In a Nutshell:
There's no getting around it, this is a long one. In this monster of a post I talk about the founding of America, my own personal political beliefs and how they intersect with what came before, where we are now, and where we might be headed as a nation. I try to keep it light, but this is heavy stuff. You've been warned.
So, prior to this point I’ve tried to keep it pretty lighthearted. Some movie reviews and a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the proper way to view Star Wars is hardly controversial after all, but given everything that’s happening in the news these days, I feel compelled to explain my worldview a little better, and I pay for this site so I’ve earned it. Be forewarned, this will be a long post.
At the end of the day I consider myself to be a Libertarian, and by that I mean I am highly supportive of personal freedoms and a government which exercises non-intervention in the daily lives of citizens to the greatest practical extent. In my definition of Libertarianism the primary and paramount function of government is to ensure the rights of citizens. I support the notion of a government that intervenes in the best interests of the citizenry in endeavors that cannot be accomplished through free enterprise or individual action, but that’s a slippery slope – one that I will address here in some detail, and perhaps later in greater detail in individual topics.
Ultimately, my view of Libertarianism is that I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative – and I am using both those terms in the classical sense; I am not a neo-con and I have never considered voting Republican, which is a shame because I feel like the GOP should represent my politics better than Democrats.
But I digress – a bad sign so early – So the real question is how does this translate into practical terms? It’s complicated (obviously), but I’ll try to organize my thoughts here. Let’s start with the structure of the US Federal system. I don’t know what the demographics of my (limited) readership really is, but I’m an American male in the 25-34 demographic and hail from a metropolitan area on the East Coast. As such, I’m going to be speaking about America because I want to.
The View from 30,000 Feet: Political Structure of the Federal Government
Back when the upstart breakaway group of colonies that would one day become the US of A won our independence from Old England (with just a smidge of help from the French) there was a little debate about what we should do from there. I’m not going to go into the Articles of Confederation, but suffice it to say I’m surprised the European Union didn’t learn the same lesson that the Founding Fathers did back in the late 1700’s. What emerged was the modern day Constitution of the United States, followed closely by the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to said Constitution. Taken together these documents are the bedrock upon which this nation was built and continues to operate today. So what did they leave us with?
First off, the nearly-deified Founding Fathers left us with a Republic rather than a Direct Democracy. “What does that mean?” you ask – well essentially we have a representative government. You see, the Founding Fathers were afraid of a lot of things, but chief among them was a bunch of poor uneducated people carrying the majority in every vote of import and running the rich landowners out of town – what has often been described as a tyranny of the majority. (Side note: the Founding Father’s weren’t just worried about the rights of the rich being trampled on by the TotM. In fact, the rights of minorities of any kind, be they religious, ethnic etc., were in question given mankind’s well documented tendency to be a general asshat when it comes to individuality). Rather than gifting power directly to the masses like Athens did so many years before, the framers of the Constitution created a Republic modeled on Rome (get ready, I’m going to be referencing Rome a lot). The two houses of the Legislative Body (the “patrician” Senate and the “plebian” House of Representatives) were established to represent the will of the people. Because elected bodies of politicians are bad at getting stuff done the Executive Branch of government was established, embodied in the Office of the Presidency. And because the Founding Fathers were terrified of a Roman Republic styled Dictatorship arising just as much as they were terrified of a runaway electorate, a 3rd body was created to arbitrate, giving rise to the much derided Judicial Branch embodied by the Supreme Court.
So what do I think about this style of government? Actually, I think the Founding Fathers did a pretty good job in theory. They gave us a government conceived in idealism and grounded by practical considerations. Is the Federal Government perfect? Far from it, but for most of its history it functioned pretty well. They also provided a mechanism by which the Federal Government can adapt to a changing reality in the form of Amendments to the Constitution. The first 10 Amendments, collectively known as The Bill of Rights (I’m not hyperlinking for my health, go read them), directly and explicitly granted certain basic rights to citizens of the US. This is going to be a point I’ll address in more detail a little further on, but basically this is a main tenant of my Libertarianism. If the Federal Government exists to ensure the rights of all citizens, then a lot of the “let the states decide” nonsense that has pervaded our history is exactly that: nonsensical.
