Recently I listened to a Commonwealth Club discussion with Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch titled WWLD: What Would Libertarians Do? Gillespie and Welch are co-editors of Reason magazine, which I’ve never read, but is reputed to have a strong libertarian bent. The topic is of interest to me, as I have mixed feelings about libertarians. In the 1990s I was a registered member of the Libertarian Party. I voted for Harry Browne in the presidential elections of 1996 and 2000, and for Andre Marrou in 1992. I used to spend weekends at county fairs in Connecticut handing out copies of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz and explaining the Nolan Chart. One very dear friend of mine refers to me, not jokingly, as a recovering libertarian.
My friend says «recovering» because there are many points on which I differ from the Libertarian Party platform. It calls for the elimination of public schools and the dissolution of all environmental regulation. Many people, my friend included, have come to associate the word «libertarian» with a certain brand of idealogue who insists that all government action at any level is evil and who believes that in the absence of government humanity would assemble itself in productive harmony and not look anything at all like Afghanistan. There are those too, who see «libertarian» as no more than code for «republican». Some more charitably refer to libertarians as «republicans who smoke pot». I don’t smoke pot, but there are a number of other ways in which actual libertarians differ from republicans.
I’ve long been torn between admiration for libertarian ideals and the actual views promoted by the Libertarian Party. Regular readers may recall that not too long ago I described myself half-jokingly as a socialist republican. Government, in a democracy (even in a democratic republic) is a tool to be responsibly wielded by the people, not rejected as the natural enemy of the people. Of course, even in a democracy limitations are necessary to keep the passions, fears, and greed of the majority from running over individual freedoms.
Gillespie and Welch’s July talk for the Commonwealth club was refreshing and is recommended to anyone interested in libertarian ideas. Despite having authored a book ([amazon 978-1586489380 inline]) that claims that libertarian ideas can solve all of America’s problems, Gillespie and Welch each demonstrated a highly nuanced and pragmatic view of libertarianism, in stark contrast with the party’s platform. The talk should make an excellent introduction to libertarian thought for folks who are new to the idea.
Right off the bat, Gillespie suggested that it might be better to think about the word «libertarian» as an adjective rather than as a noun. That struck a chord. As a set of ideals or a general ideological orientation the idea of preferring individual freedoms over reliance on authority retains all of its appeal without getting mired down in specifics. It could be seen as a cop-out to take a nebulous idea that nearly everyone can get behind while dodging the granular policy questions, but it immediately dispels much of the associations one might have made between the word and overly zealous libertarians who might have cornered you at a county fair and talked your ear off several years ago. It takes the immediacy away and removes the possibility that one might be seen as a LINO for falling short of perfect conformance to a party platform.
Gillespie and Welch suggested that libertarian policy may not be the specific solution to every problem, but that libertarianism is an underlying theme that the nation is currently gravitating back toward in reaction to a decade of authoritarian public policy under the Bush the younger and Obama administrations. This idea—that one could embrace libertarian (adjective) thought without being a libertarian (noun)—lowers the barrier that makes «libertarian» a dirty word in some circles. I was reminded of another Commonwealth Club talk, given by P J O’Rourke, where he was asked whether he felt uncomfortable in «the belly of the beast» also known as the San Francisco Bay Area. He said that he didn’t feel uncomfortable in San Francisco at all because, for all the leftist political thought that happens here, San Francisco has a libertarian undercurrent. With «libertarian» as a noun, that is a contradiction. As an adjective, it becomes one of a set of values that perhaps compete in the psyche of the City, if a city can be said to have such a thing.
Therefore, I no longer have to be a recovering libertarian. I don’t have to be a libertarian or even not be a libertarian. I have libertarian values which complement a grander set of values. Values are more vital—to an individual or to a society—than a political party will ever be.