The Libertarian vs Liberal debate is confusing for some, but once you understand it, it’s clear as day. While both of these political thought processes have some areas that overlap, you’ll soon understand the fundamental differences between the history, modernization, and 20th century belief systems behind them.
DEFINING A LIBERTARIAN
The foundation of Libertarianism is that liberty is the most critical political value to uphold. Liberty means that you have the freedom to make your own choices in your life no matter what. Others are not able to control you or interfere in your life, and you should not interfere in theirs either.
Libertarians believe that this attitude will create a cosmopolitan society united by mutual respect rather than divided by nationalistic belief systems that create ripples in our society.
In a Libertarian world, you’re free to try whatever you want, implement new ideas, live life on your own terms, and live truly free as long as those freedoms do not initiate force against another individual. group, or government.
Since we are all moral equals, no one person has the right to be more powerful than the other. This is where Libertarianism conflicts with the two-party system we have in our American society today.
Libertarians see the government as a threat to our liberty because they are. Regardless of which side you’re on, either party possesses some form of totalitarian control over certain aspects of our lives.
If you’re a liberal, you believe that the government should have control over your money, how much you pay in taxes, how you get your healthcare, and where you go to school.
If you’re a conservative, you believe that the government should have control over who accesses the country, what happens to criminals, what drugs you can take, what religion you can practice, and who you should marry.
Of course, those are blanket statements that might be a little extreme, but that’s an overall look at it. Libertarians believe that we should have control over all these areas. The government shouldn’t have any involvement in these areas because that will infringe on our ability to maintain a free society.
DEFINING A LIBERAL
The modern American Liberal believes in equality and much of that thinking is based off the overall foundation of the ideology and political stance. Liberalism stands for increased personal rights and the general foundation of their beliefs are:
- Gender equality
- Racial equality
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of religion
- More responsibility on the government
- Less responsibility on the individual.
Liberalism grew in popularity during the Age of Enlightenment when Western philosophers and economists started to pull away from traditional Conservatism, promoting free markets and free trade.
In reality, traditional Liberalism is much different from modern Liberalism in the United States. The word “liber” means “free” in Latin, which stands for the free markets and free trade that these people believed in at the time.
This is quite contrasting from the modern-day liberals who believe that the government should have more control and more intervention in the operation of our economy and world markets.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIBERAL & LIBERTARIAN
Let’s apply modern Liberals vs Libertarians to the issues we face today. We’ve seen many questions arise in recent years about what makes a utopian society and what we need to practice to get as close to that as possible.
Even when a Libertarian agrees with one party on an issue, they have very different reasons as to why they agree. For example, some might think that Libertarians lean towards Conservatives on immigration. While that is true, there are many different reasons for that.
LIBERTARIAN VERSUS LIBERAL ON THE ECONOMY
Libertarian: Libertarians believe that the government shouldn’t stand in the way of any transaction between two parties, and here’s why. Both people generally have something to gain in every transaction.
They understand the importance of market participants and how it impacts the prices of goods and services. When there are strict regulations put in place, the system generally favors larger companies over smaller, newer ones.
Liberal: In terms of economic issues, Liberals tend to favor more government control in this area. They would prefer the government to determine what people get paid, when they get paid, and how they get paid.
By doing this, Liberals believe that it will create more equality, help lift more people out of poverty, and be better for the greater good. While this sounds great, it’s a nightmare for Libertarians and American Republicans.
The opposing forces believe that mandated wages will result in a crippling economy because the people at the top will not be able to support the higher wages. This break down will eventually result in layoffs and a falling stock market.
LIBERAL VERSUS LIBERTARIAN ON FOREIGN POLICY
Libertarian: Foreign policy is the area that unites most Libertarians, and it’s the clearest of all their belief systems. They believe that war is never the option because it creates widespread death, destruction, violates civil liberties, and encourages a nationalist way of thinking. This policy directly contradicts the conservative way of thinking where the military is one of the most important factors in their party.
Libertarians believe in individual freedom and individual liberty, which cannot coincide with the process of recruiting, drafting, training, and treating people like soldiers fighting for the social and economic freedom of the county as a whole.
They believe that war is a last resort and that it’s never our purpose to interfere in foreign relations because it’s up to the individual to resolve their own problems.
Liberal: Here is another area where Liberals believe that it’s the responsibility of the American government to interfere in foreign relations. Liberalism believes that we need to send foreign aid because it’s our moral responsibility, and it’s not up to us to judge the opposing democracy; we simply need to help.
