Libertarianism as Core-Extreme Ideology of the Liberal Democratic State

What we call “liberalism” may appear to us as more a set of “priorities or predispositions” than a coherent ideology or philosophy because the ideology and its political-philosophical commitments are preceptual and effectively consensual – for us: Liberalism may not appear “ideological” because we treat its elements as simply true or as unquestionable for “all intents and purposes,” in other words under the continuation of the social-cultural whole as well as the political-juridical-administrative “state.” We can (always idly) question the philosophical validity of our foundational concepts, but we are precluded from taking any negative conclusions truly meaningfully into the public square.1 The unquestioned premises tend to come forward and become identifiable as ideology, and therefore more questionable potentially (prior to self-defensive suppression or ideological hygiene), under conditions of stress or crisis, typically in response to an external or seemingly external impetus, as during war with ideologically defined adversaries, another way of saying that the actual (as opposed to merely intellectual or ideal or idle) bringing forward of these premises will be definitional for a crisis of the whole state. Under “normal” conditions, however, they operate as ingrained presumptions and occasional subject of politically meaningless speculation.

In this sense, what demonstrates that contemporary “liberalism” (as modern American center-left social liberalism-progressivism) is in fact very highly ideological is that so many people can subscribe to it without perceiving it as ideological at all, or without thinking at all. This preceptual character of the ideology also contributes to common confusion about the relationship of post-war or contemporary American liberalism to conservatism, libertarianism, progressivism, leftism, etc.: All exist within the same framing presumptions or horizon of modern liberalist political philosophy. They are siblings. The relationship is somewhat akin, and I think not merely serendipitously, to the relationship of the Abrahamic faiths to each other2: The libertarians are the Jews of liberalism (liberalism here broadly understood as post-Enlightenment political philosophy). Furthermore, since liberalist presumptions, as “first principles” or “fundamental norms,” have what amounts to a religious or creedal character for the believer-citizen, and since, virtually the same thing, acceptance defines anyone as a participation-capable citizen-believer (or ordinary gentleperson), it is impossible to criticize them as a matter of conventional political activity, or usefully at all, except at the limits, in a discussion that becomes relevant only to the extent a possible crisis of the whole state can be taken as “on the agenda” (via war, revolution, economic catastrophe, political paralysis…).3

Our liberals and conservatives are already libertarians from their own point of view, if not necessarily or if rarely from each other’s point of view: They all can be taken as honestly believing themselves to be interested in liberty, to be pursuing policies supportive of true liberty as they understand it. The self-identified guardians of the true faith disagree.4 Libertarianism as self-contained belief system or as political ideology, though a liberalism, is, as the purest and most original liberalism, the liberalism furthest from real-existing liberalism, or, to say almost the same thing, the liberalism closest both to the origins and (as above) to the dissolution of the liberal-democratic state as a real-existing state. Likewise, the location of libertarianism at the margins of mainstream politics, even as underlying impetus of liberal or liberal-democratic political discourse, corresponds to its marginal political profile, including its tendency to attract “marginal” and easily “cartoonified” character types, as well as the relative ease with which people who happen to hold some libertarian beliefs or positions will be co-opted into the mainstream or centrist parties or coalitions.

The typical difficulties of libertarianism all run along this same axis: It is not exactly or merely an “outsider” ideology at all. It is the ultimate insider ideology of a broader ideological superstructure that requires and idealizes the suppression and externalization of ultimacies including especially its own.5 So, from a certain perspective libertarianism is and remains the or a core ideology of the real existing mass liberal democratic state, but the notion of ideological “space” is only metaphorical: Ideology is not a three-dimensional physical space. In ideological pseudo-space an element can be simultaneously at the core and at the extremes. This observation is especially true for the liberal-democratic polity, whose normalcy is, as already indicated, a suppression of the extremes. In this sense what applies to libertarianism as pure liberalism also of course applies to pure democratism: We could therefore also try another metaphor of the political center of the liberal-democratic state as a kind of LaGrange point of suspension between the Black Hole of pure libertarianism and the gravities of alternative relatively collectivist ideological bodies.6

