This week, we’re gonna take a brief look at Libertarianism. We won’t spend as much time as previous weeks since less than 1% of registered voters identify as Libertarians (though, presumably, many more would identify if they better understood the ideology). Also, like we did with Democrats and Republicans, we’re going to focus on the Libertarian Party.
Though it holds no seats in Congress or as governor, the Libertarian Party is the third largest political group in America. It synthesized in its present form in response to the perceived shortcomings of Republican candidate Richard Nixon and is today known for promoting civil liberties, non-interventionism, and laissez-faire capitalism.
While Libertarians can often be found in the urban south, the ideology is significantly more geographically diverse than the two other major parties. People are drawn toward this third option for a variety of reasons. I myself have flirted with its merits in a recent blog post and have discussed the array of possibilities for holding Libertarian convictions.
Socially, Libertarians are generally seen as more liberal. They advocate for ending the war on drugs and capital punishment and support same-sex marriage. Conversely, they often promote gun ownership rights.
The common thread for their stance on social issues is their belief that individuals should be able to make their own decisions as long as they do not harm others. For Libertarians, government should not be in the business of legislating morality. Rather, religion, philosophy, and whatever else should act as guides for people doing the right thing.
Regarding economic policy, the Libertarian Party calls for extreme reduction in government intervention. This necessitates the lowering of taxes, decreasing the national debt, allowing people to opt out of Social Security, and possibly even abolishing the IRS. Parallel with this vision is the elimination of the welfare state.
Most surface level criticism of Libertarians focuses on the welfare repercussions of these policies. Under a purely libertarian leadership, less or no money would be given to projects like Medicare and Medicaid or to public schools and art initiatives or to anything attempting to help the poor or disabled. Libertarians are not heartless, though, and they recognize that not everyone can take care of themselves. For this reason, Libertarianism calls for private charity and for church organizations to take up the slack of government, watching out for the disenfranchised (and probably more efficiently).
Libertarians are bound by their sense of fairness, and for them, fairness is everyone being granted perfect freedom. Philosophically, this aligns Libertarianism with classical liberal thought, in contrast to Democrats’ liberalism and progressivism and Republicans’ conservatism. Libertarians convictions are not tied directly to something being novel or traditional but rather to whatever grants people the most freedom.
Economically, there is lots of support for this way of thinking, the idea that governments are inefficient and that the free-market can best support society. Socially, Libertarians stand by the hard-to-argue-with concept of freedom and, as the name would imply, liberty. Libertarians may think drugs are bad or guns are dangerous, but ultimately they want that decision to be up to every individual for them to choose freely.
As I said a few weeks ago, there’s a lot about Libertarians that I like. It’s hard to contest the practicality or efficiency of their policies (if properly enacted), and most of the time, I think their advocacy of freedom is a good thing—in some ways as God intended.
But there’s still plenty that needs to be critiqued: drawing a line for what constitutes harming another individual can be tricky if not impossible; there has been significant scholarly disagreement on the tenability of a free-market health care program; the question still stands whether people really can manage their own best interest. Freedom can never be the ultimate goal. Freedom is simply a virtue and a tool in accomplishing the ultimate goal. And like any tool, it should be discarded when it is no longer useful.
So what does it take to be a good Libertarian? As with members of the other major parties, the first requirement is not looking down on those with different ideas; it’s understanding those positions and learning to sympathize with them; it’s not thinking your position is the only “logical” one. Libertarians should continue to advocate from their minority position for practical and efficient change, the sort of change that will ultimately increase the well-being of millions. But in advocating for that change, they cannot lose sight of the outliers and the collateral; they must continue to care for all, even if those individuals don’t fit into their algorithm. This means sometimes that freedom can’t be the only criteria when enacting social policy or shaping the government’s hand in the economy. This means remembering there are things that matter more.