Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Economic power is exercised by means of a positive, by offering men a reward, an incentive, a payment, a value; political power is exercised by means of a negative, by the threat of punishment, injury, imprisonment, destruction. The businessman's tool is values; the bureaucrat's tool is fear.”     Ayn Rand

October 19, 2007

Libertarians vs. Communitarians

by Doug Mataconis

Michael Kinsley has a short article in Time Magazine about the rise in public awareness of libertarian ideas manifested in Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign, and comes closer than most have to identifying the true nature of the political divide in America today:

Many people feel that neither party offers a coherent set of principles that they can agree with. For them, the choice is whether you believe in Big Government or you don’t. And if you don’t, you call yourself a libertarian. Libertarians are against government in all its manifestations. Domestically, they are against social-welfare programs. They favor self-reliance (as they see it) over Big Government spending. Internationally, they are isolationists. Like George Washington, they loathe “foreign entanglements,” and they think the rest of the world can go to hell without America’s help. They don’t care–or at least they don’t think the government should care–about what people are reading, thinking, drinking, smoking or doing in bed. And what is the opposite of libertarianism? Libertarians would say fascism. But in the American political context, it is something infinitely milder that calls itself communitarianism. The term is not as familiar, and communitarians are far less organized as a movement than libertarians, ironically enough. But in general communitarians emphasize society rather than the individual and believe that group responsibilities (to family, community, nation, the globe) should trump individual rights.

I think Kinsley has it mostly right here. Look at most political arguments today and you will find two opposing viewpoints. On one side are those of us who believe that government exists, if at all, for the limited purpose of protecting individuals from each other and providing a framework within which individual choices such as contract rights can be enforced. On the other side are those who believe that government exists for what they would call a higher purpose and that group rights, or tradition, or religion should trump individual liberty for the “good” of society.

As Kinsley goes on to note, neither political party fits neatly into either the libertarian or communitarian mold right now. There are libertarian elements to the basics of Republican ideas and rhetoric — smaller government, lower taxes, etc. — but the GOP has been woefully lacking in actually executing anything resembling a libertarian policy since George W. Bush took office. Similarly, there are libertarian elements within the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to issues like gay marriage and separation of church and state; but, on the whole, the Democrats’ economic and social policy is far closer to a communitarian ideal than anything that Thomas Jefferson would recognize as good government.

And, as Kinsley points out, recent events would seem to indicate that the future belongs to the libertarians:

The chance of the two political parties realigning so conveniently is slim. But the party that does well in the future will be the one that makes the better guess about where to place its bets. My money’s on the libertarians. People were shocked a couple of weeks ago when Ron Paul–one of those mysterious Republicans who seem to be running for President because everyone needs a hobby–raised $5 million from July through September, mostly on the Internet. Paul is a libertarian. In fact, he was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988. The computer revolution has bred a generation of smart loners, many of them rich and some of them complacently Darwinian, convinced that they don’t need society–nor should anyone else. They are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics.

It’s about time.

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39 Comments

  1. Libertarians are not “isolationists”, they’re “non-interventionists”. We believe in free trade, and open relations with other countries, and open borders…we just don’t want our government to dictate how other countries run their internal affairs, our cooperation should be voluntary, and we don’t want to get involved militarily unless it’s in self-defense. Populists are generally the isolationists (closed borders, keep the foreigners out), not libertarians. Ron Paul specifically addressed this mislabeling in the Wolf Blitzer interview.

    The Liberty Papers did a good article awhile ago about how terminology matters and words mean things. And although it wasn’t Doug’s mistake, I think it’s important to be very cautious when citing arguments that carelessly throw around terms like “isolationist” because they’re loaded words and (as in this case) they’re often being improperly applied.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 11:11 am
  2. Crawford,

    Keep in mind, this is Kinsley’s description not mine. If I were going to criticize his definition of libertarians, I would also note that there is no small disagreement among some libertarians on foreign policy issues, as recent discussions here can well attest.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — October 19, 2007 @ 11:22 am
  3. Communitarianism, good ol’ “Agenda 21″, “Sustainable Development”, the One Worlders, etc.

    http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/documents/agenda21/index.htm

    Comment by Chris S — October 19, 2007 @ 11:50 am
  4. Communitarianism and environmentalism are closely linked. Like they say, after the cold war all the commies ran for cover behind the environment.