LIBERALS VERSUS LIBERTARIANS ON CRIME
Libertarian: They have a unique take on criminal justice. If we look at the immense overpopulation of American prisons, we need to understand why we have so many more people incarcerated compared to every other country in the world.
They believe that we need to stop sending people to jail for using drugs because the limited government shouldn’t have control over what substances people use in the first place. We should also look at the penalties for severe crimes like assault and murder.
We need to address the process of “rehabilitating” criminals and whether or not we’re actually making a difference in the lives of those incarcerated and the lives of those on the outside affected by the criminal.
Overcriminalization is a clear-cut issue, and we’ve created too many laws and regulations that strip our liberty and create unequal separations between those in power and the average layman.
Liberal: Here is an interesting area where things flip in modern politics. While we generally believe that Conservatives feel that less government control is better, here’s where they prefer the government to step in and take the wheel.
Liberalism takes a soft approach and tries to see the good in all people, where Conservatism sees criminals as threats to society who must be eradicated because they’re threatening the freedom of everyone else.
LIBERALISM VERSUS LIBERTARIANISM ON IMMIGRATION
Libertarian: This party believes that free movement and trade should have no border, and anyone should be allowed to morally move products and services across country lines. If you’re trying to do so ethically, there shouldn’t be any bureaucratic interference, such as tariffs, regulations, or duties.
Economists studying this philosophy believe that the world GDP would double, resulting in more international trade, a larger pool of qualified candidates for trade, and a wealthier world as a result.
The less interference the government has in trade, the better opportunities there are for the individual to create wealth.
That said, Libertarians understand the potential economic impact of immigration and how it can “suck the well dry,” so to speak, but the Conservative mentality of immigrants coming to the country to live off the welfare state and take our jobs doesn’t hold any weight in a Libertarian society.
Liberal: This is another situation where Liberals prefer to step back and let nature work itself out. Liberals believe in open-borders and that we have no right to control who comes or goes from our country. As you can likely tell, this is considered highly reckless to both Conservatives and Libertarians. Conservatives believe that it’s our responsibility to think of our own citizens first, and we need to protect our borders to keep ourselves safe.
LIBERTARIANS VERSUS LIBERALS ON CIVIL RIGHTS
Libertarian: Our government allows citizens a certain number of rights provided they can conduct themselves responsibly. For example, the second amendment is the “right to bear arms.” As a citizen, each person has the right to own a gun provided they do not use it to recklessly harm others.
Libertarians feel that these amendments only make sense in a democratic society where the government needs to provide you with them in the first place.
In a Libertarian society, the philosophy believes that all people should be protected by these rights regardless of their social status or group membership. Some of these rights include:
- Right to privacy from surveillance
- Right to protest
- Right to access government documents
- Right to marry who you please.
- Freedom to do with your body, as you choose.
Here is a key difference between Libertarian and Liberal. The bolded point at the end also applies to the doctors and facilities who would conduct the procedure. That’s the foundation of the Libertarian belief system. It’s that no one person’s rights can infringe on the rights of another, no matter what.
If an individual desires an abortion, they can do so, as this issue is up to each person and the government should not be involved in their decision process.
The same applies to same-sex marriage. You have the right to marry who you want, but you cannot attempt to take legal action or smear the reputation of a church leader or business that doesn’t want to participate in the union.
Liberal: This is the area where freedoms tend to compound, and the original foundation of Liberalism comes into play. Liberals believe that the individual should have the right to do with their lives as they please. This means they can marry who they like, do with their bodies as they choose, and right for their rights if they feel they’ve been mistreated.
The belief system might sound the same as the Libertarianism version, but there’s a fundamental difference here.
Liberals believe that everyone should share these beliefs and that it’s up to the government to enforce this. For example, while Liberals believe that same-sex marriage is a right, they think that the government needs to force these beliefs on everyone.
Libertarians believe that everyone has the right to see it through their own lens, and no one person should force their beliefs on someone because it strips away their own personal liberty and rights to freedom.
LIBERALS VERSUS LIBERTARIANS ON HEALTHCARE
Libertarian: Libertarians believe that it’s your right to choose your medical providers and treatments. They see that the government interferes in the progression of medicine by imposing harsh regulations on pharmaceutical companies and laboratories to limit the use of experimental healthcare.
In a nutshell, if the government can’t understand the use of a treatment and there isn’t enough science to back it up, they won’t support it. If they don’t support it, the researchers will not receive the funding they need to continue their research, which will stop the growth right in its tracks.
