Liberal and Libertarian

“What?”, you say, “But those philosophies are opposite. You can’t believe them both!” Well, I don’t think so exactly. They are concerned with different things. Their different concerns make them take opposite positions on issues sometimes, but their underlying bases are not opposite.

Liberals worry about protecting people. This is an important concern. People deserve to be treated fairly, but people are inherently vulnerable. It is possible for people to be taken advantage of, and “tough luck” is not the proper response of a morally advanced society. Trial by combat used to be an accepted form of criminal justice. The idea was that the person in the right would automatically win. Of course we now know that’s ridiculous. Being morally right doesn’t automatically equal power in fighting. Likewise, “buyer beware” does not guarantee that people get a fair deal.

Libertarians worry about freedom. This is an important concern. I’m basically a humanist who believes that What People Want is the definition of The Good. Of course, What People Want has to include your effects on what other people want, and must consider long term happiness, and happiness is more than just physical pleasure, etc.,etc.. But all other things being equal, allowing someone to do what they want (i.e. freedom) is an inherent good.

So Liberaltarianism is a matter of trying to simultaneously satisfy these two goals. They are not diametrically opposed goals. Protecting people does not require that people not be free, and freedom does not require that people not be protected. It’s a false choice that we can only have one or the other.

Here’s a table where I’ve tried to compile and condense what I consider to be the good and bad of liberal and libertarian views.







Even responsible people can find themselves at the mercy of situations outside their control. Nothing you do is your own fault.  You must have had a bad childhood. People should be responsible for their behavior. Everything that happens to you is your own fault. If something bad happens you must have done something to deserve it.
The balance of power between business, labor, and consumers is not automatically fair. The only way to make things fair is for the government to control everything. Individuals know what’s best for themselves. The best way to act is every man for himself.
Having weaknesses and vulnerabilities is a natural part of the human condition. People can’t take care of themselves.  The government has to do it. If someone tries to trick you and you fall for it, tough luck.  You’re expected to be perfect and the person who tried to trick you did nothing wrong.
The solution to every problem is to have the government pass a law saying what everyone should do.  That always works perfectly. There’s nothing magical about government.  It’s still just people who have the same imperfect motivations and make the same mistakes in government as they do in private life.
The government should restrict what people do to prevent bad things from happening, we should have rules to cover every possible situation and people should only be allowed to do what is government approved. Freedom is important.  We should strive to let people do what they want as much as possible.
Your ability to make money is partly affected by luck and things outside your control.  “You get what you get” is not the definition of what you deserve. The only fair distribution of wealth is for everyone to have exactly the same.  It’s inconceivable that one person could deserve more than another. What you deserve should be based on how you choose to act.  Some people make better choices and they are more deserving of economic benefits. Whatever you get, you must have deserved it.  It’s inconceivable that someone could get more than they deserve through luck or unethical actions.
The desires of the individual don’t matter.  You should submit to the desires of the group. “The desires of the group” can be a tool of tyranny used to impose the desires of the group leader.


#1 Neal Locke on 10.11.08 at 7:16 pm

Nice — I wonder what it would be like to add another column to the far left for “categories?” In other words, build up a kind of issue-based chart highlighting and comparing the strengths and weaknesses of liberal/libertarian worldviews on a spectrum of topics.

#2 Bob Steinke on 10.13.08 at 2:49 pm


You can tell that I started out the table with the idea that each row would be an issue or category. As I was writing I felt compelled to fill in every box, and sometimes I would just write the inverse of one side’s good column in the other side’s bad column. So I kind of gave up on that idea and only filled in the boxes where I felt I could add something new.

Still, it’s incomplete. It’s just what I could think of at the time. If you want to organize it into categories and add more feel free. I’d be interested to see what you would add or disagree with. This could be a useful thing to have on the about page.

#3 Joe Locke on 10.20.08 at 4:58 pm

I agree this could be seen as a work-in-progress and could become very useful for the blog and in identifying what is meant by Liberaltarianism. Is there any way we could put it in a format which would allow it to be worked on collectively by self-identified Liberaltarians who are members of the blog?

#4 Leoma on 10.29.08 at 9:20 am

Well written article.

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