Libertarianism, True and False
On June 18, 2002, Joseph Farah, syndicated columnist and founder of the alternative news website, WorldNetDaily.com, published a column entitled "Why I'm not a libertarian." (This article was preceded by his column "Why I'm not a conservative," and followed by one called "Why I'm not a liberal.")
In the June 18 piece, Mr. Farah lists several reasons why libertarianism--or, more properly, the classical liberal tradition--will never, in his view, become a mainstream political ideology in contemporary American society. Or, as he says, "why, I believe, that political movement will never resonate with the American people."
This is an astonishing statement, considering that the principles of classical liberalism/libertarianism defined America in the eyes of Americans, and in the minds of Europeans, from the founding through the mid-19th century. The American political ideal--embracing liberty and self-government, while rejecting despotism of all forms--was an inspiration to the world.
Most of the American Revolutionaries and the Founding Fathers were members of the classical liberal/libertarian tradition--inspiring men like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, to name only two. Even men like Washington and Hamilton, who looked askance at the radicalism of the Jeffersonians, had to keep their sympathies for Old-World centralism under wraps.
Mr. Farah lists four main critiques of libertarianism that he believes form a permanent obstacle to its popularity: the "sanctity" of arbitrary politically drawn borders, the drug war, the neoconservative slogan of "a strong national defense," and the alleged failure of libertarians to understand the moral prerequisites of self-government.
In his comments regarding secure borders, Mr. Farah neglects to mention the two major factors accounting for the high rates of immigration into the country; namely, that the rate of immigration is purely artificial as it is determined by central planning based on arbitrarily set levels, and that it is pulled by the magnet of the American welfare state.
Implicit as well in Mr. Farah's closed-border critique is the belief that, although Washington, D.C., fails at everything else it does, central planners can somehow patrol and police every square inch of the American border and seashore. No government could ever do this.
But as libertarian immigration ideas demonstrate, if immigration were policed by private property owners, "open-border" immigration would be very difficult, if not expressly hazardous, as it would involve trespassing on private property. And, crucially, in libertarian immigration theory, immigrants to a country would have to purchase their way in by exchanging property for property; immigration would be based on invitation and consent rather than the current method of invasion and agitation.
Mr. Farah's seeming belief in central planning's effectiveness comes through again in his support for the drug war and national defense. Although he does admit the failure of drug control from Washington, D.C., he does, in the interests of (the classical liberal/libertarian ideal of) federalism, support the notion that central planners in each state capital can produce the hoped-for results of prohibition that drug prohibition by Washington--and booze prohibition before that--miserably failed to achieve.
Mr. Farah wrongly concludes that the libertarian proscription to end all drug prohibition--at all levels, not just federal--is a stance taken out of moral neutrality regarding drugs. In reality, it is taken from the highly moral stance that individuals are responsible, and nowhere is it ever legitimate to violently impose one's views on others, regardless of the harm they do to themselves.
On the libertarian scales, coercion and violations of individual rights are greater evils than drug use. Incidentally, the history of the "drug war" has been, like alcohol prohibition before it, a tale of continual failure; consumption has skyrocketed, contrary to the goals of the planners.
Regarding "national defense," Mr. Farah is rightly concerned about the U.S. Empire that provides Americans with a "strong offense" deploying ..."tens of thousands of troops in more than 100 countries around the world," but he fails to correctly label this for what it is. He describes this troop presence by the rather benign analogy of "as if America was the world's policeman," which obscures the truth about the purpose of U.S .imperialism.
Mr. Farah's real complaint is the supposed lack of a strong "national defense": "We leave Americans at home virtually defenseless against terror attacks and weapons of massive destruction." But what Mr. Farah fails to appreciate in the libertarian critique of the empire is the domestic effects of the military-industrial complex required to support a "strong national defense" of the type he advocates.
In turn, this strong domestic military machine generates fears in neighboring states, which seek stronger military power--including weapons of mass destruction--for their own "strong national defense." More important, this standing military provides American politicians and domestic business interests the opportunity to use military coercion to benefit special economic interests. This is how America has found itself beset by terrorism and resented and hated around the world.
