March 2008

Libertarianism — WYDSIWYG*

*What You Don’t See Is What You Get

by Bruce A. Clark

A while back I stayed up late (for me) to watch Ron Paul’s appearance on the Tonight Show. (At this stage in the campaign, that is about the extent of my involvement.) Since I lived in Houston during the 1970s, I could honestly say “No” to Jay Leno’s question of whether the audience thought that Ron Paul was the inventor of the fish stick. For much of the last thirty years, Paul has represented the area to the south and southwest of Houston. However, I didn’t really know all that much about him, hence my staying up late. Paul seemed personable enough, but more than that is required to be President.

Paul talked about being a libertarian running (as in the past) as a Republican. A quick look at his record makes him look like a man of principle, to the extent of being a contrarian about a lot of things that other Republicans go along with. But what, really, is a libertarian? That is, to put it mildly, opening a can of worms. There are more varieties of libertarianism than there are strains of the left! (Speaking of the left, the very name “libertarianism” was hijacked from the left in the middle of the 20th century. Prior to that, libertarianism was a variety of anarchism.) If you want a bigger picture and don’t want to break your back under a truck-load of books, read up on Wikipedia and follow the links. There are so many shades of opinion that it’s a little hard to pin libertarianism down; one libertarian will probably be a little different from the next. They do seem like they give more thought to their views than does the average person in this country. What is of interest at the moment, however, is the type of libertarianism that Paul subscribes to.

Ron Paul is more of a right-libertarian. They are a cross between “traditional libertarians,” who are fond of Thomas Jefferson, and “right-wing conservatism;” think Barry Goldwater. Their goals are small government, low taxes, free trade, states’ rights and protecting private property. Right-libertarians think of themselves as socially liberal and economically conservative, with a view toward protecting individual liberty and closely following the Constitution.

The Liberal Part

On the areas where they are liberal, libertarians seem more consistently liberal than the political liberals who vote Democratic. We often hear folks to the left of center (who evidently haven’t studied the issues very hard) saying that, sure, they support the Bill of Rights, but not the Second Amendment and the NRA is a terrible organization! Similarly, we hear people to the right of center (who evidently haven’t studied the issues very hard) say sure, they support the Bill of Rights, but that the ACLU is a villainous organization. The libertarians seem to see the Bill of Rights as a united whole, as it was intended to be.

The Conservative Part

But what about the economic conservatism part? In an L.A. Times Op-Ed article last October, Jonah Goldberg wrote

The problem is that conservatism, even Reagan’s brand, wasn’t as popular as we often remember it. Government spending continued to increase under Reagan, albeit a bit more slowly. …

In 1964, two political psychologists, Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, famously asserted that Americans were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. Americans loved Barry Goldwater’s rhetoric about yeoman individualism, but not if it meant taking away their Social Security checks or farm subsidies. “As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide and handsome,” they wrote. “But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished.” …

“Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they’re building,” writes William Voegeli in an illuminating essay, “The Trouble with Limited Government,” in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Committed conservatives, meanwhile, find themselves at a disadvantage: They advocate smaller government for everybody — when Americans generally (including most Republicans) want smaller government for everybody but themselves.

Some conservatives respond to this dilemma with an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” shrug. If voters don’t embrace limited government — which really just means self-government — then have them choose between a big government that does right-wing things and one that does left-wing things. Some of those people are called “compassionate conservatives.” Others seek comfort in the soothing irrelevance of purism and adopt libertarian candidates and causes that will never, ever, win at the ballot box.

While “never, ever” is a very long time, Goldberg does make some good points and provides food for the little gray cells.

Libertarian Hypocrisy

Free Trade

The conservative planks in a libertarian program have some ramifications that are never, in my experience, examined and followed to their logical endpoints. When you think them through, they point out a major degree of hypocrisy in libertarianism. What does free trade really mean? Imagine NAFTA (which Ron Paul opposes, but for the wrong reasons) on a world scale. Many people in this country already oppose NAFTA, especially unions and their members and many people on the left. Its supporters (the legislation was signed by Bill Clinton, remember) promised more jobs, not less (I mean good, well-paying, unionized industrial jobs, not “do you want fries with that”). However, the concept of free trade means more than that. People in this country worked for generations to get better jobs with higher pay and better benefits — they earned them. How can those who salute individual effort justify taking away what millions of people have earned in the name of an ideological point? They don’t talk about it!

