Over the past year, I have noticed a number of casual, though important, errors that libertarians often make. Knowing these things may save you from mild embarrassment or help you in your internship application.
Libertarian and libertarian are different.
The libertarian FAQ explains that “all Libertarians are libertarians, but not the reverse.” A libertarian is a person who believes in the principles of liberty, specifically individual liberty, free markets, limited government and peace. A Libertarian, on the other hand, is a person who believes the existing political system is a proper and effective means of implementing those principles. “Libertarian” usually means a member of the Libertarian Party. Small-l libertarians are those who consider the Libertarian Party tactically ineffective, and/or who reject the political system generally. So, next time you’re on that forum board or Facebook comment thread, remember that the proper use of capital and lower-case letters conveys a lot of information.
Conservatism and libertarianism are separate and distinct intellectual traditions.
For many years, libertarianism has been considered a sub-movement of the right-wing or conservative movement. This is largely due to a strategy adopted by our early libertarian forefathers whose primary focus was the defense of economic freedom. Clark Ruper, SFL’s Vice President, explains that “fusionism is a term for the combination of libertarianism and traditional conservatism. It applies both in terms of philosophical compatibility and as a practical alliance in the American political system. The phrase was first coined by National Review Editor Frank Meyer in the early 1960’s. It is in itself a philosophical view described by Meyer in his book In Defense of Freedom and his various articles and essays. But more than that, it is a product of its time, a synergy of forces that were coming together in the late 50’s and early 60’s in mutual opposition to the growth of government.”
Steve Horwitz, professor of economics at St. Lawrence University, explains that “classical liberalism started as a movement of the left, with folks like J.S. Mill being our standard bearers against the forces of reaction and conservatism in England, especially over issues of race. We were the “progressives” of that era, viewing the market as a force for progress for all, especially the least well-off, and as a great equalizer. It was Mill who argued that it was a good thing that markets would lead to racial equality in opposition to people like Carlyle and Ruskin who rejected markets because they wanted to maintain racial hierarchy. The liberal revolution was a revolution against privilege and the old order. It was the radical progressivism of its day.”
The principle of foreign non-interventionism is not a precondition to being a libertarian.
The libertarian movement has often prided itself on intellectual plurality and the fact that there are many justifications for liberty. Additionally, while there is a certain set of principles that all libertarians can agree upon, there is no litmus test for being a libertarian. Foreign policy is one such example of widespread views within the movement that well-meaning libertarians can disagree on and still be considered libertarian or more broadly pro-liberty. In 2002, the Cato Institute senior fellow Brink Lindsey wrote a piece in Reason magazine arguing the case for invading Iraq. While I personally disagree with his position in the article, it certainly does not revoke Lindsey’s status as a libertarian. Stephen Davies, Education Director at the Institute for Economic Affairs in London, explains that “in foreign policy…many libertarians think that the consistent position is to be a non-interventionist, but in fact I think it’s perfectly possible to be a libertarian and to advocate a more interventionist foreign policy.”
Many well-meaning, though misinformed libertarians will often scream collectivism at the first sight of the term “we”, “our”, and “us”. However, collectivism more properly understood is the sacrifice of individual rights for the greater good of the many. Collectivism is not synonymous with working together as a group or referring to a group of people, etc.
On the other hand, individualism is not synonymous with an atomistic, reclusive, anti-social attitude that many critics of libertarianism like to accuse of us. Rather, individualism is simply a commitment to the rights of individuals, without regard to the fictitious notion of “the people”. Moreover, some have argued that Ayn Rand’s hyper-individualism harmed the libertarian movement. I believe this criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what Rand meant by individualism and collectivism. Rand, too, meant to define collectivism and individualism in a similar way that I have. Interestingly, Rand’s inner-circle was known as “the collective”.
Cato is not an acronym.
Although the Cato Institute emblem capitalizes each letter, the Cato Institute is not an acronym. The institute explains that “Cato owes its name to Cato’s Letters, a series of essays published in 18th- century England that presented a vision of society free from excessive government power. Those essays inspired the architects of the American Revolution.” Those writers used the the pen name Cato in reference to the Roman Republic statesman, Cato the Younger, who was known for “his stubbornness and tenacity, as well as his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his famous distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period.”
To close, I should add an additional bonus mistake that no good student for liberty will ever make. Students “For” Liberty! The “For” in SFL is always capitalized, otherwise we would simply be SL. This being the most important mistake to dodge, attempt to avoid the ones above as well and you’ll be prepared for your next libertarian gathering!