Instead of either the neoconservative's global empire or Mr. Farah's national security state--both of which demand a domestic mercantile military-industrial complex--libertarians recall the ideas of the Founding Fathers themselves, who advocated trade with the world (absent entangling political alliances), and who favored unrestricted private gun ownership and an armed citizenry (which would deter foreign aggressors contemplating armed invasion, as well as petty and major criminals, such as terrorists who steal airplanes and kidnap hundreds of people).
Most important, an armed citizenry is compatible with the libertarian principles of individual liberty, federalism, and self-government. The presence of standing armies and the creation of murderous weapons by the military-industrial complex in the pay of the federal government destroy these very same republican values that Mr. Farah no doubt supports.
The Founding Fathers warned of the danger to the republic of a standing army and its related economic dependencies, interests, and taxation. What the American people, and indeed all people, need are the armed populaces of classical liberal republicanism, which alone provide a strong defense against the state--both foreign and domestic.
Up until the modern imperial/managerial era, drugs, borders, and defense were largely perfunctory. Protected by two seas, Americans had no fear of invasion. Drugs were unregulated and available from manufacturers the same way beer and liquor are today. And without the vast bureaucratic preferential and wealth-transfer system that has existed since at least the New Deal era, immigrants found individual self-government mandatory if they wished to build their new lives in America.
The fourth and final point Mr. Farah raises against libertarians is our alleged misunderstanding of human nature. In Mr. Farah's words:
... too few of them comprehend a laissez-faire society can only be built in a culture of morality, righteousness, and compassion. Libertarians who expect to build such a society through politics alone make a fundamental error. In a sense, they are utopian dreamers like the socialists, ignoring the importance of human nature in shaping communities and nations.
Libertarian theory illustrates that big government destroys self-government, whether in the sense of individual citizens governing their own behavior, or in the more traditional understanding of government utilizing elected representatives. Big government gives impetus to a Big Brother nation in which the country's people lose their power of self-government under the constant oppression from the decrees and secrecy of a managerial minority.
And it is this managerial statism that destroys the requirement that individuals be moral and responsible in their relations with others. Libertarians are fully aware that a free society cannot be achieved through the political system of payoffs, bribes, treachery, deceit, and scandal. It is precisely because individuals are not inherently good that the political system cannot be trusted.
Mr. Farah implicitly argues that, left unchecked, people will degenerate into wholesale crime and aggression, unless policed and restrained by the political system. But unfortunately for this common view, the state is composed of flawed individuals just as society is. What libertarians understand is that in a laissez-faire society, abuses can more easily be limited and corrected by having a diverse and competitive society, instead of the despotism of a single monopoly provider to impose its will and force obedience to the laws--whether the laws are just or not.
As one reads further, however, it appears Mr. Farah's real reason for opposing the libertarian ideology is that it opposes what he doesn't--namely, using political power to enforce religious beliefs. Mr. Farah disparages any possible libertarian society as one which could only be a "society devoid of God and a biblical worldview" which "would quickly deteriorate into chaos and violence."
What libertarians realize is that regardless of whether one is religious or secular--and there are many libertarians who see no conflict between libertarianism and a commitment to religious faith--it is individuals who must voluntarily decide to behave ethically, not "society." Any attempt to enforce virtue--as versus punish crime--does violence to the principles of individual rights and freedom.
Classical liberals, such as Thomas Jefferson, advocate the separation of religion and the state, and libertarians advocate the Misesian view of the complete separation of economy and state. Both of these principles are held in order to protect religion and the economy, respectively, from manipulation by the state and its interests. Lo and behold, this system--tried first in America--yielded the most prosperous and most religious nation on earth.
Mr. Farah admonishes libertarians: "[t]he truth is there's more to life than politics. Much more." He's implying that libertarians are obsessed with tinkering with the political system. Rather, it is libertarians, and only libertarians, who desire and work toward the ideas and practices of a society that is free from the aggression of constant attacks and intervention by ambitious and unscrupulous politicians and the latest gang of "great leaders."
What libertarians work toward is reconstruction of the libertarian ideals set forth in the early republic--an order of peace, free trade, and individual self-government, where the state was restricted in its interference in the life of the churches, and the state was largely irrelevant to the economy and to the daily lives of the average American citizen.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.