Free trade, the way conservatives and libertarians mean it, has shown its nature in the economic race to the bottom in which the economy is now engaged. Free trading means buying at the lowest price, from the most backward and exploitative countries with the worst standards and conditions. Why? Because companies’ competitors are doing it, too. How could it be different? Import duties pegged to the difference between our standards, wages and environmental regulations and those of other countries is one way. It would destroy the advantage employers in some other countries have to keep wages, working conditions and environmental standards down. As they improve conditions, the duties go down. When they have raised conditions and standards to the levels that people in this country have worked so hard to get, the duties disappear. As far as I can see, it’s the only way it can be done. To be most effective, it needs to be done in alliance with other countries who have worked to improve conditions at home. Such a policy would also destroy the incentive to move industry abroad. I know of no Democrat that calls for such a trade policy that will protect and restore the hard-earned gains of the American workforce.

Low Taxes

On the Tonight Show, Ron Paul said he wants to do away with the IRS. Everyone hates the IRS, but that’s mostly because of the sleazy, guilty-until-proven-innocent way it operates. Whatever size government the country has, the cost of running it should be distributed fairly across the citizenry. After much consideration, it’s clear that most rich people get wealthy by keeping more of the money their employees produced for them than they pay to those workers. The fact is that every little bit of value that is created is made by a person working, using tools that were made by previous generations of workers. You can trace it back historically to the first person who made something by hand and then created a tool to make the work easier or more effective the next time he or she did it. (Many on the political right will call such reasoning Marxist or communist. It’s not. It predates Marx.)

With some people getting rich off the work of others, why should they all pay the same rate of taxes? That’s the point of a graduated income tax, and the more graduated it is, the better. (I know of no one who contends that the income tax impoverishes the rich! Perhaps when government changes so that the wealthy do not receive a disproportionate amount of government largesse, the degree of graduation should be reconsidered.) The more such graduated taxation is used over property, sales or other taxes, the fairer taxation will be.

As far as I can tell, the graduated income tax was invented by the budding capitalists of the Middle Ages. Historian Henri Pirenne says, in his Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe

The most pressing need was for defence. The merchants and their merchandise were, indeed, such a tempting prey that it was essential to protect them from pillagers by a strong wall. The construction of ramparts was thus the first public work undertaken by the towns and one which, down to the end of the middle ages, was their heaviest financial burden. Indeed, it may truly be said to have been to been the starting point of their financial organization, whence, for example, the name of firmitas, by which the communal tax was always known at Liège, and the appropriation in a number of cities ad opus castri (i.e., for the improvement of the fortifications) of a part of the fines imposed by the borough court. The fact that to-day municipal coats of arms are surrounded by a walled crown shows the importance accorded to the ramparts. There were no unfortified towns in the Middle Ages.

Money had to be raised to provide for the expenses occasioned by the permanent need for fortifications, and it could be raised most easily from the burgesses themselves. All were interested in the common defence and all were obliged to meet the cost. The quota payable by each was calculated on the basis of his fortune. This was a great innovation. …1

Proponents of the flat tax (Ron Paul opposes even a flat tax!) will say that a graduated tax is a disincentive to being hard-working and creative. Not so! How often does a person get richer absolutely inde­pen­dently of all other people, not relying to any degree on the work of others? Not very often. How do libertarians justify the rich paying less (proportional to income) than those hard-working folks who earn less while creating the very wealth that the rich enjoy? They don’t talk about it!

Small Government

I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like to get rid of bloat in government, but that’s not what libertarians and other conservatives mean by small government. Most people realize that government does, in fact, provide at least some things that make life better. How else would we have eliminated Jim Crow laws and child labor; lessened adulterated food; increased the minimum wage; maintained national parks; passed and enforced safety, health and environmental laws; and so many other things. And most people, I think, would appreciate these services better if those professing small government would stop cutting the services that benefit people in favor of providing give-aways to business. That is the kind of bloat the people I know would like to get rid of.

