Libertarianism: Conservative, Reactionary or Progressive?

Is libertarianism conservative, reactionary or progressive?

That is to say:  does it seek to preserve some existing state of being (politically/governmentally/societally speaking), does it seek to restore some past state of being, or does it seek to create a better state of being, specifically as it applies to the liberty and freedom of the individual?   Indeed, as I argued that other day, there is a progressive libertarian view of the CRA that one can readily identify (see my post More on Rand Paul, Civil Rights and Balancing Choices over Liberty).

Paul’s argument about private ownership, for example, is essentially a reactionary position:  he wants to return to a previous state of being in terms of the interpretation of the commerce clause that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the first place.  (And yes, he has stepped back his original statements, including stating he would have voted for the bill–but his basic philosophical position on the issue remains quite clear).

Indeed, there is a specific strain of libertarianism that sees the Golden Age of American liberty as being back in the late 1800s (typically pegged to the 1880s).   For example, I wrote about this concept here in the past.

This has been on my mind for a while, but the proximate trigger for the post this morning was Ross Douthat’s piece in the NYT this morning (The Principles of Rand Paul).

Writes Douthat:

Paul is a libertarian, certainly, but more importantly he’s a particular kind of a libertarian. He’s culturally conservative (opposing both abortion and illegal immigration), radically noninterventionist (he’s against the Iraq war and the United Nations), and so stringently constitutionalist that he views nearly everything today’s federal government does as a violation of the founding fathers’ vision.

This worldview goes by many names, including “paleoconservatism,” “the old right” and “paleolibertarianism.” But its adherents — Paul and his father, Ron, included — view themselves as America’s only true conservatives, arguing that the modern conservative movement has sold out to both big government and the military-industrial complex.

So, a couple of questions:

1)  What does libertarianism mean to you in terms of conservations, reaction or progression?

2)  How do you view Paulian (Ron or Rand, really) libertarianism?

Photo Source:  Me.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Franklin says:

    1) As with many others, I tend to think of libertarianism and authoritarianism as a separate axis to the political spectrum. I think of myself as fairly moderate left-to-right, and perhaps slightly libertarian along the ‘vertical’ axis.

    2) How do I view Paulian libertarianism? Well I tout it when I agree, and ignore it when I don’t. 🙂 I think their non-intervention spirit is somewhat unrealistic in the modern world, even if we could have used more of their type before we started the Iraq War.

    Note that I voted for Ron for President when he was on the Libertarian ticket (I think it was 1992), but would have to carefully analyze my options if he or his son were to run again.

  2. john personna says:

    Do people who hanker for the 1880’s know how the middle class lived then, or what risks they faced? Or do they hanker for a Disneyland Main Street version of the 1880’s, with only the good stuff? No outhouses, no chicken shit underfoot.

    Unless you think I went over there, remember that in a libertarian world, no one would pick up after their dogs.

    (I think libertarianism provides a useful dialectic. It is a useful counter to creeping socialism, but to the extent that it loses that old enemy, it becomes misshapen.)

  3. Yes, I do know what risks they faced in 1880, and they were generally less than those faced in 1840, which were less than those faced in 1800, which were less than those faced in 1760, …

    This is a classic fallacy of imagining that because things were bad, they must have been made bad by something, something like, say, free markets and libertarianism, rather than realizing that poverty and degradation is the natural state that people have to work themselves up from.

    Personally, I find it interesting that you focus so much on material goods rather than the more ephemeral virtues of freedom.

  4. Brett says:

    1) What does libertarianism mean to you in terms of conservations, reaction or progression?

    Libertarianism, to me, is opposition to the encroachment of state power on people’s personal lives, whether that involves personal matters (like abortion, drug use, and the like) or business matters.

    2) How do you view Paulian (Ron or Rand, really) libertarianism?

    I’m not sure, to be honest. They don’t really correspond directly to any prior political movements. They have the opposition to interventionism and neo-isolationism that many of the early twentieth century Republicans had (in doses, and that didn’t count the New World), but not the pro-Big Business outlook. They have the “states’ rights” bit that Jacksonian Democrats had, but not the progressivism that came to infect the Democratic Party.

  5. I think Brett’s answer to # 1 above is on the nail as far as what I would say.

    As for # 2, its worth noting that the Paulian Wing of libertianism, if that what you want to call it, has much in common with the Old (Pre-WW2) American right, whereas the libertarianism of groups like Cato and Reason Magazine comes out of the modern libertarian movement and is much more of a clean break with conservatism, especially on social issues.

  6. john personna says:

    Yes, I do know what risks they faced in 1880, and they were generally less than those faced in 1840, which were less than those faced in 1800, which were less than those faced in 1760, ..

    You know, all through the years you named we had panics, crashes, depressions. And through those years, being poor meant facing actual starvation. Consider growing old with a little bad luck on your side … in the Disneyland version of the 1880’s someone would be by with a hot apple pie every day … a nice fantasy.

