What Libertarianism ISN’T

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If a road is built without government funds, does it exist?

When discussing my political views with friends, family, coworkers, and random strangers on the internet, I encounter a common misconception about the philosophy of libertarianism (and no, not the assumption that roads won’t exist in a libertarian-controlled environment).  The intent of this entry is to elucidate further what libertarianism is as well as what it simply isn’t.  Before I reveal the common misconception, let’s review a few basics about libertarianism.

Libertarianism is first and foremost a philosophy rather than a political agenda or a political party.  If I were to summarize the philosophy of libertarianism in one brief sentence, I would do it as such:  Libertarianism is the fundamental belief that each person should be free to choose whichever path in life he or she most desires without the threat of interference by others on the condition that his or her life choices do not deny others their right to the same.  In an individual’s life, nothing is as powerful as that individual’s decisions.  As such, the philosophies of libertarianism and existentialism make good bedfellows (I touched on existentialism in my post-Aurora massacre entry).  Even when imprisoned by authorities or suffering from a terminal illness, the libertarian knows that he still has full control over his reaction, his state of mind.

In a political sense, libertarianism combines the economic freedom of the conservative ideology with the social freedom of the liberal ideology.  However, it distinguishes itself by the reserving the power of the political sphere for individuals, not through coercion of governmental regulations but by the restriction thereof.  It offers no guarantees, and in this way is ultimately fairer than any other political policy.  While the liberal ideology offers guarantees in social fairness — affirmative action, welfare, health care — that it simply cannot deliver, the conservative ideology likewise offers guarantees in economic fairness that is unsustainable in our current government plagued by crony capitalism.  Libertarianism, on the other hand, offers only one very simple guarantee:  The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It does not guarantee happiness, as awful as that may sound to the modern liberal.  But the reality is that no guarantee can be guaranteed to withstand the turmoil and chaos of life; only the right to pursue such stability can be guaranteed, as Thomas Jefferson so succinctly wrote.

Since libertarianism strives to reduce the size of government, many assume incorrectly that the final goal of the philosophy is to remove government altogether.  This common misconception couldn’t be more wrong and is simply a matter of confusing anarchy with libertarianism.  The libertarian philosophy is one of restraint and minimalism.  Any notion of “excess” is generally avoided, especially in the sense of government because it tends to encroach on the very principles of freedom our Founding Fathers so revered.

The political purpose of libertarianism is simply to find the correct balance of government policy that refrains from encroaching on individual liberty.  No libertarian I have ever spoken to believed that government should not have the ability to manage economic externalities, those unforeseen consequences that often negatively impact others such as pollution, crime, and national threats.  Regulations can often successfully curtail negative behavior in a society as much as incentives can engender positive behavior.  The driving question behind libertarianism is just how much regulation is needed.  Do we need government control over every aspect of our daily lives to prevent negative externalities from controlling every aspect of our daily lives?  The libertarian philosophy seeks to strike a balance between the chaos of individual liberty and free markets with the inevitable necessary intervention of government policy, naturally erring on the side of liberty and free markets.

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In this way, libertarianism is everything the modern Republican party wants to be and everything the modern Democratic party cannot be.  Consider the latest IRS scandal, in which it was revealed that the powerful agency which collects and administers our tax dollars was found to be targeting certain groups with political affiliations contrary to the current administration’s own political leanings.  Naturally, this led to defenders of the liberal movement to engage in their own investigation of the IRS’ illicit behavior against their favored groups under the Bush administration, and they found even more evidence suggesting the IRS has been abusing its power since quite possibly its inception.

It could be argued that under a libertarian philosophy the IRS simply would not exist (I myself am a proponent of abolishing the IRS).  However, if it did happen to exist under libertarian “rule” (surely a strong choice of verbiage for libertarian leadership), it would not have the power to swing along a pendulum of indiscriminately attacking groups of opposing philosophies.  Libertarian political philosophy is simple:  Never give the government the power to abuse you in the future.  It may pay off today when you have the public on your side, but tomorrow the ignorant masses very well may vote for “the other guy” and that powerful hammer you so triumphantly wielded will come swinging back at you with full force.

In a libertarian political system, taxes exist.  Government exists.  But they’re not at the forefront of your daily life.  Government focuses solely on managing externalities, those goods and services that aren’t troublesome enough for individuals to pay for but are necessary enough that communities must pool their resources to pay for the services (via taxation and disbursement of funds by a group of individuals selected to manage such funds, i.e. government).  Libertarians just expect returns on our investments — is that so bad?

And yes, in a libertarian political system, roads do exist.

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5 thoughts on “What Libertarianism ISN’T

  1. Seems to me, Libertarians combine cogent, accurate complaints of government with magic mushroom visions of what will cure or replace that of which they complain. They take, in other words, an optimistic view of the malleability of human nature. They are therefore in my book, idiot savants of politics. Wishful thinkers extrordinaire.
    In support of this analysis, I offer the entire history of homo sapiens as we understand it…

    I perceive the Libertarian and the Liberal today as the opposite extremes of the same misconception of genus homo. Based upon that, one wishes to reduce the government below what reality has shown is possible and the other wishes to increase the government above what reality has shown is safe.

    My opinions of course, and what the Hell do I know?

    • “…and what the Hell do I know?”

      Hahaha, this is one of my favorite quips to say. I imagine you say it as often as I do and for the same reasons. It’s our immediate shield against the possibility of others dismissing our thoughts and opinions outright without truly contemplating them. Unfortunately, it happens all too often, lending more and more justification for its usage. Ah, but I digress upon a shared plight we both seem to experience.

      Anyway, I do feel that your conclusions of libertarianism fall under the same misconceptions I encounter elsewhere. Your offering of “the entire history of homo sapiens as we understand it” as evidence to the contrary of the philosophy is what I typically use to portray the failures of socialism, communism, and authoritarianism. These systems optimistically (and unrealistically) believe people elected to office are somehow more honest and trustworthy than anybody else.

      Typically, I find that libertarians only want to reduce the government to the level most conservatives claim to lower it with a few caveats such as the legalization of drugs, a less interfering foreign policy (thought to what extent many libertarians will argue), and a less restrictive federal tax system. We survived the end of prohibition, a lack of imperialistic tendencies, and we even did just fine before the IRS existed, so I’m not sure why you believe any of this is realistically impossible.

      I could entertain the possibility, however, that I myself do not fully understand the libertarian philosophy and am actually an independent conservative mistakenly acting under the guise of a libertarian. Eh, but what the hell do I know. 😉

      • Some history, evidently! I suspect we’re each looking at that glass half full of water. You’ve cited more limited government that functioned in the past, true enough; I cite the fact that it is now confined to that past. Evidence, I think, that it could not endure and lacked staying power. Which is my case for calling Libertarianism a form of wishful thinking…

        It appears to me a great diagnostician but lacking a realistic remedy. A lack attributable to our cussed human nature always screwing up governments.

        We don’t need to know much to know that about human nature, right?

      • @Jack Curtis It is not government’s job to change or negate the effects of human nature; It is theirs to protect people from each other, not themselves.

  2. Pingback: Points of Derailment | shiftthink

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