Liberal v. libertarian v. conservative

Lady Liberty: a symbol of liberty and individual freedom. Time for some redemptive change to help us rediscover it. And to distinguish among the concepts liberal, libertarian, and conservative.
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What does a conservative stand for? How can one distinguish between a liberal and a libertarian?

What sets a liberal apart

Different people have trouble with some of these distinctions. Part of the blame lies with the change of the meaning of the word liberal in English. Liberal, from the Latin liber, meaning “free,” once meant liberating or setting free. But today liberal means making free in a different sense. It means generous—either with one’s own resources, or those of others. Because a liberal values welfare as that word has come to mean. Welfare today means: someone to take care of you. And to a liberal, the welfare of others matters most. Thus a liberal assigns importance to need.

In contrast, a conservative, as the name implies, seeks to conserve people and resources—to keep them safe. So to a conservative, the government exists to keep people, and especially children, safe. While a liberal sees economic threats to a person or group, a conservative sees physical threats. Therefore conservative ideology focuses on identifying, minimizing, and defending against such threats. Security becomes the conservative’s chief value.

Libertarian today means setting free or becoming free in the old sense. A libertarian values liberty above all else. Thus to a libertarian, one’s welfare and security are the sole responsibility of the individual. So the individual must see to his own welfare (provision of necessary goods and services) and security (protection from physical threats). In fact, a libertarian does not let an individual ask another for help without giving something in return. Furthermore, never does the individual ask the group for help, nor sacrifice himself to the group.

I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Ayn Rand

The pure form?

Rarely will one encounter a pure liberal, a pure conservative, or a pure libertarian on the street. But each of these beliefs has a core from which all else follows. Can any member of one type come to terms with members of either or both of the other two types? That can happen only if the person(s) trying it, have any common ground. And in fact a liberal cannot in fact come to terms with either a libertarian or a conservative. A liberal makes certain core assumptions that make him incompatible with either of the others.

Comparisons and contrasts

To understand why, one must compare and contrast the core elements of the pure liberal, conservative, and libertarian ideologies. This synoptic table should help.

IssueLiberalConservativeLibertarian

Guiding principle

Welfare, i.e. economic “security”

Security—physical and intellectual

Liberty

Equality of:

Economic result

Protection under the law

Economic opportunity

Ideal government exists to:

Provide all goods and services. If private companies provide goods or services, government has outsourced these things, therefore has abdicated responsibility.

Manage force, protect against crime or invasion, and protect the moral fiber of the people. So the government censors salacious messages in public settings.

Manage force only. Ideally, government does not exist, and people protect themselves or hire private contracting security and even paramilitary services.

Ideal of property

Non-existent. Everyone should hold everything in common; therefore no one owns anything apart from anyone else. Because people need rewards, government may assign perquisites of office or “honor citizen merit.”

Fee simple, as most people hold real property today.

Allodial title. What’s yours is yours, and none can take it away from you for any reason. But you, and you alone, must protect it.

Ideal politico-economic system

Communism. Government provides everything, builds and assigns quarters, and decides who gets what.

Conventional capitalism. Government forbids certain goods and services but allows private persons and companies to provide the rest.

Anarcho-capitalism. Government does not exist, and anyone can provide anything he can sell to anyone else.

Government services:

Comprehensive, cradle-to-grave, one-stop shop (or commissary) for everything.

Police, military, judiciary, fire, ambulance, and free schools to teach basic skills, history, and moral philosophy. (With apologies to the estate of Robert A. Heinlein for that last phrase)

Preferably none. But if the state exists, it provides police, military and judiciary only.

Education is the province of:

The state, exclusively. It exists to teach people how and where to fit in.

Chiefly the province of parents. It exists to teach people how to act with responsibility.

Self alone.

Purchase, possession, consumption, and transport of certain drugs by adults is:

A right, or even an entitlement. Furthermore, government will protect you from the consequences.

A crime. When an individual befuddles himself, he risks harm to those around him. He also is less productive. A productive and sober society is a strong society, therefore a secure one.

A right, but never an entitlement. Indulge as you please, but suffer the consequences. A pure libertarian recognizes consequences to self but not to others.

Purchase, possession, consumption, and transport of certain drugs by minors is:

Something to indulge in only under the supervision of a doctor.

A crime, or at least a juvenile offense.

An absolute right. See below under minor.

A minor is:

A resource, therefore a ward, of the state.

Someone who needs the protection of parents to grow up properly. Government must assist parents in keeping minors safe from immoral influences.

A “little adult.” A pure libertarian considers a minor fully capable of demanding emancipation and making his own decisions.

A society (as distinct from an individual) has this class of enemies:

Internal enemies, i.e., those who threaten the harmony of the society and the workings of the welfare state.

External enemies. Criminals threaten all the society by diminishing its overall safety. Invaders, real and potential, need little further explanation.

