Republicans and Liberty, Part 1

It’s one of those enduring questions: why are there Republicans?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been thinking about the existence of one kind of Republican lately: the Libertarian. The principal libertarian Republican in the news these days is a Senator from Kentucky whose initials are RP. Some of the people who spend their time on Earth guessing about such things think RP is the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination (even though the primaries and caucuses are still two years away). 

I started thinking about RP and other Republican libertarians when this question popped into my head: do Republican libertarians support the American Civil Liberties Union? The ACLU famously devotes itself to protecting various rights and liberties, especially those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Shouldn’t Republican libertarians be in favor of their work? Yet that seemed unlikely, since the ACLU is a well-known “liberal” organization and we all know how Republicans feel about liberals.

A little bit of research suggests that Republican libertarians support some of the ACLU’s work, but definitely not all of it. The reason for this mixed attitude is that Republican libertarians are generally “economic” libertarians, while the libertarians at the ACLU are (as you might suppose) “civil” libertarians.

Economic libertarians believe the individual is supremely important, especially when it comes to private property and the fruits of one’s labor.They hold that government’s principal purpose is to protect the rest of us from criminals and foreign aggressors, not to provide for the general welfare. They believe we should all be allowed to do what we want so long as we don’t infringe on other people’s rights.

Hence, economic libertarians favor laissez-faire, the principle that private parties should be allowed to engage in economic activity with minimal government interference, involvement or assistance. The government should only tax, regulate or subsidize economic activity in order to insure the existence of a free market, in which all of us, being responsible for our own success or failure, can fairly compete.

The basic argument for economic libertarianism was strongly stated by the philosopher Robert Nozick (who borrowed some of it from Immanuel Kant) in his classic book Anarchy, State and Utopia: all human beings should be treated as ends, not means, so it’s wrong to take from one person to help another. Basically, my tax dollars should not benefit you without my consent. Otherwise I’ve been made a kind of slave.

To sum up, in the words of one self-described libertarian: “Real libertarians understand that freedom of speech and other civil liberties depend on the sanctity of private property – not its violation by anti-discrimination laws and other forms of government intervention.”

So, economic libertarians endorse some of the ACLU’s work, such as supporting freedom of speech and the right of assembly, but oppose a lot of it, such as the ACLU’s support for anti-discrimination laws (because an employer should be able to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of race or gender) and the supposed right of all children to an equal public education at taxpayer expense. 

Economic libertarians appear to disagree among themselves on other issues. One troublesome example is abortion rights, which the ACLU obviously supports. Economic libertarians would presumably support abortion rights too (it’s my body) but not if they think a fetus is already a person (in which case, the fetus already has rights that need to be protected). Voting rights is another interesting case. The ACLU strongly favors voting rights for all Americans, including ex-prisoners, but some economic libertarians think that committing a felony means you’ve forfeited your right to vote.

To test my understanding of the difference between economic and civil libertarians, and to see what that famous libertarian Republican has to say, I spent some time on Senator LP’s website. More about that tomorrow, as well as some thoughts on economic libertarianism in general.

2 thoughts on “Republicans and Liberty, Part 1

  1. Great essay, I look forward to seeing more of your writing on libertarianism. This is an important subject (the sometimes conservative social policy of libertarians) because, as I have said in the past, at least libertarianism is more consistent than republicanism, and their liberal take on social policy is commendable, so if libertarianism has veered to the right on social policy it turns out to be just as repugnant as republicanism.

    Also, I laughed when I saw your first question. That question, and “why do anyone besides rich white men vote republican?” stump me every time.

    • Thanks. I’m plowing ahead although I wish I understood the subject better and am concerned that I’ll receive an avalanche of objections from outraged Republicans and libertarians in due course!

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