Sunday, November 18, 2007

Defining others, defining ourselves; What does it mean to be a Libertarian?

Mike Mahaffie, in a recent comment on First State Politics about anonymous blogging, makes the following interesting observation:

I am not a Libertarian, though I place value on some libertarian precepts. I don’t think we should have complete personal freedom tempered only by common sense and decency. Lets face it, some people are assholes. Some people are stupid. Some people are violent. Some are all three. There should be some laws and societal controls to help us temper our nasty habits.

I am always suspicious of being defined by somebody who doesn't share my political philosophy, but it's also useful to understand how people view your beliefs.

Let's unpack Mike's comments.

"I don't think we should have complete personal freedom tempered only by common sense and decency."

Funny, I don't either. My individual liberty ends when my actions harm somebody else or materially interfere with their liberty. That's why we have laws. I don't yearn for Rousseau's (or worse, Hobbes') "State of nature," which is what Mike seems to think Libertarians value (at least in this comment).

"Lets face it, some people are assholes. Some people are stupid. Some people are violent. Some are all three. There should be some laws and societal controls to help us temper our nasty habits."

Here's where we start to differ seriously. Being an asshole, being stupid, and even being violent (in nature) are not crimes or even "nasty habits" that have to be controlled by society UNTIL that person acts on those impulses and harms someone else.

Being an asshole is almost always a matter of perception--just look at Donviti and Dave Burris. Which one you choose to characterize as suffering from anal-cranial inversion tells me more about you than about them. And even if you think both of them do, you have to admit they're entertaining. Do I seriously want my society impoverished by the elimination of such creative asininity?

Being stupid should, frankly, have been included in that list of unalienable rights, but these days everyone wants to assert his or her right to save me from myself. Senator Margaret Rose Henry wants people old enough to have a driver's license to be forced by the State to wear a bicycle helmet. The internet pharmacy legislation pending in the GA right now asserts the right of the State to protect me from the perils of ordering cheap prescription medications. I can already be pulled over by Officer Friendly for being too stupid to wear a seat belt. Sorry, I can't subscribe to saving people from their own stupidity--as long as it doesn't directly harm anyone else--as a legimate, primary function of government.

As for violent people, we're probably in agreement on this one. I don't support allowing violent acts to go unrestricted and/or unpunished, and I don't think that's the position of most Libertarians. On the other hand, we share a strong preference for visiting consequences on people for what they do, not what they think, or fantasize about, or might do someday.

That last one's a more difficult question for everyone, Libertarians included. As psychology and brain science goes further and further into real predictive ability, society is faced with questions like repeat sex offenders and what to do with them.

But extremes like that are a far cry from what Mike's talking about above. And maybe I'm making too much of an "off the cuff" comment.

For the record, however, here's how I define a Libertarian: a person who values individual liberty and small, limited government, which is both transparent and accountable in action. I believe that if it is not ethical for an individual to exercise coercion in a particular situation, then it is not necessarily ethical for a government to do so in the same circumstances.

I believe, with James Madison, that government is necessary because men are not angels (and therefore imperfect), but that it is more important to restrict government from doing evil than to empower government to do good.

With Robert Heinlein, I don't believe in utopias. I suspect that when any group--Libertarians, Socialists, or whatever--gets firmly in control of the institutional apparatus of a state that the citizens are the losers. Only a dynamic opposition of interests protects us better than a top-heavy, well-paid bureaucracy sitting atop large volumes of regulations and policies.


Anonymous said...

"A Libertarian believes it is his right to do whatever he damn well pleases, and suffer the consequences."
P.J. O'Rourke

I like your definition better.

Unknown said...

Steve, it was mostly an off-the-cuff comment. I wouldn't presume to define Libertarianism. I was trying find a logical balance between editorial control and freedom of speech in pursuit of my point. Whatever that was.

Steven H. Newton said...

I realized it was "off the cuff," and hopefully my use didn't offend. My self-appointed mission is to somewhat redefine libertarianism in common usage within the state, and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass by. But if it wasn't extemporaneous, how would you define Libertarianism, and what issue would you take with the philosophy? That's what I'm really interested in.