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Straight-Up, No-Chaser Libertarianism

[ Posted Thursday, May 20th, 2010 – 16:30 PDT ]

Rand Paul, who just clinched the Republican Party nomination for the Senate race in Kentucky, is apparently not quite ready for primetime. His recent remarks on the Civil Rights Act painfully show why being a politician is not as easy as some people think. The problem for Paul, son of Ron Paul, is that even if he somehow survives this flap, it is almost guaranteed that there are going to be plenty more of them during the campaign. Because both Pauls, father and son, are (at heart) libertarians. Which requires some explanation, because many folks have never come into contact with the concept of libertarianism.

Libertarians, much like Democrats and Republicans, can be viewed as both a capitalized and an uncapitalized group. "Big-L" Libertarians are part of the Libertarian Party, the same as "Big-D" Democrats and "Big-R" Republicans. But, much like defenders of democracy and republicanism, "small-L" libertarians may not be official Libertarian Party members, but may agree on pretty much the same political philosophy.

Libertarianism is, to be blunt about it, where the radicals from the far right and the radicals from the far left meet and have a beer. Or, perhaps, a straight-up 190-proof shot of political philosophy, with no chaser. Disenchanted radicals from both ends of the political spectrum join forces in libertarianism, because while their specific issues may differ, they both agree on the fact that the government should just butt out altogether. Libertarians believe, for instance, that all drugs should be legalized and that there should be no restrictive gun laws whatsoever -- on the same philosophical grounds: that the government (especially the federal government) simply has no constitutional grounds for making such laws. Each citizen should be free to go down to the pharmacy and buy some cocaine, heroin, or marijuana (as it used to be done in this country, before drug laws were invented); and they should also be free to own pretty much any weapon they can afford to buy. As I said, it's an interesting political crossroads for a lot of different types of people.

The other thing I've noticed about libertarians (and Libertarians) is that they are like converts to a religion, in a sense -- they have actively thought about their political philosophy, rejected both the major political parties, and have joined the cause of an alternate political philosophy. And they like to talk about it. A lot, usually.

But for all the "Tsk! Tsk!" reactions today over Rand Paul's comments about the Civil Rights Act, most of them are missing the real story here. Because at the core of libertarianism is a fierce individualism, meaning that Rand Paul is going to heavily chafe against Republican political consultants (who must be, even as I type, parachuting into Kentucky) who try to restrain this "talk straight to the people" libertarian urge. Meaning this likely won't be the last such tempest which erupts over something Paul offhandedly says.

The Tea Party is not a true party, after all -- it's a movement. It's got a lot of component pieces moving towards some general (and quite loosely-defined) goals. But one of the strongest elements of the Tea Party (the members of which proudly claim that they are the origins of the Tea Party movement itself) are libertarian followers of Ron Paul. These are not the "AstroTurf" fake-grassroots elements of the Tea Party, which have been formed by Republican operatives in a naked attempt to hijack the movement. These are serious libertarians, instead. And, unlike most Tea Party factions, they already know exactly what they want, because they have their libertarian philosophy already worked out.

This philosophy, for those unaware, is pretty much to get rid of about 95 percent of government -- starting with the federal government. Libertarians are still for the basic governmental duty to protect the country, therefore they support a military for defense. But, at the same time, they do not support American interventionalism abroad (such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), or American soldiers on foreign soil in general (isolationism, in other words). Outside the Pentagon, they'd pretty much get rid of just about every other governmental function the federal government is now involved in. Libertarians are free-market extremists, in favor of getting rid of any government interference in commerce in any way (monopolies are just fine with them). They're also in favor of getting rid of all government interference with how people relate to each other and to businesses. As I mentioned, they're against all gun laws, but also against all drug laws. Libertarians would abolish the federal income tax, and replace it with nothing (since the government will cost 95 percent less than it does now, after they sweep it all away).

A good book, and a funny read, which explains some of how this 95 percent could get cut (while not being a true Libertarian credo or anything) is Parliament Of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke, for those interested (as I said, he's a funny author, so the book's worth reading for that aspect alone).

But the problem with these libertarian ideals is that while a few of their ideas are almost guaranteed to sound pretty good to just about everybody (abolishing the income tax, for instance), there's a lot of "baby" thrown out in the 95 percent bathwater. This is where things get tricky to explain. And where Rand Paul had problems.

