Looking for freedom
Taxes, abortion, gay rights, social security, health care. These are hot issues right now. They’re the things you’ll be hearing about from Senators Clinton and McCain, et al. All the candidates will be on TV, in newspapers and on the campaign trail making speeches about many different things, but you’re assured that these issues will be among them.
You’re less likely to hear these issues from the libertarian perspective. You are not going to hear the major candidates discuss the issues in the most important context. That is, the context of how government action necessarily detracts from your freedoms. Think about it. Politicians tell you why they support a course of government action, but they never explain to you why the benefits of that action outweigh the freedom you give up as a result.
Make no mistake, every time the government does anything, we all lose a little bit of freedom. The government is the only actor in society that can move at will, without constraints by the market or by law. The only potential constraint is the vote, which isn’t much of a constraint when both parties ignore this issue.
How does government action result in lost freedom? Let’s take a look at a few of the major issues in the public debate now. Gay rights is a big one, and conservatives who advocate limitations on the rights of homosexuals discuss “morals” and “tradition” and “values.” They have done a great job of making everyone think about these words while ignoring the issue that ought to be impacting this debate.
Freedom to choose, freedom to act in a way that doesn’t harm others, freedom to be yourself. For this argument, I’m not saying there is no merit in the conservative position. What I am saying is that politicians cannot continue to advocate positions without fleshing out the trade-off that is always inherent.
Taxes. I have no idea why Thomas Jefferson felt he had to remove “property” from Locke’s trio and add “the pursuit of happiness,” but he did and now we’re stuck with it. Despite the fact that we don’t have the phrase in our founding documents, property rights still exist in this country, and the government constantly infringes on these rights.
Payroll deductions, social security taxes, medicare taxes, property taxes, sales taxes. These all attack our freedom to hold and acquire property. This is a freedom that has been integral to capitalism for centuries, but is now ignored in this country. We work and the government tells us that it will take our money, tells us when it will do so, and tells us how much it will take. Former Republican presidential hopeful Alan Keyes discussed this issue, coming to the conclusion that Americans are essentially slaves working for the government. He didn’t fare well in the primaries, which probably has a lot to do with why this discussion isn’t happening.
Again, the point is not to blast one point of view, but to propose that we start to be honest with ourselves. We have to realize that positions we take might, in a very real way, be cutting into the freedoms we have. We have to know that our decisions and advocacy for government action do involve a necessary reduction in overall freedom. When the government acts, we are all a little less free.
That isn’t to say that all government action is unwanted. On the contrary, government is important and, unfortunately, necessary. But in the course of debating government action, a discussion of the loss of freedoms necessary should be something that is considered and debated alongside moral or economic rationales. When Americans think about issues, they should immediately consider the ramifications different courses of actions would have on our freedoms.
That is largely what libertarians will want to discuss. Note that this is the small “l” libertarian, not the big “L” Libertarian. The former refers to a set of beliefs, a political ideology. The latter to a political party. Libertarian is to Republican as libertarian is to conservative. Many will tell you that libertarianism is the new conservatism. I think that’s a possibility, but for the time being, libertarians are as different from conservatives as they are from liberals.
Conservatives and liberals consider issues from their perspectives. They think about constituencies, morals, good, values, etc. On the other hand, libertarians consider an issue first from the perspective of “what action will this require the government to take?” Starting there, the next step is a consideration of how that government action impacts the freedoms of Americans. If the limitation on freedoms is not substantially outweighed by the potential or perceived benefit of the action, a libertarian will oppose the government action.
I’m not saying that all Americans should become libertarians (though that would be nice). I am saying that we can all learn something from looking at political issues through the tint of libertarian glasses. Next time you hear a politician advocate tariffs or ethanol subsidies, consider how these things might negatively effect your level of freedom. Weigh the consequences and make your choice.
Reed Luthanen is a law student at the UA. His column usually appears every other Wednesday.