Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tilting Toward Libertarianism

As a teenager and as a young adult, I pegged myself on the left side of the political spectrum. I called myself a liberal, which is of course a misnomer. Those who call themselves liberal today typically look to the government as the promoter and guarantor of the general welfare. In their view, the government is somehow to achieve this noble end through regulation, control and even ownership of economic activity; by redistributing wealth; or by incentivizing desired human behavior through regulation or the tax code. I prefer to label this ideology for what it is: statism.

My own ideology has since evolved to what is commonly labeled “conservative”. I prefer to call myself a “classical liberal”, if for no other purpose than to confuse, irritate or otherwise arouse the curiosity of those on the left. But “classical liberal” is indeed a more accurate term than “conservative”, because it describes the philosophy of America’s founding fathers. Our founders rebelled against government tyranny and cherished individual freedom. I subscribe to that maxim which is attributed to Thomas Jefferson and/or Thomas Paine: "The government is best which governs least."

Paine took the maxim a step further: "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." I am not willing to go that far, which is why I have generally shied away from calling myself a libertarian. Indeed, if I accepted Paine’s application, I would have to go as far as Henry David Thoreau, who in his Essay on Civil Disobedience added:

Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

Tempting as it might be, I cannot call government a necessary evil, first and foremost because I am a Christian. The Scriptures make it clear that, even while governments can be corrupt, they are to be respected and submitted to as long as they are following their divinely ordained role of suppressing evil (See Romans 13:1-7). Furthermore, I am a government employee, for crying out loud! Surely, I see many legitimate roles for government, even if I abhor the idea of a cradle-to-grave nanny state. But I must confess to having increasing difficulty knowing exactly where to draw the line. For some issues, it is easy; others, not so much.

For example, my “liberal” friends often present me with the shallow argument of “How can you be a Christian and not believe in helping the poor? Doesn’t Jesus tell you to sell your possessions and give to the poor? Didn’t the believers in the first church hold all their possessions in common, as recorded in Acts 4:32-35?" That argument is so easy to refute it is laughable, especially when it is coming from a liberal who otherwise has little use for religion in general or Christianity in particular. First of all, I do believe in helping the poor. Christian charity and helping “the least of these” is commendable, especially when it is not done under compulsion, for “God loves a cheerful giver”. On the other hand, liberals, socialists and other sundry leftists, who otherwise correctly insist on the separation of church and state, have no qualms about using the power of the state to help the poor by confiscating other people’s money. Christian charity ceases to be charity when it is imposed by the state. If my liberal friends are interested in helping their fellow man, they can reach into their own pockets, as I will endeavor to voluntarily reach into mine.

A libertarian would applaud my argument, but he might also accuse me of inconsistency because I do not apply it to other commonly accepted areas of government intervention. For example, I have no problem with government controlling or proscribing morally repugnant behavior. A case in point: most states have laws against prostitution, which arguably can be viewed as a voluntary transaction between consenting adults. What business does the government have intervening as long as the transaction is indeed mutually voluntary and no one is being hurt or exploited. Yes, it is morally repugnant from a Christian point of view, but why should the government impose Christian morality in this case any more than in the previous example of trying to help the poor?

If indeed less government is better government, where does one draw the line? I had been thinking a lot about this question when I ran across an interview of the late Milton Friedman, which was recently republished by the Hoover Institution: TAKE IT TO THE LIMITS: Milton Friedman on Libertarianism.

In this very informative and worthwhile interview, Friedman first clarified the issue by drawing a distinction between two strands of libertarianism:

The more extreme version of libertarianism has one central principle- it is immoral to initiate force on anyone else. … So the coercive power of the state is immoral in and of itself...and all you need to know that something of the state is immoral is whether it involves the initiation of force. That's one brand, now there's another brand which is one I would be favorable to, which you could call consequentialist libertarianism. [It] wants the smallest, least intrusive government consistent with the maximum freedom of each individual, as long as he doesn't interfere with other individuals pursuing their own freedom.

The former, more extreme version of libertarianism is in line with Paine and Thoreau: government force of any kind is at best a necessary evil. But even the more benign “consequentialist” version of libertarianism preferred by Friedman leaves me in the same conundrum. In this interview, Friedman explained his libertarian objections to some historical and generally accepted examples of government intervention, such as child labor laws, the regulation of food and drugs, environmental laws, civil rights laws, etc. He argued that in some cases, the commendable ends achieved by some of these laws would have happened more quickly if the government had not intervened. In the case of civil rights laws, he argued that the problem of racial inequality (particularly in the south) was in fact the result of government law. :

[T]hat was a case of too much government. The government provided for a separation. It was the government that enforced separate areas for blacks and whites; it was the government that enforced the law that the blacks had to sit at the back of buses. Those were all government laws!...In the absence of government laws, you would've had a gradual development, it would've taken place somewhere and not everywhere and you would've...look what happened in the north where there weren't those government laws. There may have been, undoubtedly don't misunderstand me, there is prejudice, there's no question, and undoubtedly it has bad affects on various people but in the absence of the laws in the south it would've broken down much faster and much earlier. If you could cite any case for libertarianism, that's it.

Though Friedman’s arguments can be compelling, I am not quite convinced. Though I find myself increasingly sympathetic toward libertarians, I still see plenty of legitimate roles for government to which libertarians would object. I will still call myself a classical liberal or – if you insist – a conservative.

In the meantime, I highly recommend that you give the Friedman interview a thoughtful listen, no matter where you are on the political spectrum.  I would be interested in knowing your thoughts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have found myself, too, "tilting toward Libertarianism". I never would have believed it but more of their arguments make sense to me now. Katherine