    Comment by Chris S — October 19, 2007 @ 11:52 am
  5. Doug,

    I know that “isolationist” wasn’t your choice of wording…I said that in my last comment. I was just noting that the article you cited specifically stated that libertarians are isolationists and that’s a very touchy and inaccurate generalization to make because isolationism is often used as a euphemism for racist, or coward, or pacifist, or victim, none of which really are accurate descriptors for libertarians.

    I was just bringing up a point of semantics on your source, Doug, not attacking you personally. Our disagreements over some of your recent Ron Paul articles aside, I generally agree with you on most topics or at least respect where you’re coming from.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 11:55 am
  6. Chris,

    Actually it appears that after the Cold War the commies also ran for cover behind the GOP.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 11:57 am
  7. Is “communitarianism” the new socialism?

    Kinsey is also wrong to characterize libertarians as “loners”, people “convinced that they don’t need society”, etc. That’s an old socialist strawman. I’ve never heard a libertarian assert that individuals are isolated, perfectly autonomous and self-sufficient. On the contrary, most want to be free to engage the rest of society in all peaceful ways possible. They simply wish to retain the right to choose which of those ways is best in any given circumstance, not have that decision made for them by an authority.

    As Nock observed, the enlargement of state power comes at the expense of social power.

    Comment by David M — October 19, 2007 @ 11:58 am
  8. Crawford,

    I didn’t take it as a personal attack at all, I was just pointing to Kinsley’s admittedly flawed definition for purposes of discussing his broader point.

    And I agree that isolationist has become a loaded term — mostly because its often used by those who want to draw an analogy to the Pre-WW2 isolationists; some of whom were, quite honestly, pro-Nazi although usually just because they were incredibly naive about what Hitler was about.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — October 19, 2007 @ 11:58 am
  9. Doug,

    Agreed, and they also like to tie the term to the anti-free trade/protectionist crowd, which is the polar opposite of what libertarians are about. I just hate the use of the term “isolationist” because it usually denotes an intellectual laziness or dismissiveness with the analysis. “Non-interventionism” and “isolationism” may have some superficial similarities, but they’re not the same thing.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:06 pm
  10. And by “they” I generally mean “mainstream pundits”, not some sort of government conspiracy/Tri-Lateral Commission/Illuminati “they”. The 24-hour news cycle does seem to encourage lazy and useless “analysis” (as the Onion cleverly pointed out in June)

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/media_landscape_redefined_by_24

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:09 pm
  11. Certainly some libertarians are “complacently Darwinian”, but there are also those of us who honestly believe that society is better served by freedom and cooperation than by oppressive, expensive, and inefficient government.

    Social Security is one example. Even if you accept the premise that taxpayers should take care of the elderly poor (or the helpless poor of any age), why force everyone into paying a substantial chunk of their income into a program that transfers money from everyone, regardless of income, to older people, who tend to be better off financially than the payers?

    If instead, people were freed from the 15% Social Security tax burden, they could save adequately for their own retirement, and wouldn’t need government “help” later on.

    Comment by Craig — October 19, 2007 @ 12:15 pm
  12. Most people feel a moral obligation to help the needy. Rather than using that as a justification (as the communitarians do) to make it a universal legal obligation, it can be taken as an encouraging sign that no government coercion is required to meet the stated goal.

    Add in the growth and prosperity from a less taxed and less regulated economy, and their would be fewer people in need of help, and a lot more people wealthy enough to help them.

    Comment by Craig — October 19, 2007 @ 12:20 pm
  13. Craig,

    That’s really the basic difference between libertarians and statist, though, isn’t it? A libertarian will say that if you want to take care of the poor and elderly that’s entirely your right to donate your own money to charity or spend it how you want. The statists seem to view people as a bunch of sociopaths and think that if we don’t have government taking our money from us and forcing people to be charitable or virtuous no benefit to society will ever occur (an idea that Adam Smith succinctly rejected).

    Basically, libertarians believe people are able to look out for themselves and make informed choices about their own lives and statists believe people are just a bunch of victims-in-waiting who need to be told what to do by a ruling elite. It’s unbelieveable that so many people don’t recognize this.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:26 pm
  14. Craig,

    The number of charitable donations from the U.S. for the victims of the 2004 tsunami (contrasted with the paltry donations from the Middle East) clearly indicates that free people can be generous with their own money if they perceive a societal good. You’re right, self-interest isn’t just about screwing everyone else over just to get ahead. Cooperative action is usually not a zero-sum game.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:29 pm
  15. The fundamental difference between libertarians and communitarians is their approach to the use of force.

