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I hear it a lot, being a Libertarian running for office: those Libertarians and their “crazy” ideas. Letting people choose to live their lives as they see fit, not as the government forces them to? How would we all survive? How would that work? Isn’t that something that only works in small widespread farm communities?
When debating people, I make no bones about being a Libertarian. “Oh,” I hear, “you’re an anarchist.” I’m not sure where that one comes from, but it seems like it’s mostly made up by people who just can’t grasp the thought of people being able to decide on things for themselves. “You just want the old and poor to be left alone.” Apparently, without government assistance, which means taking money from one group of people, by force, and giving that money to another, we as humane individuals would never help people in need. “Libertarianism was a nice idea when we were an agriculture society, but it doesn’t work in large urban areas.” No, that is when it is needed most, if there is no one around you telling you want to do, you don’t need a form of government that protects you from anyone. And my favorite: “you’re just selfish!” Yeah, that’s me, the selfish one who wants to give people more power over their own lives.
What is Libertarianism?
For those that read those quotes and didn’t see immediately what was wrong with them, let’s start by enlightening you about what libertarianism is and what it isn’t.
Boiled down, the libertarian philosophy is this: “People should be free to live their lives as they choose as long as they do not directly prevent others from doing the same.” What a radical idea!
That does not mean that Libertarians are for no government. To infer that means that you read only the first half of that statement and skipped the second. Yes, there are a group of people (often labeled as Anarcho-Capitalists) who are for totally free markets with no regulation. And there are other groups like voluntaryists, anarchists, etc. But there are also minarchists that are part of the libertarian view. Look at it like Christianity. To be a Christian you must believe that Jesus is your savior, but there are many ways of going about living your life beyond that and expressing your faith. Look at how many different types of Christians exist.
In relation to the markets, let’s take a closer look. If two people enter into a contract, that contract is a legally binding document. What does that mean? It means that if one side or the other attempted to violate that contract, they are in violation of the law (meaning government). That is governmental regulation. With no governmental regulation, contract law is meaningless, contracts are meaningless, and no one can be held accountable for anything in them. Anarchists will argue that private organizations can enforce them, but isn’t that just another word for government if you give a body the legal right to use force over others?
This is directly applicable to the second part of the basic libertarian principle: Government’s place is in regulating the interactions between individuals. If two people agree to the terms of a contract, the government is there to ensure that the contract is followed as agreed upon. It is also there to ensure that there is no fraud taking place when the contract was agreed to or afterwards. But, it is not there to determine if someone made a bad decision or unwisely agreed to something that someone else may think was not in their best interests. That is up to the individual signing the contract to decide.
Government should also be involved to ensure that all markets are free. Monopolies prevent this free market from working. Government should therefore be there to make sure that no one person or company has a complete monopoly over any one area of the markets. Unfortunately, most monopolies that exist today do so not just with the acquiescence of government, but with their support. They could not exist as monopolies without government getting involved. This usually plays out with licensing of a business, a way for current business owners to ensure that no new entrants into a market are allowed to compete for the part of the market that they have already acquired.
Government should also not be for picking winners and losers. Trying to punish a company because it is doing well or those who are running the company have different politics than the current administrations should be forbidden. Unfortunately, today, this happens frequently and is a current way that the two major parties play individuals against each other for their votes.
Two women in New York City deliver homemade meals to the homeless population in their city. (Photo by Ed Yourdon, from Wikimedia Commons)
The government should be ensuring that people are not infringing upon other’s rights to live their lives as they choose. We should not be telling adults that they cannot buy beer on a Sunday, or sign a contract on Sunday, or buy a pack of cigarettes or whatever drug of choice they choose, it should be left to the individual to decide. However, if someone were to harm another while taking those drugs of choice, they should be arrested and punished for that behavior. If you want to drink a fifth of scotch at home, the government should not tell you that you can’t, but the minute you get behind the wheel of a car and endanger the rest of us… Sorry, your right to make your own choices ends at that point.
Who do we choose to love? Who do we choose to spend our time with? I don’t see how that is any business of any government agency. What goes on between two consenting adults is between them, not anyone else who might have a large group of people who think it is ‘icky’. That’s no one’s business but their own.
