What is a Libertarian: a reply to Politry

For any who have read my previous postings I am hopeful that many of the libertarian ideas have shone through in a clear light. Yesterday I had occasion to stumble across the title of a posting that intrigued me. Emerging Ideologies:The Libertarian was posted by Ray on the site Politry on 24 March. I took the time to read this posting and found the impressions contained therein to be quite informative. After having given these considerable thought I have decided that it would be productive for the discussion to post a response here on this site. So, with this as my preamble…..here goes!

I have long been aware that there is a good deal of misunderstanding over what a Libertarian is and what Libertarians believe. Let me first qualify all of this to state that I am not a registered member of the national Libertarian party, nor do I speak on behalf of them. I am simply a politically engaged citizen trying to clarify Libertarian principles.  I have found over the years that much of the difficulty many seem to have in clearly understanding Libertarians lies with some confusion surrounding the meaning of certain words.  I have encountered many who seem to conclude that because of the shared linguistic root libertarian means liberal, or at least that the two are related to one another. They are and they are not. Let me explain…

In the posting Emerging Ideologies Ray made some brief reference to the classical liberal ideas. I am not 100% certain this is what was meant by the reference, but when I hear the term classical liberal it brings to mind John Stuart Mill and the classical liberal period of the mid-nineteenth century.  Now here there is indeed a link between to two. Mill was arguably the father of classical liberalism. His 1859 essay On Liberty aroused great controversy in it’s day and begat the classical liberal argument to the social and political orthodoxy of the day. It is heartening to me to learn that there seem to be a growing number of millennials who are warming to principles contained in this classical philosophy. One of today’s more notable voices in restoring these to the public discourse is Boris Johnson, the one time Mayor of London and a leading figure in current UK politics.

The unfortunate point of the current linking of libertarian-liberal in the minds of many is that the modern understanding of the term liberal is quite removed from it’s classical definition. In our current political climate liberal is a term equated with the Democrat party and Democrat politics. Conversely its counterpoint, conservatism, is equated with the Republican party and it’s politics. Here we have waded into the murky pool of semantics.

Liberalism as it is identified today does to some degree share the socially progressive spirit of classical liberalism, yet that is where the similarities end. Ironically there are a number of elements contained in the modern conservative philosophy that square more with the tenets of classical liberalism. Mill was a champion of individual liberty and decried the coercion of both the State and of public opinion. Modern liberalism, whatever it’s stated aims may be, is decidedly wed to the idea of the supremacy of the State. And despite the differing aspects of the two parties’ platforms both the Democrat and Republican parties have molded themselves into a class of Statists. At the end of the day there are only minor distinctions in how they actually govern. They may have glaring contradictions in their social philosophy, but as a practical matter what either of them do in terms of governing is simply the exercise of power through the existing mechanism of the State. At no time since the days of FDR has the federal government shrunk in size. It continues to grow like a tumor on the brain. The stated differences in ideology between the two parties are nothing more than a public face designed to engage and enlist the continued support of their varied and conflicting constituencies.

There has been volumes of analysis over this past Presidential election. I don’t want to get diverted from my main idea here and get bogged down in an argument about Trump, but I think these points do deserve a mention in this discussion. Since it is ultimately the electoral count that decides the Presidential election it could be said that the key to the Trump victory came down to the results in three states. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Aside from any of their urban centers the geographic, economic and social profiles of each of these states are largely rural. Lots of farms, pick up trucks with gun racks in the back window, the fields and forests every autumn populated with rugged men in Carharrts and blaze orange. These factors would paint an image of the archetype of a “red state”, yet historically these are states that go Democrat in national elections. So what happened this time?

These states have been historically Democrat because of a large population of a reliable Democrat constituency, the union member.  The rank and file membership of these unions are by and large not socially liberal and on these matters many of them differ strongly with the party. They are not idealogues. They are more what I would term the “generational Democrats”. Its part of their familial identity. As an example, lets consider a question that is usually included in part of the paperwork for a hospital admission. Somewhere in there one is usually asked, just in case the worst should happen, what is your religious affiliation?  For many who may not have set foot inside of a church since elementary school this will be answered with either “none”, or it will be answered by whatever church one’s family identified with when they were growing up. If you were “raised” Methodist, never mind what you’ve actually practiced, you would be likely to put down Methodist. For a lot of these people their politics are the same. “Our house was always Democrat when I grew up, so I suppose I’m a Democrat.” These are a class of people who at one time were identified as the “Reagan Democrats”.

