The Ends and the Means
It is often argued whether libertarianism is more compatible with conservatism or liberalism. Is libertarianism conservative because it favors small government, or is it liberal because it favors civil rights? Low taxes or pro-choice? Legal guns or legal pot? This argument is impossible to settle because libertarianism is compatible with both liberalism as well as conservatism, and yet it has little to do with either. Liberalism and conservatism are about the ends, the goals for society, while libertarianism is about the means through which we achieve those ends.
This idea might be confusing at first, and it is not helped at all by the million and one different meanings for the terms, “liberal” and “conservative.” For simplicity’s sake, forget about Democrat and Republican, forget any parochial definition, forget about all the nonsense like the religious right or moonbat left, neoconservatives or extreme environmentalists.
If you throw out all the noise, you are left with a rather basic definition of both liberal and conservative. Liberalism seeks a society of change, while conservatism values tradition.
If those definitions don’t suit you, then fine, substitute your own. But you will almost always find that liberalism and conservatism have a view of where they would like society to be. The have a goal for society.
Libertarianism does not care for that goal. Libertarianism at its core favors no particular society. Liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, even communist. All of these societies are compatible with libertarianism.
Instead of favoring any particular goal of society, libertarianism concentrates on the means of how that society is formed or controlled. Those means should involve a respect for natural rights along with minimal governmental interference. People can shape their society anyway that they see fit. They cannot however, use force, threats or fraud as their means. The use of that force is authoritarianism, and that “ism” is what libertarianism is truly incompatible with.
This is how libertarians can count both pot smoking hippies and gun totting rednecks as members. This is how liberal comedian Bill Maher and conservative radio talk show host Neal Bortz are both self-styled libertarians. Their ideal societies may be vastly different, but more or less they respect individual rights and want to minimize government.
It is easy to see how libertarianism, liberalism and conservatism can become intertwined and confused. Often libertarians are described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. This is far from the truth.
A libertarian can very much be socially conservative, believing in family values, religion and the immorality of abortion and homosexual intercourse. However, that person would still oppose government intervention in religious, sexual or family matters. When it comes to politics and government, the personal values of a libertarian do not matter, because they oppose authoritarianism and imposing their values on someone else.
Surprising to many is that libertarianism is not mutually exclusive from communism. Though to be clear, this is the historical communism of Marx, not the authoritarian bastardization of Stalin, Mao or Castro. Communism in its basic form is about the structure of society and its economy, and deals little with government.
Marx believed that communism was the natural progression of history. Unlike socialism, it does not required government force to theoretically function. Marx was vague in how communism would naturally evolve. He may have been a visionary, but he was not Hari Seldon. This does not mean that we cannot use a little imagination to see what can be…
On a small scale, we already have communism. Historically, in extended families and small communities, people voluntarily chose to do the work that needed doing and their personal needs were met in the process. In modern times we have slightly larger examples in the commune and kibbutzim in Israel. The open source software movement is the perfect blend of both communism and libertarianism as well.
At this time communism is probably impossible. Our resources are limited and our human behavior too incompatible. We have seen the results of forced communism. But in the future our society could evolve or technology could even intercede. An often cited idea is the Star Trek replicator. If necessities are practically limitless, then supply and demand is thrown out of the window and there is no reason not to share.
This is the exact circumstance that lead to the open source community. Computer programs are limitless. You can copy them as much as you want and the original is as functional as ever. You can even throw in a tweak or two to put your own stamp on the program. With a commodity of limitless supply, capitalism is no longer ideal.
Democratic, liberal, capitalist, conservative, republic, communist, fundamentalist; all of these are compatible with libertarianism. The goal of society does not matter. It is the means that do. Libertarianism is opposed to no society, only forcing your ideal society on someone else.