Libertarianism is not about leaving the poor and old to fend for themselves and it is certainly not about selfishness
Quite the contrary, we should be helping our fellow man who is in need. But we should decide when and where that help comes from. If a single mother of four is working hard to put her children through school and take care of them but has a rough month, perhaps she chooses not to help that month. Under our current system, she has no way of doing that. The government gets its cut before she has any say in the matter. So more often than I feel comfortable with, that person ends up in worse shape and eventually needs help that they wouldn’t have needed had they been able to make that choice for themselves.
Here is a current example of our welfare system in the United States. Three men are eating lunch on a park bench. A homeless man comes up and asks for some money to buy some food. The first two men say sure and each get five dollars out to give to him. They then look to the third one who says he can’t do it right now. What do the two men do? They hold him down and take the money from him and then give the fifteen dollars to the homeless man. That third man, who was going to take that money home to help feed his children is left to fend for himself now. Now that is not compassion. That is selfish. You’re selfish if you’re only willing to help another if you know that others are also helping him. That is what our welfare system is about, making sure that you are giving your money to help the poor and elderly as long as you know that everyone else is too.
Libertarianism is Relevant
Libertarianism is about the here and now more than ever before
I have never understood the argument that in a rural society, libertarianism is ok, but in a city environment, well, it’s just not workable. Really? When do you need protection to make your own choices and have the government work out the disputes between you and your neighbors more than in a large urban city? If I am being drunk and obnoxious at home on a large farm with 200 acres, who cares? If I drive my car drunk around my property, who cares? But if I am being drunk and obnoxious or driving drunk in a city with a large population? Other’s rights are being violated. Nothing in libertarianism says that you have to put up with that situation, it is an infringement upon you.
How Have the Other Parties Done?
People think that ensuring that individuals are free and enjoying their liberties is “crazy” and continue to elect the same two parties to office thinking that it is doing any good. Let’s take a look at what they have done to our country.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
In 1979 the Department of Education was formed. It was only to have a small budget of 14.5 billion and employ less than 100 people. Today, its budget is well over 32 billion and it employs over 5000 people, 90 percent who were deemed “nonessential” during a recent government shutdown. The education spending rate has increased three times as fast as other non-defense discretionary programs, 30% vs. 8%. We have gone from spending $3000 per pupil to $6000 (adjusted for inflation). What have we gotten?
According to Lisa Snell’s article “Stimulus Won’t Change the Education System’s Status Quo” in Reason Magazine: “The average reading and math scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation’s benchmark for student achievement, are no better today than they were in 1971; SAT verbal scores show a decline (from 530 in 1972 to 504 today); and SAT math scores have been essentially flat (from 509 in 1972 to 515 today). U.S. graduation rates were 78 percent in 1972 and are 74 percent today; and U.S. 15-year-olds score below the international average on science and math literacy when compared with 30 OECD countries—American kids rank behind students from Poland, Hungary, and France to name a few.”
So, we have created a bureaucracy that is eating itself, injecting politics further into our school system, and creating students that are worse off than they were before we got involved. And the answer that we hear from Washington? More spending, more control, more of the same.
And they call libertarians crazy.
When you run out of money at the end of the month, what do you do? Cut spending? More often than not. Increase your income? Some people get second jobs or other income for that. Do you just keep spending and borrowing more? More citizens are doing that and finding out that it doesn’t work well in the long run. Unfortunately, our government hasn’t learned that lesson yet…
The US experienced high growth in the 50s and 60s, yet our debt remained largely unchanged when compared with inflation. However, starting in the 1970s and skyrocketing since, it has ballooned up to 16 Trillion dollars. But, that’s not the worse part. You see, what the politicians won’t tell you is the dirty little secret that those numbers are just public debt. That is debt that the government owes to the public or other entities outside of the government. That’s not our total debt. Our total debt, as of today, when including money that the government has borrowed from itself (largely in the shape of the Social Security Trust Fund and other pension plans) is…
Yes, that is over 22 trillion dollars that our government must pay back. This number can be tracked for a current snapshot or over time by using the US Treasury’s Debt to the Penny. Don’t just take my word for it, go look it up yourself.
