Libertarianism, like its ideological cousin neoliberalism, is one of those words that people in the political world use a lot without establishing whether everyone agrees on its meaning. This doesnt really matter in the vast majority of cases (because nothing that happens during a fight in a comment thread or on Twitter matters). But as support for libertarian-backed causes like marriage equality, opposition to the war on drugs, and resistance against the rise of mass incarceration become ever-greater parts of U.S. politics, the definition of libertarianism will matter more, too for the sake of apportioning credit and blame, if nothing else.
In the interest of nailing down a famously elusive and controversial term, then, Salon recently spoke over the phone with David Boaz, longtime member of the influential and Koch-founded Cato Institute think tank and author of Libertarianism: A Primer, which was just updated and rereleased as The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom. Our discussion touched on the big issues mentioned above, as well as Boazs thoughts on what liberals and conservatives misunderstand about libertarianism, and why he thinks his favored political philosophys future is so bright. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
If you had to pick one defining or differentiating characteristic of the libertarian mind, what would it be?
The first line of the book says that libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom, so what distinguishes libertarians is their commitment to freedom. That can manifest itself in lots of different issues, from marijuana and gay marriage to smaller government and lower taxes, but the fundamental idea of freedom as the proper political condition for society is the thing that unites libertarians.
Wouldnt most Americans say they care deeply about freedom, though? So is it the definition of freedom that distinguishes libertarianism from liberalism and conservatism? Or is it where freedom ends up in the hierarchy of values?
In America, virtually everybody comes out of the classical liberal tradition. The classical liberal tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill stresses freedom under law and limited government and most Americans share that. The difference with libertarians is that we do make freedom our political priority. Freedom is not necessarily any persons primary value. Your primary value may be courage or friendship or love or compassion or the arts; but freedom is the primary political value for libertarians.
I do think that is a difference between libertarians and liberals or conservatives who value freedom but also value other things. Modern American liberals would say, I believe, that they value equality along with freedom. Libertarians would tend to respond, well, in the real world you get more equality when you have freedom and free markets, though libertarians certainly believe in equal rights and equal freedom. Some conservatives value doing Gods will or maintaining social order or maintaining tradition along with freedom.
In that sense, I do think libertarians put freedom at the center of their political philosophy in a way that many liberals and conservatives do not.
If you had to pick one thing about libertarianism that liberals misunderstand the most, what would it be?
I think there is first a misunderstanding that libertarians are conservatives and I think thats wrong. Libertarians are classical liberals. We trace our heritage back to, not the aristocracy or established church, but to the liberal thinkers and activists who challenged those institutions.
Read more from the original source:
Thats something that should make libertarians nervous: Inside the tumultuous rise of an American ideology