RETURN TO ODDS N' ENDS PAGE | E-MAIL ME
WHY I AM NOT A LIBERTARIAN
As someone who believes in limiting the size of government and is a proponent of individual liberty, I have often been asked why I don't shirk off my Republican ways and become a full-fledged libertarian. Libertarians believe in exactly those things, I'm told, and since it is somewhat faddish to declare oneself an opponent of big government and the status quo, it would seem to be a natural option. I mean, who could be opposed to less government interference in one's life (except for a died-in-the-wool lefty) or personal freedom? In fact, declaring oneself a libertarian is even considered cool nowadays and makes one appear to be a self-styled anti-establishment rebel.
The problem comes in when I begin to ask them about specifics. Most cannot tell me precisely what libertarians believe beyond vague references to smaller government and leaving people alone so they can "do their own thing." Some seem to latch onto just one aspect of libertarianism such as legalizing drugs or the right to carry firearms or gay marriage without giving much thought to the other tenets of the philosophy. Finally, some seem to embrace it purely because they're enamored with the idea of a third political party to challenge the establishment Democrats and Republicans and their tired old ideasas though the mere fact that a third party exists will solve all the problems in Washington.
Despite the fact that libertarians seem to have a monopoly on correctly interpreting the constitution and are capable of supernaturally channeling the founding fathers to perceive their opinion on the constitutionality of the latest controversy, I remain leery. Libertarianism strikes me as being more a pipe dream than a genuine political alternative-though, of course, that might just be the stodgy old conservative who lives inside me talking. The reason I say this isn't just philosophical, however, but practical. My main concern is electability. Third parties have traditionally proven to be not only be impractical but even counterproductive throughout the course of American history. For example, when the Republican Party refused to give Teddy Roosevelt the nomination in 1912 (despite having won more primaries than the sitting president, Howard Taft) he decided to run as a third party candidate. A hugely popular figure, he actually won more votes than Taft, but so badly split the GOP that dark-horse democrat Woodrow Wilsona man whom history subsequently demonstrated to have a penchant for expanding the size and scope of the federal governmentwon, which probably wouldn't have happened had Teddy decided to sit this one out. In this case, a third party unintentionally swung the country to the left, demonstrating how destructive they can be. As such, should a Libertarian candidate ever acquire the sort of populist appeal to pose a legitimate threat to the two party system-and as Libertarians tend to be more conservative than liberal in general-it is likely he or she will simply hand the election to the Democratic candidate, which is why it will never be more than a "spoiler" party that would ultimately ensure liberals would retain the White House in perpetuity.
But let's say that somehow the Libertarian candidate does manage to accomplish the impossible and actually wins the election. The second question that needs to be asked is exactly how does he or she govern? Do they govern from the right or from the left? Do they work with one party in Congress at the expense of the other to get things done, or do they simply rule by decree (excuse me, "executive action.") You see the problem? At some point they will have to come down on one side or other of the political spectrum, at which point they would be, for all practical purposes, functioning as either a Democrat or a Republican. (The same holds true for a senator or congressman. They will have to caucus with one side or the other, just as those New Englanders who manage to get themselves elected as "independents" have to do.)
But aside from the practicality of building and maintaining a viable third party, the other problem Libertarians face is the fact that they are all over the place, politically speaking. They embrace the kind of austere spending and pro capitalistic principles that would make a conservative gush while advocating the sort of social agenda progressives can readily identify with. For example, Libertarians believe that welfare, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaidalong with a host of other government entitlement programsshould be eliminated, which is an idea that appeals to arch-conservatives. However, such a plan would be anathema to liberals, who continue to see such programs as essential for society. On the other hand, Libertarians also advocate an open border approach to immigration, gay marriage (or no marriage) and legalization of all (or, at least, most) drugs, which are all positions that turn off conservatives. As such, the very elements that attract one political perspective is repellant to the other, making it difficult to see how it the party can hold together any sort of long-term constituency. It often strikes me that voting libertarian is more of a protest against the establishment than a genuine effort to obtain power, but maybe that's just me being practical again.
