The Problem With Libertarians

I am occasionally accused of being a libertarian. I do not consider myself a libertarian, but I am too polite to say this to libertarians. While I agree with libertarians on some things, particularly their typically laissez-faire approach, I do not agree with many of their arguments.

Libertarian thought can be summarized as a set of arguments for a smaller, less centralized state apparatus.

Central to the goal of a libertarian state is the maximization of liberty. Liberty is a somewhat archaic word for freedom, which itself was once a universal value celebrated by Americans. I will define liberty and freedom to both mean “lack of restraints.”

Libertarians seek to ensure liberty. But liberty, as understood by the founders of the United States, is a natural right. It is not granted by the State. The State only has the duty of preserving it. (The best statement of this philosophy is John Stuart Mill.)

A political philosophy is only useful if it gives us an algorithm for determining if we should or should not enact a certain law or provision. The typical libertarian “algorithm” is to start with an appeal to the constitutionality or lack thereof for any law or policy under consideration. And they tend to have originalist readings of the Constitution — in other words, they assume the original intent of the Constitution takes precedence over any contemporary interpretations.

The U.S. Constitution, however, is a foundational government document. It is a spec, basically, that describes how the government will work. And while its authors’ moral character can be debated, surely we can all agree that they are humans, not deities.

Uh oh. We have a problem. Why does a government document define what constitutes liberty — if Liberty is a god-given right that precedes the state?

The constitutionalism of libertarians (in the United States, at least) leads to this chicken-and-the-egg problem. If we’re all born free, and government can only restrain us (via negative rights), then it cannot logically follow that the basis for our conception of Liberty will be a government document.

We need, instead, a broader concept of liberty / freedom — one that actually precedes the State, not one which explicitly points to it in an appeal-to-authority. And this new concept of liberty may also encompass the many ways in which we are “restrained” while feeling that we are free. Surely, any modern reader will know exactly what I mean here!

The freedom to watch any video on YouTube for free restrains our attention and focus. The freedom to take drugs often leads to addiction and impairment. The freedom to buy an item on credit restrains one with interest each month that may end up totaling more than the original cost of the item.

Yes, in the modern world we have many freedoms that wind up being anti-freedoms. It is not merely coincidental that many of these freedoms wind up producing commercial gain for corporate entities or the state itself.

I will instead ask you: what does maximum freedom look like? What would it actually mean to maximize liberty for everyone?

Real freedom actually requires restraint. An artist who paints freely and expressively nevertheless is restrained by the size of his canvas.

I have respect for libertarians, but more the old guard.

The early Libertarian Party was the first political party (in the U.S., anyway) to be in favor of gay marriage way back in 1974. It took the Democrats under Barrack Obama until 2012 to hold that position — a full thirty-eight years later. Four years earlier, Mr. Obama was opposed to gay marriage. The Democratic Party did not take up a pro-gay-marriage position until it was 100% clear that the American public had a favorable view of it. In 1974 this point of view would have been disgusting to the majority of Americans, but the Libertarian Party chose it anyway.

Whatever position one takes on any political issue, I have deep respect anyone who takes a principled contrarian view. This is not because I agree with all of those views, but because I respect independent thinking.

Unfortunately, I think the libertarian movement has devolved from a healthy intellectual movement in the 1970s into a shallow and mostly ineffectual obsession over taxation policies.

In many ways, I wonder if the libertarians of today who run for government actually intend to win and accept the job. They often just seem like protest candidates. While lowering taxes will always have some broad appeal (who likes taxes?) the typical libertarian doesn’t appear to have much of a basis for their ideas beyond the Constitution — not do they seem to appreciate the need for such intellectual rigor.