If one were to ask most of these people to explain the beliefs and principles of the Democrat party they could not answer. They might respond with the usual vague generalities usually associated with the party: they are for us, the little guy.  They stand up to the enemy, the corporate management always trying to stick it to the union worker. Most of them have believed this for all of their lives. What happened in this most recent election is that many of these DINOs ( democrat in name only ) looked around at their world in recent years and discovered that their experience was not matching up to what they had always been told. They began to examine the party and it’s campaign and had an epiphany. They began to understand that a party that was for environmentalists and illegal aliens, sanctuary cities, LGBT equality, all of these other issues, could not possibly act to appease these constituencies and still act in the best interests of the union worker. Enough of them concluded not that they were voting for Trump, rather they voted against the party that they believe betrayed them. Instead of this litany of Russians and God knows what else the Democrats just need to admit that they have no one to blame but themselves.

The chief governing principle of a true Libertarian is rooted in Jefferson. That which governs least governs best. For this reason we are often erroneously identified as something just once removed from the anarchist. The error in this is that it presumes that the opposite of very structured governance is automatically a descent into anarchy. This is not true. In any social construct where a centralized authority or well defined rules are absent people will assume a spontaneous order. As Jefferson was more aligned with Locke than Hobbes the basis of his thinking was that people are generally “okay” and if left alone they have the ability to continue being “okay” without a lot of direction or supervision. He was not so naive as to believe that as a nation we could all just sit around with flowers in our hair and chant kumbaya. Jefferson understood that the paramount duty of the federal government was to provide for the common defence of the collective states. There was enough realism present to know that not everyone else in the world were going to operate from the same playbook. I would remind you that it was Adams, the Federalist, who chose to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jefferson was the one who said enough is enough, now let’s go kick their asses.

This segues to the question on those matters of defense, where I will grant you that Libertarian Party candidates have not exactly done much to win over many to the cause. I have no explanation for the vacant and naive drivel that Ron Paul served up on these matters. Perhaps it is rooted in his ethical creed as a physician. In the case of Gary Johnson (a man that I like, but do not believe is fit for the office) I think that the problem is that this is a subject he has actually given little thought to. From the platform that the Libertarian Party crafts for itself their candidates are more or less painted into a corner when attempting to produce a coherent position on matters of defense and foreign policy. I can tell you what a Libertarian’s answer should be on these questions, and that too comes back to Jefferson.

Jefferson’s ideal was to live and let live. If we can all get along, engage in trade where all parties benefit that is a good thing. Let the people get about their business. Jefferson’s pragmatism told him that to live and let live is an ideal that not all will share. The crucial ingredient for liberty is freedom and freedom is not free. It has to be defended. It is therefore necessary to be strong and vigilant so that one is prepared when that freedom is threatened to defend it, by force of arms if need be, and to prevail. To be prepared to die in it’s defense because life without liberty is not a life worth living.

Now its very easy for one to say “that was then, this is now”, and I understand the sentiment. That doesn’t mean I agree with it. I can outline for you a scenario how the principle could be applied to today’s world. We have managed to get ourselves entangled in the middle east. One can debate whether we should have gone, not gone, but I’m not going there. We are already there so the reasons for it are now a moot point. To apply a Libertarian principle to this situation would be as follows:

Step 1)  Bring all of the troops and equipment home

Step 2) Cut off all forms of aid to any of the countries in the region. If private organizations choose to raise and deliver humanitarian aid to these areas then that is their own business

Step 3) Put the countries in the region on notice that henceforward America will develop and use our own energy supplies and they can sell their oil elsewhere. From this day forward we will not be a customer; we will be a competitor

Step 4) Put these same countries on notice that the United States does not recognize the legitimacy or conduct diplomatic relations with nations that encourage or otherwise condone the enslavement, abuse, persecution or otherwise bring harm to human beings because of their sex, sexual orientation, religion or politics. Within the confines of your own borders you are free to do as you wish, but where you practice barbarism do not expect the aid, support or good graces of the United States to smile upon you

Step 5) Build and maintain at all times a potent and state of the art military force, not to occupy or police any part of the world, but to be ever ready to respond with overwhelming and devastating force to any attack or threat upon the United States. Let it be known that the official policy for rules of engagement for our military forces are to take no prisoners, make no allowances for collateral damage and to destroy the aggressors ability to make war on us without discretion. Also let it be known that those who by their actions incur our wrath have no expectation of restoration or aid from us once we have defeated you. You made your bed, now sleep in it.

