On Libertarianism

The big news for libertarians lately has been that their news profile is finally high enough to provide a target. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in particular are catching flak, particularly from fellow Republicans.  Sen. John McCain did his crazy old guy routine by calling them “wacko birds“, while NJ Governor and Number One Springsteen Fatboy Fanboy Chris Christie stooped so low as to play the 9/11 Widows and Orphans Card on them (and you know how hard it is for that guy to stoop at all). These National Security Statists–who’ve never seen a government intrusion on personal liberty that isn’t justifiable as long as somewhere on this planet there are people who hate the US and have access to telephony–have staked out a political position that is as fear-based and fact-free as an Obama speech. Try to debate them and they’ll tell you that the republic cannot survive if you keep asking questions about the scope of the activities of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. And, by the way, stop bitching about the TSA, too, you wacky widowmaker.

That seems to be the main battle right now, but waiting in the wings is the social-justice critique of libertarianism. It’s already come up in the context of Rand Paul’s misgivings about public-accommodations laws for their restriction on the rights of property and voluntary association. It is a potentially devastating line of attack–more so, I think, than national security issues, because in this case libertarians appear to be siding with out-and-out racists.

A distinct, but closely related, critique of libertarianism comes from reasonable moralists like blogger Theo Boehm, who recoils from the freewheeling libertinism and strong egoism that he associates with the “pure drop of libertarianism“. This is the critique I’d like to address in what follows.

The basic problem, as I see it, is the term “libertarianism”, which seems to define an ideology in much the same way as “socialism”. This is a mistake. Libertarianism is not a program for remaking society; it is a predisposition to skepticism toward the expansion of the authority of the state. While it has its obvious appeal to those whose tastes run toward promiscuity of all types, it does not advocate promiscuity. In the moral sphere, what libertarianism calls for is simply personal responsibility.

I’m not a moral philosopher, so I hesitate to argue too strenuously in this domain. But a well-known argument is that humans cannot truly be moral unless they are able to choose to be moral. This, I believe, is the true foundation of libertarianism.

Impatience with mankind’s imperfection is perhaps the defining feature of contemporary liberalism. Do you think it’s wrong to judge people by their race or sex? Well then, it’s not enough that you yourself don’t do that; there oughta be a law. Don’t like the n-word? Don’t just rebuke people for using it; prosecute them for hate speech. Think that too many people are eating too much junk food? Don’t just eat sensibly yourself; put a tax on junk food. Libertarianism stands in opposition to this impulse. But that doesn’t mean that libertarianism requires that people use the n-word or eat pork rinds. 

The completely unsubtle message of contemporary liberalism is, “the state will tell you what’s right to do.” Resistance to this message may arise from totally disparate motives: religious conviction, self-indulgence, or simple stubborn independence. That’s why the coalition that opposes the liberal agenda is so fractious compared to liberalism itself. 

As the government’s domain over our personal choices grows, the need for enforcement mechanisms grows with it. Without penalties, there can be no Obamacare. And when we’ve socialized healthcare costs, we’ve justified the regulation of diet and lifestyle. A national-surveillance state isn’t just a handy way to thwart terrorists or to catch pederasts online; it’s also an essential tool for monitoring “hate” speech. And, really, what’s more hateful than speech directed against policies necessary for achieving “social justice”?


Both the NSA and the DEA justify shocking violations of privacy and liberty (what is liberty without privacy?) as necessary tools in the pursuit of their missions. At the everyday level, we see this same mentality on display whenever we observe the seemingly endless parade of ridiculous “zero-tolerance” policies in the public schools. While conservatives bash the “educrats”, and lefties bash the national intelligence apparatus, they seem to miss the common core of their complaints–the threats to freedom posed by an overarching state.

The common issue in national security, in health care, in education, in energy policy, and pretty much any policy you can think of is this: how much autonomy are you willing to cede to the government in the pursuit of safety or equality or any other Good Thing? How much moral responsibility do you want to relocate from the citizen to the state? How free do you want to be?

Libertarianism is simply the inclination to answer that last question like this: Freer than I am right now.


Filed under Freedom, Politics, Social Justice

5 responses to “On Libertarianism

  1. Pingback: Breaking News: David Koch is a Libertarian | Old Friends and New

  2. Good post. Libertarianism is new to me. It wasn’t until I was describing my small government and socially liberal mentality to my friend when he turned to me and said I sounded like a Libertarian. I only had the mindset of the two party political system with the acknowledgement of the green party. Now, I consider myself a libertarian. Specifically, a technocratic libertarian. I admire Libertarianism because it essential tries to solve problems with more freedom.

  3. R&B

    Thanks for posting something intelligent on politics to which the opportunity to reply is at least as tempting as all the other things we’ve been discussing elsewhere. (And apologies if you’ve done that regularly, as I’m unfortunately not a frequent enough visitor to know – at least at this point yet).

    But I still think there’s room for some advances that would satisfy both liberals and strict libertarians. At the risk of evoking the conventionally controversial “liberaltarians” of late, I’ll just say that, personally, I’m as much a free-speech absolutist as you. Relegating anti-racist backlash to the law just makes the socially conscious lazy and inarticulate. Not a good thing – esp. for those of us who love a good rhetorical joust ;-). And Canada’s hate-speech laws are just plain disturbing to me. Racist treatment itself? Well, on that I think even libertarians themselves are more divided on the CRA of ’64 than Rand Paul’s musings of late would suggest. (I also fall with the larger consensus on that one).

    As for the DEA, I think popular sentiment even among conservatives (let alone among liberals) is running toward recognizing its long slide into obsolescence, but on the NSA Simon (of TOP fame) and others have actually convinced me to bite the bullet and concede an equivalence between visual surveillance from afar and electromagnetic surveillance from afar. TSA actually becomes more of a personally touchy (pardon the pun) issue that everyone seems to hate, without being able to offer alternatives or correctives, unfortunately.

    And of food products themselves? I think as long as the labeling is as transparent as possible then at least that industry’s backlash against the consumer can be held in better check than the secrecy that so many other consumer products industries are unfortunately preferring to lobby (successfully) for.

    Anyway, hope my more liberal take on issues important to libertarians wasn’t too boring, but I can safely say that on at least a third to a full half of these items, we’ve got your back and would be at least as helpful as the conservatives would be. (Those of us who retain a spine about it, anyway ;-)).

  4. I think it is a great post too. I want people to have choices, not to be micromanaged. It is just better over all.

  5. ndspinelli

    Small ‘l’ instead of capital ‘L’ is how I define my libertarianism.

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