But it is the philosophy behind libertarianism that is the real problem. While such a personal freedom, anti-government philosophy may appear attractive at first glance, in that it appears to both advocate a sort of narcissistic philosophy that seems to minimize personal responsibility as well as one that appears to leave the poor without a safety net, it actually lacks a moral base. In fact, Libertarianism appears to advocate an almost Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest, every man for himself approach to life that potentially leaves mountains of victims in its wake.
Mindless rhetoric, you say? Consider that if one is truly serious about eliminating all entitlement programs, the social safety net that has been constructed over the last century would collapse, leaving millions without basic medical services or, in some cases, even a means of support. Imagine if the elderly no longer received Medicaid or single mothers no longer received food stamps and other services. It's difficult to see how many of them could survive outside of turning to homeless shelters or resorting to acts of criminality. I'm no more a fan of encouraging government dependency than the average libertarian is, but I don't see how we can return to the way things were century ago without creating chaos on an unprecedented level as people who have always been dependent upon entitlement programs to get by riot. Like it or not, government has carved itself out a massive roll in our life that can't be undone with a few resolutions or even a constitutional amendment. To imagine otherwise is not only unrealistic, but probably dangerous. Clearly, we need to explore ways of weaning people off entitlements and creating the sort of pro-business culture that puts people to work so they can pull themselves out of poverty, but to pull the plug entirelyas some Libertarians wantwould be catastrophic.
As far as their social agenda goes, the most glaring example of how Libertarianism's unfettered personal liberty and freedom agenda is detrimental can be seen in its no-holds barred approach to the legalization of drugs. To Libertarians, everyone has the right to do whatever they want to do, and that includes the right to snort, smoke, inject, ingest, or otherwise consume whatever substance they want to without government interference, a philosophy that especially appeals to young people who bristle at the notion of curtailing their "fun" in any way. However, drugsor alcohol, for that mattercan seldom be consumed without it affecting others in some way. Unfettered drug use has been responsible for a host of social ills, from broken homes and child neglect to homelessness and petty crime. It often destroys promising careers, stymies talent, almost always leads to addiction, and can even lead to violent crime. The problem is that actions have consequences, many of which impact the innocent, which is something libertarians seem unable to either acknowledge or appreciate. Personal freedom "sounds" good, but it often contains within it the seed to one's own-as well as other's-destruction.
Libertarians often counter this argument by pointing out the failure of what is euphemistically called the "war on drugs," suggesting that any attempt to regulate or restrict their use has been and continues to be an expensive failure, do let's solve the problem by legalizing them. It seems to work in Western Europe, some will argue, so why not here?
While this logic appeals to many, it doesn't get away from the underlying issue, which is do we want to live in a society where a significant percentage of the population is addicted to drugs or otherwise a burden on their own family and society in general? While not all drug users fall into this trap-as is the case with many who drink alcohol on a casual basis-it is true of enough people that it becomes a problem to everyone else. No doubt it would be cheaper to simply decriminalize all drugs, but could this be a case of the cure being worse than the disease? In other words, does making drugs cheaper and easier to obtain and use make for a better society, or one in which a certain percentage of the population are relegated to the dumpster for political and financial expediency?
The real issue for me is how does the decriminalization of drugs impact future generations. Does it make for a more robust, productive society or does it diminish it? Does it make us-and future generations-more productive or less productive? More independent and "free" or more dependent and trapped? My greatest concern is not for the hard-core users, but for those who sit on the fence. There is a percentage of the population who will never use drugs even if they are completely legal. Then there is another percentage who are going to use drugs regardless of whether they are legal or not. Finally, there is a portion of the population who would probably never use drugs were they illegal, but may be willing to try them were they legalout of either curiosity or peer pressure, if nothing else. So what percentage of this latter group has the potential of ending up getting addicted? Twenty percent? Ten percent? Even if it's just a small proportionsay a tenththat still constitutes many thousands of lives. I'm sorry, but it's difficult for me to justify ruining the lives of others just because I'm trying to be pragmatic.
