What libertarianism isn’t

First Published: 2013-10-02

First published at The Last Ditch and id posted here with the kind permission of the author. See the original post here…

H.L. Mencken said that "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." The human tendency to fall for such answers probably accounts for most religions and political ideologies. We can’t accept that, while it’s noble and fine to seek answers, they are almost certainly so complex and difficult that most of us must live our lives without them.

Now that libertarianism is – at least in the USA – fashionable enough to be attacked, the Left are rubbishing it as an example of a ‘clear, simple and wrong’ answer. Let’s pass over for the moment the sheer hilarity of this ‘line’ from the purveyors of the most simple-minded failed idea in history.

Libertarianism is very far from an answer to everything. Indeed it’s not an answer as much as a method. We say that life is too complex and people too varied for any universal solution to work. One of the hallmarks of any attempt at a ‘one size fits all’ solution to humanity’s problems is the massive use of force. If you don’t fit the only mould, you must be ‘re-educated’ until you do or discarded as defective. Socialism/Fascism needs the idea of a ‘New Man’ because it doesn’t work for the kind we have.

Thus the comic book portrayal of libertarians tells you more about our opponents than about us. Just as their belief in the savagery that will ensue if Mother State’s power is ever weakened tells you more about their natures than ours.

We don’t categorise our fellow men into classes, masses, races or castes. The only human unit for us is the human. We understand each will make different use of the liberty we advocate. It’s possible to be a Libertarian and a Catholic, Buddhist, atheist or Jain. It’s possible for a libertarian to approve or disapprove of abortion at various different stages because libertarianism doesn’t give a trite answer to the difficult question of when life begins. A libertarian convinced that life begins at conception may even want abortion to be seen in law as murder. I haven’t met one of those libertarians, but I would not deny his libertarianism if I did.

The only ideologies inconsistent with libertarianism are those that expect laws to shape men’s minds to their aims. If you are happy to rely on persuasion to change your opponent’s view, you can be a libertarian – no matter what shape your ideal society might take. If you are happy to let your God enforce His own laws, then you can be libertarian too. After all, what kind of omnipotent God would need puny men to enforce His divine will? What purpose would it serve? If you don’t ‘sin’ only because man’s laws forbid it, your omniscient God will know you for a sinner anyway.

Libertarianism is only about setting functional limits to Man’s laws. It has a moral basis, to be sure, in that we view force and fraud as wrong per se and are prepared to accept the necessary evil of a modest state in order to proscribe them. But it has nothing to say about other moral issues, save that men and women should be free to find the right path as best they can.

It is a common error in modern political discourse to assume that we approve of anything we are not prepared to suppress. You don’t think that ‘the war on drugs’ is working? You don’t think it’s preventing young people from hurting themselves? You think it’s enriching existing criminals and driving some to crime who might never have gone there else? Then you are clearly ‘pro-drugs’. I have been accused of this myself though I have never even seen a narcotic outside a hospital ward and have no desire to use one.

This is the warped psychology of the witch-hunt. If you don’t cry ‘Witch!!’ with sufficient ferocity, then you are one yourself. It is stupid, dangerous thinking and it’s now how our politics seem to work. Yes, there are libertarian drug-users. There may even be drug-users who are attracted to libertarianism because it would remove the legal constraints on their chemical recreation. But it’s far too simplistic in a Menckian sense to assume that knowing someone is a libertarian tells you anything about his moral stance on drugs or, for that matter, the other two elements of the post-Sixties trinity; sex and rock ‘n’ roll.

I support campaigns against the smoking ban not because I favour smoking but because I disfavour bans. I don’t want to smoke any more than I want to climb Mount Everest, ski or do any other crazy thing (except perhaps go into Space, or attempt the world speed record) that exposes me to greater risk of death or injury. I simply want my fellow-men to be free to choose their paths and am humble enough to know that they will often choose better than me – advancing humanity in ways I could never have foreseen.

What the anti-libertarians simply can’t grasp is that – unlike theirs – our ideology is not a road map for others to follow. It’s a blank sheet, a pencil and good wishes for successful exploration.

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