Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What Is- and What Should Be- a Libertarian?

One of the commenters yesterday asked what the Libertarian Party stood for, if anything... and what makes it more than just a collection of political loonies.

First, it needs pointing out that political parties aside from the Democratic and Republican Parties tend to attract a higher percentage of out-and-out loonies in the first place. These people really have no political home to speak of. Few people want them- especially since they tend to drive away more votes than they bring in. The Democrats and Republicans won't support their views, so they look for an organization that will- or, barring that, they create one of their own.

Yes, there are a lot of loonies in the Libertarian Party. That sort of person is why I coined the term "Corn Flake," and I'll expose a lot of them as this blog goes on. Not all of us are insane, though, as I'll explain in a bit.

First, check the national Libertarian Party website's FAQ for their statement on what the Libertarian Party stands for. To go into a bit more detail: Libertarianism is founded on the classical liberal concept that individual human rights are not creations of or grants from greater society or a government, but are inherent in the human condition. If you're a living, breathing human, you have rights. Human beings tolerate government as a means of protecting those rights more efficiently.

This is, to the Libertarian mindset, a vital point. If all freedom is a grant of government, then you, the individual, are the property and servant of that government. Whatever rights a government wishes to deny you or grant you, the government is always ethically and morally justified, because those rights are the government's to give or take away. In such a system the weak have only the amount of freedom the strong are willing to grant... and historically speaking, that's very little freedom indeed.

If, on the other hand, rights come from the individual, then government becomes the servant instead of the master. In such a system government's powers are only delegated to it by the people, as per Rousseau's concept of the social contract. The individual citizens have both the right and the authority to curb government abuses of power in such a system.

At this point we come to a difference of opinion- in fact a deep schism which has plagued the Libertarian Party almost since its inception in 1971. For most of the Party's history the ideology and strategy of the party have been driven by anarchists- those who believe that absolutely no level of government is acceptable, and that man should be subject to no involuntary control from outside himself. Such people believe that government in any amount is an evil- and they refuse to accept even incremental steps towards that goal as an impurity of principle.

Set against the anarchists are another group, called at various times moderates, reformers, incrementalists, etc. but most frequently called minarchists. Minarchists recognize that, in a lawless "state of nature", human rights may be inherent, but there is nothing to defend them except the strength of the individual, unassisted human. Anarchists claim that people will gladly defend each other's rights from violation out of "enlightened rational self-interest". Minarchists recognize that, historically speaking, most people look away or step aside when someone else's rights are violated. In short, a minarchists believes that government is necessary... but that nothing more than the absolute minimum level of government necessary to protect the rights of the individual should be tolerated.

The two camps within the LP- anarchist and minarchist- disagree on more than just the structure of society. The anarchists believe the LP is an educational organization and that it should not give much priority to actually electing anyone. Minarchists believe that the only purpose of a political party is to get people elected. Anarchists believe that compromise is the greatest evil, a form of hypocrisy and impurity. Minarchists believe that compromise is usually the only way to get anything at all accomplished. Minarchists try to recruit people who are libertarian-minded, even if they disagree on key specific positions; anarchists try to indoctrinate new recruits and actively drive off anyone who isn't pure enough for them.

There are a great many reasons why libertarianism hasn't been successful, but one of the largest reasons stems from 1983. In 1980 Ed Clark received over 900,000 votes for President- by far the best showing a Libertarian ever had for that office, before or since- on a moderate Libertarian platform. This platform angered the anarchists in the party, particularly Murry Rothbard. In 1983 the two factions came to a showdown, and the anarchists effectively drove out Clark's moderate Libertarians, who eventually founded the CATO Institute. Shortly thereafter, the "Dallas Accords" were set- basically requiring that the Libertarian Party never take any position that gives up the ideal of total anarchy in exchange for the core anarchists remaining in the party.

In this election year we had what may turn out to be a reversal of this trend. At the national convention in Portland a coalition of minarchist reformers and disillusioned anarchists fought to bring the Libertarian Party out of anarchist control. An effort to remove the Membership Pledge- a tool the anarchists have used in their quest for party purity- failed, but got over forty percent of the delegates' votes. A second effort to purge the party platform of its most anarchist planks succeeded beyond the reformer's dreams and intents, getting rid of about three-quarters of the entire national platform. With some radical planks still in and some moderate planks taken out, this was at best a mixed victory... but it was enough for a number of the purists and anarchists to bolt the LP and form the Boston Tea Party.