Finally, polling consistently finds that an overwhelming majority of peopleas much as 80 to 90% in some pollsdo not want hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, or PCP legalized. Don't libertarians have a responsibility to support the overwhelming will of people rather than push an agenda that appeals to a very limited constituency? Could this "my way or the highway" approach to governance explain libertarian candidate's generally anemic performance in national elections?
Of course, there are other areas of concern I take libertarians to task for, but decriminalization of drugs is the one that portends to me the greatest social disaster. Libertarians often point to prohibition as an example of how the government cannot and should not make laws that deprive the people of "what they want," but they forget that while prohibition is considered a great failure today, at the time it actually achieved much of what it was designed to donamely, reduce alcoholism in America. Most people don't realize that alcoholism and death by sclerosis of the liver dramatically decreased in the 1920s and rose dramatically once more after prohibition was repealed in 1933, demonstrating that even "unpopular" laws can have positive effects.
But let's move on from libertarianism's social agenda and examine its foreign policy philosophy. Libertarians are proud of the fact that they are dedicated to non-violence and non-intervention in foreign affairs-a concept that appeals to many in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghan wars. This non-interventionist policy is perhaps its biggest draw and the one area they find their greatest support from the American public. In fact, it's a position I am not entirely in disagreement with myself, as using great caution when considering getting involved in a foreign conflict is a no-brainer.
But libertarians take this to a much greater extreme than merely not wanting to get involved in another war. They are pure pacifists for the most part, and as such abhor the use of violence in nearly any context (outside of perhaps a direct invasion of the American homelandwhich is probably the least likely scenario we face). To that extent, they not only believe in a greatly limited, bare-bones military, but are against America maintaining military alliances of any kind-including membership in NATO (which they would like to see disbanded entirely). In fact, they consider such alliances not only unnecessary, but a form of meddling and even detrimental to maintaining peace, never for a moment recognizing the important role these alliances have played and continue to play in maintaining stability around the world. It was the combined power of NATO that prevented the Soviet Union from overrunning all of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the presence of American forces overseas that makes third world despots think twice before trying anything. In fact, we can see the negative effects of America's pull-back from the world stage in Africa and the Middle East today-an instability that would only be aggravated by a complete retreat and/or an abrogation of our treaty obligations. Like it or not, for better or worse, America is the only functioning superpower on the planet right now and, as such, the best guarantor of stability, at least for the time being. Until such a time others are willing to take the lead, or the UN finds the backbone, resources, and political will to guarantee the peace, we're it.
But the biggest issue I have with libertarians is their contention that it is this American interventionism which is the cause of so much, if not all, of the world's problems. In essence, they share Barak Obama's perspective that America is not the solution, but the problem, and if we would just mind our own business and not be so quick to see everything as an existential threat, the world would be a far more peaceful place.
When someone tells me this, I simply point out that America's isolationism did not prevent the first and second world wars from breaking out, nor did it produce the Korean War or even the Vietnam War for that matter. American "meddling" did not result in Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990, or in Russia's decision to arm Ukrainian separatists. In fact, a stronger case can be made that had America been more involved in 1914 or 1939 or even a year ago in the Ukraine, for that matter, history might well have gone in a very different direction.
No one can deny that America has made its mistakes over the decades. It has been responsible for several overthrows of foreign leaders considered anti-Western, and even has been responsible for the assassination of a few people back in the 1950s, which no doubt did contribute to world tensions. Its support of brutal anti-communist dictatorships was also foolish and shortsighted, while its support for various anti-communist militias around the world has often proven to be counterproductive. However, a better case can be made that things get a lot worse much quicker when America does not get involved. For example, would Hitler have been so quick to invade Poland had it meant going to war with not only France and England, but America as well? Would the Korean War have happened had the United States maintained a strong military presence on the peninsula in the wake of the Second World War? It's always hard to second-guess history, but my suspicion is that had America been just a little more engaged during some of the most pivotal moments in history, things may have turned out significantly different.