In essence, I really do approve of the overall structure of the Federal Government. Different branches exist to fulfill specific purposes, and they have checks and balances upon each other. A Republic ensures that we aren’t governed directly by the whims of the public, but elected officials are still beholden to the people. Also, despite the fact that I just derided the role of State Governments in all of this, I actually also approve of Local Government. I just think that Local Government should restrict itself to the areas of governance and leave the high-minded idea of rights to the central authority. Remember, Libertarianism is about ensuring individual liberty. So overall I give the Founding Fathers an A for effort, an A+ for good intentions and a solid B/B+ for execution. So let’s move on.
Individual Rights and the Role of States
One of the things the Founding Fathers noticed upon drafting their blueprint for statecraft was that, while they had created a lot of checks and balances protecting against an encroachment of “freedom”, they really hadn’t defined what those freedoms actually were. This is where the Bill of Rights came in. the first ten Amendments to the Constitution outline numerous freedoms (“rights”) that the people of the United States were entitled to, and that the government of the United States could not infringe upon. 224 years later *SPOILER ALERT* these freedoms are almost all being infringed upon in some way. The reasons are varied, from the practical (First, Second and Tenth Amendments) to the paranoid (Fourth through Eighth) to the downright asinine (Ninth).
The First Amendment: Right off the bat I’m starting with a big one here. I think it probably just makes sense to give you the wording of the 1st Amendment and then I can talk about it, so here goes: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
So there’s a lot to unpack here, and keep in mind I’m not a constitutional scholar and have zero formal legal background. But basically, the first clause regards religion (I feel safe going that far at least). Specifically, the “no law respecting an establishment of a religion” language tells me that Congress can’t dictate what is or isn’t a religion and also can’t establish a state religion. Jefferson spoke at length about a “wall of separation between church and state” and I tend to agree with him on that one. Religion is fine (see “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) but it’s not the place of the state to intervene in religion. I think that’s a delicate balance, but a good one. Remember this when I talk about Gay Rights later on.
The second clause relates to Freedom of Speech and of the Press. These two clauses are vitally important for any democracy, representative or otherwise. Sadly, in our modern era it really feels like these two freedoms are being pared back on fairly substantially, and I’m not even getting into the PC Police territory when I say that. As a result I find myself retroactively wishing the Founding Fathers had spelled out these two freedoms a bit more robustly, but the fact that they outlined these freedoms in so simple a manor tells me that they took it for granted that there was no room for subtlety here. People in the US have the right to free & unrestricted (“[unabridged]”) speech and press. Can we place reasonable common sense restrictions on this – for example don’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater or don’t commit slander? Sure, but if someone has an unpopular opinion they have the right to express it and if Fox News wants to sling hateful or misguided opinions on their editorial shows (NOT their News programming however) then they too are free to do so.
Lastly, the right to freedom of assembly and the right to petition the Government for a redress of a grievance are also really important in keeping the world safe for democracy. In any free democracy, especially one of for and by the people, the right to assemble and petition are vitally important. There would be no Civil Rights movement nor an Occupy movement without these freedoms.
The Second Amendment: This one’s controversial, and unlike the First Amendment it isn’t really inherently important to the necessities of a free society. According to the text: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I can hear the internet comment trolls warming up their keyboards even now, but the fact that no matter what I say I’ll still attract criticism means I don’t feel the need to pull any punches. This Amendment was written in a time in which everyday life for most Americans was radically different from what we experience here today.
My personal opinion is that, while the safe operation of firearms is actually a lot of fun – I’m a fan of both precision rifle target practice and trap & skeet shooting myself – there is no practical reason for a modern, developed society to allow mostly unrestricted ownership of firearms among its general population. “But the Founding Fathers…” I hear people beginning to say. Well there’s a reason I provided the actual language of the Amendment as written.
I’m not going to throw statistics at you (though violent gun deaths and mass shootings in this country are tragically common and even more tragically avoidable). I’m not going to address issues of self-defense (gun deaths usually result from a gun within the victim’s own household). I’m not even going to talk about hunting (seriously, I’m not). I’m going to talk about the Founding Fathers because that’s what your argument rests upon. Read the first thirteen words in the Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”. A well regulated militia, such as one based on the model of the minutemen or other militia groups that supplemented the Continental Army and were instrumental in winning the war with Britain. A well regulated militia, such as one that might be needed to fight border skirmishes (mostly against Native Americans) in a time in which the US Army was only the size of a single brigade and therefore was inadequate to defend the borders of the nation. A well regulated militia, as in exactly not what John Q. Taxpayer and his personal weapons’ cache is. This was the answer to the practical problem of the day: We won a war and are fearful of the tyranny of an army (which is also an expensive thing to maintain by the by), so let’s keep the army small and supplement with well regulated citizen militias who keep their own arms. This is the Roman Army before Marius’ reforms, not a license to live out your own personal Rambo fetish. This is about self-defense as a nation, not as individuals.
