Libertarian Realism v. Caricatures

The simplistic, and intentionally misleading, discussions of "libertarians" and classical liberalism tend to paint all libertarians as "anti-government." These popular caricatures of libertarians appear in various "progressive" publications and on many websites. The common theme is if libertarianism worked, Somalia or {insert lawless nation here} would be libertarian paradise. Yet, libertarianism requires functioning courts, enforceable laws, and the planning of some shared commons. If contracts don't matter, if you can take my life without consequence, if we can't travel across territories, then we don't have individual freedom or commercial markets.

You can find these high-school level analyses equating Somalia with libertarianism easily online without my help; these are works I'd never accept from my college students. It's no better when classical liberals caricature progressives as uncritical supporters of all big government. Most progressives I know reject quite a bit of big government and government regulation… when the system opposes something progressives might like. We all take something of a cafeteria approach to government and economics, picking and choosing what we support ideologically, religiously, philosophically, et cetera.

Complicating any discussion of "libertarians" is that there are left, right, center, and who-knows-what libertarians. Marxist libertarians are a real thing, as are nationalistic libertarians. There are even anarchists who adopted the libertarian label.

Most libertarians and classical liberals are realists. We are not rigid ideologues, because life, politics, and economics are not perfect models of anything. Instead, we attempt to favor the individual and individual property rights whenever it is possible to do so without significant negative consequences on a community. In other words, we favor the individual until doing so doesn't seem to work. Yes, that's vague and imprecise, a line we move as science, technology, and even cultural values evolve.

Traditionally, libertarians in the United States are associated with political philosophies of "Negative Rights." I have argued this label reflects a rhetorical twist, likely reflecting a negative view of libertarian values. However, we are stuck with the terminology we have.

Negative Rights


  • Limits what government should do, by listing what it cannot do to the individual.
  • Rights of non-interference to live as you want, with those rights protected against government and, (yes) through government, from other individuals.
  • Locke, Mill, and Thomas Jefferson are historical supporters of negative rights.
  • John Hospers, The Libertarian Alternative (1974).
  • In the United States, "conservatives" and "libertarians" claim to embrace (some) negative rights.

Positive Rights


  • Limits what the individual should do, while granting "rights" from the government to the person.
  • Rights of the individual to basic needs, as determined and allocated by government policy.
  • Karl Marx (1818–1883) major proponent of positive rights: government cares for the person.
  • In the United States, progressives, "liberals," socialists, and Marxists embrace (some) positive rights.

Total freedom and total centralization are both flawed. And most people recognize this, including libertarians. Why progressives cannot imagine others are pragmatic is beyond me. The result, in the West, is that our modern national governments and economies are hybrids that constantly rebalance their negative and positive rights to reflect the values and cultures of their citizens. Swing too far towards negative rights, the next government might swing too far to the positive rights — and vice-versa.

The libertarians, the classical liberals, know that government must exist to ensure property rights, contractual agreements, honest capital markets, and basic commons such as roads. However, we start from the perspective that government should do the minimum necessary to promote and ensure freedom and transparent markets. We always ask, "Is this community task best suited to government, industry, or should it even be performed?"

Basically, libertarians assume the worst of large organizations and seek to limit large government, large corporations, and large anything else. We aren't "winner takes all" monopolists, because monopolies are not a good idea. We aren't in favor of tax break for some businesses and not others. We aren't in favor of uneven playing fields, but we also don't seek to even the final scores in most cases.

An example of libertarian logic: government should oversee the planning and construction of roads. Private companies should bid on these projects, however, because competition lowers prices. Government can and should set the requirements for these bids, including safety requirements, but government is the manager in this model, not the construction company.

Limiting the role of government doesn't require hating government. If anything, effective and trustworthy government helps markets function. Bad government, either too weak or too strong, can ruin markets and the freedoms of citizens.

What we argue about in the United States is balance between private and public roles, not that one or the other shouldn't exist.

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