Progressives, Conservatives and Libertarians: The Difference



In this article I want to talk about the political debate in the United States – not the policy issues – but what I feel are the underlying political differences between progressives and conservatives and libertarians. I also want to discuss the optimism vs the pessimism divergence among libertarians themselves. Note that when I talk about institutions in this article, I am referring to formal and informal traditions, taboos and rituals which society allows itself to be restricted by.

Virtue and Markets

In the mainstream political debates in the United States there is one agreement that we libertarians can be happy about. That agreement is that markets are good (now as a radical libertarian, the degree to which that market should be free is a chasm).

Where I feel libertarians break with conservatives and progressives, is their view of virtue and markets.

Libertarians believe markets work despite the virtues of individuals. If anything, real market prices can help determine the virtues and institutions people need to grow as a society. Government intervention is damaging society’s natural evolution. Conservatives and progressives believe markets will not work without virtue. Therefore the way they believe the world ought to be must be brought about by forcing their virtues into the market via regulations and subsidies.

Conservatives, who often make up the dominant classes of society (which is why they’d want to preserve the current institutional mix), fight to preserve the institutions that made their classes dominant, despite whether society wants or needs to evolve. Progressives, wish to make the perceived oppressed classes (race, gender, the environment) more powerful, despite where society has evolved to. They therefore often try to push institutions that don’t reflect the values of society in that moment.

They both see markets as a tool to promote these agendas, whether it’s a family tax credit, or subsidies to solar power. They want government to force institutions to emerge or prevent institutions from fading. They feel that if the institutional makeup is as they want it, so will be the market outcomes. Libertarians, of course, expect markets will always correct to the true reality over time.

Libertarian Pessimism and Optimism

Libertarians are generally pro-market and believe that a market of free individuals will allow the institutional arrangements that society needs (and not what a particular section of the society wants) to emerge. They arrive at this ideological position by looking at human nature in two different ways. While libertarians, including myself, can see aspects of these two archetypes from time to time in themselves, we all can see where we fall in our emphasis in our messaging.

The Pessimist

The pessimist believe humans are flawed and irrational, and is skeptical of large central power structures. This is because if a single individual can be so dangerous to themselves without power, a handful with a lot of power can exponentially more dangerous to society at large. The pessimist doesn’t want government to be small or non-existent to see society improve and grow, but as a mode of self-defense from human imperfection.

The Optimist

The optimist sees the potential in individuals, when free to cooperate in enterprise and compete against other enterprises in developing the most efficient methods to distribute the goods and services society needs. Innovation, creativity, and prosperity are the words that come to mind when the optimist thinks of a society of truly free people. Government isn’t dangerous because people are, but because it restrains people and their potential.

No matter how you look at human nature; it’s easy to see how one can find themselves leaning libertarian and trying to protect the emergent order that individuals create in their every interaction, versus the top-down order that progressives and conservatives desire.

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Alex Merced is a latino libertarian activist. Alex also runs the AlexMercedCast Podcast, LibertarianWingMedia,com, and is an active member of the Libertarian Party. Alex Merced is currently running for the U.S. Senate seat in New York against Chuck Schumer in 2016.