On libertarians

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.  H. L. Mencken

There’s something odd about the libertarian political philosophy. Like all good bad political monikers, it has a conveniently hard to dismiss name. I mean, you like liberty, right? Also, you like Society, Progress, and Democracy. I guess that’s par for the course for Libertarianism. But unlike other beliefs, it seems to be based on a certain set of premises, which form a logical platform that doesn’t change across time and place. If you’re talking about right-wing vs left wing politicians, you can get very different platforms depending on where and when you’re about. A conservative in Massachusetts in 1920 and a conservative in Spain in 1970 are two wholly different animals. I mean, one wanted to re-establish the monarchy. Also, if we’re trying to project into the future, then these terms are equally helpless. What will the conservative position be in 2060? What will the liberal one be? I don’t know.

But the libertarian philosophy is, more than any other, a constant position. The libertarian position right now is pretty much what any libertarian solution would be in any time or any place: reduce the state to performing a few key, essential roles. I don’t know exactly what the challenges we’ll be facing in 2060 will be, but I have a pretty good idea what the libertarian platform in 2060 will consist of. (less government spending, dovish foreign policy etc).

All of the other parties and platforms seem to have evolved into being, carrying with them the baggage of history, being shaped not just by ideas but by events. It wasn’t that long ago that the Republican party was the party for conservatives and progressives, while the Democratic Party was the home of northern ethnic minorities and southern racists. Think about how weird politics is for a second. We have one party which is in favor of stimulus spending, is in favor of gay marriage, and was against the war in Iraq. What does these things have in common? Nothing! (in fact, if anything there should be a slight correlation between favoring stimulus spending and favoring war, as war raises spending). There’s not really any good reason why our positions on a war should be strongly correlated with your position on gay marriage, yet this is pretty much the case, you tell me you view on position x, and I’ll have a pretty good chance of guessing your view on position y, and so will everyone else. This is kind of frightening, because I think that more and more our positions are being determined by our politics in a way that I don’t think has normally happened, and I don’t like it, although I suppose that is an essay for another time.

The exception to this rule is libertarians. They have a simple philosophy which can guide them in all circumstances, which to put in the shortest possible terms is “butt out.” Should we go to war in Iraq? No, lets not get involved. Should we allow two men to marry each other? Sure, it’s not our business. Should the government spend a lot of money on this project? No lets not get involved.

We can further demonstrate this by noticing that the libertarians don’t really have an opposite party (or platform). They will tell you that the opposite of a libertarian is a statist, but there are no actual statists, or at the very least, there are no people who would call themselves statists.

I guess you can make the opposite of libertarianism is communism, that whereas the solution for libertarians is always less government, the solution for communists is always more government. Perhaps, but the libertarian movement (not party mind you) is alive and well in America (yes, I realize that this is a very America centric post), where you can easily count among libertarians (although not members of the Libertarian Party) such people as Rand Paul (Senator), Gary Johnson (former Governor) or Glenn Beck (popular commentator). There is no such communist opposite in America. Also, while Communist regimes didn’t do so well in practice with civil liberties, in theory they supported civil liberties, which means they aren’t in opposition in everything in theory. (I realize that you’re rolling your eyes right now – you might be thinking that I’m saying something as stupid as “in theory, communism works,” which I’m not. I am not in any way trying to defend communism by looking at what it “claims” to believe or what it wants to happen, and then using that as any sort of basis for judgement. Communism has, everywhere its been tried, produced results which range bad to Mordor-on-Earth. What I am trying to do is, by looking at the theories or claims which underly communism, seek to determine motivation if you will of Communism, and compare it to the motivation of Libertarianism, and find some (but not much) areas of overlap.)

The reason that parties have opposites is a fairly simple one. There are many things that Democrats and Republicans agree on: that we shouldn’t go to war with Canada, that slavery is bad, that we should have a standing army, not to quarter troops in people’s houses, etc. It’s just that the things that the two major parties agree on, are, by definition, not part of the debate. So, when looking at all the topics that are under debate, almost all can be split into a Republican/conservative side, and a Democrat/liberal side, those that don’t have backers on either side aren’t part of the discourse, and those that have backers in one party with no detractors in the other quickly become policy.

But libertarianism is not like this, the great irony here is that other political positions developed through decentralized mechanisms over time, the libertarian philosophy is much more the product of human design.

There is one fact about libertarianism that which should be said. You will often hear people say something to the effect of “this election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competency which is why you should vote for candidate X.” Now, in my experience, nobody ever says this about somebody who they don’t already agree with ideologically, but that’s beside the point. With libertarians though, it’s never about competency. An idiot libertarian will reduce the size and scope of government. A genius libertarian will reduce the size and scope of government. With all other forms of government, ability is important. If you fight a war, having good generals is important, if you are instituting a large bureaucracy, its important to get the right people in charge, if you’re centrally planning the economy, well you wan that done by the right team. But in libertarianism, idiocy is no handicap – it doesn’t require smarts to do nothing.

Of course, there are exceptions, libertarians working within a system would want the capability to actually enact their platform through procedural maneuvering or inspiring the troops. And you’d want a libertarian President who couldn’t reduce the government to the ideal libertarian size to be able to manage the government in the meantime. Of course this doesn’t mean that libertarians themselves are dumb, if anything quite the contrary (although I suspect this is mainly due to libertarian not being one of the default choices, you have to be somewhat engaged in the political world in order to be a libertarian, in a way that you don’t to become a Republican or Democrat.)

There are of course essays and website intelligently attacking and rebutting libertarianism , this just isn’t one of them. If I’ve managed to convince you that libertarianism is wrong, then you probably haven’t been reading closely enough. I do think however that the peculiarities of libertarianism mentioned above are at least partially responsible for its relative popularity, and deserve mention and study.

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