“Civil libertarian” is a term that is thrown around regularly. Politicians from all places in the political spectrum have been deemed civil libertarians. Barack Obama, Rand Paul, Bob Barr, and Antonin Scalia have all been granted the title at one point or another. But not all of the political figures associated with the moniker value the same principles or share the same perspective on the government’s role in society.
The excessive use of the term has muddled its meaning to the point of near futility. Even in political theory, debate over the inherent meaning and application of the philosophy continues. Below is the Sparknotes version of the philosophy, some basic definitions, and important distinctions to help clarify the term “civil libertarian” for everyday use.
What are Civil Liberties?
Civil libertarianism is a philosophy that supports the protection of civil liberties. It’s most logical to start by breaking down, describing and qualifying these two words.
First, let’s tackle the “civil” part.
Civil liberties are defined solely within the context of the state and its legal system. They should not be confused with moral or human rights. For example, the fact that a private corporation might wish to discriminate in the hiring process or monitor the online activity of its employees on company-owned computers does not violate any individual’s civil liberty. Civil liberties describe only the expressed freedoms individuals have from unjust government overreach or intervention.
Furthermore, civil liberties aren’t determined by any one type of government structure or legal declaration. Often, civil liberties are confused for the freedoms explicitly stated in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. By definition, civil liberties can take on different meanings in different societies.
Now, the “liberties” half.
Civil liberties are largely considered to be negative rights—rights individuals have to not be interfered with or infringed upon unnecessarily. This is in contrast to positive rights, or entitlements individuals may have to something. Examples of positive rights could be the right to be provided healthcare or the right to be provided education. Another easy way to distinguish this is that negative rights are not mutually exclusive. One person can exercise the right to practice their religion while another person simultaneously speaks out against that religion: Both people’s rights are being respected–whereas with positive rights, they can conflict.
What do civil libertarians advocate for?
Obviously, civil libertarians are in favor of pragmatically maximizing civil liberties. Most people who accept the moniker favor a lot of similar things: Free speech, the freedom to establish and practice religion, and the freedom of association are all commonly associated with civil libertarianism. Civil libertarians—insofar as they are civil libertarians—are likely to favor protecting negative rights over the promotion of positive ones. People can be civil libertarians and support some positive rights, but they do so at the risk of the two conflicting. When civil libertarians promote positive rights, they do so because of some other facet of their political ideology, rather than because it is a true civil liberty—even if they might say otherwise.
Civil libertarians also regularly fight against legal discrimination. While a civil libertarian (again—insofar as they are a civil libertarian) wouldn’t necessarily advocate for complete equality in society, equal protection of all individuals from government intrusion and discrimination is an essential tenant of the philosophy. Key examples of civil liberties under this category are anti-discriminatory voter laws, the right to due process, and protection from discrimination in public buildings and spaces. One contemporary civil rights issue is protection from racial profiling in the criminal justice system.
Not everything is easily distinguishable among civil liberties advocates, however. The right to bear arms, the right to privacy, and reproductive freedom are also beliefs coupled with civil libertarianism but are often debated. A civil libertarian could reasonably be against the establishment of the NSA—considering its infringement upon privacy—or for it, reasoning that there is a compelling government interest in keeping it. Civil rights movements can be a point of contention amongst civil libertarians. Certain movements like the fight for marriage equality could definitely be classified as a civil libertarian movement, as the main goal of that is to end discriminatory laws. However, Title II (outlawing of discriminatory practices by privately-owned business) or Title VII (aimed at prevention of discrimination by employers) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not necessarily be universally seen as civil liberties protections.
How are civil libertarians different from political libertarians?
Political libertarians, regardless of their sub-type, almost universally want to decrease the role of government as a whole. While civil libertarians favor lessening government intrusions that the government has promised it will not do (ie, the Bill of Rights), libertarians favor a drastic decrease in government interference in all or most aspects of life (depending on the libertarian). So, while being a political libertarian almost certainly makes you a civil libertarian, the inverse is not always true.
Civil libertarians are likely to subscribe to other political philosophies that support or work in conjunction with the principals of civil libertarianism. Libertarian socialists, like Noam Chomsky, are strong advocates for civil liberties. Similarly, more conservative-minded Constitutionalists, like Grover Norquist, also defend civil liberties. And pretty much anyone who describes themselves as a political libertarian would most certainly see themselves as a civil libertarian as well.
It’s understandable why “civil libertarian” is such a ubiquitously used term. And, of course, it must be noted that this discussion is contained to the American political conversation, as both what civil liberties are and how people defend them, and what libertarianism is and how people advocate for that, vary depending on the government and time. But, if you’re looking for a short version, a civil libertarian is someone who wants the government to live up on its promises to not interfere in people’s lives.