As you might guess, I'm a member of the minarchist wing of the party. In the years I've been a member of the Libertarian Party I've been called a statist, a Communist, a closet Republican, a dictator, and many other things by the anarchists in the party. On more than one occasion I've seriously considered switching to another party. I've stuck with the LP for seven years for one reason: the Libertarian Party is the only political party that consistently calls for smaller government.

The only one.

This may, of course, change. Dissatisfied Libertarians formed the Personal Choice Party in 2004, which was on the ballot in only one state (Utah) and was noted only because its VP candidate was porn star Marilyn Chambers. There are efforts to create a "Moderate Party", the broad outlines of their platform reading like a series of first-steps towards a libertarian system. Finally, there's the Boston Tea Party, and we'll have to wait and see there.

But the Republicans... well, even before George Bush got into power, they demonstrated their desire to expand government's power to control your religion, your creativity, and your sexual habits. Democrats act to redistribute property for their own ends, control minds and viewpoints, and promote racial preferences. The Constitution Party calls for theocracy; the Greens and over a dozen socialist and communist parties call for socialism; the Reform Party, what's left of it, doesn't even know what it calls for. For a person who wants government to stay out of his or her pocketbook and mind alike, there's only one real choice: the Libertarian Party.

One final note: it's a bit amusing that the websites for each side of this internal debate share the same acronym, LRC. LewRockwell.com generally represents the anarchists and purists in the party; the Libertarian Reform Caucus represents those who want to take party control away from the anarchists and make the Libertarian Party more palatable to the electorate. At present the two sides are pretty evenly balanced, so your participation could very well decide what happens in 2008 and beyond. Read both, consider, and then decide for yourself.


Gau said...

Thanks; this was very informative. I don't think I could ever be a Libertarian, personally; as I mentioned in my previous response, I'm pretty far on the left, and that includes the idea that redistribution of wealth is a necessity. That includes, in my opinion, taxes to properly fund things like roads, schools, and other things that (ideally) serve the common good. Otherwise, you get, well, the situation you have today, where the difference in things like education between being in a "rich" neighborhood and a "poor" neighborhood can affect career opportunities for the rest of your entire life.

I also believe that as a modern nation, the United States is constantly threatened by the military might of other nations and that it is only our current military power (well, and our stockpile of nuclear arms) that keep us from being invaded by any number of nations. While I don't agree with current foreign policy or certain current military actions, I do believe that the military is a necessary organ of a modern state. The military, raised for the common good, is thus funded by taxes.

I guess my fundamental argument here is a rebellion against the idea that taxes are somehow stealing your money. For example, I'd be willing to pay higher taxes if, say, post-secondary education were freely available, or health care. Of course, I also believe that wealthier people should pay more in taxes; that goes back to the idea of redistribution of wealth. However, I also believe that as a citizen, one has a responsibility to the nation as well; we pay for services through taxes because those services have the POTENTIAL of serving us, or often because they serve us in some indirect way.

So, the ideas of the Libertarian Party worry me most because they seem to be conducive to widening the economic gulf in this nation; we do have a strong middle class, but that seems to be slowly waning with the death of well-paying manual labor and industry jobs (and nothing in their place). The lack of effective means of redistribution of wealth (which I feel is already weak in this nation) could turn the United States into something like those in Central and South America.

So, I suppose I'll never be a Libertarian. In any event, thanks for the information, and I look forward to future installments of this blog.

Kris Overstreet said...

Two points, Gau:

First, most of those South American countries you mention HAVE wealth redistribution plans which, on paper, take from the rich to give to the poor. They work pretty much as they did in the Soviet Union: everyone's poor except those in government.

Second, re: education: by and large schools in mainly impoverished areas get vastly more tax money per student than schools in rich areas. Washington DC schools, for example, spend over $20,000 per student- double the national average- and yet remain the worst in the country.