Like most Libertarians, I am occasionally asked what Libertarians believe. Since this is my only chance to make a positive first-impression, my preferred response is that Libertarians believe the same things you believe. After all, everyone is half Libertarian.
To explain this seemingly perplexing statement, I propose the following thought experiment. Imagine that your worst case, your most feared, politician is in the White House, and that the same sort of politicians have taken control of the Senate and House. Now, what is it that this government would force or prevent you from doing? How much power over your life do you want this government to have? Does it ban access to abortions, or prevent you from buying guns? Are you forced to pay new taxes to fund a border wall or Plan Parenthood? Is your speech limited, or corporate speech too? Are you forced into union dues? Which of your rights are curtailed, trampled, ignored by your government worst case scenario? Which of your ideals, thoughts, goals or dreams are outlawed? Remember to imagine this ideology of your nightmares is now in power.
All of this, they will tell you, is of course done for your sake. You are told that while you may think you are the victim of the new laws, in fact you are the beneficiary. Though you might not have realized this you were the victim before the new laws but now you are protected. In some cases, it is true, you are protected from yourself but that is part of the nature of protection after all. Drugs can hurt you so you can’t take them. Sex with the same gender partner will destroy your soul, but luckily that’s illegal. Getting a job that pays less than the government thinks you deserve is outlawed for your own good. They tell you that lamentably you aren’t in the best position to judge these things. There are experts that have thought these things out for you. These experts, they assure you, have considered the issues without bias and arrived at recommendations that the benevolent law-makers will now implement on your behalf. This is all to make the world better for you. This is undeniable since public service is their calling and helping you their moral goal. They condescendingly let you know that there is no way for you to have all the information required to make the best choices. You haven’t the time, the knowledge or that unbiased point-of-view needed to make the right judgments. Lucky for you, they are your servants looking out for your needs.
You protest that there is no such thing as an unbiased point-of-view when the very experts themselves are selected by biased human beings and that perhaps if different human beings selected different experts the “right” decisions may have been different. You point out that in the process of establishing recommendations these experts are necessarily making trade-offs. You agree that breast cancer research is important, but so is diabetes research. Within this framework, how could there possibly be a one-size-fits-all “right” answer? Since there can’t be a set of “right” trade-offs, why should you be forced to follow their choices?
If the supposed technocrats want your support, they need only to convince you. But when they fail to convince you, they use the force of government to make you obey. Their violence against you is morally repugnant and beneath the functioning of a free society. After all, if their ideas were good, they wouldn’t have to force you to follow them. Force, you tell them, is a confession that their reasoning is faulty.
If you are like most people I believe you feel disgust, concern, perhaps a bit of righteous indignation. “I don’t want to be forced to do ANYTHING”, you’d say in response to the original question. Libertarians would agree with you. This is exactly how Libertarians feel and what they also believe. You are at least half Libertarian. You understand in a very personal and moral way, what it means to be Libertarian. You get it. You feel the angered-bemusement that Libertarians experience when people are forced to act against their will – even for their own good. You understand what Libertarians feel when they think that the government has too much power over their lives. That’s the core of it.
Well, almost. Half the picture is still missing. We need to propose the complimentary unavoidably scenario. Imagine that those politicians of your choice now control the White House and both houses of congress? What mandates from your government will force others to act contrary to their individual will? How much power do you want your ideal government to have over the lives of others? In light of the prior scenario, this one should give everyone cause to introspect. A moment ago, you were that other person, facing what you viewed as a government hostile to your freedoms, but now YOU have the political power. How big is the whip in your hands? You didn’t want to be oppressed, but do you feel righteous when – roles reversed – you have chosen a government to do what is “in the best interest of others”? You don’t see yourself as oppressor? Of course you don’t, but then neither did your oppressors in the prior scenario. They were your friends, your benefactors, technocrats looking out for you. Remember?
So now I can provide the full explanation of what Libertarians believe. A Libertarian provides the same answer each scenario, Libertarians don’t want to use force or be forced. The power of government should be limited such that one cannot coerce me nor can I coerce those who disagree with me.
Too often the explanation of what it means to be Libertarian gets muddled in economics. The thoughts of Hayek, Friedman or von Mises are used to explain Libertarian positions. The economic arguments may be true but they do Libertarianism a disservice. They do little to convey that at its core Libertarianism rests on a foundation of morality. Libertarianism is founded in respect for the individual will. It is a symmetrically applied morality that looks inward and outward. Morality underlies the Libertarian answer to political questions. It is in my understanding, the only political belief that can make this claim.
By Frank Montes – Member of the County Executive Committee, Libertarian Party of Broward County.