Political libertarianism is all the rage these days. Fueled by the failure of supposedly “conservative” politics and arguably the most malignant modern President of the left, people are dusting off their Locke, revisiting Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, reading Rand, and … shocking as it sounds, having a loud and public debate about liberty. This is not only healthy, it REALLY annoys the traditional right- and left ideologues.
The younger set, particularly, is enamored of this. It’s always just a bit cognitively dissonant to watch someone with their pants bagged down to their knees, baseball cap on backwards, blasting Jay Z on their iPod, earnestly absorbed in “Atlas Shrugged” or Locke’s “First Treatise”. It is, nonetheless, a joy to behold, notwithstanding the abuse upon eardrums this induces. (Note To Self: Spend time doing spectral analysis of rap/hiphop. Compare and contrast with machine shop noise. Use latter to produce former and prosper, perhaps under the name “Grinder X”.)
This is wonderful news. Liberty and culture are inexorably woven into a permanent codependency. Without liberty there can be no rich and open cultural expression. If culture becomes debased – as such much of it is by the ideological left in particular – liberty itself comes under vicious attack as it is today. Witness, for example, the high minded “Bush-Was-Wrong” Obama administration as it short circuits due process with its drone killing program on a scale making the previous President look like a piker. But we’re used to this. Both the left- and right have exited anything resembling principle for the most part, and have openly moved to the politics of “I Won And I Plan To Stay In Charge By Any And All Means” instead.
What is more troublesome is that a good many self-proclaimed libertarians hold views and propose policy that fundamentally reduces liberty for us all. It is ironic that a movement built on the notion of truly small government and individualism is today itself implicitly becoming an enemy of liberty. Why? Because of the failure of so many libertarians to face the substance of Real Politik.
Many critics of libertarianism dismiss it as nothing more than the Sein Fein political wing of Randian Objectivism. They are wrong. (In fact, the Objectivist faithful reject political libertarianism as “irrational”, a favored imprecation directed at all non-Objectivists.) The roots of libertarian ideology actually spring from 18th Century political philosophy (particularly Locke) as explicated by the American Framers, notably Jefferson and Madison, The central premise of this philosophy was that rights were innate (endowed by our Creator) and government existed solely to secure those rights. The primary consequence of this idea was-, and is-, that the fundamental role of government was to promote the liberty of the individual, except where such liberty might infringe upon the freedoms of others.
This is all well and good. Almost everyone claims fidelity to this notion. Even political liberals manage to claim this (and with a straight face, no mean feat). Libertarians therefore aggressively pursue the idea of “liberty for all of us, liberty for each of us”. This manifests itself in a deep commitment to very limited central government, opposition to almost all prohibitions on personal behavior except those that harm others, and a “trade with all, fight with none” foreign policy.
Aye, but there’s the rub. The preservation of freedom begins to implode when these principles face extant political and cultural reality. As just a sampling (and there are many more), consider the prohibitions on vice and homosexual marriage. Almost all doctrinaire’ libertarians will tell you that government has no business telling adults what substances they can consume. Similarly, you will get a stern finger wagging on why it’s so very wrong for government to recognize straight marriage, but not gay marriage (as previously noted here).
Unfortunately, Reality intrudes here and in a most unpleasant way. Yes, the government has no business telling adults what to do with their own bodies. Yes, if government enforces the marriage contract for some, it must do it for all. The problem is that we live in a deeply collectivist state already. A very large body of law and precedent exists to ensure that the costs of individual bad behavior are never fully borne by that individual, but laid off on the larger base of taxpayers. Do you have HIV because you have unprotected sex with gay heroin addicts? Do you have smoking induced COPD? Has your elephantine like girth induced diabetes? No worries, the government will see to it that, at least in part, your fellow citizens – who have nothing to do with your having acquired these problems – will pick up the tab. In fact, with the horrors of Obamacare now firmly entrenched as a matter of law and Supreme Court review, “in part” now means “in very large part”. Stay tuned as it becomes “all”.
Then there is the freight train of “Equal Rights” law. It is, of course, no such thing. It more properly should be called “Special Rights For Some Groups Of Citizens” law. At the end of the day, the goal of the gay marriage proponents is not equality in the sense of standing equally with the rest of society. Their true agenda is to achieve formal EEOC status – the holy grail of all professional victims. Having thus achieved this, they would then be in the position to force employers to hire them and grant them same-sex marital benefits even when doing so stood in fundamental opposition to the employer’s personal beliefs. The “equality” they desire is to be equally special before the law and thereby be enabled to use the force of government against their fellow citizens.
Legalizing drugs would, not doubt, come with some increase in addiction, disease, and collateral damage like uncared for minors, lost days of work, and the like. In the collectivist US today, that mean tax dollars would be expended to attempt remedies for these problems. It is likely true that some of this would be recouped by having to spend less on law enforcement and imprisonment, but no one today can guarantee that the rate of tax recovery from the latter would balance out the increases in the former. It’s all hypothesis.
Similarly, the granting of EEOC protection to gay people as a “protected class” would vastly diminish the liberty of all but the very smallest of companies. The Obama administration has already demonstrated contempt for religious reservations in its application of the ACA to Catholic hospitals and this would be no different. The liberty of the gay couple would trump the liberty of the employer in almost every case.
If we thus take the obviously libertarian view that all drugs should be legalized and gay marriage recognized, under our current collectivist socio-political system liberty will be REDUCED. Why? Because, in the current environment, the consequences of these behaviors will be borne by other citizens and to their detriment economically and their violation morally.
So, the immediate libertarian response to social issues is naive. It is proper as a matter of principle, but it is an abyss as a matter of practice. Before we address these motes, we need to get the beam out of our societal eye. Instead of trying to fix collectivism with yet more collectivism, we should first be focused on removing the collectivist elephant from our chests so we may breathe properly again. Once we do that, the aforementioned restrictions could be removed unremarkably. All citizens would enjoy the same liberty and the same obligation to live with the consequences of their choices.
The answer is thus not dorm room Randianism or high minded rhetoric disconnected from reality. The answer is a full throttle, no compromise assault on the centers of collectivist agenda: The entertainment business, the university system, the political system, and the mainstream news media. Until that day, principled libertarians must stand in opposition to all incremental encroachments of collectivist power.