Liberalism and libertarianism share a root word as well as a common history, but today liberals and libertarians are often far apart on economic and political issues, especially in the US. I’ll try to get to the bottom of the current divisions, giving due respect to the self-serving talking points repeated by each side, which is to say no respect at all to what partisan liberals and libertarians pretend to believe. I’m more interested in the principles that can be deduced from what such partisans say or that are indicated by their political actions. The principles I detect are rather shocking. As I’ve spelled out in Liberalism and elsewhere, modern liberals must be distinguished from postmodern ones, and postmodern liberals are disgraced, nihilistic servants of stealth oligarchies; moreover, as I’ve explained in Conservatism, libertarians craft noble lies on behalf of those same oligarchies. But in the present philosophical rant, I explore further the nature of those lies, to lay bare the current differences between liberalism and libertarianism.
The Ironic Undoing of Liberalism
Modern liberalism is a scientistic application of rationalism, which imports scientific methods and standards from the empirical study of nature to the management of society. By way of a decline from a modern to a so-called postmodern state, liberalism comes to bridge secular individualism and technocracy in the following way. Historically, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the merchant class, and the power of modern scientific inquiries undermined the European feudalism, the authority of the Catholic Church, and thus the basis for deferring to Christian dogmas. Faith in received wisdom was replaced with the Renaissance confidence in human creativity and progress. The godlike human, who replaces the monotheistic deity by learning how the world actually works and re-engineering it to our benefit instead of trusting in any alleged divine revelation, and by freely creating cultures inherits the prestige and the rights once conventionally thought to belong to God.
Now, as a sovereign gifted with the powers of rational self-control and thus of some freedom from natural forces, the secular humanist acquires the rights to create and to profit from that labour, free from traditional strictures. This freedom of thought and of labour requires democracy and capitalism. Liberal rights flow from the rationality of human nature, and so all people are assumed to have these rights. Moreover, since the modern liberal is optimistic about the prospect for social progress by an application of reason similar to the one in technoscience, liberalism entails a protection of human rights and of our equality by a progressive government. This is to say that liberal rationalism has socialist implications: by replacing Faith with Reason and God with Homo sapiens, the liberal expects that social progress can be engineered just as well as technoscientific progress in controlling natural processes. Each rationally-sovereign person progresses by exercising her divine creativity and self-control, and just as God was assumed to benefit from some religious hierarchy such as the Catholic Church, which takes up the intermediary burden of managing Earth as the pinnacle of God's Creation, a powerful bureaucratic government is needed to protect secular creations. This liberal government will be technocratic in its aping of technoscience: instead of improving on nature, a liberal government perfects society, but in each case the goal is rational self-empowerment. And a liberal government will be socialist in its expansive view of human rights shared equally by every rationally-autonomous person. Reason dignifies and indeed deifies a person, and so just as a Church or other holy ground must be highly regulated and safeguarded, much governmental care must be taken even with a pauper. Hence, we have the secular liberal’s technocratic administration of a social safety net.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, the modern liberal society degenerates into what I’ve called its postmodern version. Ironically, the very scientific progress that so inspired secular humanists in the Enlightenment is largely responsible for this decline. What happened is just that evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences showed that humans aren’t divine after all; specifically, we’re not as free, conscious, nor as rational as assumed by the Enlightenment metanarrative. On the contrary, we’re embodied animals with no immaterial or supernatural spirit, our minds are mostly unconscious, and our capacity for reason evolved alongside more prodigious capacities for unreason (fallacies and biases) which play their own evolutionary roles. Thus, informed liberals eventually lost confidence in the myths of modernity, and what I’ve called the religion of scientism entered its arid scholastic phase in which politically correct censorship replaces the modern premium on originality. (See Political Correctness.)