Because the libertarian ideal is that government does not have the right to interfere in a private enterprise in such a fashion. This includes a whale of a lot of established legal precedent, as you can imagine. Rand Paul was trying to say he didn't support the Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds -- because he doesn't believe the federal government has the right to make such laws. When viewed from the totality of a libertarian viewpoint, it makes perfect sense to oppose it. But Paul failed to understand two very basic concepts. The first is that very few people see the world through such an absolute libertarian lens. And the second is that there are a lot of things libertarians are against which, when viewed individually, are going to seriously turn a lot of voters off. Libertarians are a lot better at philosophizing about government than they are at actually winning elections, or even governing. Because if voters don't agree with the totality of the libertarian argument, there are going to be individual things about it that they are likely going to abhor. Such as not supporting the Civil Rights Act, for instance.

But Rand Paul could shake off the criticism he's now getting. He's revised his position somewhat, not enough to impress people on a nationwide scale, but perhaps enough to weather the storm among Kentucky voters. But there are other such libertarian landmines dotting the campaign's landscape, and sooner or later another one of them is bound to go off. Such as farm subsidies, for instance. Libertarians are against farm subsidies on general principles, but such subsidies are wildly popular with farmers, of which Kentucky has quite a few. This is just one example, there are many to choose from.

Rand Paul, to be sure, is not a Libertarian Party nominee. He has charted a somewhat modified route, politically (he's anti-abortion, for instance, whereas Libertarians are "get the government out of the decision" types). How modified this will become will be interesting to watch. Because right now, he is obviously getting a whole bunch of advice on how not to answer certain questions. In other words, many kind Republican folks are hastening to his side in an attempt to teach him how serious politicians handle such questions -- by giving vague non-answers, of course. The real question, as happened with Sarah Palin in 2008, is whether Rand Paul is going to follow their advice or not. Because, being a libertarian at heart, he's fully capable of telling all the political consultants and party bigwigs to go pound sand, and that he'll run his campaign the way he likes and say exactly what he likes, thank you very much.

One way or another, this is going to be a highly entertaining race to watch. That's about the only sure bet here. Barkeep! Another shot of libertarianism, my good man! Straight-up, no rocks, no chaser....

 

-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

16 Comments on “Straight-Up, No-Chaser Libertarianism”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Each citizen should be free to go down to the pharmacy and buy some cocaine, heroin, or marijuana (as it used to be done in this country, before drug laws were invented); and they should also be free to own pretty much any weapon they can afford to buy.

    ALCOHOL, TOBACCO & FIREARMS...

    That's not a Government agency, that's a convenience store!!! :D

    Excellent piece, CW...

    I am now smarter than I was a few minutes ago... :D

    Michale.....

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    I forget who said it, a friend of mine used to use it as his signature line:

    "When the man said 'alcohol, tobacco, and firearms' I just naturally assumed he was making a delivery."

    -CW

  3. [3] 
    tommymccarthy wrote:

