What Libertarianism Is and Isn’t and What to Do Now
“Libertarian” is a wide label, now if it is “libertarian” it means holders to idea of individual liberty, if it is “Libertarian” it means a member of the Libertarian Party. We also have the reality that most libertarians are NOT Libertarians and many Libertarians aren’t libertarian—see Bob Barr and Wayne Allen Root as temporary Libertarian opportunists who were conservatives in libertarian drag.
A holder to individual liberty respects each person’s rights and wants a society where economic and social liberty are maximized, where the free exchange of labor, capital and goods are not impeded by government, with a policy of peace toward other nations. The primary goal is protecting individual rights and that includes equality of rights before the law. You want enough government to do that job but not so much as to violate the rights it’s meant to protect.
In one way you can look at it as a government big enough to arrest rapists, but no going around harassing users of pot. To me this describes a process not an end state. I see liberty in general the way I see economic liberty. A functioning market is always in flux, and never reaches a state of equilibrium. Marxists saw that as a flaw because the ideal is never reached. Of course, it isn’t, supply and demand are not static, they are always in flux, which is precisely what should happen. Similarly the demand for protection of rights is never static but always in flux. It can be higher in certain situations than others.
We’ve had times in America where the states defended the rights of citizens from criminals and the federal government, but we’ve also had times where the federal government defended the rights of people from criminals and the states. For instance, during Jim Crow the states were the major engines of rights violation when cops and criminals—such as the Klan—cooperated to deny black Americans their rights.
One of the problems of a critique of the broad libertarian category is it encompasses more territory than what is usually being attacked. For instance, some “Objectivists” have attacked “libertarianism,” yet the politics of Objectivism are libertarian. Usually their attacks are on the nonsense of people such as Murray Rothbard — an ideologue who is just as strongly criticized by self-identified libertarians as he is by Objectivists, if not more so.
Yes, strictly speaking anarchism is also a libertarian philosophy, as are the minimal government ideas of classical liberals. It is even wide enough to encompass voluntary communal projects where people “own everything in common” and practice a form of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” (Good luck with that, all you do is penalize ability and incentivize need, which is a disaster, but it’s your choice to make.)
One clear libertarian tendency is it’s not conservative. Society evolves toward greater and greater respect of rights — at least it has so far in general. I suspect, given the reality of world affairs and national politics, no matter the nation, there will always be a need to expand respect for rights. This is another reason I argue liberty is a process; we never quite get there. Instead of searching for utopian goals we need to seek out libertarian means.
At the time of the Founding of this nation we didn’t respect the rights of lots of people. Sure the lofty ideals of the nation said we should, but we didn’t. But the Founders didn’t think the words of the Declaration of Independence were journalist reports describing America as it was—it was a set of goals describing America as it could be.
Thankfully a few decades later our nation ended slavery, but still had so much more to do. Eventually we expanded rights as a category that went well beyond just straight, white men with property and guns. Something a lot of straight white men with property and guns are still upset about.
We got around to realizing that America’s libertarianism encompassed the rights of all people of color, women, gays, lesbians and yes, shock and horror, even the rights of transgender individuals, immigrants and Muslims.
Libertarianism always seeks a more consistent application of respect for rights. Conservatism is always opposed to it — which is one reason I assert libertarianism has more in common with modern progressivism than with modern conservatism.
I also suspect given the reality of this world — if you want Nirvana you’ll have to wait for a life beyond death, and even then I suspect you’ll not get it — advocates of individuals rights will have to pick and choose their battles. Fight to expand rights where they can, oppose the taking away of rights where possible. There are limited resources and not all battles are equally useful. As good economists know, there are always trade offs — an idea many libertarian utopians simply don’t grasp.
We have to work to expand rights as we can and we have to carefully pick out battles. Given our limited resources we have to make strategic alliances. Our liberal forbearers fought the conservative enemies of priests and aristocrats. Along came the socialists, who embraced a lot of liberal goals but loved the conservative use of state power. They attempt to achieve liberal goals with conservative means, but like it or not, they end up with conservative regimes.
Liberals allied with them and stayed in that alliance longer than was optimal. They ended up walking off with the “liberal” label, much as they walked off with lots of things that didn’t belong to them. They got more radical while liberalism got weaker and we saw the rise of a very illiberal “Progressivism” in world affairs. It was ugly, nasty, racist and authoritarian.
So real liberals or libertarians sought refuge with conservatives to fight off the threat of Communism. And, once again that alliance lasted longer than it should have. By the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union libertarians should have ended their alliance with conservatives. They didn’t and now we have to get rid of conservative cockroaches preaching hate and bigotry and pretending they are libertarian. One problem with a movement of utopians is utopians tend to be lousy strategists.
Certainly the failed one-term disaster of Donald Trump should be evidence enough that conservatives are not our friends and libertarians would be wise to shun them. Libertarian outfits that don’t often end up being taken over by them—such as a formerly libertarian think tank in Illinois for example.
Certainly at this current time, given the new Administration and the views of most Americans libertarians could be furthering their agenda by pushing some key reforms. Just as important as the reforms are how you sell them. Often libertarians sound like conservatives and turn off progressives before they even get started. Some reforms in the right direction could include:
- Libertarians immediately should push heavily for citizenship for DACA kids.
- It is important to go after the war on drugs and note this is an inherently racist policy targeting minorities. Drug use should be seen as a personal problem to solve not a criminal one. End the war on drugs.
- End qualified immunity for all police officers. No government agent should be exempt from the consequences of their actions. If a police officer assaults people illegally he should pay the price, not innocent taxpayers.
- Immediate police reforms, which create alternatives to violent policing. Police should be “helpers” not controllers.
- Promote free trade internationally and demand the end of Trump’s trade wars.
- With the end of protectionism we should end Trump’s policies of subsidizing agriculture, driving up food costs and taxes for the working poor.
- Emphasize all redistributions of wealth up the economic ladder. Expose how various regulations and subsidies were designed to benefit the well off at the expense of everyone else. End corporate welfare. If the states continue to dole out such benefits classify the benefits as income for federal tax purposes and tax it!
- Push for reform of zoning, land use and laws regulating housing in general. Emphasize how these laws drive up housing prices and lock out lower-income people.
- Push the ideas from the Obama White House about how occupational licensing laws needlessly drive up prices, with few benefits, and how they lock out lower-income individuals from work and opportunities.
- Educate the Left about how regulations are being used to benefit major energy corporations and used to slow down consumers switching to low-impact energy sources such as solar.
- Promote the use of alternative educational methods, which lower the risk of bullying and thus lower suicide rates among the young, especially LGBT youth.
- Educate the public about the benefits of immigration and how immigrants create jobs and economic prosperity—not just for themselves but for others as well.
- Deregulate the importation of pharmaceuticals to allow the sale of products from nations that meet U.S. standards. Stop the endless granting of exclusive patents to companies for slight modifications to existing drugs, which drives up the cost of health care and creates artificial windfall profits for the companies at the expense of everyone else.
- Encourage reforms to allow the sale of birth control drugs over the counter reducing costs for the consumer and helping end unwanted pregnancies.
- At every step encourage the moderates in the Democratic party and help reduce the influence of the more authoritarian fringes in the party.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means but are some issues which touch on both social and economic freedom, which can interest people who tend to see themselves on the Left.
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