Moreover, precisely because we were merely clever animals all along, the liberal’s championing of freedom in the forms of democracy and capitalism naturally ushered in stealth oligarchies which liberate certain sociopathic minorities at the expense of great majorities. In a “free” Western society, the socialist powers of technocratic government are usurped by the minority who profit most from economic competition, and are then applied to the exclusive preservation of their wealth. In the nadir of postmodern liberalism, which is the current farce with the politically correct title, The American Leadership of the Free World, the majority are degraded rather than dignified, whether by an overactive prison system with the world’s highest incarceration rate, by a governmental duopoly that responds much more to money than to votes, or by the spectacle that the top tenth of the top one percent of wealthiest Americans, or one in a thousand American households, made one out of every eight dollars in the US economy prior to the 2008 recession, despite the obvious fact that that lopsided share hardly corresponds to any superhuman social contribution on the part of those elite beneficiaries. (See Winner-Take-All Politics, by Hacker and Pierson.)
The result is an apathetic, cynical, largely impoverished and suckered majority governed by godlike oligarchs in the private sector who manipulate mass opinion through their control of the corporate media and their financed, lobbied, and thus captured political representatives. Postmodern secular liberals, meaning informed ones who’ve lost faith in Enlightenment ideals of rational progress, are now mere nihilistic functionaries in this greater oligarchic technocracy. These functionaries, who are said euphemistically to be “pragmatic,” "centrist,” or “moderate,” are actually neutral, which is to say passive, managers of an inherited system. This system is just the junk pile remaining from the implosion of modern, idealistic secular liberalism.
Libertarianism as Disguised Social Darwinism
Libertarianism has complex historical connections to what’s now called liberalism. But the key to what currently distinguishes the two political viewpoints is that the libertarian holds out the individual’s divine freedom to create as an aspiration, or as an end of a process, not as an inalienable right possessed equally by everyone. In effect, the libertarian picks up where the postmodern liberal leaves off, accepting the disheartening scientific discoveries of human beastliness and thus rejecting two liberal assumptions: first, that all people deserve respect as substitutes for the traditional monotheistic deity; and consequently second, that we should have general confidence in social work performed by groups of people. Specifically, the deeds of a democratic government which even partly represents the mob’s interests must be suspect. Thus, the libertarian is in favour of marginalizing government as an instrument of the mob, since contrary to modern liberal hype, a human mob isn’t necessarily comprised of rationally self-controlled, godlike agents whose handiwork must be revered.
Still, the libertarian now accepts the liberal ideal of individual freedom. This freedom, however, isn’t something that can be stipulated, but tends actually to be enjoyed only by a small minority. How does anyone become truly free? Not by governmental regulation or tinkering with a welfare state, since again, democratic government is controlled at least partly by beastly (ignorant, gullible, cowardly, selfish, etc.) humans who aren’t fit to rule over anyone else because they lack even the power of rational self-control, being as biologists and cognitive scientists find them. Instead, libertarian freedom, which still needs to be defined, is won in a natural competition occurring in what’s euphemistically called a free market. That is, liberty in the libertarian’s sense can only be a product of mighty nature, like anything else of highest value, and the free market is just a human recreation of a precivilized state of wilderness in which a social Darwinian struggle for survival plays out. The fittest humans, namely those who achieve the most economic success, are naturally the most vicious, predatorial, and sociopathic. (See, for example, this recent study.) Ironically, those who thus prove themselves to be truest to our animal nature win the right to transcend that nature by way of achieving financial independence and the godlike power not of freedom as rational self-control, but of a libertine license to live as decadent kings, as conquerors of the rabble.
Thus, the current main difference between liberalism and libertarianism can be summarized as follows. The postmodern liberal is an instrumentalist who prizes a sprawling bureaucratic government as the best tool for hiding the liberal’s loss of faith in modern ideals and for exercising technocratic control over the citizenry. Ensconced in the government structure, a liberal can pretend to be just a partisan machine who follows orders, with no way of appreciating the conflict between the liberal’s secular assumptions and her ideal of human divinity. Moreover, the postmodern liberal consoles herself with the thought that scientism is vindicated by the government’s quasi-technological applications, which is to say by its regulations of the economy and of the culture at large. This is a delusion, though, because the regulation now applies no scientific theory, but just propaganda written by the minions of oligarchs.
