Libertarianism and liberalism both misunderstand human nature

Libertarianism and liberalism both misunderstand human nature

LibertarianismConservatives and libertarians have traditionally shared many common beliefs (though disagreement on some issues has always existed), stemming from their concern for liberty. Yet, the question arises–especially in recent times–what fundamentally separates conservatism from libertarianism? Why, for instance, when both schools of thought espouse a preoccupation with liberty, do conservatives cringe when modern elements of the libertarian movement embrace discussions of secession and nullification? The answer is also what separates conservatives from liberals: our respective understanding of human nature.

Anarcho-libertarians, like the ones who entertain ideas of secession, assume that human beings would be better without government. Take secession to its logical conclusion. If state’s have the right to secede from the union, then should not cities have the right to secede from states, and communities from cities, and individuals from communities, leading ultimately to anarchy? If not, why not? After all, uniform agreement on public policy is impossible. Such logic emanates from the presupposition that human nature is inherently good, and hence no government is necessary.

Meanwhile, the left believes human beings are better off with bigger government. Hence its calls for universal health care, education, food, housing, and more.  This logic extends from the presupposition that human nature is changeable, and that government can improve it through social engineering.

But both leftism and libertariansim are wrong. As James Madison penned in perhaps the most intellectually powerful prose on the subject, in Federalist 51:  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” In other words, human nature is both flawed and fixed, and hence government is necessary to protect our “natural” rights from one another, but government itself must be limited and checked, so as not to infringe those rights.

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Although libertarians are often close allies of conservatives on many issues, conservatism’s accurate grasp of human nature is precisely why its ideas are best for society.

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David Weinberger

David Weinberger

David Weinberger previously worked at the Heritage Foundation. He currently resides in the Twin Cities, and he blogs at

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