Chad Everson is helping me promote my online Mises Academy class on Principles of Economics (which starts September 8!). He asked me to explain how libertarianism fits into the conventional Republican/Democratic political establishment in the United States, because it often seems as if libertarians straddle the fence.
This is a common reaction when people begin encountering libertarian positions on hot-button issues. What I want to argue is that it is the libertarian who offers a consistent worldview, whereas the typical conservative/liberal or right-winger/left-winger or Republican/Democrat (though we can all see there is hardly any difference in this last “spectrum”) often uses arguments that conflict with each other.
Before diving in, let me give the disclaimer that I obviously can’t speak for all self-described libertarians, since they don’t all agree on every issue. There is also the difference between “big-L” Libertarians who are part of an actual third political party, versus “small-l” libertarians who embrace it as a philosophy but don’t focus on the ballot box as the means of achieving freedom.
Libertarians value liberty as the highest political goal, and view it as an end in itself. They think that people should have the legal right to do whatever they want with their own private property, so long as their actions don’t interfere with the ability of other people to use their property.
A common way of summarizing the libertarian position (in the context of American politics) is to say a libertarian is “conservative on economic issues but liberal on social issues.” This is because the libertarian tends to favor tax cuts, government spending cuts, deregulation of business, no minimum wage laws, etc. On the other hand, the libertarian also tends to oppose the drug war, laws against prostitution, the military draft, laws against homosexuality, etc. So generally speaking, the libertarian is allied with right-wing conservatives on fiscal/business policy recommendations, but the libertarian is allied with left-wing liberals on civil liberties issues.
Far from being inconsistent, the libertarian finds these positions to be perfectly straightforward: The libertarian quite consistently champions individuals and their use of private property, and opposes arbitrary government interference with such use. For example, the libertarian opposes the minimum wage because (a) politicians have no right to tell two consenting adults how much one has to pay the other, and (b) free-market economics shows that minimum wage laws actually hurt poor people.
But in a quite analogous fashion, the libertarian opposes laws against prostitution because (a) politicians have no right to tell two consenting adults how much one has to pay the other (for sex–in most places the only officially allowed price is $0), and (b) free-market economics shows that the crackdown on prostitution actually leads to more venereal disease and other social problems.
To the libertarian, it is ironic to hear the Left and Right discuss the US government. Depending on the issue, the government is either an incredibly evil, bumbling, and dangerous institution, OR it is the fount of aid, mercy, and intelligence.
For example, if we’re debating the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, or Guantanamo Bay, the typical left-wing liberal will accuse the US federal government of outright war crimes, and of being like Nazi Germany. In contrast, the typical right-wing conservative will defend the honor of US troops, the competence of intelligence agencies to keep Americans safe, and the motivations of the people who ordered the invasion.
Yet when we switch to socialized health care, all of a sudden the same liberals will wax eloquently about the government’s duty and ability to help the poor, to rationally plan the entire health-care infrastructure, and to make life-and-death decisions about how much care elders will receive. In contrast, all of a sudden the same conservatives will be very suspicious about the motives of the people in DC, and will complain about socialist power grabs, comparing Obama to Hitler.
The libertarian looks at such debates and says, basically, “You’re both right.”
Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from New York University. He is the author of a new textbook, Lessons for the Young Economist, which can be downloaded for free. Starting September 8, he will teach a 10-week online course on the Principles of Economics at the Mises Academy.