Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Libertarianism for the Rest of Us

Whenever I take one of those political quizes one finds on the Internet, more often than not, I end up in the Libertarian quadrant. I'm not waaay up in the corner, but I am solidly in Libertarianland.

That said, I've always felt a little uncomfortable around most libertarians because at times they seem rather odd. They tend to believe that there is no need for the state at all and seem to believe in some utopia that I don't think could ever exist. Folks like Ron Paul turn me off with his oddball economic theories and his daliances with racist groups.

So, it was a delight to read this article by libertarian scholar Brink Lindsey who makes a case for a more pragmatic libertarianism; one that acknowledges that the real world exists, and try to figure out ways to reform the state and make it more managable rather than hoping it will disappear.

Lindsey lays out in this 2003 article that there are in actuality, two libertarianisms:

The radical libertarian vision starts with an abstract ideal: a polity in which government's sole function is to protect individual rights to life, liberty, and property. A "true" libertarian, in this view, is someone who upholds this ideal as the summum bonum. True libertarians may get their hands dirty in the real world and advocate incremental reforms, and they may even be coy about their long-term hopes, but when pressed they must declare their allegiance to the ideal. Any deviation from the ideal, any support for any extension of government's proper role beyond rights protection, is seen as impure and compromised. Such deviations represent concessions to statism; they "open the door" to relentless and limitless expansion of Leviathan.

Pragmatic libertarianism, on the other hand, starts with the status quo in all its wretched messiness. Reformists share with their radical confreres a moral commitment to the sanctity of individual rights, and a deep appreciation of the fertility of competition and the limits of centralized control. But reformists apply their principles in a very different way: not as blueprints for an ideal society, but as guides to incremental reform. As to the precise outlines of an ideal society they are agnostic or even indifferent. For them the goal is expanding the real-world frontiers of liberty, not spinning utopias.

Pragmatists do not measure a person's libertarianism on the basis of doctrinal arcana, by whether he supports fully privatized roads, for example, or the elimination of compulsory vaccinations even during epidemics, or the repeal of laws against blackmail. That anyone would actually hold such positions, or, worse, use them as litmus tests, strikes the pragmatic libertarian as crankish and bizarre. No, reformist libertarians determine their allies on the basis of the major issues of the day. Does a person support reforming the tax code to shift its focus away from social engineering and toward raising revenue in the least burdensome way possible? Does he support the phasing out of pay-as-you-go public pensions? Does he support measures that would subject the public school monopoly to vigorous competition? Does he support a move away from drug prohibitionism? These are issues that matter, and all those who are willing to join in these causes are welcomed as fellow reformers, not scrutinized for hidden heresies.

If this were the libertarianism that was promoted, if there was a libertarianism interested in not only making government smaller, but smarter, then I would be totally on board.

I tend to believe that a pragmatic libertarianism could be, should be the agenda for a revitalized Republican party. My problem with the Tea Party version of libertarianism is that it tends to be too utopian and not really interested in governing and coming up with solutions. A pragmatic libertarianism would be willing to offer solutions and ways in shrinking government and making it more efficient. Of course, that isn't as sexy as shouting about small government when one has no intention of doing so.

I wish that Mr. Lindsey would give up the hope in a new relationship with liberals and steer the conversation to using the GOP as a vehicle to promote a better libertarianism. I'd sign up for that.

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