Colorado is a weird state politically. We are the home of partly legal marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms as well as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The Libertarian Party was founded here, and two incoming members of the legislature were endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America. Colorado is home to the religiously conservative Focus on the Family and Colorado Christian University as well as to a vibrant LGBTQ legislative caucus. How can we make sense of all this?
Recently City Cast Denver invited me on to discuss libertarianism in Colorado. Preparing for this podcast got me thinking more about the meaning and motives of different ideological camps in our state.
A useful way to understand political movements is to see what they think is the source of proper order and flourishing and what they see as the source of disorder and injustice. American political movements almost always say they advocate freedom and liberty and that good order entails these values. Obviously freedom and order can be in tension or at least appear to be so. Critics of a political movement often argue that the ideas at hand lead to injustice and oppression rather than to proper order and freedom.
Let’s start with religious conservatives, who now dominate the Republican Party in this state. Recall that the chair of the party, Kristi Burton Brown, first made a name for herself by trying, repeatedly, to ban all abortion in Colorado.
CCU’s Centennial Institute states that it promotes “faith, family, and freedom.” The source of the social good, then, is something like adherence to traditional religious beliefs. The source of disorder and social chaos is “secularism,” with its acceptance of things like gay marriage, transgenderism, and the separation of church and state.
I come from more of a secular libertarian stance, so I scratch my head over CCU’s claims to advocate “freedom.” A lot of religious conservatives are totally fine with government locking people in cages for possessing the “wrong” herb or fungus, aborting even an undeveloped embryo, or having the “wrong” kind of consensual sex. Where a lot of religious conservatives see “freedom,” I see theocratic oppression.
Yet my political stances often overlap with those of religious conservatives. I take freedom of conscience and freedom of religious worship very seriously. I have, for example, defended the political right of business owners not to create products for gay-themed events and the like.
On the economic front, many religious conservatives, still suspicious of Godless Communism, sometimes endorse freedom in the marketplace. Too much government pushes family and church from social life, they believe. So often religious conservatives will join libertarians in calling for lower taxes and fewer regulations. This helps explain why people on the left often think of religious conservatives and libertarians as in the same camp, even though the two groups often clash.
Progressives, coming out of a loosely Marxist tradition, see the main source of oppression as economic dominance in the marketplace. Owners of businesses and property, the “capitalists,” are morally suspect at best, and often the perpetrators of exploitation. The solution, the source of order, justice, and freedom, is “democratic” control of the economy.
To stop the exploitation by business owners, progressives say, we need things like minimum wage laws, paid sick leave, and tight controls on businesses and employment contracts. To stop the exploitation of property owners, we need rent control, tight controls on rental agreements, publicly funded housing, and so on. By contrast, libertarians see the problem in housing as government controls that restrict the development and use of property. Progressives see things like private schools and health insurance as bad and public schools and socialized medicine as good.
However much money government spends on welfare programs, progressives are sure to call for ever more. The selfish bastards exploiting people for their riches don’t deserve that money anyway, and giving that money to poorer people gives them the sort of freedom that matters.
To libertarians, progressives, far from expanding justice and freedom, actually are exploiting people via government controls. “Democratic socialism” is just a euphemism for economic oppression by the mob. To religious conservatives, progressives are displacing church and family with big government. Arguably some welfare programs incentivized out-of-wedlock births, for example.
“Libertarianism” these days doesn’t have a well-defined meaning. In the last election cycle, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate ran on banning all abortion at the state level and demonizing transgender people. Meanwhile, a Libertarian candidate for Congress ran as a “libertarian socialist,” whatever that means. Many of today’s Libertarians, dragging the good name of economist Ludwig von Mises through the muck, are alt-right racists and Putinist trolls.
But let’s talk about the better strains of libertarianism. Colorado is home to two of the most important libertarian intellectuals in the country, the philosopher Michael Huemer, author of The Problem of Political Authority, and Aaron Ross Powell, producer of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. If you want to “steelman” libertarianism start there.
Libertarians see voluntary consent as the basis of a just society. The proper purpose of government, then, is to protect people’s rights to interact consensually. Far from seeing consensual economic interactions as the source of oppression and exploitation, as progressives do, libertarians see such interactions as a major way in which people pursue their values to flourish as part of a harmonious society.
The problem for libertarians is when private parties (say, the Mafia) or government violates people’s rights to interact consensually. That is the real source of oppression and exploitation in society.
Whereas progressives are suspicious of “market power,” libertarians are suspicious of state power. Whereas progressives think a free market inevitably leads to exploitation of workers and to harmful monopolies, libertarians think that a free market fosters mutually beneficial exchanges and vibrant competition. You’ll notice that Democratic AG Phil Weiser is extremely worried about a grocery store merger, yet to my knowledge he has never said a single critical word about the government’s public-school near-monopoly, even though it is failing especially minority students.
Libertarians are “fiscally conservative” because they don’t want government interfering in people’s economic lives, and they are “socially liberal” because they don’t want government interfering in people’s personal lives. It’s a very consistent position, even though both conservatives and progressives think it is a bizarre and unstable mix.
Listen to criticism
It is no secret that I lean libertarian in the better sense of the term that I have described. My aim here, though, has been not so much to promote libertarianism as to try to help people in all three camps—conservative, progressive, and libertarian—better understand each other.
There are good people in each group who are doing their best to understand and improve the world. If you look carefully, you can see how the different camps overlap. We each do well to listen carefully to outside criticism, refrain from demonizing our political opponents, and shun tribalism in favor of a search for the truth.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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