American Libertarianism: Philosophical Fantasy Meets Reality
If you paid any attention to the recent wave of political primaries, you observed a small number of Libertarian candidates winning Republican primaries, due to the new-found alliance between the fledgling Tea Party and the Libertarian movement. Increasing numbers of people within the Tea Party movement have come to identify themselves as Libertarians, and are voting for Libertarian candidates. Many of these people are only just now realizing…that they may not know what Libertarianism REALLY is.
Once Rand Paul won the Republican primary in Kentucky, he made a number of very public statements in DIRECT violation of the Libertarians’ unwritten code of conduct. These rules are simple:
1 – Do not talk about specific Libertarian policies
2 – Do NOT talk about specific Libertarian policies
You see, Libertarian concepts sound wonderful, when considered in the philosophical abstract. Here are some examples:
Strict Constitutionality: The government has ONLY the powers enumerated in the Constitution…the rest are held by the people. This is a necessary bulwark against tyranny.
Small Government: Government should have little power over the individual (especially in terms of individual’s liberty and property), and should tax people the minimum possible.
Peace: Libertarianism believes that war is to be avoided at all costs, should only be waged with the full consent of the people, and should only be engaged in after following the strictures of the Constitution. It is seen as expensive, and as a means of keeping a population poor and controlled. At the same time, the right-leaning Libertarians support a strong national defense, using the fullest sense of the word “defense.”
In addition, Libertarians on the right (sometimes called anarcho-capitalists), also propose the following:
Unfettered Private Property and Business: Government should not interfere in business (ie. regulation), as a free market is a form of “self-correcting” mechanism.
One can imagine that these concepts would appeal to many people, including people on the left, due to their emphasis on the strict defense of civil rights as enumerated in the Constitution. In fact, Libertarianism is not actually a “right-wing” political philosophy, and its true, historical roots lie in Socialism. The vast majority of the world’s Libertarians actually reject the anarcho-capitalist notion of unfettered private property, and they believe in a small government…a government that controls much of the means of production and which is responsible for the equitable distribution of wealth and resources to the people. However, for the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the “American-style” of Libertarianism which does, indeed, focus on a more “laissez-faire” economy, where the government does little to interfere in business and property.
So what “sin” did current Libertarians, like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle commit, that their predecessors, like Ron Paul, did not? If they had stayed with the constant reiteration of the above principles without going into detail, then nobody would know the sad truth about Libertarianism, a truth that political philosophers have LONG known: It is a philosophy that fails the minute it is applied to the real world, because it is purely idealistic, and fails to take HUMAN NATURE into account. The Kentucky Libertarians vowed to abandon Rand Paul because he “violated their principles“. In reality, he did no such thing (at least, no more so than anybody else)…he simply made the mistake of uttering them aloud, with specific examples…in front of the national media.
Paul and Angle weren’t done there, and they also committed a more heinous crime: They incorporated modern, right-wing positions INTO their philosophy…positions which flagrantly violate Libertarian principles, and thereby earn them the label of “hypocrite.”
Let’s take quick look at both these failings…
LIBERTARIANISM MEETS THE REAL WORLD:
Rand Paul would gather a lot of negative attention for three recent statements. First he said that he did not support the Civil Rights Act, and that private companies should be allowed to racially discriminate in hiring, and in which customers they wish to serve. Then, he publicly decried the Obama administration’s criticism of BP in the wake of the oil spill, calling it “un-American” for the government to criticize a private company. Third, he defended our free-market system by citing a Cold War propaganda film as evidence that “the poor in our country are enormously better off than the rest of the world. It doesn’t mean we can’t do better. But we have to acknowledge and be proud of our system of capitalism,” drawing criticism due to the rampant poverty in his own state, Kentucky.
We start to see the heart of the problem, and it’s nested in two principles of the anarcho-capitalist strain of Libertarianism:
1 – The “Survival-Of-The-Fittest” Principle: If you are poor or have suffered misfortune, it is somehow the product of your own failures, whether that consists of a failure to educate yourself, failure to seek opportunity, failure to plan for adversity, or failure to pursue profitable enterprise.
2 – The “Good Business – Bad Business” Principle: Businesses do not need to be regulated…because they will naturally do good things, which will cause them to succeed. Businesses that produce good, safe products…that treat their employees, the environment, their customers well…that do philanthropic gestures to help the poor, sick, and old…these businesses will thrive. Businesses that produce dangerous products…that defraud their customers or mistreat their employees…that don’t help the public…will fail.
