The true libertarian

Posted: May 28, 2012

Recently someone named Adam Teicholz, described as a writer living in New York and “a former judicial clerk at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals,” posted a piece on the Atlantic’s website titled “Did Bloggers Kill the Health Care Mandate?”

What caught my attention was the deck (journalese for the part of a headline — right below the main headline — that summarizes the story), which said in part that “a handful of right-wing legal experts have changed the way Americans view the Affordable Care Act.”

The article had largely to do with legal scholars associated with a law blog named the Volokh Conspiracy. To be fair, Teicholz probably did not write the headline or the deck and does differentiate in the article between conservative and libertarian lawyers, and he refers to Randy Barnett and other Volokh contributors as libertarian. But the conflation of conservative and libertarian evident in the deck is increasingly common, and I find it increasingly annoying.

I am a registered Libertarian and have been for more than 20 years. It is my way of dissociating myself from both Republicans and Democrats. Now, why would I want to do that? Well, it has to do with political fundamentals.

Asked once what his political outlook was, comedian Fred Allen replied, “I believe everybody should leave everybody else the hell alone.” My sentiments exactly. Of course, if I’m wiling to leave you alone, you ought to be willing to leave me alone. I’m a practicing Catholic of the old school, and I think abortion is a grave moral wrong. But that doesn’t mean I want a return to the days when abortion was a crime. It does mean I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for yours.

I also think that gay couples should have all the rights and privileges extended to straight couples. And I think people should be allowed to ingest, inhale, or inject anything they want into themselves on their own dime. The so-called war on drugs has done far more harm than good, and by comparison makes the Vietnam War seem an unmitigated triumph.

None of these views is commonly identified in the media as conservative, though I know plenty of conservatives who share them. But not all conservatives. I suspect Rick Santorum would have some problems with them.

So why do libertarians like me always find ourselves linked with the dreaded right-wing bugbear?

I suppose it has something to do with another view libertarians tend to share with conservatives: the wish that government live within its means. After all, the government’s only means are those provided by us taxpayers. If it spends more than that and borrows more besides, do you know who has to pay the loan? That’s right: Us. Bear in mind that between January 2009 and summer of last year the federal debt ceiling increased 24 percent, from $11.3 trillion to $14.3 trillion.

Congress has not passed a budget for three years. Forget the blame game, Democrats. For two of those years, both houses were controlled by your guys. What is evident is that our political class has become dysfunctional.

(I should note that while Republican politicians talk a good line about reining in spending, once elected, they are as likely as their Democratic counterparts to line up at the earmarks trough. One notable exception is House Speaker John Boehner, who has never requested an earmark for his district.)

Anyway, living within your means really has nothing to do with being conservative and everything to do with being responsible. If you don’t believe that, try running your affairs the way the government manages its accounts. Hope you know a good bankruptcy lawyer.

Libertarians also subscribe to the Principle of Subsidiarity, which holds, according to David A. Bosnich of the Acton Institute, that “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be.” My neighbors and I know better what’s good for our neighborhood than the people in City Hall do, but the people in City Hall may have a better idea of what’s good for the city than the people in Harrisburg do. And so on up the administrative ladder.

Yes, I think that’s the main reason liberals and progressives like to lump us libertarians in with Republicans (though again, the most that Republicans usually have to offer on the matter is more lip service). The fact is, Republicans and Democrats alike tend to regard the states and municipalities of the nation as just branch offices of the federal government. All of them are likely to “advocate a state-directed, regulated economy … the use and primacy of regulated private property and private enterprise, [and] the use of state enterprise where private enterprise is failing or is inefficient.” (That, by the way, is from the Wikipedia entry for “fascism.”) In other words, they are all, in varying degrees, statists. And a statist is precisely what a libertarian is not.

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” President John F. Kennedy famously declared. The true libertarian, who regards himself as a citizen, not a subject, would prefer to ask neither.

Frank Wilson is a retired book editor of The Inquirer and the proprietor of the blog Books Inq. — The Epilogue. E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.

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