A. G. Gardiner wrote, “[W]e can be neither complete anarchists nor complete Socialists in this complex world — or rather we must be a judicious mixture of both. We have both liberties to preserve — our individual liberty and our social liberty. We must watch the bureaucrat on the one side and warn off the anarchist on the other.” This theme of moderate liberty is one that I will be exploring in this series.
America is haunted by a specter, the specter of libertarianism. I am not a libertarian, and through this series of columns I shall endeavor to illustrate some of the most glaring flaws of this meretricious political philosophy. In this column I will lay out a working definition of libertarianism. Next time, I will express the need for government regulation. In the third column I will discuss the merits of the welfare state. And in the final column I shall offer some advice as to what we ought to do about libertarianism.
First, it is important that I define libertarianism. Libertarianism is quite a broad philosophy with many different branches, each with a legitimate claim to the moniker. In the broadest sense, libertarianism is, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “a political philosophy that affirms the rights of individuals to liberty, to acquire, keep, and exchange their holdings, and considers the protection of individual rights the primary role for the state.” Under this definition, nearly everyone in the Western tradition is a libertarian.
For the sake of this series, I will define libertarianism in what is likely its most familiar guise in America: that of the Libertarian Party. The Libertarian Party is a growing third party in the American political landscape — indeed its website claims that it is the third-largest political party in America. Not everyone who is a libertarian is a member of this party — Rand Paul, for example, is a libertarian in the Republican Party. However, the Libertarian Party is a good place to look for the foundational beliefs of libertarians of all parties.
The Libertarian Party’s slogan is “minimum government, maximum freedom.” In fact, the party says, “Libertarians strongly oppose any government interfering in their personal, family and business decisions. Essentially, … [libertarians] believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another. In a nutshell, … [libertarians] are advocates for a smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom.” After sifting through the propaganda, one can see what this ideology is all about.
In a sense, libertarians can be thought of as an amalgamation of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Libertarians are more like Democrats vis-à-vis social issues and more like Republicans vis-à-vis economic issues. This is an oversimplification, but it is a simple way to summarize a complex ideology.
What about Ayn Rand? She had a very fascinating relationship with libertarianism. Rand described libertarians as “hippies … who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.” The point Rand makes is that libertarians lack the objective framework that she espoused. To her, libertarians were purely anarchic subjectivists. However, the Ayn Rand Institute points out that “the meaning of the term ‘libertarian’ has been changing over the decades.” According to a more modern definition, Ayn Rand is a libertarian.
Rand’s philosophy is largely libertarian in its advocating of laissez-faire capitalism and minimal government. According to Rand, “[T]he only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman.”
I should say now that this series is not an attack on capitalism, but rather an attack on capitalism run amok. There is more to life than cheap cotton shirts and the Kardashians, consumerism and popular culture. Capitalism must be regulated if the modern world is to survive politically, economically, spiritually and aesthetically.
To conclude, for the sake of this series, a libertarian is defined as one who holds that government should be kept to a minimum and that the market should be completely unfettered. Libertarians believe that the current ills of America are the result of government involvement. They believe that people will prosper if left to their own devices, and that people will simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work to achieve success. It is a philosophy of rugged individualism, which is why it is so enticing to many Americans.
Yet one must be wary because libertarianism is among the most vacuous political philosophies ever devised. It is an ignorant ideology that reeks of adolescent rebellion with a touch of anarchism. Unrestrained economic and political freedom will not lead to liberty and justice for all.