In the not so distant past I was a liberal. Not a classic liberal, but a “progressive” liberal. Educated as an engineer I considered myself to be a fairly smart individual, someone who could understand the “common sense” policies proposed to keep the government involved in our lives. Sure, not all politicians had pure intentions, but certainly the checks on their power would ensure that the good intentions of public policy would mostly shine through; or so I told myself at the time. I voted for Barack Obama in his first term, thinking that he was the obvious choice while indulging myself in the rhetoric of his campaign about change and hope; I even posted an Obama campaign sign in my front yard.
So what happened? How could I have gone from that to writing a libertarian news site? Well the short answer is that I initially found myself interested in libertarianism under what were, admittedly, somewhat selfish notions. I had become disillusioned with politics and the feeling that my input did not – and never would – matter in a significant way. In 2012, with only the most basic understanding of libertarianism I cast my vote for president of the United States for Ron Paul. Since that time I have greatly enhanced my understanding of libertarianism through studying economics in graduate school, and independent study of such renowned economists as Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand.
So what then is libertarianism? It is the political, economic and social system which provides the most opportunity for success – however you may define that – to the greatest number of people. The foundation for libertarianism is the idea that each person is their own sovereign individual with the right to decide how they lead their life and the ownership of their property and all products of their efforts with the caveat that an individual’s actions must not inflict harm on another individual. This is of course a high-level overview, but it is this right to life and property which form the basis for libertarianism.
It has been suggested that libertarianism benefits only the haves, while leaving the have-nots out to dry. This is false. The current system of crony capitalism, which is the direct result of not following libertarian principles, does do this. The course of history however, has been perfectly clear in showing that a free market system has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system so far yet devised. In a free market system, the economy is not a fixed pie and for someone to rise up does not require someone else to sink down. On the contrary, in a free and voluntary economic system, agreements are only made when both parties see a benefit to the agreement. Now let’s not delude ourselves, this is not to say that no one will ever make a mistake in judgment, or enter into contracts which do not provide the originally anticipated benefit. We are dealing with humans, who are imperfect, sometimes corrupt, and almost always greedy, but we must remember two things: first, it is a proper role of the government to enforce contracts between individuals, so that if one party strays from their original agreement, the government does have a responsibility to take action against that individual and second, while we acknowledge that a free market society may have imperfections, so do all other economic systems, and the failings of those other systems have been proven throughout history to be much more detrimental to the overall well being of the people.
Milton Friedman once said, “History suggests only that economic freedom is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.” At first glance, the idea that economic freedom is required for political freedom may seem unrelated or backwords. However, economic control is the means through which the government can most easily control an individuals’ actions and ability to care for themselves. A heavy system of taxes limit an individuals’ options to engage in a self sufficient lifestyle, while simultaneously giving government the permission to regulate actions.
Why is it that someone who wishes to paint fingernails or give manicures requires government licensing? Is this such a dangerous task that the government must closely monitor your activities in this field? What if a customer decided they wanted to use someone’s services who did not have this license? If this person chose to operate a store front or had to report their income taxes they would quickly be found out for operating an illegal business, and the government would quickly descend upon them, to punish this horrible individual who simply sought to exchange the service of painting nails for money. In order for there to be a law, such as mandatory occupational licensing, there necessarily has to be consequences for disobeying the law. If there are no consequences then it is not a law, but merely a suggestion.
Foreign Policy is one of the most easily identifiable areas where libertarians disagree with modern Republican rhetoric and agree with Democratic rhetoric. In reality, both parties have been following the same interventionist foreign policy for years. Obama failed to withdraw from Afghanistan as promised and killed thousands in drone strikes in the Middle East. Before him, Bush was elected to his first term on a non-interventionist foreign policy, though that quickly went out the window.
Libertarianism favors a non-interventionist foreign policy for the reason that it actually strengthens America’s position in the world. Free trade and diplomacy will always build more allies than bombs. The founders advocated for this position, and it was this approach that prevented the cold war from breaking out.
Wars, contrary to popular rhetoric, are not good for the economy. Tanks, airplanes and ships must all be paid for through either increased taxes, printing of money (which causes inflation), or borrowing from other nations.
It’s important to note that non-interventionism is not isolationism; countries that trade and interact peacefully with each other will be much less inclined to take military action against one another. However, in the case that military action is necessary for the defense of the United States, the proper course of action should be followed. That is, the declaration of war should be voted on by Congress, not declared by the President. The founders purposefully reserved this declaration for Congress and not the President because the implications of declaring war are so great and should not be exercised unchecked at the whim of a single person.
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding libertarianism is that a libertarian environmental policy is where mother earth goes to die. It is an understandable misconception, and it was one of my last policy holdouts in embracing libertarianism. Since the protection of our environment is what allows all of life to exist, it is uncomfortable leaving such an important matter up to the marketplace. It provides a much higher comfort level to utilize government force to provide environmental protections. However, like most government provided functions, the benefit anticipated and the benefit received are not the same.
Instead of protecting the environment, the EPA has actually been the largest responsible party for pollution. If we revisit one of the foundations of libertarianism, private property, we can begin to see how libertarian policy protects the environment.
First, pollution of land, water and air would be self regulating. If, for example, a factory decided to dump pollutants into a stream, any property owner downstream of the factory would be able to file suit against the factory for destroying their property. The factory owner would then be responsible for restoring the damaged property to its original state.
Property owners also have an incentive for conserving resources, including wildlife. These are attractions for which individuals willingly pay, and we all know that an increase in demand is the best way to trigger an increase in supply. Government currently attempts to simulate this free market conservation model, distributing greater funding to wildlife areas which sell the most hunting and fishing licenses. Of course, this simulation adds levels of extra bureaucracy, skips the incentives and remove the competition which force private enterprises to operate efficiently. There is another, less obvious downside to state ownership of land and wildlife. That is, if the government damages the lands or its inhabitants, who takes action against the government to reverse the damages?