Liberty ~ liberal ~ Liberal ~ Libertarian

It’s funny how words trip us up.

Back around 50 or 60 years ago a bunch of intellectually lazy Americans who were interested in smaller government and lower taxes and a better, more efficient and effective military, decided that the “progressive,” North-Eastern, ivy league, New Dealer, entitled, elites, which would have included former presidential contenders Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson II and the Kennedy boys ~ John F and Bobby, were liberals, which betrayed a very, very poor understanding of Anglo-American political history, and that they, and those who opposed the liberal agenda, were conservatives. It was simplistic, lazy, labelling, rather typical of the 1960s.

These “neo-conservatives,” actually “neo-liberals” for anyone who cares about political theory, eventually bumped into the libertarians and tried, first, to co-opt them and then to make common cause. Many “conservatives” ~ by which I means those described, pejoratively, by John Stuart Mill …

quote-i-did-not-mean-that-conservatives-are-generally-stupid-i-meant-that-stupid-persons-are-john-stuart-mill-36-41-55

… decided that they actually were libertarians: a notion that was, in most cases, laughable.

But it persists.

So, what is a libertarian?

Well, first of all (s)he is someone who accepts the necessity for some law and order in society ~ that we should all drive on the same side of the road, etc ~ but is highly suspicious of any and all intrusions by any collective, including, especially, the state, into the private lives of citizens. Libertarians believe that, sometimes, governments do work for the general good and they, reasonably happily, pay their taxes to support e.g. public education and fire departments because it is clear that both are important, valuable, “common goods” and both can be (but often are not) provided efficiently and fairly by government.

Libertarians don’t care if you’re gay or straight … libertarians don’t even notice because it’s none of their business. A good libertarian may believe, in the privacy of her/his home or church, that homosexuality is a sin, but, being a libertarian, they would never take that wholly private, personal view into the public space of politics and they would resolutely oppose anyone who did. So, if you are a “social-conservative” who wants to bring your (or anyone’s) religious beliefs into the public political sphere then you cannot be a libertarian or a classical, 19th century liberal; in fact, I think, you do not understand what libertarian means. 

Libertarians believe that all churches, temples, mosques and synagogues and the like are private and neither require nor deserve any public support. They (churches, etc) should pay taxes: federal, provincial, local, just like any person, corporation or corner store. They might incorporate and seek whatever protection that offers ~ less than now if real libertarians were in power ~ but that’s about it.

Libertarians do not want the poor and elderly to starve on the streets, but they do not want the government to run social programme, any social programmes, either. Many libertarians support pensions into which everyone pays for so long as they work and into which governments may, when the fiscal situation allows, make some contributions; but only to a privately run, (nearly) universal pension scheme. But real libertarians are quite horrified at the “nanny state” that has emerged since about 1970. Libertarians believe that private charity should be encouraged and individuals and institutions (churches, say) that make significant charitable donations might be able to use the tax system to gain some public support.

Libertarians would allow people to do dangerous things: drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, use recreational drugs, etc … but most would agree that when those actions harm, or threaten to harm others, including children, then the state may take some action: thus many libertarians support “sin taxes” as a way to discourage the use of dangerous substances and and most support impaired driving laws, etc. But, generally, libertarians believe that you must be left alone to make your own choices, for good or ill, and the state should neither prevent stupidity nor help when when you screw the pooch. Thus, if you end up unemployed and homeless because you abuse drugs or alcohol then many libertarians would let you die in the gutter.

Most libertarians believe in a non-interventionist foreign policy: we must be prepared to defend ourselves, but the fate of others must be in their hands. If they are weak and fall victim to dictators and charlatans and thieves (hello America!) then they must, somehow, get themselves out of their own trouble. Almost all libertarians oppose all UN peacekeeping, because it is, generally, unwarranted foreign intrusion into the affairs of others.

Libertarians are unreserved free traders and believe in, broadly, an “open door” immigration policy.

The issue of abortion bothers many, many people … libertarian, too. Some libertarians are pro-choice, by belief, others, based on equally firmly held beliefs, are pro-live. But the pro-life libertarians are also guided by an over-arching principle: as libertarians they do not wish to infringe upon the liberty of others by trying to impose their personal beliefs on society at large. Libertarians may be pro-life but they are always pro-liberty which means that they always support an individual woman’s choice to make her own decisions. Many conservatives who support the Conservative Party are intent on imposing their, personal (deeply held), moral views on others; they cannot call themselves libertarian, too.

Many people who call themselves Conservatives , who vote Conservative, who may even be Conservative Party members and even Conservative Members of a legislature or the national parliament, want to be libertarian, too, and many are … but not those who are also conservatives and who want to impose their views on others. Libertarians are an important subset of liberals. Here in Canada the Liberal Party is not liberal, at all, and is nowhere near sharing any libertarian values. If you are a Conservative of the liberal variety then you may, also, be a libertarian, but, even then, it’s hard because most libertarians have unpopular principles.

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