To be fair, there is also the slightly different argument that the Founding Fathers – especially Jefferson – felt that the citizenry will need to violently overthrown the government in the event of a tyrannical regime coming to power (“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”). This may have been possible in 1791 when the Amendment was written, but if anyone thinks a bunch of individuals with handguns (the leading cause of violent gun death in the US) are going to overthrow the US Army, I’d like to introduce you to the M1 Abrams third generation main battle tank and the AC-130 Gunship. Your arguments are invalid.
The Third Amendment: I don’t really feel the need to address this one. Basically citizens can’t be forced to house army soldiers unless as “prescribed by law” in a time of war. Pretty basic and uncontroversial today.
The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments: These are pretty tough. I wish I had a background in Constitutional law, but I don’t. I really don’t want to butcher these Amendments because I feel they are extremely important freedoms that protect individuals from the abuses of a runaway police state. Suffice it to say, these three Amendments relate to Unreasonable Search and Seizure (Fourth); Arrest unless by Warrant, Double-Jeopardy, Self-Incrimination, Due Process and the rights of Personal Property (Fifth); and the right to a speedy and fair trial (Sixth). There are people far smarter than I who would argue quite convincingly that these three Amendments, especially the Fourth and Fifth, are under attack by an abusive and encroaching Surveillance/Police State. I’d encourage you to watch these videos on Government Surveillance, Civil Forfeiture, and Police Militarization. Yes, they’re all John Oliver, but he does an amazing job conveying the nuances.
Seventh and Eighth Amendments: The Seventh and Eighth Amendments are also about the trial process. If you notice a pattern here, the Founding Fathers were really worried about the state screwing over individuals in the trial process. The only thing worth pointing out here is that the Eighth Amendment relates to excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment. The first two really should be examined as they relate to their application to the very poor as people have been going to prison due to their inability to cover the interest on mounting fines levied against them, essentially creating debtors’ prisons, while that last one opens a whole can of worms related to torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation”). And yes, these freedoms are all being eaten away at the margins.
The Ninth Amendment: The Ninth Amendment serves to ensure that these are not the only freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution – that this list is not exhaustive but simply the really important ones that need to be spelled out explicitly. Suffice it to say, the Libertarian in me feels that rights not explicitly restricted by the Constitution are implicitly allowed (Pornography, Drugs etc.), while various Governments from the Federal on down have no problem imposing greater restrictions on our right to live our lives unmolested by those same Governments.
The Tenth Amendment: Basically passes the buck to the States when the Federal Government doesn’t want to get involved. While I think this is a great idea for most day-to-day operations (local zoning, school districts etc.) it also was interpreted as a way for the States to get away with all manner of pernicious behaviors. The most glaring example is the case of Slavery, wherein the Constitution was silent until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, but the problem exists to this day, such as the state-by-state acceptance or rejection of Gay Marriage.
It’s really convenient for the purpose of this essay that this is the last Amendment, because it also encompasses my central tenant of Libertarianism. The Federal Government ensures a minimum standard of freedoms everyone in this country can expect to enjoy. These are, at a bare minimum, the freedoms that no state can infringe upon. Furthermore, these freedoms are here for ALL citizens, not select groups. The First Amendment applies just as much for Christians as it does for members of any other religion and those who practice no religion at all. The Fifth Amendment isn’t reserved only for White People (though in practice one could probably argue there’s an unequal application or adherence to these Freedoms), nor is the Eighth Amendment there only to protect women. If a right is given to one, it is given to all. While there are obviously restrictions on freedoms, these should only be in cases where your freedom infringes on someone else’s (“your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins”).
How it fits in
Ok, so I’ve outlined the basis upon which I have built my own personal philosophy. Hopefully it’s mostly coherent and has its own internal logic. Now that I’ve explained my foundations to you I want to examine a few places where it applies to modern issues so you can see my own brand of Libertarianism in action.