    I first met some commtted libertarians (small L).... when I was a student at "Suh-RAAH-cuss" (Syracuse University).....
    This was at a time when the Vietnam war still raged.
    .....I had a draft card in my pocket (I still have it, though it is even more tattered and unreadable than my Grateful Dead/Jethro Tull ticket).. a headful of ideas....a heart full of optimism, and a student deferrment.
    I also had a fair amount of money in my pocket from my night TEAMSTER warehouse job....(no work-study credit, but $107.80 every Friday)....and a powerful hankering to get "out there" to California and find out what was going ON,...er...dude.
    "Liberal Republican" (a species now extinct)N.Y. Governor Nelson Rockefeller had just instituted the first "war on drugs" ...replete with life sentences for almost any quantity of drugs large enough to get more than two people high for longer than an hour....and several friends of mine foolish enough to actually FOLLOW that impulse to dump their deferrment, drop out, and get on with "real life" were now wanted by the F.B.I.
    Suffice to say, among all the many fascinating "_ists" then running around the SU campus (Maoists, communists, ecologists, feminists)....not to mention the "_ans", (humanitarians, vegetarians,...etc).......a philosophy that simultaneously advocated ending the war, and having the Government "butt out" of our young lives was bound to sound like something we could easily subscribe to.
    For a LONG time...(several weeks)....I identified myself as a LibertariAN.....never making the connection that "everybody do whatever they want" might entail... say... sending those Negroes who had only recenty won the right to sit up front with us Irish on the Greyhound south of D.C....BACK to that lumpy pee smelling bench in the back.....or excluding them from an indoor seat at Ruth and Idgie's "Whistle Stop Cafe"...
    By the way, I did end up dropping out....getting out there to Cali....and, after seeing what was going ON, dude
    ...took a right and went north until I felt at home...which turned out to be western Oregon...where I still reside.
    Somewhere in there among the running naked, living on nuts and berries, raising three kids..etc. I figured out that "everybody do what they want" amounts more or less to "the law of the jungle".....and that so many of the once-constraining aspects of life in modern America in fact constitute what we call "civilization".
    It's a source of some bemusement to me that a candidate for federal office has us (ALL these years later) revisiting the kind of dorm room discussions about libertarianism we had back at S.U.
    I credit my somewhat radical ConLaw professor with planting a seed way back then that causes me to hold the following opinion.
    Libertarianism, while great fun to debate in a theoretical sense, is not only highly impractical for the US of 2010....it is downright dangerous.....mostly because it far too easily lends itself to the very WORST impulses in our body politic.....whose proponents' racism, misogyny, xenophobia,and all-round unthinking SELFISHNESS I currently (probably unfairly) lump under the heading "Tea Party Types"
    I think that, secretly, these proponents know what I do. That the Constitution and the "founders intent" they insist we swear fealty to was mostly designed to protect the property rights of a landed oligarchy supported in luxury by their human slaves ..from "the mob" (Think Goldman Sachs -vs- you 'n me.)

    The real Constitution is a living, evolving document,,,interpereted by an independent Judiciary, and administered by an Executive and legislature democratically elected by an informed and engaged citizenry.

    Which is what makes Supreme Court appointments...(and even Kentucky Senatorial primaries) so important.

    Regards
    TM

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    "Libertarianism is largely a collection of great quotes." :)

    -David

    A few others I like ...

    - "War is just one more big government program." - Joseph Sobran
    - "America needs fewer laws, not more prisons." - James Bovard
    - "None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." - Goethe
    - "The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin." - Mark Twain
    - "Here’s your enemy for this week, the government says. And some gullible Americans click their heels and salute often without knowing who or even where the enemy of the week is." - Charley Rees

    DISCLAIMER: By no means is this an endorsement of principle, but rather a random sampling of some quotes that sound great. I say this cynically because I find it more than coincidental that the rise of libertarianism in America seems to occur every so often not when individual rights are threatened, but when corporate rights are threatened.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    tommymccarthy -

    First off, welcome to the site! I assume you're the same guy as the (differently-capitalized) TM we all know and love over at HuffPost...

    I found your comment, and your personal journey fascinating to read (Jerry and Ian Anderson on the same stage!?! What a double-bill!!). Do they still have the sign up on the OR border which reads "Now leaving California, please resume normal driving habits"... heh heh.

    Seriously, though, I've always thought Libertarianism was a great thing to shoot the breeze about, as some sort of theoretical political thought excercise, but would be as unworkable in practice as what the anarchists claim as their Utopian vision. Too many people are just too damn selfish for either to work, in my opinion.

    The interesting thing to me is that Paul seems to believe in it, and therefore it's going to be very tough for him, on a personal level, to have to stifle (as Archie Bunker would say) this impulse, and learn to say carefully constructed political pablum, as other politicians do. It's so much more fun to talk theory, in other words!

    We'll see what happens to him in the weeks ahead. Either he's about to get a lot less interesting, or a lot more interesting. It'll be fascinating for me to see which route he chooses.

    -CW

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Hiya TM..

    As I say to every JEEP here...

    "Welcome to the party, pal!!!"
    -John McClane, DIE HARD

    Don't worry, you'll get used to it. :D

    "Liberal Republican" (a species now extinct)

    Don't be too sure about that.. That describe me pretty damn close..

    On social issues, I am probably the most liberal one here...

    But start talking about self-defense, national security or illegal immigration issues and I am about as right-wing as they come..

