On Libertarianism, Part 1

Editor’s note: The following is the first installment of a three-part series about the author’s political theory of choice. Part 1 will explore the previous schools of thought considered and provide a definition of libertarianism. Part 2 will explore some practical and policy arguments for libertarianism. Part 3 will delve into the author’s moral and philosophical reasons for favoring libertarianism. The series is not meant as an exhaustive examination of the subject (see here if interested), but rather, a relatively brief and accessible summary. (Numbers in parentheses indicate notes below the body of the post.)

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FROM CONSERVATISM

Our personalities are intractably linked to and influenced by our surroundings. The part of us that is defined by political beliefs is no exception. Humans have the wonderful gift of independent thinking, but it is not entirely so; the opinions of the people who we grow up with, love, and respect have a huge influence on our otherwise “free” thoughts. It is very little surprise, thus, that children in liberal households tend to be liberal and that kids in conservative households tend to be conservative.

I was no exception. While my hometown of Cleveland -like Ohio as a whole- is a true swing vote, the smaller community I was a part of leaned solidly Republican. The same is true of my family. The Republican party line was essentially assumed to be true, with some occasional exceptions. To a family that ran a small business and was devoutly religious, the cultural and economic policies of the GOP just made more sense.

As such, I was a traditional -if disinterested- Republican throughout college. My vote for George W. Bush in 2004 was due partly to the fact that I liked him, but just as much because my dad mailed me an absentee ballot from Ohio with a clear understanding of who I’d pick. (1) Domestic concerns (the economy, fiscal/monetary issues, etc.) really didn’t interest me, but to the extent that I had opinions they were in line with conservatism.

Junior year I settled on a political science major, sparked largely by my interest in history. I focused as much as possible on foreign policy courses, finding the theories behind the use of military force more interesting than, say, welfare reform. As long as I was reading Kennan or von Clausewitz, I was happy. Furthermore, 2007 and 2008 provided a fascinating real-world backdrop against my theoretical studies: W. Bush was applying (or misapplying, depending on who you ask) theories of preventative war and realpolitik (2) with his war in Iraq and aggressive stances towards hostile nations like Iran and North Korea. Like many cocky 20-something men who haven’t been shot at, I found the endeavor of ordering people to fight grossly fascinating.

But something was off. The more I thought about domestic issues, the less I felt at home in the conservative tent. I’d always been uncomfortable with some of their social policies, but lacked the philosophical grounding to really attack their stances on, say, gay marriage. An internship in the Virginia state senate increased these anxieties. Party and politician seemed to take precedence over actual policy. It seemed that, to many of my colleagues, winning elections was an end upon itself. (3) I simply couldn’t relate.

Liberalism held little appeal to me, either. I was a strong believer in private charity but wasn’t drawn in by the message of forceful, state-sanctioned (4)¬†redistribution. Republicans weren’t speaking my language, but Democrats sure as hell weren’t either. In 2008 I graduated from college and entered the business world, detached from politics as ever.

A REVELATION

Newly armed with a cutting-edge, work-issued “smartphone”, I spent commutes from Hoboken, New Jersey into Manhattan scouring a new site called RealClearPolitics. As it is today, RCP was simply an aggregated list of the day’s most prominent political reads, curated to include a variety of voices from across the ideological spectrum. More importantly, the site was one of the few easily navigable from a BlackBerry internet browser.

RCP introduced me to a ton of great columnists and authors. I forced myself to read just about all of the 15 daily articles regardless of their source, everyone from conservative Charles Krauthammer to liberal Charles Blow. In between, I found myself relating to more and more reads from the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine. I didn’t know what exactly I liked about their material, I just knew that it, at a gut level, made sense.

This led to more fact finding: I went out of my way to scour their sites and find other similar authors. I compared the arguments of their scholars to more mainstream columnists, and almost always favored the former. Once I was confident in my understanding of basic libertarian positions, I dug into the more significant philosophical works: FA Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty”; Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism And Freedom”, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, and more.

In 30+ course hours of studying politics I’d never been this engaged or passionate. I had a tough enough time finishing required coursework and never read anything extra; here I was devoting 10+ hours a week to it voluntarily. What I discovered, after a quarter century, was that I was a libertarian.

WHAT IS LIBERTARIANISM?

Libertarianism is the belief that the bulk of human affairs should not, for moral and practical reasons, be regulated by the state. It places a high priority on individual liberty and envisions a minimal government; what many refer to as the “night-watchman state”: the government provides essential protection against external enemies (via armed forces), domestic crime (via law enforcement), and adjudicates private contracts (via a judicial system).

Libertarians often disagree on what this looks like in practice: the size of the armed forces, what constitutes “national defense”, whether or not the the government should provide for the poor (and to what extent), etc. What they agree on is that, contra progressives, the legitimate role of the state is limited, and contra anarchists, the institution of government is not by definition evil.

Libertarianism is often described as a philosophy of being “socially liberal and economically conservative”. These are necessary, but not sufficient, components of the school of thought. That is, libertarians certainly lean this way, but their theory doesn’t describe the simple confluence of the two ideas. (Under this definition, someone like Jon Huntsman could probably be called libertarian. He is not.)

Libertarians often agree with the major parties on issues but for different reasons. Part 3 will dive into this more, but essentially, for most libertarians the question isn’t what the likely outcome of a policy will be; rather, it is whether or not the state has the moral right to regulate the activity in the first place.

The term “libertarian” is a relatively recent one; none of the aforementioned authors would have called themselves one at the time of their books’ publications, although Friedman and Hayek would probably admit as much later in their lives. Other famous proponents of the theory include law professor Randy Barnett (5), former Texas congressman Ron Paul, and journalist John Stossel.

Libertarianism is growing in popularity, but it is still far from a mainstream idea. My gravitation towards it has essentially eliminated my chances of and desire to re-enter politics. Even Senator Rand Paul, the son of one of the movement’s biggest proponents, can’t openly label himself such; instead calling himself a “liberty-minded Republican”.

It’s a sacrifice I’ve made peace with; I’ll leave the grueling hours, low pay, and high stress of political work to the folks who love to play for Team Red or Team Blue. In the meantime, as future posts will discuss, I’m happy learning about and practicing a theory that I find intellectually and morally rewarding.

Notes

1: In 2004 Virginia was still considered a “red” state in presidential elections, making my vote relatively meaningless. Obama’s 2008 win there was a surprise to many pundits and a reversal of recent history.

2: Realpolitik is the idea that nations have definite spheres of interest and will, as a rule, act to protect them. It is often associated with the realist school of foreign policy thought, which is, in turn, usually associated with Republicans. (By no means are these associations set in stone; several Democrats are realists.)

3: This was not true of the senator that I interned for, nor his chief of staff/my boss. Both are tremendous, principled men.

4: In political theory, “state” refers not to a sub-national polity (i.e. Ohio), but to organized government that has a monopoly of force over a given territory. I use this definition of the word in this and future posts.

5: Barnett is largely credited with formulating the primary legal arguments against the Affordable Care Act. Prior to his involvement in the case, most legal scholars thought the ACA would pass the Supreme Court by a wide margin. Barnett spearheaded an effort that led to some parts of the law being overturned, and to the individual mandate portion passing on a narrow 5-4 vote.

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