Sunday, August 5, 2012

Are there three strains of American libertarianism?

D. Robert Worley, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, has a new essay out on Huffington Post that posits that there are perhaps three strains of libertarianism in the United States, each with its own regional origins.

The argument draws explicitly on my latest book, American Nations, to identify the cultural regions at play, but you can also see the influence of Daniel Elazar's three political cultures: the moralistic, individualistic, and traditionalist. Those familiar with my thinking won't be surprised that I think Elazar's paradigm is handicapped by embracing state boundaries, but I if you apply his criteria to my map -- which Worley has -- it's far more compelling.

Worley's observation of the differences between the corporate libertarianism of the Deep South and Far West and the individualistic libertarianism of Greater Appalachia are fair enough, but from my perspective the most refreshing and provocative idea is that there is a "civil libertarianism" anchored in Yankeedom and the Left Coast that whose adherents "favor individual freedom and oppose all forms of unchecked coercive power, and...rely heavily on government solutions, specifically the Constitution's Bill of Rights and the federal courts."

I'd be curious what the rest of you think.


  1. That's interesting. How might "classical liberalism" fit in?

    Note how they seem associated with their styles of government.

    Yankeedom and the Left Coast seem like big believers in "good government", a style of government that tries to help everybody. Thus, civil liberties.

    The Far West and the Deep South like corporate libertarianism, which is very elitist. That's connected with what corporate managements want (Far West) and a long-time tradition of elitism (Deep South). Wanting to get and rule, rather than give and be ruled.

    The advocates of corporate libertarianism linking it with individual rights seems to me a con game, because it does not involve much freedom for anyone but those at the top of business hierarchies. Some of those advocates try to construct "economic freedom indices" and try to show that scoring high on corporate libertarianism is associated with greater prosperity for all, but I suspect cooking the books.

    Consider Singapore, a city-state sometimes celebrated by them. Singapore's way of raising capital: mandatory savings, with the money only being allowed to be invested in what the authorities deem socially useful, like housing projects. Here in the US, the corporate libertarians's favorite area, the Dixie Bloc, is generally poorer than its opposite, the Northern Alliance.

    1. Re: Singapore. And public beatings with a cane if you're caught littering. Perhaps not the utopia the individualistic libertarians have in mind.

  2. Colin,

    Thanks for reading and acknowledging my HuffPost article. I case there's a call to further develop the ideas expressed there, I'd like your advice on a couple of things.

    (1) In my article, I centered civil libertarianism in New Netherland, Yankeedom, Left Coast, and Midlandia. In your response you listed Yankeedom and Left Coast. I was confident in centering civlib in Yankeedom and the Left Coast, but I remember being confident adding New Netherland but not being too confident in including Midlands. I hate to admit it, but I included the two without much thought.

    Based on your research, would you recommend that I exclude Midlands and New Netherland?

    (2) In my article, I confidently centered corporate libertarianism in the Far West. In your response you included the Deep South.That surprised me. Perhaps I'm incapable of thinking past slavery. But I easily see your point that slave-owning aristocrats fall in the category of favoring corporate and monied interests. But I don't know what kind of thought dominates the poor white and black population in the Deep South. Would you suggest that corporate libertarianism has been sold as individualist libertarianism to the non-aristocratic classes, or would you suggest that the aristocratic class dominates Deep South politics rendering irrelevant the belief patterns of the lower classes? Or is it perhaps something else?

    1. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you; crazy here!

      I haven't researched this aspect of things closely, of course, but my instinct is that you'd be on very firm ground with New Netherland, which has always put enormous emphasis on freedom of inquiry and conscience. In fact, it's probably the nation with the most ACLU-ish ethos of all. The Midlands would require some more thought. It's absolutely a culture tied to freedom of religion, but there's also plenty of suspicion of government generally.

      On point two, history would favor the second explanation you put forward, but the former may be the means currently employed to maintain dominance. It's a system that's always been about the interests of the oligarchy, not the community at large.