax anti-regulatory view on some issues. What may seem milquetoast to a libertarian appears as extreme pro-market superstition to the average writer at The Washington Post.
[RELATED: “Why the Left Isn’t Convinced by Your Economics Arguments” by Ryan McMaken]
An then there is Tucker Carlson’s June 2019 rant against libertarians whom he blames for ruining American society and the American economy by being excessively free market. In his mind, libertarians — whom he contends dominate the American political scene — have pushed blind adherence to capitalism and free markets to an unhealthy extreme.
And who specifically are these libertarians? Even expressing mild support for relatively free markets is enough to earn the label “libertarian” in the minds of many non-libertarians.
According to The Guardian, former GOP Congressman and Trump foe Mark Sanford is a “libertarian Republican” presumably because he has expressed some support for free-trade policies.
According to PBS, Joe Walsh, a talk show host, is suggested to be a libertarian who worked at “the libertarian Heartland Institute” an organization similar to the Heritage Foundation.
According to the LA Review of Books, Ammon Bundy, the dissident rancher from Nevada, is representative of “America’s armed libertarian right wing.”
Even Donald Trump — said to be an enemy of libertarians by Tucker Carlson — nonetheless earns a place as the standard bearer of “libertarian authoritarianism” from Christian Fuchs. While this may seem oxymoronic in the minds of some, it makes sense in the mind of the typical non-libertarian. After all, Trump is a businessman. He has supported tax cut legislation, and has opposed some government regulations. For many, tariffs aside, this is a libertarian policy agenda.
Again we find that in the non-libertarian mind even partial or halting support of tax cuts or deregulation of any sort warrant the use of the term “libertarian.”
When used in an international context, the term usually means the same thing as in the US. For instance, Canada’s Globe and Mail refers to the “libertarian” Runnymede Society which is compared to the US’s Federalist Society, which is itself identified by Politico as a “conservative and libertarian” organization.
Do Libertarian Social Views Matter?
This isn’t to say that libertarianism is thought to be devoid of views outside political economy. It’s just that most commentators consider these views to be either irrelevant or of secondary importance.
For example, after Koch’s death, many of his defenders pointed to Koch’s left-leaning views on issues like prison reform, opposition to the drug war, and support for gay marriage. It was thought these might score him some points with his detractors.
But few of Koch’s critics cared about his left-leaning social views. After all, from the critics’ point of view, those views hardly made Koch special. Any decent person, the thinking goes, supports gay marriage and prison reform anyway. Having views such as these are hardly enough to cancel out the cardinal sin of the libertarians, which is enthusiastic support for free markets.
At the same time, libertarians also get blamed from the right wing for any views rightists may deem insufficiently conservative. Although there is actually no consensus among libertarians on matters such as the morality of drug use or pornography, for instance, many religious conservatives blame libertarians for everything from low fertility rates to opioid addiction.
Yet, even among rightists, the economic views of libertarians dominate the debate. The socially conservative First Things magazine, for example, has run numerous anti-libertarian essays in recent years with titles like “Libertarian Delusions” and “Beyond Libertarianism.”
In these cases, to be sure, the authors devote a small portion of their articles to deriding libertarianism for being too non-prescriptive in terms of family life and personal morality. But even here, the heart of the objection lies in the fact libertarians allow for too much market freedom.
In J.D. Vance’s “Beyond Libertarianism,” for example, Vance speaks of a child who has become addicted to opioids, and who has insufficient job prospects because there are no jobs with “a decent wage” in his area. Vance proceeds to lay the blame for this at the feet of libertarianism — because libertarians have failed to call for the use of state power in fighting drug addiction and creating jobs with high wages.
The Consensus About Libertarians
By now, it should be fairly clear there is an identifiable trend among how non-libertarians regard libertarians and libertarianism: libertarianism is most closely associated with opposition to government control and intervention in economic life. This is seen to take the form of opposition to government regulations, taxation, and barriers to trade. Broadly speaking, this view of libertarianism is more or less correct. 1
Once non-libertarians get to writing about the effects of libertarian political economy, however, they veer into a territory of anti-capitalist myth and pro-government propaganda.
But my purpose here is not to refute their accusations. Instead, I wish only to provide a summary of how much of the world views libertarians and their ideology.
Although many within the libertarian movement often like to emphasize differences among small factions in terms of social beliefs and political alliances, it appears that few pundits and journalists who comment on libertarianism care. For them, libertarianism is overwhelmingly defined only by an “extreme” deference to markets and capitalism. And for this, we are repeatedly told, libertarians ought to be condemned.
- 1. Although many get the main idea of what libertarianism is correct, the way the term is applied to specific individuals is often far off the mark. Using Mark Sanford as a standard bearer for libertarians, for example, is incredibly lazy.
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
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