No enemies but what we make. An individual may, indeed ought to, deal effectively with anyone who threatens him with physical force. An individual may cooperate with other individuals to meet a threat too big for him alone. Otherwise, a society need not and should not muster any kind of force for any reason.

The best defenses of society are:

An internal-security force only. Such a force reserves to itself the authority to exert any kind of force. The society permits no self-defense. No person, except a member of this force, shall own or so much as touch a weapon.

Standing police forces and armies, intelligence services, and investigative services. But a conservative would also prefer a layered defense, with local militia as the last line.

Militia (i.e., the set of armed individuals) only.

A thief is a(n)…

Wealth-redistribution agent acting without proper authority.

Saboteur, therefore a threat to the strength and function of the community.

Offender against those from whom he steals, but not necessarily against anyone else.

The right of the people to keep and bear arms…

Does not exist.

Exists and applies chiefly to small arms. A judge may revoke it under specific circumstances, with due process of law.

Exists and applies to all classes of arms. No judge may revoke it on any grounds, so long as the individual remains a citizen in good standing.

The maximum penalty for an offense against an individual is:

Rehabilitation.

Death, for murder in the first degree and for offenses tantamount to this.

Banishment.

The maximum penalty for an offense against the state is:

Permanent confinement. “Exile” to a labor colony still qualifies as confinement. (Some pure statist liberals might prescribe death. Or they might not.)

Death, for treason as the U.S. Constitution or similar document defines it. Which is: making war against the country or giving material aid to someone else making such war.

Not applicable. No such thing as “state” ought to exist. Even if it does, the libertarian would banish the offender, as above.

Rehabilitation for one who commits a crime:

Can always happen, no matter what the crime.

Can happen in some cases but not in others.

Does not matter.

The environment matters:

More than the human beings in it.

To the extent it lets human beings function to their fullest.

Only to the extent that human beings have a property interest in it. But a libertarian would vest as many property interests as possible, to avoid the “tragedy of the commons.”

Compromises?

As one can see, a liberal would have to compromise too much to stay liberal and get along with a conservative or a libertarian. But a conservative and a libertarian can come to terms. A libertarian considers the conservative’s security apparatus a threat to liberty. But a conservative can teach the libertarian to understand that some things threaten liberty even more than this. The two can then agree, to some extent, on what threats to recognize, and how best to meet them.

Similarly, some conservatives see liberty as a “security vulnerability.” Libertarians can teach conservatives that free people can defend against some threats far more readily than can an all-pervasive government. Crime, or even invasion, become less profitable and more risky if each individual can defend himself with force. Each “gun behind every blade of grass” helps stop an invasion. Likewise, each gun in every pocket helps stop crime.

But a liberal cannot recognize any rights of an individual. To a liberal, an individual has no rights, but only allowances and perquisites.

On the issue of minors, the three sides might never come together. Again, a liberal considers a minor a resource of the state, therefore a ward of the state. “It takes a village to raise a child,” Hillary Clinton famously said. A libertarian would like to emancipate all children as soon as they know enough to walk, speak, or both. But the conservative recognizes the concept minor and vests authority in the parents to protect and teach the said minor.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

3 Responses to Liberal v. libertarian v. conservative

  1. deleeuw says:

    Great article! For any liberal trolls who are cackling “what about healthcare: the right[sic] would push grandma off a cliff! “:
    Libertarian: Would do what he could to prevent that
    Conservative: Would do what he could to prevent that, appealing if need to organizations etc. for charity
    Liberals: Would prevent others from doing what’s right and just kill her (for the sake of the environment)

  2. Surly Curmudgen says:

    The description of a libertarian sounds more like an anarchist. The Democrats portray themselves to the public as dictionary definition liberals. Their actions, however, show them to be the antithesis of that definition, they are regressive conservatives intent on ending the constitution and returning to tribal rule.

    The Democrats and their media portray those on the political right as regressive conservatives, they use projection to label their opponents as being/doing what they are. The political right have always been dictionary definition liberals intent on adhering to the Constitution.

    Prior to the advent of the United States, there was only one form of government. Despite many differing labels, monarchy, socialism, communism, et all, when analyzed it is readily apparent they are tribal rule where the biggest meanest one owns everyone and everything. The left of the entire world wants the United States destroyed and gone allowing a return to tribal rule.

    • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

      Remember. I said a pure libertarian, a pure liberal, and a pure conservative.

      A rational anarchist is the purest libertarian you will ever find. Such a person assumes everyone can see reason, and you can deal effectively with those who break the peace without having a standing police force. Which they regard as a standing army of occupation.

      You’re right about the tribal rule. At least that’s the best explanation of their behavior I’ve heard yet. And the “purity” angle goes double for liberals. They practice incrementalism, remember. A graduated, progressive income tax is merely an increment along the way to their true aim, which is: total confiscation and the holding of all things in common – or by the tribal chief.

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