    ...took a right and went north until I felt at home...which turned out to be western Oregon...where I still reside.

    Spent about a decade in Salem, Oregon.. Very pretty country. Traded that for even MORE beautiful country... Whidbey Island, WA... :D

    We'll see what happens to him in the weeks ahead. Either he's about to get a lot less interesting, or a lot more interesting. It'll be fascinating for me to see which route he chooses.

    It's interesting to see the kind of flack that Paul is getting from the Left...

    Although I have made the comparison once before (only to be shown how utterly wrong I was) Rand Paul reminds me of Jack Ryan in EXECUTIVE ORDERS.. He is a moral, upstanding and honest person. He is simply not the best politician...

    Hopefully THAT comparison won't turn around and bite on the ass like the LAST one.... :^/

    Michale.....

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Hey TM!

    Just wanted to send out a big welcome to THE site - very happy to see you here!

    What took you so long!?

    :-)

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    TM,

    Very nice first post here, by the way.

    I've run into some wild and crazy Libertarian in the blogosphere - they are fun to debate with!

    Seriously, it is somewhat distressing to see their special brand of political ideology gaining some degree of resonance among the electorate - an electorate, I might add, that seems largely to be basing their anger towards government on some pretty misguided and wholly inaccurate perceptions.

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    an electorate, I might add, that seems largely to be basing their anger towards government on some pretty misguided and wholly inaccurate perceptions.

    Which "wholly inaccurate perceptions" are you referring to??

    A deficit that has quadrupled???

    A jobless rate that keeps climbing and climbing??

    Foreclosures that also keep climbing and climbing??

    Democrats allegedly reigning in Wall Street while still attending massive fund-raisers from Wall Street??

    Terrorist attacks that are avoided simply by dumb luck and the incompetence of terrorists??

    An entire ocean polluted and an ecosystem destroyed??

    Dangerous enemies laughing at the US and it's 'Diplomacy only' National Security policy???

    What about any of that is inaccurate??

    Michale.....

  10. [10] 
    akadjian wrote:

    TM- Nice post. Are former New Yorkers everywhere? Sometimes I think the entire country has been colonized by former New Yorkers :)

    [Libertarianism] ... while great fun to debate in a theoretical sense, is not only highly impractical for the US of 2010....it is downright dangerous.....mostly because it far too easily lends itself to the very WORST impulses in our body politic.

    What's interesting to me is that the principles of small government and, at the extreme end, Libertarianism, which on the surface sound great to people would most benefit large multinational corporations.

    Get rid of all the regulations and laws that require us to be responsible? Great!

    What's great about Libertarianism is that it allows the monied to sound as if they have a philosophy which will benefit everyone. When those who stand to benefit the most would be those with the most money. So I really don't see this as any different from Newt Gingrich in the 90s. The strategy is simple:

    - Goal: deregulation of the economy
    - Strategy: advocate for freedom of the individual

    It's the same strategy again and again except when people start to question the philosophy because of the results, they have to say, the reason conservatism didn't succeed was because we didn't go far enough.

    It sounds crazy to me but there's a lot of people who seem willing to buy it.

    -David

    p.s. Now does anyone have a good overview of how Anarchists differ from Libertarians?

    I mean other than the standard Internet crap that is something like: Libertarians are good, freedom loving people who want to get rid of the government and Anarchists are violent leftists who want to get rid of the government. :)

  11. [11] 
    dsws wrote:

    I'm going to post on the subject first, then read the column and reply to it.

    Small-L libertarianism is a principled position that may have a point.

    Terrorism is bad, but there are right and wrong ways of fighting terrorism. Violating the due-process rights of citizens is a wrong way. I would rather live in a world where I have a one-in-ten-thousand chance of getting killed by terrorists but I as a citizen am not responsible for unethical actions toward terror suspects, than one in which I have a one-in-a-hundred-thousand chance of getting killed by terrorists and a one-in-a-hundred-thousand chance of getting disappeared and tortured by my own government.

    Racism is bad, but there are right and wrong ways of fighting racism. If a way of fighting racism were a greater violation of liberty than the racism it seeks to end, it would be a wrong way. That much is true.

