Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Take the Libertarian Test...
by Anthony Gregory
So-called political compromise is upheld as a high virtue. To be an ideologue is a great vice. The old mantra that the problem in American politics is everyone is an extremist and no one is willing to meet halfway persists, despite its transparent inapplicability in the real world. The distance between the two political parties is small enough to smother a gnat.
For many libertarians there is no worse a sin than to stick stubbornly to purity of principle, to make the perfect the enemy of the good. We never get anywhere because we refuse to budge. We want the whole loaf. This is an old theme.
I wish to address those who fancy themselves libertarians of one kind or another. For these purposes I will define the term broadly. Whatever kind of libertarian you are, I contend that there is a question you should be asking yourself every day: "Am I libertarian enough?"
This is obviously something that moderate libertarians – pragmatics and the mere libertarian-leaning – should consider. For this group, the danger of straying too far toward statism is obviously present, since moderation is built into their self-identity. And it should be a concern to these folks no less than to others by virtue of the fact that they consider themselves libertarian-leaning at all. If you find liberty worthy enough to endorse much or most of the time, how do you know you’ve struck the right balance? You obviously think statism is a problem and libertarianism is a proper orientation, even if in moderation. If this is the case, you are well aware of the danger of sliding toward the statist extreme, and thus you should be asking yourself constantly if you’re libertarian enough. Even a moderate libertarian thinks the government is too big, presumably, and so he wishes for society as a whole to question its own dedication to libertarian principle. It would be unfair to expect others to consider moving toward libertarianism without constantly being willing to consider it for oneself.
Whatever reasons someone has for leaning libertarian – economic, practical arguments, moral attitudes toward personal freedom and the state – they certainly at least potentially apply to situations and issues previously unconsidered. A soft libertarian might recognize that drug laws don’t work, but will still hold out for ID checks to buy marijuana. But why? All the arguments against the one apply to the other.
Yet another group does not always ask itself whether it is libertarian enough – radicals. To be a radical libertarian is to be in a small minority. And when someone finds himself in this company, it is all too easy to become complacent, to assume that one’s radicalism relative to others, including other libertarians, is perfectly sufficient. The attitude becomes: "I have paid my dues; my radicalism is beyond reproach." Yet again the same arguments apply: If the economic and moral principles that brought you this far are valid, at what arbitrary point do they no longer apply?
If libertarianism is a virtue, or if it is correct, or however you want to put it, then how could there be too much of a good thing? I suppose one could respond with the tired Emerson quote – "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" – yet this could easily be leveled against moderate libertarianism as well, in service of national health care, gun control, or the war on terrorism.
For a practical consideration, I’d like to point out that our rulers are constantly asking themselves – or appear to be acting as though they are – the opposing question: "Am I statist enough? Is there any remaining avenue of human life I haven’t worked to subjugate under the authority of my central plan?"
We American libertarians live in a time when the U.S. is at perpetual war, the airports have become dystopian, the prison system is the most populated on earth, the president claims the authority to kill anyone, torture persists, surveillance is unrestrained by the Fourth Amendment, Keynesianism has its grip on the entire establishment, and both political parties push an agenda worse than the one pushed last election cycle. People are jailed for selling milk. Nothing is off limits.
In this time, as the statists are continually asking themselves if they are statist enough, we must keep asking ourselves the opposite: Are we radically libertarian enough so as to mount the proper intellectual resistance to the statist ideology on which the growing state thrives?
In practical terms, this means asking oneself such questions as:
Is there any war – in all of history – that I have a romantic attachment to, and is it possible that this war was nothing but a murderous and fraudulent escapade, like all the rest? Perhaps I have been right about which state was the greater aggressor in this war – am I being too soft on the other state?
Is there any state action I defend that is morally indefensible? Anyone’s rights I’m ignoring?
Is there any gradualist position I take, on maintaining the police, or the military, or the welfare state, that lacks moral legitimacy or is otherwise an equivocation with evil?
Do I put way too much hope in electoral politics yielding a good result, when hundreds of years of U.S. history provide virtually no examples of it doing so?
Are there areas of political theory – national borders, militarism, police powers, parental and children’s rights, public schooling and compulsory attendance, regulation, Social Security, monetary affairs, sexual liberties, drug freedom, intellectual property – that I have been lazy in considering deeply in light of the radical implications of libertarianism?
Is there any political structure or figure in human history that I am too soft on – Thomas Jefferson, English common law, the Constitution, and so forth?
Just because something would be OK for the private sector to do, does it mean we can countenance the state doing so in the meantime? (To this question, I break with the implicit reasoning of the minarchists. I find the more violent expressions of state power – policing and militarism – to be more important to abolish instantly than many "illegitimate" functions such as roads and parks.)
Which state services is it permissible to exploit, and which is it immoral to use?
These questions don’t always have easy answers, but we should always be seeking them. Sometimes it is difficult to find the proper application of libertarianism to tough situations. But if your impulse is to take the libertarian position, then whatever the correct answer is will probably be consistent with libertarianism, rather than inimical to it.
It is true that always questioning one’s own radicalism will likely yield the conclusion that the state itself is an unnecessary evil that ought to be abolished immediately. Of course this is true. But even taking that position does not ensure you are libertarian enough.
Should anyone believe I am sitting atop a high horse, viewing myself holier than all the world, I beg that you reconsider this appraisal. I myself worry about my tendencies to adopt moderate, conservative, and socialistic positions all the time. Am I libertarian enough? Perhaps not. I always welcome corrections and arguments as to how I have failed to take the right position.