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Libertarianism

The US political process is broken.  The one viable, comprehensive alternative to the status quo is libertarianism, which seeks a less power, less intrusive, less self-righteous, and ultimately less harmful government.

Table of Contents

What is Libertarianism?
Libertarianism is the doctrine that maximum liberty for all individuals is best for those individuals and for society as a whole1,2.  This implies that interference in individuals’ lives by government should be minimized.

Traditionally, conservatives tend to believe that the best society is one in which there is economic freedom but restrictions on social behavior.  Conservatives do not want the government to manipulate the economy or to redistribute wealth, but they do want government to regulate us morally.  They believe that it is the government’s job to control social deviants and to force them to conform to social norms.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to believe in social freedom and economic control.  They do not want the government to interfere with the day-to-day conduct of our lives, but they do want it to manipulate markets and to redistribute wealth.  In general, they view government, and in particular government spending, as a potential solution to any problem.

Libertarians believe in both economic and social freedom.  Like conservatives, they believe that government should not meddle in financial markets or with individual levels of wealth, and like liberals, that it should not have a say in how we conduct our personal lives.

While libertarians are not traditionally as concerned with foreign policy as with domestic issues, they tend to carry their general belief in smaller government into the arena of foreign affairs, and therefore take a somewhat pacifist and isolationist view, being against foreign aid of any kind, and especially against foreign violent intervention and war.  Also, libertarians are usually concerned strictly with the rights of human beings; they generally have no support or concern for animals or nature.  Indeed, one of the basic freedoms usually claimed by libertarians is the right to exploit animals and nature as they see fit and for their own personal gain.

There are many libertarian organizations from which more information is available, among them the Libertarian Party, the third-largest political party in the US, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, and the Advocates for Self-Government, a non-profit organization devoted to the promotion of libertarian thought.  I highly recommend that you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, published by the Advocates, which will tell you whether you are Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, or Statist (someone who believes in neither economic nor social freedom)3.

Justifications of Libertarianism
Libertarians tend to derive their beliefs from one of three foundations: first principles, the constitution, or utilitarian concerns.  Those who derive their libertarian beliefs from first principles hold that individuals have an inalienable right to most freedoms.  If this sounds like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it is, because that document was largely a libertarian document4.  Most first-principle libertarians believe in freedom to do anything except violence or fraud.  The most extreme version of this stance is anarchy, the belief in total freedom to do anything.  However, anarchist tend to be a very small minority.  Some first-principle libertarians lean to the other side, wanting to include certain offenses among the prohibited actions.

Constitutional libertarians derive their stance from the US constitution.  However, since supposedly all US laws and government activities are constitutional, these libertarians tend to hold a much stricter interpretation of the constitution than is found in the mainstream.  For example, they believe that the first amendment states that government should have absolutely nothing to do with religion, and that there should be absolute no censorship, meaning complete freedom of the press.  They also interpret the second amendment to mean that individuals should have an unrestricted right to own firearms of any kind.

Utilitarian libertarians derive their stance from a utilitarian foundation.  They tend to believe that, up to a certain point, greater freedom will make the country and the world a better place.  They are willing to restrict personal freedoms and grant powers to government in any situation where it can be demonstrated that doing so will promote the common good, but they tend to be skeptical of such cases, and demand concrete proof that the common good will be served by the proposed restrictions before supporting it.

The Utilitarian Case for Libertarianism
I tend towards a libertarian philosophy for utilitarian reasons.  Given the level of government intrusion in our lives, and the tremendous complexity and waste that this intrusion causes, it almost goes without saying that we would be better off with a smaller, more libertarian government.

The sad fact is that today (2013), the politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. believe strongly that government can solve all of our problems.  Both parties have a consistent record of increasing government spending and budget deficits, whereas, what is needed is lower government spending, especially on the military, along with a simpler and more far-sighted tax structure that will balance the budget5.  Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have had an abysmal record on civil liberties, codified by the Patriot Act and NDAA6.  Both parties have demonstrated not the least bit of constraint with respect to unleashing the awesome power of the U.S. military, regardless of whether its use was just or supported by the rest of the world.  I speculate that if the U.S. was not constantly forcing its influence on other sovereign states, it would not be the focus of so much hatred from the rest of the world7.  Both parties support the disastrous and unjust war on drugs8.  Both parties support the non sequitur of border fences and increased patrols, while at the same time being in favor of financial support, education, and other government services to illegal immigrants and their families9.

My utilitarian basis for libertarianism results in the belief in an optimal level of government power that is greater than that envisioned by principled libertarians.  There are many ways other than violence and fraud that humans can harm each other, among the most important being through externalities10, in which a great deal of harm is tempered by being spread among the entire population.  Also, it is a fact that unregulated markets do tend to cause very unequal distributions of wealth, so for a stable society (and thus the good of all), some income redistribution is necessary11.  I also believe that libertarians make a fundamental ethical error in their implicit belief that animals cannot suffer and that nature is of no value.  Animals deserve to be free from suffering, and nature and natural habitats are priceless wonders worth protecting12.

However, it is clear that the current degree of government meddling in our lives, the economy, and world affairs is untenable.  The country and the world would clearly benefit from a much greater amount of liberty and much less powerful governments.  If and when we achieve a state that is even remotely close to the optimal, we can then quibble about exactly where the proper bounds of government lie.

End Notes

  1. “Libertarianism”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism>.
  2. This essay is about political libertarianism, as opposed to philosophical libertarianism, which is a theory of free will.  For more information on the latter, see my essay on Free Will.
  3. According to the web site, this quiz has already been taken over 20 million times.
  4. “Our Declaration of Independence”, Libertarian Logic, URL=<http://www.libertarian-logic.com/declaration-of-independence.html>.
  5. See my essay on Budget, Taxes, and Jobs.
  6. Heath, Jim, “ACLU: Obama Worse Than Bush On Civil Liberty Issues”, 10tv.com, June 14, 2013, URL=<http://www.10tv.com/content/stories/2013/06/14/columbus-aclu-says-obama-worse-than-bush-on-sivil-liberty-issues.html>.
  7. Rodman, Peter W., “National Interest: The World’s Resentment – Anti-Americanism”, Council on Foreign Relations, Summer, 2000, URL=<http://www.cfr.org/polls-and-opinion-analysis/national-interest-worlds-resentment—anti-americanism/p16154>.
  8. “War on Drugs”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Drugs>.
  9. While I do not have a strong opinion on illegal immigration, the current policies in this matter are incoherent.  It makes no sense to fight so hard to keep illegal immigrants out of the country on the one hand, but then to provide such a strong incentive for them to enter the country in the form of government services.  I tend to believe that the best (and certainly the easiest) policy would be just the opposite: do not fight to keep illegal immigrants out of the country, but on the other hand, do not provide them with government services.
  10. For more information see “Externality”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality>.
  11. “Criticism of capitalism”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_capitalism>.  See in particular the section on Inequality.
  12. For a defense of this position, see Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation, Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1975, and Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life, Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2002.

November, 2013

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