The Libertarian defense policy is simple. Do as you like in your own sandbox. We are not difficult to get along with, but we do not suffer tyrants. We will not start a conflict, but rest assured we will finish it when provoked. And finally, we reserve the right to execute a preemptive strike upon any force that demonstrates a credible and imminent danger to our nation and it’s people.

You have accurately identified a number of the tenets of Libertarian thought. We do tend to fall within the realm of what is generally regarded as being liberal on social issues.  This is not a conscious effort to somehow “split the difference”, as you suggest in your essay. Our positions in these matters are not rooted in either conservative or liberal ideology. They are, rather, born of an adherence to the ideal of individual liberty. Freedom of conscience and freedom of choice. Freedom of conscience means this:  I do not have to like or personally approve of gay marriage. I am free to think what I think and to say what I think. As a Libertarian, despite my own personal beliefs or opinions, I am bound to affirm and respect the other person’s freedom of conscience and to uphold their right as a citizen to equal protection under the law. For the Libertarian this applies to all or it can apply to none. Let me qualify this before some smart ass tries to blow this up with a specious argument: there are exceptions to this rule.  If your freedom of conscience and the exercise thereof in any way entails bringing harm to others or prohibits another’s exercise of the same freedom all bets are off. You have broken the contract and are subject to the penalty as prescribed by law.

You referenced the pro-choice / pro-life conflict. While it is generally true that Libertarians will come down on the side of pro-choice that is by no means universal. Here is again where an ideal must be put up against pragmatism.  My own personal belief is that taking the life of a baby is morally wrong. I am not, however, in a position to render moral judgements on others and I sure as hell don’t want the federal government to be in authority to render those judgements either.  While I may consider that it would be better if this were not an option as a matter of policy I have to say that I support the pro-choice position. Abortion is not a new thing, it has been practiced in various ways for thousands of years. This is a genie that is already out of the bottle. To turn back the law banning it’s practice would only lead to further harm. There will still be a demand for the service and those willing to provide it. Outlawing it only forces it from a clinically safe environment coming under some scrutiny of a standard back into unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

On economics yes we are strong proponents of free market capitalism. A truly free market is one where market forces are left to act as they will. What we have now, and both Republicans and Democrats are guilty as sin on this, is a system where the government through regulations and various other means tips the scale to favor those who can bring the most benefit to the government or those in government. This takes the form of campaign contributions or tax revenues. Or often times both. This is not a free market. It is pay to play. If you read some of my other recent postings you will find that I have provided quite a lot more detail on this subject.

You are correct in identifying a number of Libertarian minds who have managed to make a home for themselves within the Republican party. I must admit that I am mildly amused at the puzzlement you express in trying to understand how they have landed there. You have not come out directly and said it in so many words, but there is the suggestion of a tone there that exclaims it as ” How could they!? “. If I am reading something that isn’t there then I will stand corrected. I find that in your musings upon the Libertarian quandary you are dancing all about it, but you’re not quite there until you come to the end of the second paragraph. You have rightly identified that because many of the tenets of Libertarians are conservative by today’s definition they are not welcome in the Democrat party. Also the ideas and practices of the current Democrat party are not welcome in the mind of Libertarian thought. Some Libertarians find a home in the Republican party where they may not be welcomed with open arms, but at least they can get through the gate. The modern day Democrat party has established an orthodoxy. One accepts all of it or none of it. If you want in you have to drink the Kool-aid like all the rest of them. Perhaps the question you should be asking is not “Why do they go to the Republicans”, rather “Why wouldn’t they want to join Democrats”.

As a political force Libertarians are a long way from being in place to further any legislative agenda. Where we may align ourselves with one major party or another is not motivated by realizing an agenda under anyone’s sponsorship. It is out of a desire for our voice to be heard in the debate. Our true mission lies with educating a public that is sadly misinformed on a lot of things. It has come to be generally accepted that the federal government has a legitimate role in many things where it simply does not. Not constitutionally and not from any vantage point of common sense. The federal government has grown in size, scope and authority that far exceeds the bounds that our founders set for it. It will not do to play defense and merely slow the growth. It is a leviathan that needs to be dismantled. I don’t expect Democrats or Republicans either one to do this. Not on the scale that is required. It is an unfortunate thing, but I fear that much more calamitous things will happen before enough people open their eyes to realize where they’ve been misled.

I don’t speak for all Libertarians, but I am putting myself on record so that some day, should it prove necessary, I can rightly say I told you so.



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