“Is Libertarianism Dead?”
by Jessica Kuzmier
Libertarianism is as American a concept as baseball. In its most distilled form, libertarianism simply means as little governmental control as possible, whether it is control in the form of taxation, or regulations of behavior. Certainly the idea sounds great; each person free to do as he or she pleases as long as there isn't any serious human rights violations. Certainly American tradition has it that the nation was founded on such ideals. But over the years, as the United States has become more urbanized and multiethnic, American culture and philosophy has shied away from libertarianism. Regulations and laws have been demanded by liberals and conservatives alike, seeking methods in which to organize the disparate groups that comprise the American citizenry into a cohesive group. The question becomes whether libertarianism is just a quaint concept that belongs in the history books or is still a viable method to conduct American life.
Nobody would ever say that they want to be controlled by government. It conjures up images of books like "1984" and "Brave New World" and movies such as "Brazil" and "Terminator". Yet total lack of government produces much the same effect in the minds of many, except the polar opposite. People want the government to enforce codes outside the jurisdiction of the Constitution: the demand of the minimum wage and labor laws and the criminalization of cannabis are just two examples of this popular sentiment. The request for governmental protection for one group of people usually leads to restrictions on another group of people. Both of the previous examples reflect this. Labor laws curb businesses from treating employees arbitrarily and force them to conduct business along a federal mandate. Criminalization of drugs such as marijuana restricts the options of chemical entertainment.
Most people don't see much wrong with these types of laws. Yet when laws are so minutely codified that one has to worry about getting a ticket for letting his lawn grow too long, people's ire is raised. However, the lawn-length law has this in common with drug and labor laws: it was created to protect communities from wanton behavior; behavior that seems inconsiderate of his or her neighbor. Of course, the question then becomes how free are you if manners have to be legislated? Is that what the Constitution intended? Libertarians would answer this with a definitive no.
In many ways, the United States is an idea as much as a nation. The concept of a nation living free and independent of monarchical rule was a revolutionary idea in and of itself. It is one that over the years may seem like nothing much, as most countries have some type of election to choose their leaders. But in 1776, a bunch of people getting together creating a document that severed all legal ties to royalty was extremely far-thinking.
The U.S. Constitution, which formed the bulwark of the American government, has modified itself to some extent with the times. For example, when the Declaration of Independence was written originally, "all men being created free and equal", this statement did not include persons of color or women of any color. The end of the Civil War brought legal stature to black men and in 1920 women received the right to vote, and this was accorded into the Constitution. Likewise, people obtained the right to vote at the age of eighteen after many wars such as World War II and the Vietnam War, the theory being that if someone is old enough to die fighting for his or her country, this person is old enough to choose his or her leaders.
Most of the United States as we know it now began either as colonies or as territories by various European countries, the bulk being Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Each of these colonies were founded for independent reasons, but most had the fact in common that being far away from the mother country, they could live as they pleased. However, as the territories and colonies acquired fell under the umbrella of the United States, there came the reality of how to keep everything under unified control and yet still maintain the identity of free choice. With fissures such as the Civil War, and modern calamities such as the protests of the sixties, the question became, should federal unity be pursued? Or should individual states' rights be the priority? So polarized was this issue of states' rights versus federalism that it became partisan definition: Republicans upholding states' rights, Democrats encourage nationalism. It became traditional for libertarians to more likely support Republicans than Democrats for this reason, libertarians wishing to determine their own destiny within their own state borders.
However, with the advent of the so-called "religious right", the Republican party has also subjected itself to the demand of regulations, usually in the arena of morality. Certainly there have always been people who have looked to the government to uphold what they believe to be morality. Restrictions against "victimless" crimes such as prostitution, gambling, and drugs are examples of how the government is used to check the behavior of citizenry. Homosexuality is a crime, at least on paper, in several states. But several things have happened to suddenly escalate laws that were fairly localized into national bones of contention: the sixties movement against sexual repression unlocked many doors that held these issues closed. Divorce laws, abortion laws, laws that put the nuclear family above all other families were taken out of the vault, examined and found wanting, and smashed to the ground. As far as the religious right are concerned, this open free-for-all door has turned America into a nightmare of violence, nihilism, and amorality. They seek to return order via legislation: through constitutional amendments which would bar what they believe to be erroneous behavior. Two such examples were the proposed amendment that would outlaw the burning of the flag, and the recent call for an amendment which would overturn state sanctioned homosexual marriages. These religious activists, who have been traditionally Republican, have made such inroads into their party's hands-off mainstream that the libertarian who found refuge in the Grand Old Party suddenly find that his or her home has been uprooted.
Of course, the Republican Party is hardly the only party imbued with regulations. Affirmative action has been so closely linked with the Democratic Party that it is almost nearly a definitive characteristic of the party. Environmental and economic regulations have nearly always been supported by Democrats. As far as Democrats are concerned, businesses must be regulated because they don't think for the long-term future, at least as far as the state of the planet goes. Tax cuts do nothing but cause budget deficits and don't do anything for the little guy. By taxing people, economic fairness will more likely be achieved than if everything was just left to go its own flow.
Both parties will argue that such regulation is needed for the protection of the populace. In other words, laissez-faire economics and freedom of behavior will not lead to a better society. To be sure, much of American policy, foreign and domestic, has been based on preventing groups from revolutionary thinking that would destroy the status quo through force or regulation. Most recently, this has been the bulwarked by the fear of terrorism, but before that, fear of Communism justified governmental intervention. American foreign policy, far from being laissez-faire in the international arena, has traditionally supported those regimes that were anti-Communist, regardless of what the people wanted or who was democratically elected in polls that were set up by American lawmakers as precursors to the democracy we have now: Arbenz in 1954 Guatemala, and the coup in Iran in 1953, just to name two. The use of force to dictate what ideology a country is allowed to run on is far from anything libertarian. The most common reasoning is again, protection for the people. To many, the turning of sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30 is much the same thing: you are sovereign, as long as you do it our way, for your protection.
And in an era that is rife with the undertone of terrorism, many people would prefer regulation than unbounded freedom. To many people, lack of regulation will only cause more September 11ths to abound. People would prefer have their driving tracked by security companies than to have privacy but no security. Soon after the September 11th terrorist attacks, I read a story that interviewed a young mother. To paraphrase her sentiment, she basically said, the heck with her rights. She'd rather be safe. Sentiments such as these is why the Patriot Act has been little complained about, except for the usual suspects like Amnesty International and the ACLU. Sheer survival is more important than whether you can complain about George Bush and not have your library records seized arbitrarily. It would appear that in being free, one has to let go of the need for security and survival. The reverse seems equally as true.
The idea of reconciling freedom with security seems to be almost impossible to do. To accomplish this, one would have to embark on a quest to not be afraid of his death, believe on some spiritual plane that all is well no matter what the outside says, or believe that everyone is fundamentally good deep down inside and we just have to find the nugget within. This would provide the necessary mindframe that would allow society to be libertarian minded during the war on terrorism: survival would not be important enough to warrant a life of regulations. While all that might be true, they are all mindsets, none of which could be legislated and still be classified as libertarianism, for the libertarian would abhor the idea of mandating laws enacting groupthink. To that end, libertarianism will remain a minority concept in this era of palatable fear. There are too many people to be able to just do as you want. There are too many different people with too many clashing cultures and ideologies. Laws are needed to sift everyone back into the melting pot so America can go on its happy sojourn. And there are too many enemies lurking in the shadows that look like you and me. To just let them do as they please is too much a threat to liberty and freedom as we know it.
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