Context: This is a talk that I gave at the Forum for Political Understanding
for students at Pepperdine University on April 7, 2008. It was posted
on Lew Rockwell's
daily commentary site
on April 10, 2008.
I was born and raised a liberal Democrat. My grandmother, who lived through the Depression, thought that Franklin Roosevelt was the savior of the United States. My father, who was a farmer, explained to me why it was a good policy for the government to pay farmers to not grow crops. For years I thought that gun control laws were necessary to curb violent behavior. At one time I believed that minimum wage laws were compassionate. I used to defend our government in its foreign interventions, especially those based on humanitarian grounds.
But, during the past twelve years, I have rejected many political beliefs taught to me by my family and my schools. I now believe that our country is in serious trouble that only libertarian principles can alleviate.
Furthermore, these problems have a direct effect on your future.
When you graduate, you will look for a job. What if you cannot find one because the economy is in a recession or even a depression?
Your salary will be paid in dollars. What will those dollars be worth after the Federal Reserve decreases their value with its policy of inflation and Wall Street bailouts?
You will begin to save for your retirement. What if you pay into Social Security your whole life but receive no benefits at the end because the system is bankrupt?
And, heaven forbid, what if you must terminate your employment because our country reinstates the draft and sends you off to war as it did with my generation in the 60's?
But government itself is financed by the compulsory payment of taxes by its citizens. Taxes are not voluntary. If you disagree with the policies of your government you may not withhold your taxes because if you do the government will threaten you with the violence of law enforcement.
It therefore follows that the government that governs best is the government that governs least.
The libertarian philosophy advocates a small government in line with the US Constitution as envisioned by our founding fathers. It is growing in popularity but has a huge uphill battle to wage. Our government is in large part controlled by special interest groups and the leaders of an entrenched two-party system. The maintenance of this system is based on a series of myths that are perpetuated to justify an ever-expanding government that assumes more power year by year, the very antithesis of a government that governs least.
Here are some of those myths.
Myth Number One—That which is immoral should be illegal.
It is true that many actions that are immoral should be illegal–actions such as theft and murder. However, no action by any individual in the privacy of his own home that does not initiate violence against another should be illegal even if it is immoral. Nor should any action between two consenting adults that does not initiate violence against others be illegal even if it is immoral.
We are in the midst of a huge, expensive, failed war on drugs. The war itself produces more harm than the abuse of the illegal drugs. A recent study puts our incarceration rate at 1%, the highest per capita rate of any country in the world. It is estimated that about a half million of these are for nonviolent drug offenses. Alcohol prohibition was responsible for gangland violence in the streets, and drug prohibition is no different. Libertarians call for an end to the drug war.
Myth Number Two—Government regulation is necessary to save us from the failures of laissez faire capitalism.
The prime example of this myth is the belief that laissez faire capitalism caused the Great Depression and that government intervention in the economy ended it. The fact is, however, that the Federal Reserve was founded in 1913, a full 16 years before the fateful stock market crash of 1929. The Fed resided over an expansion of the credit market, which produced the roaring 20's, the largest economic bubble in history before its collapse.
In recent history, we have seen the dot com bubble and now the real estate mortgage bubble. Both of these bubbles are created by government intervention in the credit market through the Federal Reserve central bank. Libertarians call for an economic policy governed by the principles of the Austrian School of Economics, which includes a minimization of government intervention in the free market.
Myth Number Three—Government intervention in the affairs of foreign countries is necessary for the security of its own citizens.
Ever since the tragic events of September 11, our executive branch has justified its intervention in Iraq and the subsequent erosion of our civil liberties in order to secure our safety. It has even established a policy of preemptive war, whereby it claims the authority to invade another country because that country might aggress against us in the future. Imagine the chaos in the world if every country claimed that authority.
Our intervention in Iraq has made us less safe, not more, because of the unintended consequence called "blowback" by the CIA in its recently declassified report on our policy in Iran. The 9/11 commission report also describes the blowback phenomenon. Our military intervention, apart from its devastating effects on Iraqi civilians, acts as recruiting tool for extremists. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."
Libertarians call for a foreign policy of nonintervention in general and an immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq in particular.
Myth Number Four—Non-interventionism is the same as isolationism.
Isolationists want to isolate the country from interaction with the rest of the world. To that end, they are for national economic self-sufficiency and protectionist tariffs. Isolationists use trade wars and economic sanctions as foreign policy tools to isolate other countries from the world economy.
Libertarian non-interventionists, on the other hand, support international trade, low tariffs, cultural exchange, and diplomatic contact. They view trade as so beneficial that they refuse to withhold it even from despotic states. A positive example is our continuing trade with Communist China, which serves to open that country to the liberal ideals of the west and is beneficial both to us and to them in spite of their tarnished record on human rights. A negative example is our continuing economic boycott of Cuba, a policy that failed to remove its leader for half a century.
Myth Number Five—If the government does not solve a social problem, the social problem will not be solved.
This myth is used to justify government provision of social services such as health care, education, and retirement. The myth is based on the conflation of negative rights with positive rights.
Negative rights are rights of prohibition against other people from initiating violence against you. Negative rights are enshrined in the phrase from the Declaration of Independence that all people have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Positive rights force other individuals to provide you with a service. Positive rights are claims that you have a right to a job with a living wage, a right to affordable health care, a right to an education, and a right to a comfortable retirement. Government uses the fiction of positive rights to expand its power in the provision of these services.
Libertarians object to the use of government to provide social services on two grounds, one ethical and one practical.
Because tax collection is not voluntary, people who receive social services from the government do so through a forced exchange of tax dollars. The receipt of such services thus violates the Non-aggression Principle and is unethical.
The practical objection is the observation that no government agency exercising monopoly power can provide a service with better quality or lower price than the free market can under the discipline of the profit motive. We would have better schools and better health care without government interference in these markets.
Libertarians call for a government whose sole function is limited to the Constitutional guarantee of the negative rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Myth Number Six—Libertarianism is idealistic and does not work in practice.
Libertarians are often accused of having a naïve faith in the free market, and having ideas about the way society ought to be governed that are not practical. As with most myths, the truth is precisely the opposite, as can be demonstrated by public choice theory. Public choice scholars analyze the structure of government from an economic and political perspective to explain why certain policies come into being.
Government programs are not effective because the incentive system does not reward bureaucrats for good service or punish them for bad service. The Los Angeles Unified School District is impossible to reform because they do not go out of business when they provide poor service as a private company would. Nor does FEMA.
Politicians cannot be expected to be good stewards of other people's money obtained through the force of taxation. They are motivated by the same self interest that motivates all people. Because of the professionalization of the political class, their interest is in winning elections a process that is only possible by courting special interests.
It is the height of naïveté to place your faith in a governmental system that can only work if its politicians and bureaucrats are saints and angels.
The libertarian philosophy is the ultimate philosophy of tolerance. It is a philosophy of live and let live, of not initiating violence against any other individual, of liberty for all, of peace, and of prosperity.
That is why I am a libertarian.
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