Beware Statists in Libertarian Clothing


Right-wing icon Charles Krauthammer thinks one of the biggest themes of 2013 was rising libertarianism. It’s an interesting idea that isn’t without basis — think marijuana and same-sex marriage — but I’m not sure one can say that these “libertarian” results indicate a new spread of libertarian ideas.

To be fair, Krauthammer’s point seems mainly to be about the liberalization of social attitudes, which typically means the liberal social positions of libertarians. But libertarianism is more descriptive of an attitude than a set of policies, and there’s reason to believe that the expanding social libertarianism that he mentions is actually in the service of statism.

Consider Rhode Island. It isn’t the libertarians pushing for liberalization of marijuana laws and same-sex marriage, it’s the statist progressives. That isn’t to say that libertarians oppose the changes, but in Rhode Island (as increasingly across the country) they’ve got their hands full trying to reclaim property rights and slow the advance of the regulatory state, and on those counts, they’re being rapidly undermined.

Having crisscrossed social strata, in my years, it’s difficult to see some of these social issues as deriving from popular uprisings. To my experience, the average American doesn’t care much one way or another whether people can buy pot. They might fight head shops on their own streets, but it isn’t the issue itself that has made it a matter of political interest; it’s more the insinuations that the issue allows one politician to make about another; it’s more the collision of politics and special interests.

And, of course, increasing the number of crimes gives the statists more to control and more justification to tax and regulate.

I think what may have happened is that statists have had a revelation. The news reports, after all, point out that the federal government is not planning any action against Colorado for putting its pot laws at odds with those of the United States… provided the industry is heavily regulated.

Perhaps the shift has something to do with the rapid expansion of state-kickback-generating casinos. We’re seeing in Rhode Island the state government’s panic as Massachusetts moves to cut into its gambling revenue. One can’t help but imagine government budget worriers beginning to look at other products on which they could claim a monopoly and for which they could impose heavy taxes, like drugs and prostitution. In fact, that’s a refrain I’ve heard with increasing fervor: “We ought to make it legal and tax it like crazy!”

Same-sex marriage is not so simple; an immediate government payout doesn’t explain a shift in big-government attitudes. Rather, traditional marriage is key among the cultural institutions that offer a competing social plan to reliance on government. In this case, I think what Krauthammer refers to as an astonishing shift in social attitudes has also largely been a test of the power of leftist strategies to manipulate the language, silence opposition, and kneed a new ethos through pop culture and legal maneuvering, largely through the courts.

From the big-government perspective, the best part of all of this is that the wisdom of the ages is that activities like drug use and pervasive gambling really do cause societal harm, while strong cultural institutions, like traditional marriage, really do facilitate social health. My libertarian side thinks it’d be better for the state to stay out of these transactions, for the most part, but my practical conservative side understands that there has to be something to counterbalance that tendency.

There is a difference between liberalizing social laws from a position of cultural strength and doing so from a position of cultural decay. Strong cultural institutions would regulate socially destructive behavior in a network of voluntary agreements. That’s the libertarian ideal, to the extent that it has a socially conscious component. Unfortunately, all progressives and far too many modern libertarians ultimately don’t wish to empower cultural institutions, either.

So we get the other route… socially destructive programs in a setting of cultural decay will produce more government programs to deal with the harm, surely amounting to more grist for the statist mill than puritanism ever did. So, as with state-run casinos, the government will get a huge chunk of revenue from selling sin, and then it will argue for expanded services (and taxes) in order to address the consequences.

  • mangeek

    I've been wrestling with what to call myself politically. I'm OK with 'big government' as long as it's being fiscally responsible and working to make things more conducive to commerce and the free market. I'm a social libertarian, and a federalist, and I believe that the free market is a powerful force to help economies self-regulate…

    But I also think it might be cheaper and better to just give heroin addicts free heroin on prescription instead of allowing a black market to flourish. And I think it might make sense to just put a bunch of people into public housing rather than let them work it out in the private market and end up evicted/homeless half the time. That sort of thing.

    What irritates me is the pervasive idea held by many liberals and government employees that the government exists to create and promote jobs inside the government itself. That drives me nuts. I think the government should be as small as it needs to be to get the job done, but I want it to do different things than what it does now, and many of those things are 'bigger' than what we expect of it today.

  • Guest

    "Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person's right to life, liberty, and property-rights that people have naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force-actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud."

    You can't be "part-libertarian" or cherry-pick this and that. In the end, libertarianism is about personal responsibility–to 'fully own" yourself. If you don't want to work, you have that right–but don't look to others for a handout. Bottom line: your rights end at my wallet.

    Many statists want people to have the freedom to do harm to themselves, yet force others to take care of these "free spirits" and shield them from the consequences of their decisions. IOW, reward failure and tax success. Watch the movie "idiocracy" for a snapshot of our future.