The relative purity of libertarianism also corresponds to the difficulty and marginality of libertarian praxis as a political praxis, and the more fundamental question of the existence of any true libertarian praxis at all. A socialist commune is or can be the socialist society in nuce; a libertarian political group is almost a contradiction in terms: The individualist ceding elements of his or her pure liberty for the sake of practical, always implicitly coerced, augmentation of collective power. The fact that the existence of this contradiction is, because it has to be, overcome in practice, the fact that any libertarian can choose to be exactly as reasonable about collective action as he or she wants to be, points to the eventual indistinction of the state of pure liberty and the total state, since the total state is never anything more or less than the manifold result of countless reasonable calculations of desirable degree of concessions of pure autonomy or of unlimited negative freedom. If libertarianism is still libertarianism under reasonable calculation of concessions, and everyone agrees out of calculation of self-interest to the totalitarian state, then the totalitarian state is also the libertarian state. The communist utopia expresses the same logic or self-contradictory counter-logic, or describes the same conceptual limits: True Communism arrives when the totalitarian state insists on the freedom of all. The two utopias are the same utopia.

Libertarianism was or is also the virtual location where the modern distinguishes itself from the pre-modern. As such, it suggests infant liberal-democracy, the arrested development of the polity fixated at the level of the pre-socialized or socialization-resistant individual – the pre-dialogical, self-sufficient, natural “I-atheist.”7 It will tend to remain for us in practice what the libertarian moment was historically, a kind of ideological anteroom or hinge-point or membrane or halfway-house, whichever metaphor you prefer. Its precepts underlie the liberal-democratic polity, but the liberal-democratic polity has traveled very far from or expanded well beyond its inception point.


  1. In regard to libertarianism specifically, the meaningful taking into an always already pre-defined (always relatively collective-communitarian-authoritarian-totalized etc.) public square already points toward or commences a violation of its Ripperian purity of essence of purity…. []
  2. We are all libertarians in the same way that all Christians, Muslims, and Jews are monotheists. If we define Judaism conceptually as “original and rigorous monotheism,” all Christians and Muslims are Judaic, or embody the essential truth of Judaic prophecy, in their own view, a fact upon which their respective foundational statements sooner or later insist: Each sees itself as a fuller realization of an essential truth revealed initially in Judaism. If we take “Jew” as substantially an ethnic designation, then we are entering a different realm, and may also have to speak of Christianate, Islamicate, and even Judiacate culture-states rather than respective associated religious concepts. In much the same way – and possibly the very same way –  conservatives are right libertarians and liberals are left libertarians, though, of course, as far as the libertarians are concerned, only the libertarians are truly libertarians, and, on closer analysis, as we often see, very few of them are either. Sooner or later it will turn out that there are no true libertarians except me, on probation for compulsive delinquency. []
  3. Since a true crisis of the whole state would affect every one of us, impartiality will be difficult or impossible, and ideology from the perspective of the crisis of the whole state becomes difficult to separate from self-interest. At the same time, a true crisis of the whole state is something that upholders of the whole state will by definition seek to avoid until and unless they come to view it as the only potential salvation of the state, but everyone also understands intuitively that a true crisis of the whole state is a “throwing of the dice,” an opening to hazard or revelation. Even if the state is restored, it may afterward be a changed state, and quite possibly a more vulnerable or weakened state. []
  4. …just as the Jew disagrees with the Christian who claims that Christianity is a or the valid realization of Judaic prophecy, or with the Muslim who makes a similar claim in regard both to Christianity and Judaism. []
  5. …”suppression of ultimacies” also being, of course, another name for public policy in general or perhaps for constitutionalism, thus also the non-establishment of all religions other than the civic religion. []
  6. Why a LaGrangian “stasis” cannot be maintained, and why the effort to maintain it can convert into the opposite (“crisis”) is a higher developmental or phenomenal form of the same problem we encounter attempting to define “conservatism” under the conditions of an inherently progressivist state, and is visible in the irony, widely enough remarked to be taken as a cliche, of the interest in stability and orthodoxy being such an unstable as well as de-stabilizing, incoherent as well as de-cohering concept. []
  7. See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. []

