The Case Against Cafeteria Libertarianism

Reactionary populism is not compatible with a sincere commitment to classical liberal values.

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Welcome to the Lib Lib Report, i.e. the Liberal Libertarian Report, where we talk about news and current affairs from a liberal libertarian point of view. We aim for a practical pro-liberty politics encouraging things like free speech and free thought in the here and now, while aiming to make the social contract of Western society more libertarian moving towards the future.

Today, I want to talk about a disturbing trend: what I think could be called ‘cafeteria libertarianism’. This term obviously borrows from the common saying of ‘cafeteria Christianity’, and just like cafeteria Christians, cafeteria libertarians pick and choose what issues they want to be libertarian on, while ignoring other issues, or even having sympathies to outrightly authoritarian stances on other issues. The ultimate effect of this is that anyone could claim to be ‘libertarian’ because every kind of politics has its libertarian areas, and thus people who actually have highly authoritarian agendas can falsely claim to be friends of liberty.

My regular audience would know that I am a ‘libertarian gradualist’, as opposed to the immediatists that make up the bulk of the mainstream libertarian movement. Libertarian gradualists, while not supporting immediate libertarianism in every policy area, are not ‘cafeteria libertarians’, because we are sincere about advancing liberty overall. What makes a ‘cafeteria libertarian’ is their lack of a wish or vision to progress things overall to the side of liberty. Instead, they identify as ‘libertarian’ as a reaction to something they don’t like, for example wokeness, cancel culture, or some kind of government regulation. In other areas, however, they are totally OK with authoritarian policies, to the extent of heaping praise on people who are taking action to move the Overton Window towards authoritarianism. You know, like cheering on Ron DeSantis using his state power to punish Disney for disagreeing with him. Or nodding in agreement to online influencers who promote a populist ‘post-liberal conservatism’.

I guess the reason why we have ‘cafeteria libertarianism’ is because of the mistaken belief that the status quo, minus the woke, is already libertarian, or even worse, that Western society used to be truly free in some past golden age. This attitude is basically reactionary conservatism. The fact is that Western society, up until now, has always been somewhat authoritarian, especially towards those who don’t agree with the majority. Anyone who has read any history, political science or law would recognize this. A sincere commitment to classical liberal values simply isn’t compatible with a reactionary populism that defends traditionally popular freedoms but denies or even opposes less traditionally popular freedoms. There was a reason why John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were all progressives in their time, who argued for things that weren’t necessarily popular. This was because their vision was one that hadn’t been realized yet. Even today, we still aren’t there yet. I believe that recognizing we aren’t there yet is the key to building a sincere progressive libertarianism, and rejecting reactionary ‘cafeteria libertarianism’.

Recognizing that the classical liberal project is one that still has a long way to go would also allow us to keep being committed to our long term goals of more freedom, and remember to play the long game in response to current events. For example, free trade and globalization as it existed in the past four decades has had unfairly negative effects on many working people. Global corporates benefitted at the expense of working families, and this has created massive backlash. Refusing to deal with these problems would be irresponsible, and politically suicidal for any movement. However, that doesn’t mean that we should suddenly be allies with people denouncing free trade as inherently evil, promoting conspiracy theories about globalization, and advocating for a return to the regressive ‘clash of civilizations’ attitude towards the world. Instead, we should continue to maintain that free trade and globalization are good because they make the world freer, but also acknowledge that how it is executed matters. Ultimately, it needs to be made to benefit working people rather than global corporates, which I believe is very doable. Similarly, while we can acknowledge that liberals need to do more to acknowledge the importance of families and the social fabric, we still need to firmly argue against the absurd claim that liberal thinking, going all the way back to Locke, is to be blamed for current social problems like low birth rates and high divorce rates. Anti-liberal forces both Left and Right want the liberal project to fail, and they are going to blame everything on there being too much freedom, as if there was such a thing. To fight back, we need to have a clear vision of what we actually believe in, and why it will lead to good outcomes.

TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.

She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for the West.



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Author & musician. Moral Libertarian. Disrupting the woke vs anti-woke echo chambers and making the West truly liberal again.