So, why don’t we hear that number? Why only the 16 Trillion? Well, other than the obvious “it sounds better”, the short answer is that the government doesn’t seem to want anyone to know that it has been raiding our Social Security trust fund for decades. Even Bill Clinton who is touted with “running a surplus” is hiding those numbers. At no time during the Clinton administration did our national debt decrease. Our public deficit did go down a year or two, but only by a little and only on the public side of things. But our Intragovernmental Holdings still increased more than the public debt decreased.
The people who are in power now are wanting you to give them the power to spend more money, on top of all of the money they already owe. Does that sound like a sound plan to you? Do you think that we can continue to spend money at this rate, or higher if Washington had its way, and not eventually have to pay up? I can only say I am glad they are not in charge of my finances.
And they call libertarians crazy.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Every year since 1972 our prison population has increased, until this last year. There are currently over 2 million people behind bars in the US, or better put, one out of every 133 of us. We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population. We incarcerate more than any other country, including China. And this year the prison population went down, not because there were less crimes, but because of budget constraints more prisoners were let go before finishing their sentences. And the fastest growing segment of that population: nonviolent, first time offenders of drug laws. Our war on drugs has failed miserably and we continue to take a hard stand against an activity that less than 100 years ago would have taken an amendment to the US Constitution to enforce.
The funny thing is that taking drugs is not illegal. It cannot be illegal according to the Supreme Court. Instead, they make “possession” of the drug illegal. It’s an interesting work around that has resulted in the increase of drug use, the cost to the taxpayers in the billions, and the incarceration rates in the US to skyrocket. Worse, because of the federal laws, the government can’t regulate the drugs like they can with cigarettes and alcohol. And it can’t be taxed either. Individuals with problems are less likely to get help for fear of being arrested, funding to help those people is not collected and we put nonviolent drug users in the same prisons as violent convicts, an atmosphere that is more likely to turn them to a further life of crime than they would have if they were left alone.
And they call libertarians crazy.
Miscellaneous “Do Not Dos”
We are just touching the surface here and I could (and may) write a book about all of this, but let’s speed things up with a short list of some of the things you can’t do in Indiana (the state I personally live in) because of the actions of the two parties (other states are probably as messed up as we are):
- Properly choose the school you send your children to (private or public) unless you are rich.
- Walk onto a plane with a bottle of water (federal law).
- Drive your car without a seat belt on.
- Buy alcohol on Sunday.
- Sign a contract on Sunday (no car sales on Sunday as a result).
- Play poker online (federal law).
- Play poker at a table, with real cards, unless on a body of water and approved by the state.
- Possess marijuana (federal and state law).
- Carry drinks into a restaurant or bar.
Why Continue to Support the Duopoly?
So, you’ve heard that the Libertarians are a crazy bunch, that their ideals are outdated or only work in a “utopia”. All I ask is that you take a look back at the way the Democrats and Republicans have run this state and this country and ask yourself.
Who are the crazy ones? The Libertarians who want to give us more control over our individual lives as long as we don’t violate the rights of others. Or the Republicans and Democrats who have given us over half of a century of declining education, declining standards of living, increased spending, increased debt and continually pass more and more laws that tell you how to live your life?
Or are the crazy people the ones that keep sending the same people back to the state house and Washington thinking that “this time” things will be different. Isn’t that like taking the milk out of the refrigerator and tasting that it is bad and then putting it back in thinking that tomorrow it will be good again?
My recommendation is to throw out your preconceived notions about what others have told you about Libertarian thought and the Libertarian Party and take a closer look at what we are really saying, what we really stand for. Don’t let the people who have run this country into the ground make up your mind for you. You can go to the Libertarian Party’s website and see for yourself what the crazy Libertarians are talking about.
Rhinehold is a host of the WAL Daily podcast and a regular guest on the We Are Libertarians podcast.
(This article was originally published on Rhinehold.org on Oct. 25th, 2010. It has slightly edited for clarity and style and republished with the author’s permission. Rhinehold did make minor updates to the original article as well.)