Modern Libertarianism Confuses Me

Quick disclaimer: I’m not 100 percent certain that there is a classic libertarianism I should be differentiating from… but on the off chance that there is and that the libertarianism I want to talk about, the type as I’ve seen it played out in today’s political landscape, is distinct and notably different on the issues I want to mention, I want to cut people off before someone that missed my point comes in and tries to take my head off for equating non-equatable political ideals. I’ve kinda been burnt on that before.

So, libertarianism has been, I think, seeing a bit of a hey day in recent years, particularly through Ron Paul’s past two presidential campaigns and the creation of the Tea Party movement. While the Tea Party movement has strayed, via its leaders/candidates, from the original message, a message that is almost like a distilled Paul campaign description, the feelings of the grassroots it started with are the same types of feelings people (often young people) had with Paul and with 2012’s Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.

Basically, libertarianism as it has come about today can be put in terms of a Venn diagram. On one circle, we have Democrats. Democrats are currently the party of social freedoms. Keep the government out of bedrooms, eliminate censorship, et cetera. It may not be doing so great with that, but it’s the pro-choice, pro-legalization, pro-gay marriage party, particularly compared to the Republicans. Their economics, however, are more restrictive and government involved. Tax and spend fiscal policies, regulations on banks and businesses, et cetera. The other circle hosts the Republicans. They’re the party that, on the social end of things, wants government all over everything. Nowadays, while they talk about small government, they simultaneously talk about constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage, increased surveillance, more military/wars, ban abortions… the legislate morality party. Their economics, however, are (in theory) more hands off than the Democrats. Roll back regulations, lower taxes, cut spending.

So, where the two circles meet is with Libertarians. They are the party of the laissez-faire, both in economics and social policy. Hands off the free market. Let people decide what they want to do, get government out of making choices for people. It’s the Democrats’ social policies and the Republicans’ economic policies.

…again, in theory.

See, the thing is, while Libertarianism is the confluence of similar ideals from the main two political parties in America, neither of those parties is really looking to pull away federal powers. President Barack Obama did, surprisingly, talk about looking into more clearly defining and limiting the powers of the Executive Office, but that’s not really a sentiment you hear too often from either party. The Republicans, more often than not, want to make certain issues states’ rights issues, but those tend to just be issues they don’t think they can win federally.

What confuses me about modern libertarianism is that, the more I hear from them, the more it sounds like they want EVERY issue to be a states’ rights issue. Insofar as, they would rather the federal government to bow in power to the state governments.

When America was being created as a nation, our first attempt at creating a government was an utter failure. A rope of sand, as someone called it. For about eight years, the law of the land was dictated through a document known as the Articles of Confederation. Basically, it didn’t recognize the United States as a singly governed entity, but rather a political alliance between the 13 separate states. If one of them was attacked, they’d help each other out. They were to assist one another, but still be mostly left to their own devices. And it failed pretty spectacularly, as the national Congress was almost completely ineffectual and each state felt no real reason to actually help out the other states, making commerce and land contracts and, well, everything begin to fall apart. When Shay’s Rebellion started in 1786, combined with everything else that was happening, Alexander Hamilton and others essentially staged a coup and reworked the entire government, writing the Constitution. The Constitution created a far stronger federal government while the Bill of Rights were added to help protect individuals and the states’ sovereignties.

Now, I understand the desire to get the federal government out of being involved with many things. As a liberal, I think marijuana should be legalized (huge economic benefit there), same-sex marriage should be legal, pretty much all the social policies should be left unfettered, by and large. I still think a completely free capitalist market runs contrary to democracy and would implode our ability to govern and be governed, but others disagree. What I don’t understand is the apparent desire of many modern Libertarians to seemingly peel back the federal government almost in its entirety and bring us back to the Articles of Confederation.

It’s thoroughly possible I’m completely misunderstanding or misrepresenting this particular political belief. But I have many friends that are Libertarians. And when they talk about their politics, they often talk about letting states have power as opposed to the federal government in nearly every issue. And that, it seems to me, is a bit contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.

The preamble to the United States Constitution talks about creating a more perfect union. Considering that was written up after the quite imperfect coalition under the Articles, it makes me think that maybe the framers wanted the federal government there to help encourage states and citizens to help other people out. Yeah, sometimes it means Texas has to help bail out California, that your tax dollars get spent in some state you couldn’t care less about… but the theory is, we’re all in this together. We are a united nation, a group of united states, and we leave no one behind.

