Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What is a Libertarian?

Over the last few years, during which the two major American political parties failed to protect most Americans from the effects of the 2008 economic meltdown, some of my friends declared themselves "Libertarians". Not having the slightest idea what they meant, I visited the Libertarian website, libertarianism.com, where I found their ideas laid out rather neatly:

“Libertarianism is, as the name implies, the belief in liberty. Libertarians strive for a free, peaceful, abundant world where each individual has the maximum opportunity to pursue his or her dreams and to realize his full potential.

"The core idea is simply stated, but profound and far-reaching in its implications. Libertarians believe that each person owns his own life and property, and has the right to make his own choices as to how he lives his life – as long as he simply respects the same right of others to do the same.

"Another way of saying this is that libertarians believe you should be free to do as you choose with your own life and property, as long as you don't harm the person and property of others.”

Well, the ideas are certainly “far-reaching”. But they are extremely non-specific, possibly by design, and while they sound less like a doctrine than a dream I had last night (so does the U.S. Constitution), they also sound alot like the ideas of the two main political parties in America, while leaning conspicuously to the right (the use of the word “property” is a giveaway). The word "Libertarianism" should also be distinguished from its European usage, since it was used in France as a synonym for anarchism. And there have also been "socialist libertarians".

Libertarianism in America arose in opposition to the Democrat-led government social reforms, which sought to provide greater equality but which also established huge institutions that were perceived to be a threat to the sovereignty of individual liberties. Opposition to the Vietnam War also introduced strong pacifist ideas into what became, in 1971, the U.S. Libertarian Party. The party has had a candidate in every presidential election since 1972.

As with all orthodoxies, I doubt that most people who call themselves Libertarian would ascribe to everything in the Libertarian manifesto - even if it reads to me like a grab-bag of ideas borrowed from some other orthodoxies. Basically, it sounds like Republican arguments against Big Government, a strong advocacy of free-market capitalism without government regulation, and emphasizes the importance of property ownership.

I think there are strong traditions for this sort of thinking in America. There has always been am anti-authority streak in American populist culture. It must ultimately derive from the various groups, like the Puritans, that saw America as a haven from the repressive institutions of Europe and sought escape in the new land. It was the same spirit that persuaded settlers to risk their lives by joining the wagon trains heading ever-Westward.

Today, with the wildernesses disappearing, Americans look back on the Wild West with a romantic nostalgia. (The irony is that romanticism was invented in the Dark Ages by people who were nostalgic for the order and civility of the Roman era!) Things like governments, laws, courts, jails, etc., became instruments of oppression bent on depriving citizens of their liberty. Men and women who defied these institutions often became folk heroes. And this same hero worship of outlaws can be seen to this day in things like the critically acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire, that explores the beginnings of organized crime in Atlantic City.

Meanwhile, the government identified by Abraham Lincoln as "of the people, by the people and for the people" seems to be as mistrusted by many Americans as a king or a dictator. "Freedom" is understood as a condition beyond a government's reach, and every encroachment on that freedom is seen as tyrannous.

It seems to me that one of the more significant reasons why so many Americans don't like and don't want a big government is because they are disenchanted with democracy. They may blame individuals like FDR or LBJ for the size of government, but they are really blaming the people who voted them into office and their freedom to express an ideology, a vision of what society should be, that is contrary to theirs. What they don't want to admit is that a big government in a democracy is put there by people who want a big government. The conservative/libertarian argument against the size and power of government is also a tacit argument against the democratic process of one man, one vote.

I am not the biggest fan of democracy myself. There is always danger it could turn into a dictatorship of the majority. And while there are big differences in educational levels among Americans, there is also a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. I am prepared to accept democracy as an ideal, however imperfectly it may work in practice. People who have convinced themselves that the government is the root of all evil and the sum of all fears are really, I think, expressing their mistrust of democracy, since living in a democracy requires that people of potentially radically different origin and sensibility accept one another's right to exist - and to vote.

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