Sometimes I am asked why I don’t solely call myself a libertarian or a conservative. Why do I usually flip between “classical liberal”, “right leaning libertarian”, or “libertarian leaning conservative?”
I do this because modern libertarians near-sole focus on the non-aggression principle and tyranny of the government variety is, in my estimation, an anemic view of the issue of liberty. If we’re to actually think of what makes for a healthy polity, government can’t be the sole consideration regarding liberty and tyranny. Yet, often, libertarians make it seem as if they believe that if something is done freely and doesn’t involve force, then it isn’t a problem for liberty.
I thoroughly disagree with this implicit (yet occasionally explicitly stated), position. While government, because it does have a monopoly on violence in modern societies, does need very tight reigns imposed on it, it is not the sole place that liberty can be functionally removed from society. This is hardly a novel idea, and in fact was explicitly stated by classical liberals in the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, John Stuart Mill made this argument regarding the tyranny of the majority:
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them… There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Alexis de Tocqueville made a similar argument when he wrote that freedom of opinion “does not exist in America” because the intense social pressure against unpopular opinions “actually removes the wish of publishing them.”
Often this idea does not seem to be taken seriously by libertarians, yet both liberals and conservatives do seem to see the problem. The left’s worry about the intense pressure that large corporations can wield against workers and the elimination of any real choice on behalf of those workers is a valid one. The right’s worry about the near monopoly the left has in the media/tech/universities and the power they can wield to shape the national conversation is similarly valid. Social pressure can just as easily expel speech from the public square as can a prison cell.
Of course, the question is what to *do* about this. And this is where even if libertarians downplay/ignore the issue they do have a valid concern regarding the solution: whence comes help to solve this? The government? Shall our solution be worse than the problem?
This is certainly a possibility, and to be honest I am often not sure where I land. There *does* seem to be a line where a corporation or a powerful individual could infringe on people’s liberty without the use of force, and it would be proper for the government to step in. Yet also there is a danger in using the government in this manner, because where that line is is not at all clear. Inviting a bear into your home to chase away a rabid dog solves one problem, yet may create a bigger one.
All this to say, this is an illustration of why I don’t usually refer to myself strictly as a libertarian. Both the liberals and the common good conservatives have valid concerns about private institutions and their power to impose a bloodless tyranny. And that is something that is often ignored by modern libertarian thought.