    Libertarians are against initiating the use of force – they will not force others to do anything. They will use force only to defend themselves.

    Communitarians, on the other hand, are quite comfortable with using force on others.

    Comment by Mark — October 19, 2007 @ 12:31 pm
  16. Mark,

    Of course they are…using aggressive force for the “common good” all fits in with their “people are sociopathic sheep” mentality.

    Libertarianism may not be a perfect ideology, but it’s definitely better than all the alternatives.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:35 pm
  17. This discussion really brings out how useless it is to rely on labels to discuss politics. Slinging around labels like ‘libertarian’, ‘isolationist’, ‘socialist’, ‘commie’, and so forth is thinking only skin-deep. It’s OK for bumper stickers, but not much else. Far more productive to skip the labels and just talk about the ideas themselves rather than the labels.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 19, 2007 @ 12:39 pm
  18. Chepe,

    Labels are not completely useless in a discussion, so long as you accurately apply the correct labels. It’s when you start using specific definitions as generalized terms that it becomes a problem.

    It’s like going to the supermarket and instead of labelling foods “tomatoes, mangos, kiwi, carrots, peanuts” the label for everything is just “plants”. Specific accurate labelling provides utility, generalizations often do not.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:47 pm
  19. The trouble is that most people don’t see it as force when it’s done from the safety and anonymity of the voting booth.

    Comment by David M — October 19, 2007 @ 12:49 pm
  20. Last night I sent Time a letter in response to that article:

    It’s not accurate to say, “Libertarians are against government in all its manifestations.” They are decidedly opposed to infringement on the health, property, commerce and expression of others, and recognize that a well-defined judicial authority is the best way to handle disputes; it’s not a philosophy of anarchy by any means. Generally, they are also comfortable with community organization, and local representative governments. Libertarians are not against charity or community action, and in fact are often very active in such fields. Where they firmly draw the line is on making such things mandatory (by tax-funded welfare, or by literal mandate).

    Consider the tenet that no contract may be entered without express consent of both parties, and then think of taxation and what the money’s spent on as a contract between the government and the citizens. Beyond this plain ethical objection to prescriptive government, libertarians generally believe that a central authority is always less efficient, less flexible, and ultimately does less good (and/or more harm) than individual, voluntary actions. Note that “forming a commune” falls in the latter column from the libertarian perspective! You mentioned Presidential hopeful Ron Paul, and I’ll cite him as a prime example: in his private medical practice he refuses to accept Medicare payments — not by turning away patients, but by providing his services free of charge.

    Comment by tejón — October 19, 2007 @ 12:51 pm
  21. Tejon,

    Very nice letter. That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve seen to address the misconceptions about libertarianism.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 12:56 pm
  22. here’s a great lil’ nugget: http://youtube.com/watch?v=muHg86Mys7I

    Comment by Freedom Junkie — October 19, 2007 @ 1:47 pm
  23. Here is some food for thought all you Rudy fanboys

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMveQ1sG9QU

    Comment by Mike Hunt — October 19, 2007 @ 1:55 pm
  24. Mike Hunt,

    Actually nobody mentioned Rudy Guiliani at all on this thread, much less endorsed him. Why don’t you go waste somebody else’s time with your irrelevant link?

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 2:11 pm
  25. And what is the opposite of libertarianism? Libertarians would say fascism. But in the American political context, it is something infinitely milder that calls itself communitarianism.

    The opposite of libertarian is authoritarian.

    Comment by js290 — October 19, 2007 @ 2:13 pm
  26. Or statism. Socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, communism, communitarianism…they’re all just ideologies whose end result is giving increased power to the state without defined limit. They all reject the idea of individual freedom and individual rights, which is the only practical way to put a limit on the growth of state authority.

    Comment by UCrawford — October 19, 2007 @ 2:40 pm
  27. Communitarians have been working to undermine the Consitution for over 15 years, through things like “Agenda 21″, using things like UNESCO to do things from the top down. They use things like “Sustainable Development” projects and NGOs at the local level to implement their Communitarian agenda. The residents of Santa Cruz caught on early and made a site about it, Santa Cruz 21, which is now Freedom21:

    http://freedom21santacruz.net/site/

    Communitarianism in action is giving up national sovereignty to appointed bureaucrats in supranational organizations like the UN.

    The UN is Communitarian (originally to be called the European Community), and the NAU will be based on it as well. Communitarian philosophy also ties into the Kilo case and is linked to Eminent Domain.