  • mangeek

    " If you don't want to work, you have that right–but don't look to others for a handout. Bottom line: your rights end at my wallet."

    But what about the guy who works two part-time jobs just to get enough for food and rent… What happens when he slips and breaks his ankle? Is it worth it to just have him removed from the workforce and economy because we didn't have a system where he could walk into a clinic and get his ankle fixed-up right from the start?

    Seems to me that some of the 'big government/small government' stuff caves in on itself the more you 'zoom out' and get a view of the big picture. Maybe the best way to 'keep people out of your wallet' is to keep them from slipping out of the economy in the first place. That means government assistance on housing, food, and health care.

    Penny-smart, pound-foolish kind of stuff.

  • Guest

    It's telling that your first thought was Gov't is needed here. Charities were where people could get help. Voluntary contributions to helpful entities because we are in this together–and luck is fickle (though luck does favor the well prepared). We often forget that we used to do just fine with charities. After all, who are the most generous people in this world? You got it–US. But it's more difficult to be generous when the Gov't takes it before you can give….

    Frankly, people need to see not only the big picture, but the long view–the unintended consequences of simplistic, emotional, thinking. Ask yourself why people are "slipping out of the economy." Could it be because they dropped out of school/performed poorly and don't have skills needed? Could it be because Section 8 housing, free medical, food stamps and a cell phone is "good enough"? Could it be because corporate taxes rates required to feed the nanny state are so onerous that we have priced ourselves out of the global marketplace? All of the above and more? What section of the Fed Govt's budget is growing the fastest with the least oversight? Why?

    I applaud the man working two jobs to pay his rent and eat. If my son worked hard and fell, I'd be there for him–as If not, his church, peers and others would be also–on a voluntary basis. In a way, it encourages people to work hard and get involved with others. On the other hand, entitlements often do the opposite.

  • DavidS

    Mangeek. I think pragmatist would work. Or maybe realist. I don't buy your concept of liberal and public worker sentiments though. People who believe government can be a positive influence in society do not think more government just for the sake of government, but to address issues that are meaningful to them. One can debate the merits of of their claims, but please, do not fall for the right wing talking points about the nefarious public employee. I think if you were able to get some face to face knowledge, your perspective would change. After all, you are a pragmatist and realist.

  • Mike

    Sorry, but public sector unions are an anathema to productivity and efficiency…even FDR knew this and he isn't consider by many as "right wing." Remind me again…where exactly is RI in the state ranking for employment and other economic indicators? And didn't some traditional democratic states just implement right to work laws? Facts talk..__ walks.

  • Dan

    Mangeek – It sounds like you share some libertarian values, but I always thought of you as more of a technocrat, i.e., you want the "right" people in charge to devise neat and elegant solutions to social problems. I've gathered from your comments that this would usually, but not always, be accomplished through some sort of top-down technical solution.

    Technocracy isn't always a bad thing – we can't be too idealistic after all ("there are no solutions, only tradeoffs") – but be wary not to allow yourself to get sucked too far over to the progressive "dark side" on a road paved with good intentions. Tom Sgouros and Jason Becker are two examples of technocratic ideals gone totally awry. For all their longwinded bluster, their solutions all basically boil down to putting themselves in charge.

  • Russ

    "It isn’t the libertarians pushing for liberalization of marijuana laws and same-sex marriage, it’s the statist progressives."

    And the "libertarian left"…

  • Dan

    Excellent piece. Its plain the left can count on socially moderate libertarians to go along with ever more tax and regulation schemes by using the hook of more individual freedom, What Libertarian doesn't want more freedom. But by agreeing to the taxation and regulation they grow the state, and there is a need for that growth when we are talking about things like legalizing drugs.

    It's very easy to spew slogans like "Your rights end at My wallet", but where does the duty lie? If people become incapable of managing their own lives it falls to the only entity big enough to pick up the pieces, The State.

    Wouldn't a propensity to want to allow more social freedom, while also suggesting the new "freedom" should regulated and taxed suggest an intellectual heritage of of liberalism, and not put one in alignment with the right/conservatives

  • Guest

    "It's very easy to spew slogans like "Your rights end at My wallet", but where does the duty lie? If people become incapable of managing their own lives it falls to the only entity big enough to pick up the pieces, The State."

    False choice Dan–there are other options than the state.

    On the other point, I agree. Libertarians shouldn't agree with policies that grow the state. They'd be OK with MaryJane–and, in theory, they should also be OK to have you fail and cease to exist if that is what you chose…unless, of course, people entered into voluntary institutions (charities) to provide for those that choose to live outside of reality. This is where the libertarian theory fails–people aren't cold and emotionless–they are charitable–and when charity isn't enough, the guilt lever is long and powerful. As long as the less than productive can make you take care of them, they will remain unproductive. And they will soon become legion.

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