Civil Libertarians Vs. Libertarians

What, exactly, is the difference? Why do you here reference to civies so often, but scant talk of Libertarians?

Well, I’ve heard plenty of talk about / from libertarians. Basically, libertarians believe in what they would call “maximal freedom for the individual”, in particular from government control. They believe in the absolute primacy of the market in the economic realm since this is the only method they believe people make “free exchanges” and are not compelled by the government to do things.

“Civil libertarians” emphasize personal liberty but deviate from libertarians (unless they are also libertarians) on property rights and the role of government in the economic realm…They generally still believe in property rights but not to the point where government can only “take your money/property” for anything but a few specific vital necessary functions.

Now for some commentary: I think one of the things that is so attractive about libertarianism is that it seems like a nice consistent theory. I.e., libertarians can say simply "I want government off your back as much as possible whereas civil libertarians have to explain why they want to limit government in the realm of personal liberty but still allow it to play a big role in the economic realm.

However, I think there are big problems with libertarianism:

(1) It fails to recognize various problems with the market such as externalities, lack of information, … that make the market less than ideal. [Some libertarians do recognize the need to deal with these.]

(2) It fails to recognize that government is not the only coercive power and that in fact government is the only way be which the large majority of people can regulate the coercive power that economic power brings. Libertarians seem to believe that you are still making a choice freely even if you are doing it under the duress, say, of not starving to death.

(3) It fails to recognize how collective our economic system is, i.e., that the money that each person makes is only “theirs” in an approximate sense and hence it isn’t stealing if the government takes part of it to administer the collective enterprise and even to redistribute. [See last part of next point.]

(4) It is not really as much “one consistent principle” as it seems because most libertarians end up making exceptions for certain government functions they deem important so in the end they are drawing lines almost just as much as anyone else. In particular, you don’t hear libertarians questioning things like corporate law and patent law and the like, so they rig the economic rules of the game a certain way, and then cry “Redistribution…you are stealing other people’s money!” when any attempt is made to remedy the inequities that result.

(5) It doesn’t work for shit. I do think in the end you have to check your principles against the results they produce and decide how you feel about it. [Setting up a society ain’t all deductive reasoning.] I think excessively libertarian societies already lead to excesses of inequality that many of us simply find abhorrent (and probably even unstable in that they lead to high crime and even revolution).

In the end, I believe that libertarianism, like Marxism, is an idealistic theory that would work great if people were angels but does not work in the real world.

Capital “L” Libertarians are members of the Libertarian party. Lower case “l” libertarians and civil libertarians are not necessarily.

Simply put:

A civil libertarian is likely to be a card carrying member of the ACLU.

A Libertarian is likely to be a card carrying member of the ACLU and the NRA (and maybe receives mail from NORML).

(A liberal is likely to support the ACLU, but perhaps at the same time support PC controls on speech, support the drug war, support banning private gun ownership, support asset forfeitures, support heavy regulation on businesses, etc.

A conservative is likely to support the NRA, but support religious controls on speech, support the drug war, support asset forfeitures, but fight regulation of business owners, etc.)

Libertarians support economic freedoms (favored by conservatives) as well as the social freedoms (favored by liberals).
Civil libertarians are generally more oriented towards merely the social freedoms.

I’m sure someone will disagree with my assessment, but that’s how I see the terms being used

Well there are plenty of libertarians here as well as civil libertarians. And their concerns overlap to a fair degree.

I am a committe member of my local equivalent to your ACLU. Some of the general membership are libertarians, but the active membership is mostly (just) left of centre.

Two crude generalisations: Libertarians see most if not all government activity beyond the definition and enforcement of property rights as an enfringement upon liberty, and they view market transactions as pretty much always consentual. But whilst civil libertarians agree that governments are a grave threat to liberty they believe governments can also enhance freedoms threatened by sometimes oppressive market forces.

Civil libertarians believe that in order for everyone to make real choices about their lives governments may need to limit the power of some people. Libertarians tend to be less concerned about equality of bargaining power and more concerned that government activity constrains choices.

An example: Suppose on renewal of my contract my long time (private sector) employer insists that I submit to a drug test. Libertarians would be less likely than civil libertarians to be concerned about this, since I could go elsewhere to work and they’re not deceiving me. Government activity which prevented contractual conditions such as this would prevent my employer and me from going ahead and agreeing if we wanted to. Without government compulsion, it’s not too much of a concern. Civil libertarians would be more inclined to worry about whether the employee was “really” consenting by agreeing and more inclined to think that allowing such practices would undermine other employees’ capacity to decline such conditions. Whether in other words allowing the practice would lead to an erosion of people’s “right” to keep their private lives their own.