    Comment by Chris S — October 19, 2007 @ 4:44 pm
  28. er, the EU… Although the UN is too…

    Comment by Chris S — October 19, 2007 @ 4:45 pm
  29. Chris, your post is nothing but a lot of labels plastered onto various organizations. Have you anything of substance to say about particular policies?

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 19, 2007 @ 5:00 pm
  30. “Have you anything of substance to say about particular policies?”

    You first.

    Why don’t you click the links and see for yourself, or contribute something yourself instead of, I don’t know, crying like a baby about “labels”? Is that contributing? Seems more to me like the pot calling the kettle black.

    IMO crying about people using “labels” isn’t contributing, it is just whining. I am not going to copy and paste your homework in here for you, you have a mouse that can click links, there is more information about Communintarianism in those links the there is in your crying about “labels”. You want to discuss “Communitarian Policy”, well, the link to the Agenda 21 summit is pretty much Communitarianism in Action and Freedom 21 Santa Cruz is fighting against it.

    My point is that the Communitarian agenda has been what is behind all these “private property” issues we read about, such as Eminent Domain, as well as “Sustainable Development”, which is a churched up buzzword for Communitarian Policies, and it sells better in the US since it isn’t instantly associated with Communism/Socialism/etc. Agenda 21 is over 15 years ago, and isn’t a “label” or an “organization”, it is an AGENDA. Get it?

    Eminent Domain, Sustainable Development. I guess those aren’t policies to you? But hey, if you are just now learning about Communitarianism and consider yourself a Libertarian, then you need to do more reading because it is pretty much the Antithesis to the Constitution and Classical Liberalism. Communitarianism is old news, except in the US, where it is no news. Although Wash U in STL does have a program for Communitarian studies.

    Comment by Chris S — October 19, 2007 @ 6:23 pm
  31. If you want am argument, take:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

    And reverse it. The individual is not the focus of Communitarianism, the Community and society are. Just another scheme to try and trick people into thinking that the State gives you your rights. Unaccountable, top down moral relativism, no thanks.

    Comment by Chris S — October 19, 2007 @ 6:37 pm
  32. Chris, it’s pretty obvious that you’re here to argue, not discuss, and I don’t waste my time arguing. I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. Vaya con dios.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 19, 2007 @ 8:18 pm
  33. Or statism. Socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, communism, communitarianism…

    Actually communism is an economic policy opposite of capitalism. It’s not intrinsically authoritarian.

    Comment by js290 — October 19, 2007 @ 8:35 pm
  34. the most enduring, persisting aspect of “Communintarianism” it’s fire-and-forget approach. a soft power synthesis that has made the majority believe govt is the only worthy guide.

    Comment by oilnwater — October 19, 2007 @ 8:40 pm
  35. You’re technically correct, js290, but a communist market necessarily begets an authoritarian government. That’s the catch of “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need”

    Someone must decide each person’s “ability” and “need” and transfer the wealth accordingly. If you don’t believe me, read Hayek’s “Serfdom”. It’s an incredible dissection of the myths of socialism (in all its forms).

    Comment by Jeff Molby — October 19, 2007 @ 10:33 pm
  36. But “communitarianism” sounds so much more folksy and friendly than “collectivism”.

    Comment by Akston — October 20, 2007 @ 4:14 am
  37. I was a voting Alaskan Libertarian in the late 1970s, and a huge fan of Ayn Rand; I still consider Atlas Shrugged in my top list of lifetime books. I’m no longer a Party supporter (nor do I vote anymore) but this is the first time I’ve seen this topic discussed as meaningfully as it it is on this forum right now. Nobody asked me to join, I stumbled on it, and yet I am compelled to add my 2 cents worth before the topic dies away.

    Communitarianism is the final merger between all political parties, and all the world’s religions. The communitarians are posing themselves as the “opposite” of the libertarians in order to fake their own opposition. E.J. Dione wrote about the “great divide” in the Washington Post in 2002.

    After it came out several times in the mainstream press, I wrote a lot of letters to Libs, hoping somebody whould tell the Libertarians they were being set-up as America’s last hope. I thought sure the “party of principle” would be interested in knowing more about a “new” theory that eliminates our entire nation of laws in favor of a UN established regional government of “values.”

    The Libertarian Party headquarters told me eight years ago, when I wrote them for clarification on their position, that they weren’t using the term (or teaching it to their party members) because the word was too hard for people to understand. They said they addressed it in other, easier ways. In the years since, every communitarian plan and program I read became U.S. policy. Today, every state in the union has adopted communitarian laws.

