The Corner

Being ‘Socially Liberal’ Is Not Being a Libertarian

My column today is an open letter lambasting the folks who describe themselves as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” but who still side with Obama in the fight over the budget, the debt ceiling, etc. 

But I want to make a separate point (which I’ve made before) that seems to be lost on some readers and folks in my Twitter feed. People who say they are socially liberal often call themselves libertarians and many libertarians call themselves socially liberal. But libertarianism and liberalism on social issues are not the same thing.

Your typical liberal Democrat says she’s liberal on social issues but that doesn’t make her in any meaningful way a libertarian. For instance, the vast majority of the libertarians I know hate things like speech codes, smoking bans, racial quotas, and the vast swaths of political indoctrination that pass for “education” today. They tend to oppose gun control, think fondly of homeschooling (if not always homeschoolers) and are generally split on the question of abortion. They do not, however, think that the government should be steamrolling religious institutions with Obamacare or subsidizing birth control. Liberals tend to loathe federalism or states’ rights (though there’s been some movement there) libertarians usually love the idea. The liberals who don’t like it fear that states or local communities might use their autonomy to live in ways liberals don’t approve of. Libertarians couldn’t care less. 

Sure, there’s overlap between liberalism and libertarianism on things like gay marriage. But the philosophical route libertarians and liberals take to get to that support is usually very different. Libertarians are disciples of thinkers like Hayek and von Mises. Liberals descend from thinkers like John Dewey. The former believed in negative liberty, the latter positive liberty. And therein lies all of the difference. As a gross generalization, libertarianism advocates freedom to do whatever you like (short of harming others). Liberalism supports freedom to do whatever liberals like, everything else is suspect. 

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