Let’s start with an issue that seems to be mostly resolved now, although it was resolved in a totally different way than I would have preferred: Gay Marriage. Now, prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Gay Marriage rights were an issue embroiled in multiple levels of arguments. I think, at the end of the day, those people who were against Gay Marriage were homophobic on some level. I also think many of them masked it in religious zeal, and indeed religion undeniably played a key part in vilifying homosexuals in the eyes of everyday Americans. I come from an Irish Catholic family, though my mother is a Protestant. I myself went to Sunday School and Confirmation Classes in both the Catholic and Dutch Reformed Churches and eventually decided I was an atheist. I tell you that so you understand my bias, but also so you understand the arguments I have heard most frequently around the dinner table or family reunion BBQ when Gay Marriage comes up.
Essentially, most family members who are or were against Gay Marriage (note: all were of my parents’ generation or older and some have come to be in favor of Gay Marriage where once they were opposed to it) argued that Marriage, while also a legal contract, was predominantly a religious institution. Because marriage is religious in nature, the religious teachings of only a man + a woman does a marriage make are allowed to hold true. This is the heart of the issue and I’ll tackle it first. Simply, the answer is no. Remember when I spoke about the 1st Amendment before? No state religion, no interfering with religion, that sort of thing? Here’s where that comes into play. In my view, and I believe the Constitution supports me, if a religion wants to prevent Gay Marriage from being recognized within the tenants of that faith, that is entirely within that faith’s purview. So, for example, if the Catholic Church doesn’t want to recognize Chuck and Larry as being married, that’s fine, but the State cannot make the same distinction because the State cannot discriminate between genders on the issue of marriage any more than on the issue of voting. If marriage is a legal institution which guarantees certain privileges then it cannot discriminate to whom it grants said privileges based on demographics. Also, as we established decades ago, there is no such thing as separate but equal, so don’t suggest civil unions as an alternative. It makes no sense that I, as a heterosexual male, can marry a heterosexual female at the court house, not involve a religious institutions of any stripe, and call it a marriage but two gay friends of mine can’t do the exact same thing because they’re missing a woman in that equation.
OK, so that’s the main issue surrounding gay marriage, but I’ll just wrap up some tangential arguments. First, let’s acknowledge that even the argument about marriage being about procreation or raising a family is bullshit, because we don’t invalidate “traditional” marriages between two people who have no intention of procreating (one person being sterile, people too old to sexually reproduce, simply not wanting to etc.) nor people capable but not “ready” or never indenting to raise a family (people who don’t want children and won’t adopt etc.). Also, the idea of marriage being a sacred institution we should protect would imply that we wouldn’t allow divorce. And while I’m on the topic of divorce, I think the idea of two people divorcing is more offensive to a traditional marriage than two people lovingly committing to the same ideals of said marriage but simply being “of the wrong type of people”. Indeed, I saw a great quote somewhere that said “the idea that two gay people being offensive to your marriage is like someone eating donuts being offensive to your diet”. So that’s my Libertarian rant on Marriage. What’s next? How about something antithetical to the wholesome institution of marriage? Why not?
Sex, Drugs and Alcohol: The fun vices. Simply put, I think they’re all pretty much ok and should be allowed. Phew, that was easy, what’s next? Fine I’ll elaborate first, but because I’m getting tired (and probably so are you) I’ll just say this about them: I don’t understand how a party advocating “small government” or a government that should “govern less” or “leave us alone” (*cough cough, Republicans*) is so concerned about what we do with our own personal bodies. Regulate my dumping toxic waste into the water supply? Government’s getting too invasive! Regulating who I have sex with, what I put in my own body of my own volition (That second one wasn’t necessarily about sex but I guess it could still apply), or anything of a similar notion? Yes please! It’s an internally inconsistent argument. Again, as long as we aren’t hurting anyone, I think we should be allowed to do whatever we want. So let’s tackle this in stages.
First let’s talk about sex. As long as it happens between two consenting adults, I’m all for it no matter how weird you want to get, so let your freak flag fly America. There are lots of nuances regarding what “adult” or “consenting” could mean, but that’s for another essay. As a corollary, let’s talk about Prostitution. As long as it’s regulated (disease screenings, age verifications, taxes paid etc.) I would also say I’m all for it. Frankly, legalizing and regulating an industry is a great way to get rid of a lot of the actual “evils” of said industry (the abuses, the violence, the disease etc.). That takes me to Drugs and Alcohol.