This belief system feels that voluntary institutions would do a much better job of caring for people by reducing costs and allowing for individuals to benefit from the economic rewards of healthcare. Private charity can certainly have its place, but as a whole, healthcare and medicine shouldn’t be a commercial enterprise.
Liberal: The Liberal vs Libertarian belief is that healthcare is better left in the hand of the government because individual medicine will lead to corruption, inflated prices, and monopolization. This contrasts the Capitalist way of thinking where many Conservatives believe that it’s up to the individual to decide what type of healthcare they’d like, how they’d like to pay for it, and where they’d want to go for it.
Many people compare the Liberal philosophy on healthcare to socialized medicine, and there’s some truth to this. Socialized medicine is complete government control over what you pay for healthcare, what doctors you see, what procedures you get, and where you go to get those procedures done.
Libertarians see this as a complete violation of our liberties because we should have the freedom to choose our doctors, procedures, and facilities. It should be between the individual and the practicing physician without any government intervention other than to protect the patient from fraud and malpractice.
CLASSICAL LIBERAL VERSUS LIBERTARIAN
Liberalism, as a tradition and political science, essentially stands for equality. The policy believes that all people deserve equal opportunities for building wealth, voicing their opinions, and protecting themselves.
In fact, the first recorded use of the word “liberal” dates back to 1375, describing the liberal arts education as the education of the “free man.” This early connection between education and Liberalism gave way to the more modern take of the phrase.
During the Period of Enlightenment, the word started to take on a positive note, being described as a belief system that was free from prejudice and free from bigotry. The word “liberalism” first appeared in English in 1815, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that people started using it as a political term to describe parties and world movements.
In European Liberalism, you have an equal divide between the moderates and progressives. The moderates lean towards elitism, and progressives more frequently support the universalization of institutions, including education and property. As time passed, moderates passed progressives as the defenders of European Liberalism.
The way this differs from modern-day Libertarianism is the belief that the government still needs to maintain control over certain areas of our economy, gun control, and healthcare. Libertarians believe that there are two parties in every situation and they both can benefit from transactions, thus, there’s no need for government intervention.
They also believe that gun control is left in the hands of the people who need to defend themselves. The government should have no role in this and it’s up to the people whether or not they want to own a firearm. The same ideology applies to healthcare. One thing about Libertarianism is that it hasn’t changed much since its introduction and much of the political philosophy is the same.
LIBERAL VS LIBERTARIAN CHART [NOLAN CHART]
The Nolan Chart pictured above is a diagram originally developed by American Libertarian David Nolan in 1969. There are two axes representing the contrast between economic freedom and personal freedom. This philosophy differs from that of famous Libertarians such as Ayn Rand and Friedrich A Hayek.
Ultimately, the further you rise up the vertical y-axis, the more personal freedom you gain, but the less economic freedom you have.
The further you move right across the horizontal x-axis, the more economic freedom you have but, the less personal freedom.
In the middle, you have Centrists who favor a mixture of both economic and personal freedom.
The chart shows that Liberals favor personal freedom over economic freedom, while Conservatives favor economic freedom over personal freedom.
The “extremists” in the equation would be Libertarians and Authoritarians. Libertarians favor both personal and economic freedom while Authoritarians, Statists, or “Communists,” as some might like to call them, prefer limited freedom and total government control.
We believe that this article should clear up any concerns you have in the Libertarian vs Liberal comparison. They are extremely different, and even in areas where their beliefs start to overlap, there are fundamental differences supporting those beliefs. It’s crucial that you understand these factors when developing your own political opinions and stances.
Now, when someone asks you, “Are Libertarians liberal”? You’ll have a clear answer and a thorough understanding of the differences.
About the Author: Alex Horsman studied business and economics at the University of Missouri. He found himself particularly drawn to the Austrian School of economics, gobbling down the teachings of greats like Rothbard, Friedman and Hayek a la Tic Tacs. He was most enthralled by the work of Thomas Sowell too. The economist’s staunch opposition to the Federal Reserve, enlightening advocacy for the free market, and unyielding objection to Marxism all strongly color his beliefs to this day. He most closely identifies with the philosophy of anarcho-capitalism. To him the concepts of individual sovereignty and self-actualization are paramount to a life well-lived. It is little wonder, as he articulates, why he aspires to live up to the ideal of the Nietzschean Übermensch [You should see his reaction to moody teenagers who interpret Nietzsche’s work as some sort of justification for nihilism].
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