    Libertarianism is good for a balance, but gets in trouble when it takes itself too seriously, or forgets the actual past.

  7. Margherite says:

    “Is libertarianism conservative, reactionary or progressive?”


    Therein lies its problem (or, perhaps, its greatest asset) .. as a political association/party it is self-contradictory. The difficulty with building a Libertarian platform is the alarming number of caveats that creep into every issue.

    However, doesn’t complexity, masquerading as simplicity in the guise of personal liberty, accurately reflect the face of the American political scene? The fatal flaw is mistaking license for liberty, politically-correct conduct disorder for civil discourse. And the average Libertarian Party candidates for office are typically so intellectually high-minded that they do not recognize the incongruity.

    I have voted for Ron Paul and for other Libertarian candidates in the past; and I will probably vote for future Libertarian candidates, because I would rather vote for an intellectual than for a scoundrel. Libertarian philosophy does not enter into that decision.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    1. As a political philosophy, I think libertarianism is conservative or reactionary. It’s the less/least government position, which is largely opposed to the progressive philosophy of using government to improve society. There can be overlaps. Both a libertarian and a progressive may support drug decriminalization, but a progressive is not doing so because he or she values less government; instead, the focus is more likely on the lack of utility of the government policy and the inequities of the policy on the disadvantaged.

    2. Paul is a Jacksonian libertarian, which means his views are tied-up with notions of state’s rights. I don’t think that is necessarily in line with a lot of blogosphere/think tank opinion which tends to criticize excess government at all levels.

  9. john personna, clearly your principles are always negotiable.

  10. Grewgills says:

    Indeed, there is a specific strain of libertarianism that sees the Golden Age of American liberty as being back in the late 1800s (typically pegged to the 1880s).

    Perhaps true if you are/were a white, male, middle class or better property owner.

  11. @Greg: exactly. Indeed, that was the point of post from PoliBlog that linked above.

    Indeed, I would argue that the reactionary version of American libertarian thinking is highly problematic.

  12. Wayne says:

    Less Government on all levels sounds good to me. At minimum put most of the power back to where it was. Too many have found loopholes to exploit and grant government powers where it was never intended to be. That needs to be undone.

    Of course doing so would mean that people would need to realize that they can’t tell everyone else how to live and that they can’t expect the governments to do everything for them. However IMO society would be much better off than the “big brother” society we are increasing getting.

    Someone throwing paint on your house without your permission should be regulated. Someone painting their house an ugly color should not.

  13. Someone painting their house an ugly color should not.

    What if your neighbor painting the house in some offensive fashion makes it difficult (maybe even impossible) for you to sell your house?

  14. john personna says:

    john personna, clearly your principles are always negotiable.

    It’s true that I don’t think “balanced” or “pragmatic” are dirty words.

  15. Wayne says:

    Re “ What if your neighbor painting the house in some offensive fashion makes it difficult (maybe even impossible) for you to sell your house?”

    As long as it isn’t nudes morals, racist statements, the finger, and such. Purple paint and pink polka dots may lower your house property but your neighbor should be allowed to do it. That is one price of freedom. I doubt many would do that but they should have the freedom to do so. I don’t like the pink color schemes in Miami but I shouldn’t be able to tell them no.

  16. What if they want to burn trash, raise chickens or play Van Halen’s Jump at full blast at 3am?

    And why are purple and pink polka dots ok, but nudes and the finger aren’t?

  17. SJ Reidhead says:

    I find the 1880s analogy rather ironic, considering the idiocy in Arizona today and the abject corruption in Cochise County in the early 1880s! Why do you think there was a shoot-out at the OK Corral? It was between the Republicans (Earps) and the Democrats (Clantons). It was between law and order townspeople and the more “libertarian” do what ever country outlaw types. Even more ironic is the fact that the Cowboys were using the same smuggler trails the Mexican drug cartels use today. Only in the 1880s the Mexican gov’t. was ready to declare war on the US if something was not done about the Clanton-McLaury-John Ringo-Curly Bill Cowboys going into Mexico and murdering people, stealing cattle, etc.

    Only the names have changed. The story remains the same.

    The Pink Flamingo

  18. Liandro says:

    I think this is where the state’s rights and local government issues come into play for Paul-style libertarianism. A city ordinance could control house paint colors, but a city ordinance is much more likely to be affected by the will of the local people then a federal law. Indeed, there is no one who can control the federal government, generally not even federal actors. That is why state and local governments were such critical agents of government under what I would see as the “proper” understanding of the Constitution (enumerated powers, etc.). No system of government is perfect, and with respect to state’s rights/civil rights the federal government was within it’s moral bounds to control certain freedoms to protect individuals. I just wish it had been done with a focused, specific amendment. Instead, we now have a reading of the commerce clause that destroys the concept of enumerated powers and gives the federal government almost total reach–and does so with much less controversy and discussion then amending would require.