The Confusion of the Libertarians

For libertarians, the ground has shifted. In recent years, libertarians have been deserted by former allies left and right.

We used to say that a shorthand description of libertarianism was “liberal on social issues, conservative on economic issues.” No more.

Libertarians were aligned with liberals on the issue of gay marriage, which libertarians saw as a a matter of individual rights. But the left now seems focused on group justice, not individual rights. For today’s progressives, social justice means paying close attention to race and gender rather than treating people as equal individuals. Another indicator that progressives and libertarians have parted ways on social issues is that some progressives now reject the value of freedom of speech.

Not all liberals go along with the new progressive trends. Some liberals, including Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, are prominent defenders of the older liberal values of individual dignity and freedom of inquiry. Other liberals, such as the brothers Bret Weinstein and Eric Weinstein, champion the old liberalism by participating in what they call the intellectual dark web.

But many young progressives reject this old-fashioned liberalism. The most ardent progressives now look upon a Haidt or a Pinker as at best suspect and at worst unacceptable. Their traditional liberalism, like libertarianism, is anathema to the contemporary progressive.

Turning to the right, libertarians have been deserted by their erstwhile friends on economic issues. Conservatives used to support free trade, but now they favor tariffs and trade wars. Conservatives used to stand for fiscal responsibility, but now they spend freely and run up deficits even during good economic times.

So libertarians can no longer say that they are on the left on social issues and on the right on economic issues. They can say that they stand where the left used to stand on social issues and where the right used to stand on economic issues. But that is confusing.