Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What Is A Libertarian?

One of this blog's Serial Commenters recently asked me "What is a Libertarian?"

My off-the-cuff answer was something like this: "You know all the personal freedom issues that the Democrats seem to support, like Gay and Lesbian rights, reform of drug laws, and abortion rights, but never do much about? Libertarians support your right to personal freedom. And all the economic freedom issues that Republicans seem to support, like limited government, free markets, and free trade, but never do much about? Libertarians support your right to economic freedom."

I thought it was an OK answer. There are hundreds of sites out there trying to define libertarianism. This is my shot at doing it. The other question that I get is "Why can't you people ever get elected?"

The difficulty with getting Libertarians elected in the U.S. lies in the very nature of Libertarian beliefs. Imagine every state, county, city, town, and individual in America pouring hog slop into a large communal trough. Let's call this feeding trough "The Treasury".

Various people campaign for the right to stir the swill, and spoon it back out to the states, counties, cities, towns and individuals that contributed it to the trough. Let's call these people "Politicians".

Politicians are considered effective when they can give your hogs more swill than they contributed. They are considered ineffective and corrupt when more of your swill goes to other hogs than back to you.
For instance, Fort Worth TX doesn't need a huge air force base. There is no eminent threat from, say, Oklahoma. But when it came time to downsize the military at the end of The Cold War, politicians from both of the major parties fought the closure of Carswell Air Force Base. It was the leading conduit of hog slop back into the city.

Another good example would be Alaska's infamous Bridge To Nowhere. There was no real need, but that's irrelevant. Ted Stevens, The Alaskan Swineherd (R), was doing his job, and doing it well.

So any group like The Libertarian Party that wants to shrink the hog trough by 90% is going to have a hard time raising funds. Libertarians don't want to throw any graft your way. No lucrative contracts, no subsidies, no quotas, no set-asides. Very few people understand that the savings would be massive, the economy would boom, the displaced government workers would have a relatively easy time finding employment, but perhaps have a difficult time finding employment that's as easy.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Libertarianism. Note that it's synonymous with "Classical Liberal", a fact that I had a good time with on this post. Liberal is a good, honorable word, and we need to reclaim it from the Big Statists.

Here's some attempts at a definition from The Cato Institute. Good folks.

Here's The World's Shortest Political Quiz - a chart that lets you see where you fit on two different political continuums. It's also one of The World's Most Biased Political Quizzes, since most of the people who take it test out as libertarian, but they don't vote that way.

Here's a link to a better than average sampling of libertarian vs. collectivist quotes. Here are a few contrasting examples, provided as a public service:

"Among other grand achievements, F. A. Hayek had a remarkable career pointing out the flaws in collectivism. One of his keenest insights was that, paradoxically, any collectivist system necessarily depends on one individual (or small group) to make key social and economic decisions. In contrast, a system based on individualism takes advantage of the aggregate, or 'collective,' information of the whole society; through his actions each participant contributes his own particular, if incomplete, knowledge—information that could never be tapped by the individual at the head of a collectivist state." -- Sheldon Richman

"A man's admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him"-- Alexis de Tocqueville

"The unity of a nation's spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual; and that the higher interests involved in the life of the whole must here set the limits and lay down the duties of the interests of the individual." -- Adolph Hitler

"We need to stop worrying about the rights of the individual and start worrying about what is best for society." -- Hillary Clinton

"...we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men." -- Adolf Hitler, 10-7-33

"We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good." -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, June 28, 2004.

"To be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole." -- Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, National Socialist German Workers' ("Nazi") Party
Thanks to the Middle Class Myth blog for the photo of piggies at the trough. Thanks to Sheldon Richman and de Tocqueville for the great Libertarian quotes. Deeply heartfelt thanks to Hillary and various Nazis for the excellent Collectivist quotes.


Dr Ralph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Ralph said...

Jumped straight to Godwin's Law on those quotes!

(I'd be wittier if I'd spellcheck and not have to delete my original comment)

Anonymous said...

Ahhh...Good stuff! As I say to any of my non-politically interested college mates, Libertarianism is the Porn Star at the house party and you know you can never meet her expectations, but it doesn't stop you from trying. ;)

For a more substantial definition,I've always described it as a pragmatic and political Objectivism.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

I'm familiar with Godwin's law, and posted the quotes anyway. The site I was using had Lady Bruno's quotes nestled in between Adolph and Hermann's.

But yes, using the Nazis so early was a violation of The Rule Of Godwin. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any sites with Hillary quotes interspersed with those of Satan, Lucifer, and Beelzabub.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Glenn A,
I'm interested in Objectivism, but can't quite go that far.
I've been the recipient of too many acts of (voluntary) acts of kindness and charity to do so.

TarrantLibertyGuy said...

A couple of things: your description of libertarianism included abortion rights, which there is frequently a split on that issue. We do agree on one thing on the subject - no government funded abortions ever.

Also, not familiar with Godwin's Law until today, but am familiar with this post on 'Stuff White People Like" - http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/06/25/winner-4/

Anonymous said...

Great stuff WS!

I have another reason why Libertarians never get anywhere politically.

It's, as your post, suggests quite tricky to explain the philosophy.

It took me quite a while reading Samizdata before it really clicked. And I think of myself as being quite smart.

And it's stuff like "negative rights" which put people off. It just doesn't sound as cuddly as positive rights.

Look at Obama. He's riding high on his mantra of "change". People seem to want pols to do things, change things, improve things, build schools'n'hospitals. And this all costs money.

It is electoral suicide for a politican, if asked, "What's your position on Healtcare" to say,"Leave it to you good folks".

And therein lies the problem.

It is very hard not to be seen as an extreme right-wing nut-job who also wants to smoke dope.

I have been trying my damndest to reclaim "Liberal" too. That would be a great start. The currently Orwellian use of that word is a significant part of the problem.

Mark said...

For what it's worth, I tried my own hand at putting together a collection of statements on libertarianism a little while back. Some of them are my own, others not so much - but they are each contained in one sentence.


Rod.Induction said...

The Whited Sepulchre said:

"I've been the recipient of too many acts of (voluntary) acts of kindness and charity to [go into Objectivism]."

I'm an Objectivist, and the philosophy isn't opposed to kindness and charity. In certain situations, with certain people, such things are beneficial to everyone involved. Kindness especially is involved in any close relationships with others (e.g. friendships).

I'd recommend philosophy professor Tara Smith's book "Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: the Virtuous Egoist," as she addresses the Objectivist view on such issues. In particular, the 10th chapter "Implications for Certain Conventional Virtues: Charity, Generosity, Kindness, Temperance" and the appendix "Egoistic Friendship."