    But big-L Libertarianism is better described as proprietarianism: the ideology not of liberty but of property. Its core thesis is that exercise of property-rights by property-owners can absolutely never constitute a violation of any other sort of rights. Poisoning your neighbor's well? That's a crime if you walk across your neighbor's land to dump poison in the well, but it's perfectly ok if you're minding your own business on your own land and the poisoned ground water flows across the lot line. If your neighbors wanted to survive, they should have paid you not to use your land that particular way. Of course, this is insane. There's no reason for property to trump all else.

  12. [12] 
    dsws wrote:

    ""Big-L" Libertarians are part of the Libertarian Party"

    The party is a big fat zero.

    I use "Big-L Libertarian" to refer to the Libertarian movement: the Cato Institute, the Republican Liberty Caucus, and so on. The distinction is group membership versus philosophy. Politics is about forming coalitions and alliances. Political philosophies can be useful in holding such groups together, but if the bottom line is cohesion rather than principle, then it's politics. The Libertarian movement, unlike the Libertarian party, is a potent political force that's worth having a proper-name label for. I use "small-L libertarianism" to refer to the mostly-corresponding political philosophy.

    "one of the strongest elements of the Tea Party (the members of which proudly claim that they are the origins of the Tea Party movement itself)..."

    No doubt they so claim, but the origins of the Tea Party movement are straight-up Republican: Dick Armey and Fox News. The not-strictly-Republican branch of the Libertarian movement is a substantial part of the rallies, and it may have been using the "Tea Party" label when Fox and Armey picked up on it, but it's not what makes the Tea Party movement matter. Without Fox and Armey, it's still the same non-entity it was before they started promoting and broadcasting it.

  13. [13] 
    dsws wrote:

    "does anyone have a good overview of how Anarchists differ from Libertarians?"

    No, but I'll throw some slightly-nonstandard internet crap on the pile.

    Anarchists are good (if not particularly bright) freedom-loving leftists who have a vision of how to get by without any authority of any kind, and Libertarians are right-wingers who think unlimited coercion is just fine as long as it's done without the trappings of government.

    Actually, it's more a matter of historical pedigree. If they're influenced more by disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau than by those of Ayn Rand, they're Anarchists. If it's the other way 'round, they're Libertarians.

  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    Terrorism is bad, but there are right and wrong ways of fighting terrorism. Violating the due-process rights of citizens is a wrong way.

    So, you are of the opinion that an individual's comfort and convenience is more important than the lives of a hundred+ or a thousand+ or a million+ innocent lives...

    I find such a belief to be utterly and completely alien. For me, personally, I feel that a million innocent lives or a thousand innocent lives or a hundred innocent lives or even ONE SINGLE innocent life is infinitely more important that the comfort and convenience of another person...

    Guess that's just the military man/cop in me...

    I would rather live in a world where I have a one-in-ten-thousand chance of getting killed by terrorists

    I bet you would feel different if you or a loved one was the one in the "one-in-ten-thousand chance"..

    It's easy to pooh-pooh away a brutal death when it happens to someone you don't know or care about...

    Remember that old OUTER LIMITS episode where a lady was given a box with a button on it. All she had to do was push the button and she would get a million dollars. But if she did, someone she didn't know would die...

    By claiming that an individual's comfort or convenience is more important that an innocent person's life, you are pushing the button..

    Of course, we all know what happens next, eh??

    Remember what happened with Spiderman....

    but I as a citizen am not responsible for unethical actions toward terror suspects, than one in which I have a one-in-a-hundred-thousand chance of getting killed by terrorists and a one-in-a-hundred-thousand chance of getting disappeared and tortured by my own government.

    Can you cite an instance where this has happened??

    Didn't think so...

    Michale.....

  15. [15] 
    dsws wrote:

    And btw, even though Rand Paul is as big-L Libertarian as you can get in terms of the Libertarian movement (not the party), he's not really a small-L libertarian. He wants government not to do what he doesn't want done, but when push comes to shove -- on the subject of whether a woman gets to make decisions about her own body -- he wants government to intervene even in the most private of decisions. He's just a conservative who doesn't really care about recreational drugs.

  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:

    He's just a conservative who doesn't really care about recreational drugs.

    Hehehehehehe

    Now THAT was funny! :D

    Michale.....

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