So libertarians are concerned with leaving people alone to make contracts, whereas civil libertarians believe that some contracts detract from the bundle of rights and capacities required to genuinely carry on an autonomous life.

To paraphrase the political libertarian movement, which admittedly is dying;
“The individual has the right to do whatever he wishes, provided those acts to not infringe on the rights of others.”

Unfortunately, that one sentence is open to vastly differing interpretations.

I’m not a utopian, but if Lazarus Long’s island dream ever had become reality, I would definitely had considered contacting my travel agent and real estate agent

Re Lazarus Long’s Island Dream:

The business of creating a new island in order to start a new nation seems to be one of those romances people chronically have.

An old GF spent the summer of 1975 working for a guy who called his outfit the Atland Corporation, and also the Atland Embassy. He too apparently had his sights set on some place where the sea bottom nearly broke the surface of the waves.

I understand why people have this dream, but it’s still a hard act to pull off. Most near-surface undersea peaks are part of an already-populated archipelago which already belongs to some country, and if such a peak were to rise above sea level, it would in turn belong to that nation. And the engineering difficulties of building a lasting structure on a just-undersea peak many miles from the nearest land have to be horrific.

A more likely bet (although still a serious longshot) for a group wishing to found its own nation, would be to seek out one of the regions in the Third World, particularly in western and sub-Saharan Africa, where national sovereignty has become a legal technicality that has no meaning on the ground.

Such a group should be well-armed, in addition to bringing along whatever else is needed to form a self-sufficient society. Because when national sovereignty breaks down, the results aren’t pretty.

I would venture that most politically minded people – libertarians, liberals, and conservatives – agree with the above statement. The real problem is determining which rights infringe on the rights of others (and by how much), and which of those rights we’re willing to sacrifice.

Try getting two people to agree on that! :rolleyes:


To continue the hijack, I’d recommend the book How to Start Your Own Country by Eric Strauss. It even contains an endorsement from Cecil himself on the back cover. Most of the book is case histories of previous attempts, including Atland. By now it’s probably rather out of date, though.

And to get back on topic, I have to slightly take issue with jshore’s remark “libertarians believe in what they would call “maximal freedom for the individual”, in particular from government control.” I wouldn’t say that libertarians are more concerned with freedom from government control than with freedom from coercion by individuals, just that the area of government control is where libertarians differ most from non-libertarians.

There are other items I would take issue with in the post as well, but I am not inclined to turn this into yet another libertarianism debate right now.

I would also suspect that members of the Libertarian Party are not highly inclined to be members of the ACLU. The ACLU agrees with the LP on a number of issues, but they each seem to draw on opposite ends of the political spectrum for their core membership. The LP seems composed primarily of somewhat conservative types, while the ACLU seems composed primarily of liberal types. The “why” of this dichotomy was pretty much covered by hawthorn’s post.

Well, you may be one exception, but on the whole I haven’t really heard libertarians acknowledge much restricting of freedom besides by the government. And, I certainly haven’t heard much regarding how to deal with freedom of coercion by individuals, unless that coercion is blatantly criminal, gun-to-the-head sort of stuff.

Well I didn’t expect you to agree :wink: … at least with the commentary part. Since the OP did post to GD, I figured that I could include the commentary part.

[Okay, I admit it, I likely still would have included much it if the post had been in General Questions.]

A libertarian is a person who opposes the initiation of force. He believes that rights are an attribute of property, and therefore come from God or nature.

A civil libertarian is a person who opposes the abrogation of law. He believes that rights are bestowed by documents, and therefore come from magistrates.

I see from location, you’re in NH; probably the most Libertarian part of the country. I guess you can do whatever you want with statistics provided by the Libertarian Party on this link. By I interpret their standings in past presidential elections as quite dismal.

Year: Votes:
1980 - 921,000
1984 - 228,000
1988 - 432,000
1992 - 291,000
1996 - 485,000
2000 - 386,000

Putting local elections aside, a party on the ballot in all 50 states can’t survive when the # of votes goes down by over 58% in 20 years and the same candidate that ran in both '96 and '00 loses 20% of the votes in a 4-year cycle.

After looking at the national numbers, dying is too mild an adjective to describe the movement…gasping it’s last breath seems more appropriate. Alas, given the choice between Republicrats and Greens, think I’ll be staying home in November 04.