    There is NO opposition to them, and not even Ron Paul will take on the task of teaching Americans the ONE term that will explain why the U.S. govt has expanded federal authority over the states. Ron Paul wrote a whole article on the Third Way and never mentioned the underlying theory once.

    As one of you mentioned above, they know this oh so hard term in Europe, as it was the primary reason the Dutch and French rejected the proposed EU Constitution. Now the “benign” communitarians are creating an EU via a new “treaty” process, so as to stop the interference of the voters.

    Bottom line: the Libertarian Party will not officially challenge real communitarianism (or the leader, Amitai Etzioni), because many of the party leaders are communitarians themselves.

    I think the Libertarian Party was created only as controlled opposition in a Hegelian ruse. Of course I’d love to be proven wrong about this and someday maybe somebody will. This isn’t about the junior members or party members, this is about the leadership of ALL U.S. parties. I don’t think the voters know anything about how they’ve been duped.

    For me, understanding the dialectic explained why nobody would investigate Etzioni’s influence on U.S. law and policies. Why does the Party refuse to take on Etzioni, who may very well be the most dangerous man in this country? How is it possible that the most beloved Libertarian could belong to a leftist radical organization (SDS) in the 60s… the same radical anti-war group Amitai Etzioni belonged to? Isn’t it ironic that one man went on to help rejuvinate libertarianism, the other man created the Communitarian Network and whole new socio-economic theory with Mikhail Gorbachev. Now their theories are poised to do (non) battle in the last great American political (non) debate, one that will surely show Communitarians as being more Libertarian than the Libertarians.

    Let’s ask Ron Paul if he’s elected if he’ll retain the services of the 11 “communitarian thinkers” Dana Milbank of the Washington Post identified in the Bush White House in 2002. Ask him if he’ll fire Etzioni, Galston or Putnam. If Etzioni stays in power, it won’t matter who gets elected, ever.

    My thesis on communitarianism is “The Historical Evolution of Communitarian Thinking,” and it’s at the ACL website, http://nord.twu.net/acl

    My latest article is “What’s the Big Idea? Part I: Dialectical Freedom” and it’s posted on my blog, http://www.nikiraapana.blogspot.com

    I’d love to engage in some meaningful “dialogue” regarding communitarianism in the USA.

    Comment by Niki Raapana — October 22, 2007 @ 7:00 am
  38. It seems to me that libertarianism and communitarianism are not necessarily incompatible. In fact, an argument can be made that the US Constitution was originally a libertarian/communitarian document: You could be for a very limited Federal government, and allow the states unlimited leeway to pass whatever laws they like. People are then free to move to whichever community they find most attractive.

    Comment by JS — October 30, 2007 @ 12:31 pm
  39. [Note: Niki, I've read all of your articles on News with Views; but am taking a short break before digesting the info at your website, etc.]

    I’m also a first-time poster at this site. And I appreciate all the commentators opinions as mostly astute.

    Hopefully, this discussion will continue – it’s far too important… to not continue.

    I see communitarianism as the unifying principles being employed by both major political parties to justify the elites – especially the various industrial cartels with shared economic interests – solidifying their power positions in society. By institutionalizing themselves as being advocates of this anti-individualist philosophy they hope to become our trusted masters.

    And I agree with Niki: The American people are largely ignorant of this long-time development because this information has been deliberately kept secretive. For them to be even minimally informed would be to awaken them to all the confusing socio-political and economic developments of our time.

    This set of facts alone, supported as it is from numerous documents in the public record, is one which can help Ron Paul get elected. The American people will see how this elitist agenda coming from a top-down collectivist perspective is intended to move us away from personal liberties… to the loss of our individual civil rights… not to mention, the eventual loss of American sovereignty.

    One need only look at the owners of the Fed, the make-up of the CFR, etcetera to see how this has been playing out since the inception of our country. We are always in danger of becoming enslaved – whether willfully or unwillfully, individually or collectively. And it’s always, it seems, the credentialed, professional, and business elitists who are on board with these treasonous elements… because those so disposed mutually collude for their own self-importance and personal enrichment.

    What drives this war-mongering foreign policy we have today coming out of Washington is the dream of all totalitarians – to be a part of the elite master class (1%), as opposed to the class of the rest of us (99%), plain and simple.

    As it concerns one-world totalitarianism, nothing in our lives is as dangerous; for communitarianism is indeed… for US… the road to serfdom.

    Comment by bejeezus — October 30, 2007 @ 4:42 pm

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