The problem is that libertarians assume the worst when comes to American involvement overseas, like we're the incompetent handyman who shows up whenever something breaks and manages to make it worse. I always wonder if the Kuwaitis are sorry we showed up in 1991 to liberate them from Saddam's clutches, or if the Iraqi people really regret us getting rid of Hussein and his brutal regime in 2003. Were the people of Afghanistan truly better off under the Taliban, or Libyans in much better shape when Gadhafi ruled things? I suppose it all depends on whom you ask.
The problem is that the non-interventionist philosophy has us second-guessing ourselves to the point where we give up and decide that all intervention is bad, which is a simplistic and, I might contend, dangerous. A good example of this was seen in the tiny African nation of Rwanda in 1995, when the majority Tutsi tribe rose up against the minority Hutu tribe and engaged in a mass genocide for the next three months that left over a million Africans dead. The real tragedy is that much of this could have been prevented with a robust western response with very little risk to the United States or her allies. Just a couple brigades of American paratroopers-perhaps alongside a coalition of French, Belgian, and British troops-would have been sufficient to restore order and so would likely have reduced the death toll to a fraction of what it ultimately was. Unfortunately, the president at the time, Bill Clinton, heeding the isolationist impulses evident in the country, declined to intervene until it was too late, and a million people died unnecessarily (and this doesn't even take into account the millions more who were raped or disfigured or permanently displaced).
The sad thing is that this is precisely the sort of "internal problem" libertarians would have sat on their hands for as well. No American interests or, apparently, even citizens, were threatened nor was the country defending itself from foreign invaders, so intervention would be out of the question. This, however, brings us back to the old Biblical question as to whether we are our brother's keepers. In other words, what is our obligation to our fellow human beingsor do we have any?
I get the impression that libertarianism assumes we don't. While I'm sure not all of those who identify themselves as libertarians are quite so cavalier about the plights of others, I get the impression that far too many of them are. To many, it's none of our business if the strong oppress or even exterminate the weak, so long as it doesn't affect them personally, which many then have the audacity to maintain to be the morally superior position. I am astonished at how pacifists can remain proud of their philosophy of non-violence while standing by and watching millions of their fellow human beings being slaughtered, tortured, or imprisoned by some madman. Maybe American intervention won't solve the problem and maybe it might even make it worse, but history has repeatedly taught us that doing nothing has led to the extermination of millions, which is something I get the impression libertarianism either isn't aware of or fails to acknowledge.
Of course, there are times when it's militarily impractical to intervene or when doing so might trigger a far larger conflict than the one we're trying to end (which we would probably see if we tried to engage in "regime change" in a country like North Korea, for instance) but our own basic humanity demands that there are times when evil must be confronted directly, lest we lose a part of our own humanity by not doing so. History is replete with examples of the world turning a blind eye to some great atrocity or act of genocide and eventually creating an even greater evil in the process. Libertarians, for all their good intentions, appear to be blind to this fact, which ultimately makes the world not a safer place, but a more heartless and, ultimately, dangerous place.
I wish it could be different. I wish every country had some form of constitutional democracy that strictly adhered to human rights, respected the sovereignty of other nations, and was determined to live in peace with everyone, but that's not always the case. Perhaps it will be someday, but it's not the way it is today. There are times when we must intervene for the sake of our own humanity, if nothing else. We may argue over where that line lies or what is the best way to intervene, but that we must ultimately get involved must always remain an option, which is something libertarianism doesn't allow for.
There are many things I admire about the libertarian philosophy. There are even proposals such as the insistence on a balanced budget, smaller, less intrusive government, and a hands-off approach to small businesses that I agree with. I like their emphasis on personal libertyat least to the degree that one person's "freedom" doesn't come at the cost of another'sbut in the end it's more of a blueprint for a utopian society than it is a pragmatic mechanism of governance. This is why I am not a libertarian and will never be. While I find much to dislike about our present two-party system and am every bit as distrustful of a too big government as most are, it is the only game in town. Let's reform from within, not tear the whole thing apart by turning to those who promise to be everything to everyone but are incapable of delivering anything to anyone.
At least, that's
how I see it.
| ODDS N' ENDS PAGE | HOME