By contrast, the libertarian is a social Darwinian who prizes natural selection as the best tool for camouflaging the libertarian’s ugly preferences for dominance hierarchy and for enforcing a clique of wild human predators’ control over the citizenry. The libertarian trusts in the quasi-divinity of subhuman natural forces, not in universal and innate human greatness as expressed by a powerful political representation of the masses’ will. As science has shown, to the chagrin of modern liberals, most people aren’t free at all but are slaves to natural forces and to the environment created by the minority of supreme winners; again, most people aren’t rationally self-controlled, but are controlled externally by the wildest, cruelest, most irrational and impulsive beasts, namely by the oligarchs. The libertarian effectively worships those beasts for their freedom, which is to say their earned or inherited power to rule over the majority and their liberation from conventions of good and evil.
Liberal vs Libertarian Freedoms
In the mass media, the libertarian talks endlessly of the need to secure our precious liberties and freedoms, but what can the libertarian mean? Suppose she means that everyone always has certain human rights in virtue of our power of self-determination. After all, from at least Ronald Reagan onward, Republican politicians tap into libertarian sentiment by saying to the little guy, “Do you need Big Brother from the government telling you how you should live? No, you’re wise enough to take care of your money, which is why taxes should be drastically lowered. You can take care of yourself as a rugged individualist, like one of our American forebears in the Wild West or in the pioneering days.” The presumption here is that when each is left to fend for himself in such a wild free-for-all, there can be only winners. Left unstated is that when human life is reduced to a natural competition, there will necessarily be many losers. Likewise, in the Wild West, when gun fighters were left to fend for themselves with no sheriff around, one would shoot the other, leaving a loser to complement the other’s victory. Were the strong permitted to prey on the weak without governmental intervention, the minority who are naturally the most vicious and the least capable of shame would accumulate most of the wealth and so impoverish and radicalize the majority, thus guaranteeing the oligarchs’ eventual downfall as the vices needed to propel them to the top of the dominance hierarchy preclude their having the humility to appreciate a stable mob’s role in their own survival. In short, the uncivilized struggle for power plays out as an analogue of the sexual game between sadists and masochists.
But to return to the point, we need to ask why the libertarian seldom speaks at any length about the necessity of losers in her social Darwinian dream in which the government mainly preserves a field of wild competition by militarily preventing foreign intervention and by punishing theft of private property won in the natural struggle for survival. The reason is that any such reference to the losers points to the contradiction at the heart of libertarianism. On the one hand, the libertarian wants a society in which everyone is free to compete. On the other, such a society necessarily develops into a dominance hierarchy in which the majority are deprived of that freedom, as power and wealth are monopolized at the very top of the social pyramid and social forces of upward mobility, such as welfare for the poor and what Chris Hedges calls the pillars of a liberal establishment, are eliminated. The libertarian pretends that everyone wins in a wild, that is, a free, market, or that, at worst, if you go bankrupt you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, work hard, and win out in the end. The cold, hard fact is that just as most mammals come to grisly ends as they’re eaten by predators or else starve to death due to exposure to the elements, most people in an unregulated competition for economic survival naturally lose outright, meaning that they become impoverished and dependent on the victors' largesse, like peasants living off of the noble’s land.
The contradiction, then, is that in selling her political viewpoint, the libertarian simultaneously holds out a carrot and a stick: first, she flatters her listeners by calling them heroic individualists, but then she implies that in a libertarian society most of them will go belly-up and rot in the street like worthless animals. Recall that it’s the liberal, not the libertarian, who follows through on the assumption that everyone deserves respect simply for being individual humans. After all, it’s the liberal who means to ensure that were anyone to fail, that precious person wouldn’t be permitted to go to waste, but would be nurtured back to health by the state.