What libertarians mean by small government is to shrink that part of government that protects people and keeps corporations from exploiting us mercilessly, driving down wages to starvation levels, eliminating pensions, and lifting safety and other protective laws. However, that isn’t even the really important part. The economy and nearly everything else in modern society functions as smoothly as it does because there are rules of conduct that shelter us from total anarchy and disruption. According to the Constitution so favored by libertarians (and by the rest of us, I hope!), we have a democratic government, in the form of a republic. It is our democratic government, whatever its failings, that makes and enforces those rules of conduct that helps society function. The call for small government is really a call to shrink our democracy, to lessen its importance in the country. The rules will still be made and enforced, but not by us or our representatives! It means, instead, that a small group of wealthy and powerful individuals and businesses will have the ultimate power, not a democratically elected government. How do libertarians justify this slow subversion of demo­cracy, in favor of rule by private interests? They don’t talk about it!

There is nothing wrong with private property and business. They serve necessary functions in society. Neither is there a problem with letting business owners and managers run a business the way they see fit. However, when that business effects society at large in some way, the decisions involved in that part of the business have to involve the government of the people who are effected. Anything else subverts democracy and amounts to the tyranny that the libertarians state that they oppose. 

Libertarians and Politics

There will be a national election this year, as everyone knows. If the polls are correct, however most people feel ideologically, they are dissatisfied with the current regime in the White House and its executive branch. Both major parties have fielded a host of candidates, most of whom have dropped out of the race already. The Republicans were a group who were just like the current President, even if they could speak coherently. They tried to convince the public that they were better, while not criticizing the current administration nor its policies. The had principles, but mostly they are not good ones, outside of some rhetorical flourishes.

The Democrats were (and are) a pretty rum lot. They are mostly Clinton clones, with perhaps better personal morals. Some even speak a good game. And one, at least, (Richardson) broke with the pack a little and notably distanced himself from the gun control policy that has harmed the Democratic party so much over the years, not to mention the harm it’s done to individuals. (I’ve written about this elsewhere.) And the Democrat who isn’t running, Al Gore, is a one-trick pony who is even less of a change from Bill Clinton than the rest, Hillary excepted, of course. For the most part no one represents anything new and different. The party has shown itself to have no principles and no loyalty to the folks who really built it.

To characterize the two parties in their current existence, I’d have to say that the Republicans have no heart and the Democrats have no spine, and I don’t know which is worse. The last president who had a heart was Jimmy Carter. The last one who was truly presidential was LBJ. The last who was a true leader was FDR. That’s a long dry spell. The Republicans since Nixon were ciphers, and Nixon was probably better than the current crop of Democrats! OSHA and the Environmental Protection Act were passed in his administration, and he signed them. That’s better than Clinton on NAFTA! And, all things considered, Nixon was probably no worse of a crook than the current politicians. The laws passed in recent years involve more spying and nastiness than Nixon ever dreamed of!

In the coming years, the best I think we can hope for is to limit the damage that can be done by the President and by Congress. The way to do that, I think, is to elect a congressional majority and a president from different parties. Each can act as a check on the excesses of the other, at least until someone with real knowledge, skill, understanding and leadership comes along.

Despite all of the terrible things I said above about libertarians, someone like Ron Paul might be a good choice for President, so long as there is a Democratic majority in Congress. What does a President do, really? He signs laws and conducts diplomacy. He doesn’t make laws — that is for Congress to do — so Paul’s screwy, right-wing economic ideas don’t have to come to anything. And on most social issues (excepting abortion), he’s certainly more liberal than most Republicans and probably more liberal than most Democrats. Paul’s views on small government and his record of behavior in Congress seem to indicate that he wouldn’t try to be the kind of imperial president that Bush is.

Given the lack of any really good choices facing the electorate currently, I’ll risk embarrassment by saying that Paul is worth considering. He opposes the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the war on drugs, gun control, a national ID card, NAFTA, torture, federal death penalty and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” How much worse than the others could he be?


1 pages 52-53, Harvest Books paperback, spelling as in the original.