Maybe I’m wrong. But that’s how it seems to me.

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11 thoughts on “Modern Libertarianism Confuses Me

  1. mharper says:

    The “rope of sand” quote is by Daniel Webster….

    • linaloki says:

      Really? Ugh. I swear, I was taught Ben Franklin, but George Washington was the only name I saw on Google… I’m just going to say “Someone.” Somebody said it. Probably a few somebodies.

      • mharper says:

        http://www.bartleby.com/268/9/3.html Quote in paragraph 19.

        There is this letter from Washington to Henry Knox, http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/collection/pre-pres_1785feb28.html, in which Washington uses the term “rope of sand”, but this is a private letter, rather than a speech given to an audience. So your original assertion is factual, though I don’t think Washington is quite as famous for this statement as Webster is.

        “I thank you for the particular [inserted: acct.] which you have given me of the different Rivers to which the British have given the names of St Croix [3] – I shall be much mistaken if they do not in other matters, as well as this, give us a good deal of trouble before we are done with them. – and yet, it does not appear to me, that we have wisdom, or national policy enough to avert the evils which are impending – How should we, when contracted ideas, local pursuits, and absurd jealousy are continually leading us from those great & fundamental principles which are characteristic of wise & powerful Nations; & without which, we are no more than a rope of Sand, and shall as easily be broken.”

        (We might also consider that the good General appears to want a powerful nation. Whether this means economically powerful or militarily powerful isn’t clear in context. I’d be inclined to think that GW was more than a little envious of the British forces. It’s also not entirely clear what those great and fundamental principles are in GW’s mind.)

  2. I’m all about the government staying out of people’s personal lives. Your freedom ends at my nose type of thing. But I want my government to help those who need it. Most people use libertarian as a cover for plutoracy. http://lunchpailleft.com/

  3. List of X says:

    And how exactly it would be different if it’s a state government rather than a federal government regulates abortion, marijuana, etc. in the state where you live? Yes, you could move to another state, but then you can move to Canada today, and very few people actually do.

    • linaloki says:

      Well, there’s a few things. First, there are civil rights that are more easily trampled on or ignored. Interracial marriage, for example, needed federal supreme court intervention, as did the integration of schools. Plus, the final salvation of underrepresentation should not be leaving. All voices should have a chance to be heard. Our government is one that should be the will of the majority, tempered by the rights of the minority. If the federal government had no ability to enforce change/the rights of the minority, that simply makes it easier for the minority to be crushed. I’m not saying the federal government always gets it right, but it’s one more avenue to utilize.

  4. sylvanfox says:

    I’m a Libertarian and I don’t believe that EVERYthing should be handled by the states. But there are things the Federal Government and other important political bodies are involved in that they never really should have been. It’s the states that have been making steps toward things like legalization of marijuana and gay marriage.

    I have mixed feelings on the whole “government helping people” thing.We are trillions upon trillions of dollars in debt, with no end in sight. I don’t even know if it’s a workable idea when it isn’t. I love that the Federal and state governments award grants to get people into college, but providing things like housing and food to some people for years is just kind of out there. I know a lot of people (mostly Republicans, oddly enough, but consistency is for another day) who just abuse the living crap out of those systems. For years. And then the people I know who are really and truly in desperate need of help can’t find it anywhere. I don’t think the government CAN actually help people constantly like that. It’s just not a sustainable system unless some huge portion of the population gets saddled with those taxes. This upsets nearly half the country, and that’s one thing I have a serious problem with. If a large part of the nation doesn’t the country to go that way, I don’t think that it is right to force them to pay for those things anyway. I myself might be willing to pay it, but I think it’s morally wrong to force someone else to. Plus, I think that a lot of people would find it easier to take care of themselves without a giant crutch, sort of like how when your mom feeds, clothes, and shelters you and you are basically not very good at taking care of yourself, then you move out and after some time, learn to do what you have to do.

  5. sylvanfox says:

    Also, I’ve never heard another Libertarian talk about giving “everything” back to the states. I heard a lot of complaints about “the Fed”, but that’s generally referring to the Federal Reserve.

  6. tiffany267 says:

    Thanks for your interesting post. I would like to respond and hopefully clarify your confusion:

    Practically all libertarians agree that the federal government has no authority to be actively involved with social or economic policy in any way. The federal government has a few key functions such as maintaining an impartial judicial branch to clarify and arbiter disputes about one’s constitutional rights.