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5 comments on “Libertarianism as Core-Extreme Ideology of the Liberal Democratic State

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  1. I’ve been mulling over this and your other libertarian posts for a while now. I haven’t really put in much effort in the past in understanding/deconstructing the libertarian matrix, because the arrested development diagnosis seemed to work reasonably well. That,with what I refer to as “smart person’s disease” which can afflict people of all isms and disciplines seemed to account for all the important features. (I had a raging case of it myself before my brain injury, and undoubtedly still have some symptoms.)

    Anyway, your posts and my subsequent investigations have considerably deepened my understanding. The title of this post goes to one of the important features that I certainly overlooked before and I think a lot of other people do too.

    I think this is one of your best efforts. Congrats.

    • Thanks, bob.

      There’s more to explore here, including I think especially the differences between libertarianism and anarchism, whose impulses and expressions often overlap. Superficially the difference seems to be between a reference to the individual and a reference to the state or the structures of the state, libertarianism focusing on the individual in negatively defined freedom, anarchism on real and conceptual threats to negatively defined freedom. So libertarianism begins with construction of the individual, as in the key early modern political-philosophical texts describing “metaphysical individualism,” then proceeds outward establishing the boundaries or types of boundaries of the person, his or her property, immediate positive expression of the will, etc. The “concessions” begin with the irreducibility of this natural or naturalized person, who is constituted positively: The further the individual is taken into society, history, culture, etc., the greater the concession. The same locus of the libertarian’s rejection of constraints impels the libertarian into a negotiation with them. The anarchist may at least entertain, or cannot exclude from the point of view of a consistent anarchism, a further rejection of the “rule” of the self or the concept of the self at all, and so moves in the direction of or is more open to nihilism, radical doubt, non-egocentric and non-humanist philosophies, and so on.

      I wish I had more time right now to follow these impressions or hypotheses further. Maybe later. I bring them up anyway to confirm awareness of the complications, and because they relate to many of our past discussions, as well as to discussions at your blog, regarding the construction of the self in relation to politics or political ideology.

  2. Libertarianism entails a minimal state, mostly those spelled out in the constitution, ‘negative liberties’
    anarchism is about total demolition, which has almost never worked, because it leaves power vaccuums
    that are often filled. take the Narodny Volya’s success with Alexander 11, the murder of Spanish prime minister Canovas,

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Noted & Quoted


Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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As they war with the right, though, Trump and Kushner would gain no quarter from Democrats—unless Democrats were allowed to set the all the terms. This is Bannon’s central point. Democrats have no incentive to prop up Trump’s presidency for half-loaf compromises that many will suspect are contaminated with seeds of Trumpism. Trump can adopt or co-opt the Democrats’ infrastructure platform outright if he likes, but he can’t easily entice them to compromise with him, and he can’t entice House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance a trillion dollar direct-spending bill filled with environmental and labor protections that the GOP exists to oppose.

Which is just to say, Kushner wants Trump to chart a new course that leads to a substantive dead end for at least another 19 months. Bannon’s path, at least, preserves the hope of keeping his base consolidated through the legislative ebb. He can deregulate, scapegoat, and unburden law enforcement to turn his Herrenvolk fantasy into reality—all while keeping congressional investigators at bay.

There’s no real logical rebuttal to this, except to point to three months of chaos and humiliation as indicative of the futility of continuing to do things Bannon’s way. That is really an argument that Trump should get rid of both of his top advisers, but Trump is unlikely to grasp that in a contest between loyalists, both might deserve to lose. Family loyalty, and the beating his ego will take when the stories of his first 100 days are written, will pull him toward his son-in-law. And that’s when the real fun will begin.

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State of the Discussion

Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic