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The Conscience of a Libertarian

I’m back baby!  While I’ve been away the republicans released their “Pledge to America.”  So let’s talk about the republicans and politics and the transformation that needs to occur if we are going to avert the coming catastrophe (insurrection…?). 

Begin by thinking back to last year’s special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district.  If you don’t remember, here is what happened.  The leaders of the local Republican party got together in a private meeting and nominated a progressive (Scozzafava).  The actual Republican voters didn’t want a progressive and lined up behind a conservative candidate (Hoffman).  When it became clear that Scozzafava had no chance of winning, she dropped out and threw her support behind the Democrat (Owens) who eventually won in a close election. 

At the time I had a take on this election that I never heard anyone else articulate.  The outcome was generally considered a victory for Democrats and the Obama administration but I actually consider it a minor defeat (although not as bad as it almost was).  You see, recently I have come to look at politics through a different lens.  Rather than seeing Republicans and Democrats as sincere enemies I see them as a sort of modern-day Condottiere who, having noticed that they possess a monopoly on combat, have no need to actually engage in the act but merely to present the appearance thereof.  This avoids unnecessary bloodshed as well as giving the monopolist the ability to predetermine the outcome of all the battles.

With this view in mind, look at the above mentioned election more carefully.  The reason there was a special election in New York’s 23rd district is that Obama had appointed the previous senator John Hugh, a Republican, as Secretary of the Army.  The narrative coming out of the media was that he did this because it was a seat he thought the Democrats could pick up.  But what would have been an even better present for Obama to find under his tree in 2009 than one more democrat in congress?  A Republican who would actually vote for Healthcare.  As we have seen, the support of one Republican is Obama’s idea of “bipartisan support” which he would have loved to attach to that bill but was unable to. 

This is what I think the administration had in mind for New York’s 23rd district.  The reason that district was perfect was that it was a traditionally Republican district that had become fairly “moderate” in recent years and more importantly where the republican party candidate would be chosen by a handful of party insiders in a smoke-filled room.  I think Obama actually wanted Scazzafava and assumed the Republican voters in New York wouldn’t look at her carefully enough to realize that she was a typical progressive and would just rubber stamp her because she had an R by her name.  To their credit, the voters figured it out and stood up to it.  They ended up with a progressive anyway but at least it’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

Now look at what is happening in Republican primaries all over the country (for instance Florida and Alaska).  The pattern is becoming pretty pronounced I’d say.  Plus we have the case of Delaware where not only is Mike Castle considering doing the same thing but for a moment after he lost in the primary, the GOP threatened to withhold funding from his victor Christine O’Donnell. 

All of this begs the question: what does the Republican establishment fear more than losing ground to Democrats?  Republicans and Democrats trade power back and forth all the time but the people at the top never go anywhere and the special interests that they pander to always seem to do alright.  The thing that could really overturn their proverbial apple cart is an influx of outsiders who don’t have ambitions of careers in politics but instead have a set of values that they think should be reflected in government, people who aren’t beholden to party leadership for their positions and their future, in short, people who aren’t easily manipulated in the name of political compromise and self-preservation. 

So in the end I’ll take pretty much any outsider over any establishment candidate.  Sadly in my state I don’t really have this option, but I would encourage those who do to hang in there and not cave to the Carl Roves of the world who insist that it is all about beating the Democrats and that every principal may be sacrificed to this end.  But that being said, in the long run you can’t beat something with nothing.  We cannot sustain a political movement based purely on “outsideness” we must find a platform we can unite over.

Here is what the Republicans have proposed in an attempt to bring the right back together under their banner.  Most of this is stuff I am in favor of (they support the most damaging part of the healthcare bill….) but none of it will save the republic.  They are the same kind of promises that Republicans have been making for generations.  Most of them will never happen even if the Republicans take control of the legislature, though they may blame it on “Democrat obstructionism” just like the Dems. do now.  But even if they actually did get this stuff done, the political state of the country would continue to decay, it would just not do so quite as quickly as it does when Democrats are in power.

The structural changes which could actually make a difference and would be widely popular such as term limits or an audit of the Fed are conspicuously absent.  But what we really need to discover first, if we are going to turn this thing around is not these things, it is some kind of moral foundation.  When I say this I don’t mean a personal moral foundation, I mean a political moral foundation.  In other words, a set of principles that we can accept as the basis for a philosophy of government. 

What we have now is a situation where political battles take place over issues with no overarching moral frame of reference.  Interest groups fight with each other over whom the government should favor at the expense of others.  The right and left try to use it to impose their individual moralities on each other.  The poor try to use it to take from the rich and the rich try to use it to take from each other.  All of these battles take the form of right vs. left and we have learned to see all issues with only the right and left as reference points. 

Instead of evaluating a policy by asking who gains and who loses and which one do I like more, we need to start asking the question “Is this consistent with my moral view of government?”  For instance here are political statements which are not based on a moral foundation:

You should never raise taxes on anyone during a recession.

The rich in this country don’t pay their fair share.

Government employees shouldn’t have such lucrative pensions.

Teachers should make more money.

These are all statements about who the government should favor and by how much in a given situation.  They make no statement about the relationship between the government and the people.  On the other hand here is a political statement which is based on a moral foundation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Now consider this quote (paraphrase) which I have heard in a tea party commercial: “It’s time for a smaller, more caring government.”  There are two reasons why this will not do as a moral foundation.  First, advocating a “small” government is not a moral position.  How do you measure the size of government?  How small is small enough?  If it is “small” enough can it do whatever it wants so long as it doesn’t get too “big?”  These questions do not have satisfactory answers and therefore, “small government,” although the general sentiment behind it is something I certainly support, it is not enough to organize a movement around.

More importantly, the idea that government should be more “caring” is precisely the kind of moral nonsense that has led us to the point we find ourselves at now.  How can a government be “caring?”  Who should it care for?  Statements like this can be twisted to mean whatever anyone with any particular agenda wants them to mean.  What we really need is to stop treating government as something that should be “caring.” 

The idea that government should be caring is the ultimate collectivization of the altruist ethic and this makes it the most absurd form of altruism.  The idea that an individual should be caring implies that the individual should sacrifice their “self interest” for the sake of others.  But what does this mean for a government?  Can a government have a self interest?  The only thing that government can sacrifice for the benefit of someone is the interest of someone else.  This is exactly the type of moral confusion which we must avoid.  So I am putting forth the following moral platform. 

1.  Everyone has a right to their own life, liberty, and property and to the produce thereof and should be allowed to use them in whatever way they wish so long as it does not directly infringe on the same rights of others.

2.  The purpose of the government is to protect these rights.

3. The purpose of the law is to protect the rights of citizens from other citizens.  It should not be used to protect people from themselves or from roundabout effects of decisions made by others.  It should be as simple as is possible while accomplishing this purpose. 

4.  The law should be uniform and uniformly applied to all citizens.  This does not guarantee uniformity of outcomes or “opportunity.”

5.  Since taking from someone for the benefit of someone else violates the first person’s right to their own property, the government should never under any circumstances engage in the redistribution of property.  Nor should it be necessary in any circumstance for the government to weigh benefits to any person against costs to any other person.

6. The purpose of the military is to protect citizens from outside forces.

7.  This should be accomplished by the smallest and cheapest military possible.

8.  The natural check on the government is the threat of armed revolution.  This is one reason that the military should be as small as is necessary to ensure security from foreign invaders and it also means that the government must make no attempt at diminishing the collective military power of the people.

9.  The government has no business monitoring the behavior of law-abiding citizens.

10.  The above principles must not be compromised in any way for any reason, including convenience, economic efficiency, or physical danger.  The potential cost of lost liberty will always be far greater than the imagined benefits. 

This platform contains everything necessary for evaluating any political policy.  Notice that the moral foundation cannot be compromised.  If, for instance, we were to say “the government shouldn’t take from one citizen to give to another except in cases of extreme need,” this would be a worthless code because “extreme need” could mean anything. The original intent will eventually be eroded by continual and progressive compromise.  By building compromise into the foundation, you lay the groundwork for its eventual destruction.

However, there is another kind of compromise that is required here.  If we were ever to adopt a truly libertarian government it would require people on the left and right to both give up certain things that they would like the government to do.  People on the left would have to give up the redistribution of wealth, minimum wages, “safety nets,” gun bans, and government manipulation of markets.  The right would have to give up laws outlawing drugs and other personal behavior they consider immoral, government spying and other such “anti-terror” programs, subsidies to businesses (including farms), and other government manipulations of markets.

Personally I think we are coming to a point where most of the right, most of the center and much of the left can be brought around to this view.  There is certainly an element on the left which is fundamentally opposed to this moral platform.  They subscribe to a different platform, which holds that individuals are not responsible for anything, only collective outcomes matter and the government should have a right to do whatever is necessary to accomplish certain collective outcomes.  But these people make up a small minority in America (unfortunately they are largely in power right now). 

 The problem we have is that the majority have no moral political foundation whatsoever so they are constantly making what they consider compromises which lead to a system which confounds any attempt at moral comprehension.  As a nation we must realize that we cannot continue on without such a foundation and then we can have a debate about which one we want. 

The other side is doing everything possible to avoid this.  As an example of this notice that the Obama administration refuses to say whether the president actually is or is not a socialist/Marxist despite the constant stream of evidence dredged up by Glenn Beck to that effect.  This is because he has convinced the people on the left who subscribe to that moral foundation that he subscribes to it too but at the same time he has convinced the rest of us that there is no such thing as a moral political foundation.  This is why whenever he talks about it he just acts as though the very question is absurd and questions the intelligence of anyone who would consider it.  I suspect it is because they are aware of the fact on which our hope for salvation rests.  That if people actually realized that they need a moral foundation and began a national debate over what it should be, their side would not win.

Update: Right after I wrote this O’Reilly came on tv with these talking points.  By the way, the contrast between an unalienable right as I (and I believe the founders) conceive of it and the left’s idea of a right is illustrated nicely by the line “when workers were organizing for the right to organize…” (lol)

Upadate again: There’s nothing like a spelling error in the title, hope nobody noticed….(=

  1. W. Knowlton
    January 29, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    The benefit of a small military is that the government cannot use it against the citizens right? I think that is important. However, considering the vast differences of US values (and your criteria would widen this chasm) from other nations, how small of a military are we comfortable with? Frankly, the US could likely defeat any nation it went to war with and this is a point of advantage I’m not sure I want to give up. What are your thoughts?

  2. Free Radical
    January 31, 2011 at 4:03 am

    There are two important points here. First right now our military is big because we seem to think we need to manage the affairs of the entire world. A smaller military would suffice to defend our borders. Also if we got out of everyone else’s business they would have less reason to want to mess with us.

    Second, and probably more importantly, there is no absolute limit on how powerful the military can be, the limit is relative to the collective military power of the citizens who may oppose it if it becomes destructive to their liberty. The more military power is vested in the hands of private citizes the more we can allow the military to have. This is why we should have very liberal gun control laws. Also, you can organize the military in ways which make it less threatening. For instance, originaly we had literal militias which the states could call up in event of a war. The paradigm of maintaining a perpetual standing army is a post WWII development and is actually prohibited by the constitution. I’m not necessarilly opposed to having any standing military (the constitution requires a standing navy for instance) but you could decentralize it so that you had basically a national guard in each state which could be called into service in the event of a war. This would be much less threatening to liberty.

  1. October 7, 2010 at 8:48 pm

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