Equality is the foundation of liberalism, and libertarians make a grave mistake when they ally with those who reject it.

Rejecting Equality Means Rejecting Libertarianism

Andy Craig is a staff writer at the Cato Institute, where he is the associate editor of Cato Policy Report. Prior to joining Cato in 2018, he worked as a campaign consultant and writer for Gov. Gary Johnson, and studied political science at Hendrix College.

The theory of liberty originates in a fact about human nature and the consequences that flow from its observation. This principle has been restated many times, in many different ways, but it always follows the basic logic laid out most famously in the Declaration of Independence. It’s the self‐​evident truth that all are created equal, by which is meant that all individuals are just that: individuals–self-contained, autonomous, inhabiting their own consciousness in a way that is truly inalienable. This isn’t an aspirational sentiment, it’s the reality of our nature.

It is from this inherent natural symmetry in relation to each other that a theory of rights can be derived, the first principle from which all the rest follows. This fact is how we begin to construct a rational system of morality that includes a reciprocal obligation to respect the rights of others. From there, political theories that can be denominated in the broadest sense as liberal begin to branch out and grow into many permutations. Most modern political philosophies share this same starting point, even if they reach different conclusions.

Libertarianism is one of them, a subset of the liberal tradition that carries forward that first principle to a range of conclusions about the proper role of law in a society, a constrained purpose for the state, and a defense of the prosperity that markets built on property rights and free exchange can offer. But libertarianism is just one branch on the family tree of liberalism.

Rejecting Equality Means Embracing Illiberalism

There are, however, those who dispute the premise. There are adherents of theories that start not from fundamental, universal human equality but rather by dividing humanity into classes and assigning some classes a greater degree of status and moral worth. We’re used to thinking of this bigotry, and related types of irrational animus, as a moral failing. But it’s deeper than that. It is a factual error that precedes moral theory, and by setting itself at odds with reality, it produces a host of moral errors on which are built political evils.

For libertarians, this divide between liberalism and illiberalism is of no small practical significance. Libertarians have a range of policy preferences derived from our theory, a radically smaller government being chief among them. Taken to their conclusion, a lot of the libertarian policy positions are not especially popular. Most Americans aren’t ready for the legalization of all drugs and sex work, the abolition of most if not all taxation, the wholescale repeal the regulatory state, the end of most or all welfare programs built on tax and transfer, and a thorough rejection of militarism and all non‐​defensive wars.

Our cousins on the liberalism family tree do not share these radical libertarian conclusions, and so cobbling together a functional majority to move policy in our preferred direction can be a Sisyphean task. This often leaves libertarians casting about for allies wherever they can be had, attempting to build coalitions issue by issue to supplement our own efforts at persuasion. This is necessary work and has produced important victories. But within it lies a grave risk, a trap that can undo all the rest.

Libertarians Should Reject Alliances With Illiberals

While searching for allies on immediate policy questions, it is mostly harmless to make common cause with other variants of liberalism broadly conceived. Conservatism in the American tradition, in a country founded in the ideas of the Declaration and Constitution, has a great many liberal values and principles embedded within it. Modern left‐​liberals also build from our shared foundation of concern for the dignity and moral worth of all persons. Though all these ideologies claim to be the most perfect application of the first principle, none have an exclusive claim to it. But this common lineage is not universal, and we must be wary of political theories derived from rejecting our first principle.

A rejection of basic human equality can be found among those who might seem to share an immediate policy preference. To take the most dramatic example, avowed racists on the fringes of the far right have tended to oppose American involvement in foreign wars, to reject both the welfare state and the regulatory state, and to consider themselves in opposition to the more mainstream ideologies with which libertarians also have disagreements. On the other extreme, the collectivist and illiberal far left professes its own kind of dedication to equality and aligns with many radical libertarian positions on civil liberties.

These superficial commonalities have led some to libertarianism not as part of a vital liberal center, but rather a coalition of the fringes against the establishment—occasionally with both the far right and the far left, but more often exclusively with the far right.

It is not just a sense of absolutist purism that cautions against such alliances. No matter how seemingly aligned on an immediate policy question, far‐​right bigotry is inseparable from illiberal authoritarianism. Its advocates oppose libertarianism–and all liberal ideologies–in a way both fundamental and consequential. No matter how appealing that apple is on the branch, it is the fruit of a poisonous tree.

There is no common cause to be had for libertarians with those who can’t make it through the Declaration’s famous syllogism without finding disagreement. (Other than, of course, wishing “all men” were instead “all persons.”) It has been argued by some libertarian theorists that baser prejudices can be ignored as irrelevant personal opinions during the messy business of coalition‐​building. But the history of authoritarian statism offers a stern reproach to such naivete. Wherever the error of bigotry thrives, the impulse to use the state to act on it inevitably follows. There is no libertarian outcome that can be built on fundamentally illiberal foundations. No marginal reduction in government or rollback of this or that status quo policy can outweigh the long‐​term consequences.

Liberal Cultural Values are Core to the Cause of Liberty

Libertarians have sometimes debated if certain cultural values are necessary because they are conducive to libertarian outcomes, or if all that matters is a narrow commitment to upholding individual rights. These values include tolerance, empathy, individualism, and the virtues associated with the cosmopolitan and bourgeois. Or they might be a healthy respect for family and tradition and religious cultural mores. We should reject the narrower approach of finding value in these traits only insofar as they lead to libertarian policy outcomes. They aren’t merely instrumental for preferred outcomes or incidental benefits. Rather, they are inseparable from the very foundation of libertarianism. There is no such thing as a libertarian society lacking these virtues, not in theory and certainly not in practice.

Those whose theory begins by dividing humanity into greater and lesser classes, who indulge the fallacious arguments for that premise and the blood‐​soaked history behind them, cannot be allies of libertarianism. It simply doesn’t work. Hatred—racial animus, religious intolerance, misogyny and homophobia, ethnic nationalism—has no place in our coalition, not just because it is wrong but also because it is self‐​defeating. No matter how many policy preferences those who reject universal, individual rights‐​egalitarianism might profess to share, they are the enemy of our first principle, and this outweighs any other concern.

The liberal vision, and the libertarian ideas that carry those principles forward to their most radical conclusions, are impossible without universal empathy that comes from holding that all persons, without exception, bear rights we must respect. It is easy—even trivial—to defend the rights of only yourself and your own kind, be that race, religion, or whatever other tribal distinction. Without a commitment to value and defend the rights of all human beings simply because they are human beings, there can be no moral progress and no better policies worth striving for. Liberty is for all or it’s not truly liberty at all.