    Some lukewarm “libertarians” do favor allowing issues like drug regulation, marriage equality, educational systems, etc. to be “devolved” (that is the legal and political science terminology) to the states so that each state may regulate those areas according to the consent of its own residents. This general policy is quite in the spirit of the Constitution. Please see the 10th Amendment.

    Libertarians such as myself view this policy as an improper compromise. No government, whether federal, state, or local, has the slightest authority to regulate my personal decisions until and unless my actions initiate force against another individual.

    I highly recommend that you read Murray Rothbard’s book “For a New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto”. It is a very simply written treatise discussing some of the practical mechanics of a purely voluntary state/civilization.

    I would like to note that, in response to your quote “I still think a completely free capitalist market runs contrary to democracy and would implode our ability to govern and be governed”, I couldn’t help but wonder how one could think and reach this conclusion. It is precisely capitalism which allows for republican democracy. Without it, the entire concept of individual rights is meaningless, and the idea of a state whose responsibility is to protect and defend those individual rights has zero support.

    Perhaps the democratic breakdowns about which you’re concerned are abuses such as illegal wiretapping, TSA molestations, kill lists, and other such horrific violations of individual rights. These violations have taken place not because of free markets but precisely at the sacrifice of free markets to corporatism and the military industrial complex. Without the state, who would have paid Blackwater to abuse civilians in Iraq? Your tax dollars (as well as the out-of-control manipulations by the Federal Reserve, and also borrowing from abusive states like China) are being used to disrupt an otherwise potentially functional market in favor of military contractors, weapon and equipment manufacturers, radar technicians, and other industries that private citizens would never freely support.

    We won’t even go into the state’s intervention into the food industry through tariffs and subsidies, other than to say good bye small local farms and independent supermarkets and hello fake food.

    Only liberty (and capitalism is merely an essential description for the functioning of a civilization that enjoys liberty) can allow for a republican democracy. Libertarians who support privatizing all non-essential government functions and restoring individual rights are the only hope for mobilizing American politics toward this vision.

    • linaloki says:

      Well, quick reply to explain my “free market runs contrary to democracy” thing. I’ve written about it before, probably should’ve put a link to it in this post, but here’s the quick version.

      Capitalism, pure and unfettered, has the basic philosophy of survival of the fittest. The strong survive. A wholly untouched market where only the power of money matters allows for a plutocracy and the power of corporations. It’s one reason we created anti-trust acts, to prevent too much power being accumulated and market being owned. Meanwhile, our government has, in theory, the basic philosophy of equality. Our Constitution and its amendments tout it, but even the basic premise of “one person, one vote” suggests it. In a capitalistic market, the majority rules. In a democracy, the majority rules but the minority still has a protected voice. That minority voice is squashed in capitalism. See: Nickle & Dime stores.

      If the government didn’t touch the market one iota, and a big oil company decided it wanted oil in an Arabic country, they’d go and get it. That’s practically what happened with Iran in the 1950s. The philosophy of Gordon Gecko, “Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good,” runs, in my opinion, contrary to the very premise of America as outlined in both the Declaration of Independence, vis a vis unalienable rights, and the Constitution, which dictates that America was created to form a more perfect union and promote the general welfare. An untouched market promotes the welfare of the big business owners. It was government that had to step in and demand the rights of workers, like the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, anti-child labor laws, anti-trust laws, OSHA and other health laws for workers. I’m not saying all regulations are good, but I am saying that a completely unchained market, particularly combined with a powerless government, creates a system in which the common worker is trampled on the path to the biggest buck.

      …that’s the quick version. Actually, might be the slightly longer version, too, but I could probably ramble on about it for another thousand or so words.

      • mharper says:

        I think you have to address something else that is very much part of this particular political philosophy: while the market may be untouched by a gov’t, it is very much at the mercy of consumers. We have to acknowledge the viability of boycotts and labor walk-outs as a means to changing the behavior of companies. Granted, this requires more time and energy on the part of the consumer to do his/her homework and keep track of companies that are engaged in activities the consumer does not agree with–but it is effective (See: Montgomery bus boycott).

        And while gov’ts ultimately passed laws regulating all the things you list, these laws came in response to grass-roots efforts by individuals, union organizers, and unions.

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