Not quite. According to, a “civil libertarian” is “one who is actively concerned with the protection of the fundamental rights guaranteed to the individual by law,” whereas a “libertarian” is “one who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state.”

Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that civil libertarians believe rights are “bestowed by documents” and therefore “come from magistrates.” It is more accurate to say that civil libertarians – without concerning themselves with whether rights come from God, nature, or man – seek to defend those rights within the framework of the law – in the U.S., commonly within the framework of the Bill of Rights.

Civil libertarians need not be libertarians (because they work within and generally do not challenge the framework of the law and the existing legal system). Similarly, libertarians are not necessarily civil libertarians (because they defend people’s rights as they define and understand them, and would probably not limited themselves to the framework of the existing justice system to do so). Libertarians defend their ideation of people’s rights in the abstract, as a philosophical matter. Civil libertarians defend people’s rights in the concrete, by bringing suit to stop their infringement.

I’m neither, BTW. :slight_smile:

With the minor exceptions of:[ul]
[li]1/6 of the 1st[/li][li]Most of the 2nd[/li][li]1/6 of the 4th[/li][li]Part of the 5th[/li][li]& The 10th[/ul]Amendments[/li]50% selective reinforment, guess we all gotta pick our causes

I consider myself a libertarian in the true sense of the word. When I was researching this philosophy, I ran across some web sites that also described the civil libertarian philosophy and advocated such organizations as the ACLU with sounded quite good on the surface. After further research, I came to the conclusion that the two philosophies were partners only in name and their only commonality was the word “libertarian”. To me, any philosophy that advocates strong government interference to force mandated principles is neither civil nor libertarian.

Jodi, my love. […sigh…] Do you realize that I could whip out a dictionary to show that survival of the fittest is natural selection? Now, you and I both know the difference between lay definitions designed to enlighten people answering questions on Street Smarts, and proper definitions that satisfy the context of their academic usage.

We can talk about the scientific method, for instance, as though we’re Mr. Wizard speaking to a roomful of children, or we can talk about it as Karl Popper speaking to a roomful of his peers. Whatever you prefer, I prefer the latter here at SDMB. You know very well, after years of discussions here, complete with links and citations, that libertarianism is opposition to the initiation force or fraud, and that those are coercion.

That’s that. Now, with respect to your dictionary definition of civil libertarian, it is wholly compatible with the definition I offered. Even your definition includes the phrase “rights guaranteed to the individual by law”. Law, these days, is typically documented.

As are property rights. And what constitutes coercion within a particular system of property rights is not self-evident. Even if derived from some (IMHO woolly) touchstone of “natural rights”, notions of what might or might not be thought of as initiation of fraud or force are codified or established by precedent: they too are typically documented.

I’m aware of your neat definition of libertarianism, and I don’t mind it much. But after many years of discussions here, you’d also be aware that there are those here who regard it as a fine slogan for a political philosophy, but a little vague for a definition on what such controversial terms as “opposition”, “initiation”, “force”, “fraud” and “coercion” mean.

With you on the dictionary thing though. :slight_smile:

Hawthorne, you know, we could get dizzy here if we start spinning around that maypole. If you demand that I define such common terms as opposition and initiation, then you must yourself define such terms as vague and self-evident. And if you can assail mine, I can assail yours. We can reach the point where we’re defining each word in our definitions, and then each word in our definitions of our definitions, and so on until we’re so far from the point that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Is means is.

eeeeeaaaaaaAAAAAHHHhhhhhhhhhhhh… crap.
That giant sucking sound you all heard was me getting pulled into yet another libertarian argument. (It was not, as you might have guessed, the sound of a giant sentient squid drawing its massive form from the deep.)

So anyway:

Putting aside for a minute the glaringly obvious fact that at least one side of any debate about libertarianism uses a few “special” definitions for common words and that therefore it’s a bloody necessity for participants to agree on terms if we are going to discuss the subject in any way that’s meaningful to all parties… Putting all that aside, as I say, let’s try a little experiment if Lib and hawthorne would like to continue this sidejack.

Why don’t you both whip 'em out (your definitions, I mean) and we’ll measure 'em? You could designate a few arbiters (keep it an odd number), who would decide which definitions are most appropriate for the discussion, and then perhaps we could all enjoy a Libertarianism argument that’s conducted in only one common language?

Whatcha think?

I don’t care much for this definition. As a liberal – and I hardly think I am alone here – I do not support “PC” controls on speech (whatever that means) and I do not support the drug war. Perhaps high-profile (read: centrist) liberals do; I doubt that these opinions are pervasive.