Perhaps the libertarian would insist that the losers are respected all the more by allowing them to face the dire consequences if they should fail in the competition they freely choose to enter. In so far as everyone is equally free, according to libertarianism, this freedom thus would be everyone’s implicit consent given to the competition by their participation in it. This consent would be the so-called rational social contract: we each calculate that we can gain more by competing with minimal government protection of our winnings than we can under anarchy. But faced with the honestly spelled-out choice between the libertarian’s wild competition with its necessary conversion of the majority into a pile of rotting corpses just prior to the oligarchy’s self-destruction, and the liberal’s more civilized society in which private winnings are mostly protected but also taxed sufficiently to preserve the dignity of the majority who, once again, inevitably fail in any competition for survival, all but the vicious free-riders and potential oligarchs would surely opt for the latter society. As the philosopher John Rawls famously argues, behind a veil of ignorance as to our future, and with the crucial piece of information in hand, that a competition necessitates a great many losers along with the winners, the rational choice is to err on the side of caution and to create a social safety net.
So the freedom praised by the libertarian isn’t any choice to heroically enter a free market at our peril, with the expectation that in such a society the majority are likely doomed to failure and to suffer the costs like wild beasts punished by natural forces. Hardly anyone would exercise freedom by making such a choice. As Thomas Frank and many others point out, to the extent that many people claim to prefer a so-called free market, they do so unknowingly on the basis of carefully-arranged misinformation, such as the libertarian’s hiding of the true cost of living in a Darwinian world. Such a “choice” is grotesque rather than praiseworthy. Again, then, the libertarian can only pretend to laud people generally for their right to liberty. As I’ve said, what libertarianism actually entails is a very narrow role for liberty as an outcome for the minority of victors in a natural competition. These victors win the right to indulge their appetites, to live in luxury, and to flout the politically correct rules that govern the petty lives of lesser mortals. Libertarian freedom is just the oligarch’s leisure to indulge his or her superhuman vices.
In summary, modern liberal freedom is the rational self-controlling person’s liberation from natural forces, as the human creator who replaces God. That sacred freedom is awesome in its implications, and so all rational beings must be treasured at all costs and the public must be taxed to preserve the lives of social victims or losers. Postmodern liberal freedom is a set of civil rights, enforced by a code of political correctness that creates a bland monoculture of consumers for the benefit of the oligarchs who profit most from the sociopolitical system managed either by retrograde conservatives or by lapsed liberals turned into nihilistic automatons. Libertarian freedom is the power of the most vicious among us to demonstrate their superior beastliness by using the majority of people as pawns in a hideous Darwinian game with the sole, self-destructive goal of maintaining as much social inequality as possible in the form of a dominance hierarchy.
A move from liberalism to libertarianism thus entails a novel theistic development, from the stale, scientistic apotheosis, or divination of humanity, with its socialist implications, to a more Lovecraftian theology. Instead of deifying all people equally just for our rational autonomy, most people are condemned in the libertarian scheme to being fodder for the games of oligarchs who are like Lovecraft’s gods that transcend human expectations. (See Lovecraftian Horror.) Somewhat paradoxically, the oligarchs, that is, the most vicious among us who naturally horde wealth to their advantage, are rewarded with posthuman status even though in a sense they’re the most human of all. These gods are above both actual laws and politically correct strictures for the weak; they’re the powers behind the throne, they dwell in their own gated realms, sitting on riches that could eliminate world hunger in the blink of an eye, but that instead are squandered on luxuries to signal the gods' contempt for slave morality. There is no rational justification for this state of affairs. By cheerleading for the free market, which serves effectively as a cocoon for the spawning of Lovecraftian gods, the libertarian may be likened to that typical Lovecraftian character, the hapless cultist who worships the alien gods even as the cultist is squashed beneath their colossal, quivering tentacles.