And there is where the philosophy breaks down…since these two principles are simply, completely, realistically, demonstrably FALSE.
We’ve seen, just in the last few years, what happens if companies are allowed to do whatever they want to do. An oil company increases profits by not spending the time and money to train their workers in safety procedures, and to properly install and maintain safety/emergency equipment…and people still line up at the pump to buy BP gasoline even after their massive spill destroys the economy and ecology of an entire region. Banks and investment firms play wild, convoluted games where only they win, their customers lose, and the economy plummets…and people still bank and invest with them. We know that “bad things happen to good people,” and that even hard-working, good, educated people lose their jobs and suffer major financial misfortunes. We know that there is no “marketplace justice,” and that big companies don’t often willingly sacrifice profits out of the goodness of their hearts, and that two of the biggest national economic disasters were caused by lack of government regulation on business…and were resolved by government spending, regulation, and programs (even most noted Libertarians are forced to concede the latter point…but fail to explain how it reconciles with their beliefs).
And…we know that we REALLY value some things that the government does…that are NOWHERE to be found in the Constitution. Like the Social Security program…like Medicare/Medicaid…like checking our food, our water, our air, and the materials in our clothes, our homes, our children’s toys for poisons, bacteria, and other contaminants. There’s nothing in the Constitution about the space program…or fighting the “drug war“…or the “border war“…or any number of other things that we have come to expect from our government. This aspect, in particular, is one that Libertarians really wish that candidates like Rand Paul would NOT talk about…because if people knew every program that they would GET RID OF, then no Libertarian candidate would EVER be elected. Because the “anarcho” in “anarcho-capitalism“…stands for “anarchy.”
LIBERTARIANISM MEETS RIGHT-WING FUNDAMENTALISM:
It would be bad enough if people knew what Libertarians, following a strict “only what is in the Constitution” platform, would get rid of…it’s even worse when Libertarian candidates engage in blatant hypocrisy just to include some ultra-right, often fundamentalist, ideals.
Rand Paul, to appeal the far-righters, recently stated that he would stop granting citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. Well, since the Constitution quite clearly contradicts this by stating explicitly how citizenship is granted, his position is in violation of core Libertarian principles. In fact, the Constitution grants all immigrants, legal or otherwise, all of the rights of citizens except those pertaining to running for public office and voting.
Sharron Angle has taken a hard-line position on abortion, saying it should even be denied to women who are the victims of incestual rape…saying they should try to “turn lemons into lemonade.“ Again, this is clearly in violation of Libertarians’ principles, as it amounts to the government interfering in the personal decisions of individuals. Other conservative positions, such as in the case of gay marriage, where conservatives WANT the government to tell people how to live their lives, would also be contrary to Libertarian tenets.
As they have been engulfed by the Tea Party, these same Libertarians have adopted the Party’s “anti-tax” stance as well…and in countless interviews they stumble to explain how they reconcile this with the fact that the Constitution OBVIOUSLY grants the Congress the power to tax, and explicitly allows an income tax to be employed. Clearly, the support a literal and absolute implementation of the Constitution…except the parts of the Constitution that don’t sit well with conservative voters.
The hard truth is, conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, have areas where they WANT the government to be “big,” they have powers they WANT the government to have (that are not listed in the Constitution), they have things in the Constitution that they wish were not there, and they have things they WANT the government to be able to tell us we can and cannot do for “moral reasons.” And whenever a Libertarian adopts these positions to obtain conservative electoral backing, it is at the price of completely compromising their ideals which they usually claim are “absolute” and based on “innate and self-evident” rights and liberties.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
People loved Ron Paul. He’s charming, and when speaking he comes across as a person holding to solid, attractive ideals…and part of us loves an idealist. A politician willing to talk about our Constitution, our liberties, our personal property in absolute terms will win many hearts. If he is willing to also play upon our shared distrust of government…he will go far. That is, up until we ask him, “So what does that mean in terms of practical application? What government programs, departments, and policies would be abolished?“ Suddenly, we see him as he is: either a hopeless idealist with no sense of the real world…or as one who simply wishes for big businesses to be allowed to run amok to the detriment of our citizenry, all in the name of profit.
It is certainly odd that a political philosophy, whose branches either espouse a union of anarchy and socialism, or of anarchy and capitalism, should gain so much traction in a world where too much chaos and corruption already exists. Perhaps…it is simply a sign that so many have become disenchanted with our old philosophies, and now grasp wildly for a new one to believe in.