I think the Prohibition Era taught us that if you outlaw something that people really want, a market for that thing will still exist, only that in pushing it to the black market you create more crime (and more nefariously, criminal enterprise) than would exist if that thing was legal. This is really how we got the mob and people like Capone. The 70’s & 80’s saw similar patterns with Cocaine, Heroin and Crack, and now we’re seeing Meth following a similar pattern. I think the recent efforts to legalize Marijuana in certain states is a great start and will likely provide a model to follow for other drugs, but in summary I’d say that, while I’m not 100% sure this is the best idea, it just might make the most sense to legalize even the harshest of drugs so long as they’re regulated and taxed. It’s possible that certain drugs cause people to do such weird things that they really should be outlawed and whatnot, but I think all drug enforcement should be done on a case by case basis, and I certainly think it should be done in a way that doesn’t waste so much time, money and lives the way that the current war on drugs undeniably does – not to mention how sending people to jail for minor drug offenses seems to create more criminals than it prevents. I’ll admit though, once you start going down the rabbit hole of drugs it gets tricky.
Practical Libertarianism: Or where I contradict myself
So I started this out by saying I was Socially Liberal and Fiscally Conservative, and mostly what I’ve done is talk about Social Issues. This is mostly because I think they’re more under attack and also because I think the Fiscal Issues are much more susceptible to fluctuations so it’s harder to speak in absolutes. Notice though, that I was pro free enterprise on the Sex Drugs and Alcohol front. Now I’m going to contradict that notion. I think the free market is a great and powerful thing, but I also think its imperfect. Indeed, I’m in favor of the free market in a controlled environment. Contradiction in terms? You bet, but let’s discuss.
You see, the free market is really great at driving costs down. It creates efficiencies that an artificial market never needs to solve for, and is generally great at getting stuff into people’s hands. However, the free market is really bad at a couple of things, such as pricing in externalities, thinking long term, and dealing with a post-consumerist society. Externalities are the easiest to address so let’s start there. If I want to drive my car and therefore I want gas at the cheapest price possible, the free market is great at getting me gas cheaply. When unregulated, the cheapest way to get me that gas is by creating a lot of pollution. That pollution is a negative externality. It’s a cost of the market for gas which is not incurred directly by the participants in the market. I don’t want pollution, but I also really want cheap gas, so if I can get cheap gas and have someone else pay for the pollution, I’ll probably buy into that system, thereby continuing to cause this externality that someone will have to pay for. Most likely, due to how interconnected our planet is, I’ll pay for this externality at some point down the line, but it won’t just be me, it could be people completely unconnected to the gas market. That’s bad, and so government should step in to regulate the free market in a way such that these negative externalities are either mitigated, prevented entirely, or at the very least accounted for in the true cost of the gas (making them no longer an externality, but a “true’ cost to the system). This is never going to be easy and will undoubtedly be a moving target, but at least government should acknowledge this as one of its roles.
Free markets also suck at thinking long term. The tragedy of the commons is one of the best examples of this. Basically, it’s a thought experiment that explains how unrestricted exploitation of commonly held natural resources (i.e. the “commons”) is in everyone’s best interest individually, but collectively is devastating. Look at overfishing today. It’s in an individual fisherman’s best interest to catch as many fish as he or she can in order to make as much money now as possible. However, when every fisherman does this (i.e. acts in their own individual best interest for short term gain) they end up depleting the fishing stock and soon there are no common natural resources for anyone to exploit and therefore everyone has to learn how to become a programmer in the new post-fish economy. What’s better than this unrestricted free market? How about regulating the use of the commons to ensure it will always be there while still allowing for limited exploitation? Again, this is something that really only government can do (or in the case of fishing, probably agreements between numerous governments).
Wow, this essay really got away from me. If you made it this far you deserve a hug, but I promise we’re almost done. I had it in my notes to talk about Rome some more, the rise of the US Police State, and the intersection of money in politics. That’s way too much, and frankly mostly outside the scope of this essay anyway.
I do highly recommend you read up on Rome, because why Rome became an Empire where once it was a Republic can teach us a lot about America today, but basically just keep in mind that 1) Rome’s original government was designed to govern a smaller and less sophisticated state than what it became, which is to say the world’s leading superpower; 2) Rome had structural issues which it struggled to address over centuries as demographics changed; 3) Rome struggled with legal issues surrounding rich vs. poor, labor crises, reforms to the army etc.; and 4) Corruption within the political system, especially as it concerned money & politics was a tremendous problem that was only solved by killing an astonishing number of people and creating a dictator for life who was then killed and eventually replaced by a ruling dictatorial dynasty. If any of that sounds somewhat similar to what we’re dealing with today, remember that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it".