Sunday, December 6, 2009

In Whom We Trust

Happy 38th birthday to the Libertarians among us. The Libertarian Party was founded on December 11, 1971, and is now the largest “third” party in the United States. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, estimates conservatively that libertarians comprise anywhere from 13% to 20% of the American electorate. At the rate things are going, that means that people who identify as libertarians may soon outnumber Republicans, whose numbers seem to have been in the mid-20th percentile in recent months (depending, of course, on who you believe).

In talking about libertarians, it’s necessary to distinguish between those affiliated with the political party (spelled with a capital “L”) and those who “lean” libertarian (with a small “l”). Either way, this group is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in terms of the national discourse and decision making.

I’m no expert, but my sense is that in general, libertarians tend to be young, well-educated, and tech savvy. Highly resistant to being boxed and labeled, they fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media by communicating mostly on the Internet. Being generally anti-government, they tend not to brag about their influence; they seem to regard any necessary foray into politics the way a dairy farmer might think about mucking out the barn—as a distasteful but unavoidable part of the business of citizenry.

I find the rise of the libertarians both heartening and alarming. It is heartening because a viable third voice in this country may help us get past the colossal waste of time and energy represented by bipartisan posing and sniping. It’s alarming because I believe that the first principle of libertarianism—the primacy of the individual—is wrong. (More about that later, in what I hope will become a fruitful and mutually enlightening discussion.) The point here is that I, for one, will no longer talk about the American “two party” system. That expression is now antiquated and misleading.

No round-up of mainstream modern American thought would be complete without mention of a movement that is increasingly independent of traditional party affiliation and seems to be emerging as a new “party”: the fundamentalist Christian “conservatives.” With Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer, this group may eventually coalesce under the “Conservative Party” label, a group characterized by anti-intellectualism and magical thinking.

According to a recent biography, Ayn Rand, the ill-tempered, irascible defender of all things capitalist, often greeted new acquaintances with the question, “What are your premises?” Although based on her radical (and incorrect) belief that all decisions are based on reason, the question itself is important. Not knowing the answer is the basis of no end of pointless, existential conversations between people who think they’re talking about the same thing but really aren’t. (Case in point: When Republicans use the word “socialism,” they mean one thing; when Democrats use it, they mean something else entirely.)

Although her theories were greatly flawed by her ignorance and denial of the emotional aspects of decision making (a mistake that also created havoc in her personal life), Rand was correct in her belief that we can’t really understand “where people are coming from” if we don’t know the basic tenets of their philosophy—in other words, if we don’t know in what or whom they place their trust.

That said, for the sake of our ongoing discussion, here is a brief (and admittedly biased) summary of the main political movements in this country and their guiding principles:
  • Democrats believe in the People—in the collective ability of a group of well-informed and well-intentioned individuals to band together to protect what they value and to progress.

  • Republicans believe in the Market, which they believe to be impartial and benign but is really designed to empower and enrich the few at the expense of the many.

  • Libertarians believe in the individual, not as a member of a community but rather as a sovereign decision-maker free to act, as much as possible, without reference to the concerns or mores of the larger society.

  • Religious “Conservatives” believe in God, as well as in religious and political leaders who claim to speak for God.

Next: “We the People”


The Tarquin said...

You've done a pretty good job of summing up the libertarian position here. We believe, generally speaking, that individual liberty is the highest political good and that government should be minimized as much as is possible or feasible. Many of the arguments amongst libertarians revolve around how little government really is feasible. The answer largely comes down to what the individual libertarian sees as the proper role of government. For law-and-order Minarchists like myself, that role is basically enforcing just laws, protecting individual rights, and punishing bad actors.

My one quibble with your post, and it's a relatively minor one, is the implication that there are party Libertarians and that all other libertarians are just like lesser version. The Libertarian party in America doesn't enjoy the support of many libertarians for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are ideological, (e.g. the Anarcho-Capitalists think that the Libertarian party makes too many concessions. Some "thick" libertarians (I've also heard them referred to as "positive libertarians") think that they make too few. There's also the fact that, for many years, the Libertarian Party had a bit of an infestation of the crazy. That's gotten much better, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of some libertarians who would otherwise be ready to toe the party line.

So it's not simply that there's The Libertarian Party and then lesser libertarians, rather the Libertarian Party represents one, middle-of-the-road libertarian platform. Some libertarians are on board with it enough to sign up, others think it's not for them.

Like I said, minor point of distinction, but I think it's one that's important, if only sociologically.

Six said...

You said Democrats 'believe in the people' - I would beg to differ, I think it is the opposite. Democrats have very little faith in the people - hence the obsession with constantly expanding the Federal governments role in our lives.

And which of her theories are 'greatly flawed'? Have you even read any of her books?

Idna said...

I agree with you, Six. Dems have faith in the Nanny State, not in the people.

I read Atlas Shrugged a couple of months ago. Great book. Amazing the parallels between our current government's actions and the ill-fated government in her book. Example after example.

Jane, you say that Ayn Rand's "theories were greatly flawed by her ignorance and denial of the emotional aspects of decision making." I don't know what you mean by that?

Are you saying that she wasn't emotional enough? Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't you spent a lot of time in many a blog deriding emotionalism?

I'm confused.

The Tarquin said...

Six and Idna,

I agree with you both that the Dems seem to not trust people one whit. They seem instead to favor nanny-state solutions to everything from education to obesity to the sharp rim on open cans of soup.

But they're not alone in that. The Republicans these days are every bit as enamored with large government and oppressive, unaccountable regulation and paternalism.

Both Bushes, in particular, LOVED regulation, and both massively swelled the size and scope of the federal government.

BOTH parties are in desperate need of a re-acquaintance with the limited powers spelled out in the Constitution. At the very least.