the classical liberals versus the “egoists”

Principled classical liberals are sharply critical of basically illiberal people who claim the libertarian label. The Unpopulist is an important source for this critique. I think their cause is an important component of the broad front against authoritarianism. I am not a classical liberal, but if I were, I would be even more alarmed about illiberal currents within libertarianism as threats to what I would hold most dear.

Imagine that you are a principled libertarian. You want all human beings to be free. In a very abstract way, you share that commitment with socialists, anarchists, and New Deal liberals. But you add two ingredients. First, you are primarily concerned about negative liberty: freedom from coercion. Second, you see the state as the worst threat to liberty, because it has guns, prisons, and executioners, a huge budget, extensive files, and a hierarchical structure.

I happen to believe that corporate bureaucracies and markets also threaten liberty. I support the republican form of liberty that involves making collective decisions by debating and voting. I also believe in the Four Freedoms of the New Deal and the potential of governments to promote them. However, classical liberals make important points in these debates.

As a principled libertarian, you would scan the world for cases of states violating individual liberty and you’d try to help, perhaps even at your own expense. Maybe you are concerned about Uyghurs in Chinese concentration camps. Or maybe it concerns you that the government of the United States minutely controls the lives of almost 2 million prisoners, using its power to throw some of them into solitary confinement. When an agent of the state, a police officer, fatally suffocates a citizen who is trying to sell cigarettes to willing buyers, you see a gross violation of liberty, whether or not you are inclined to attribute it (as I would) to systemic racism.

Alternatively, imagine that your view is compatible with Ayn Rand or some interpretations–poor ones, I believe–of Nietzsche or Emerson. To be polite, I will call you an “egoist” (Rand’s term for her own view). You basically believe that it is right and virtuous to be concerned about yourself and either weak or patronizing to act for others.

You, too, will scan the world, but you will not be looking for coercive injustices against other people that you should help resist. Your eyes are open for threats to your own interests.

Insofar as these threats are state actions, you can walk the same road with classical liberals. For instance, you may want tax rates to fall so that you don’t have to pay as much money, whereas a classical liberal seeks to hamper the coercive power of the state and liberate other people’s entrepreneurial energies. If the issue is the rate of taxation, you and the classical liberal may vote alike. The same is true for school choice or marijuana policy.

But what if you are concerned that many women don’t seem to want to date you because they are (more or less) feminist and they dislike your values? Or what if your private employer wants you to experience a diversity workshop that makes you feel bad? Then your opponent is no longer the state. In fact, your values might be fairly popular, and therefore you may be tempted to use the state’s power to restrict and restrain the ideas and behaviors that hamper you, or that simply offend you.

As an exhibit of the latter view, consider Tucker Carlson:

Democrats in Washington have told you, you have a patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate. … Before that happens, it might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious. What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs? These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is no. Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that.

Putin has indisputably violated the individual rights of many people, including Russians. But Carlson is not scanning the horizon for governments that abuse freedom. He is looking for things he doesn’t like, such as being called a racist, being laid off by a private employer, or hearing critiques of Christianity or expressions of other faiths. He doesn’t feel that Putin has hurt him; on the contrary, the Kremlin is imposing certain policies on its own people that Carlson rather likes.

Perhaps Carlson is not, in any sense, a libertarian. However, he is influential within the Republican Party, which–although never consistently libertarian, and always overly enamored with police power–was once a vehicle for promoting certain classical liberal ideas. Generally, it was the party that was more skeptical of government. But now a major voice in the party is defending an authoritarian.

The same debate is playing out within the Libertarian party itself. Reason Magazine’s Brian Doherty quotes a Libertarian activist who advocates the permanent incarceration of Anthony Fauci in Guantanamo Bay and decries “woke globalism”–even though classical liberals are universalists, skeptical of nation-states, and should be appalled by the very idea of an overseas federal detention center.

Again, this isn’t really my fight, because I am not a libertarian myself. Nor do I want to explore the nuances of debates within libertarianism, because I have more pressing interests. But I do appreciate the efforts of true liberals to safeguard their own movement. They are part of the broader struggle against right-wing extremism.

See also: on the tension between equity and liberty; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; trying to keep myself honest; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.