18 February 2008|
Why I'm a Libertarian
Swatting away the heavy hand of paternalism – what libertarianism is all about
By Joe Holmes
The contemporary political landscape is pulled in two directions – social paternalism (our Republican friends) and economic paternalism (our Democratic friends). A neutral definition of paternalism can be seen as a system, principle, or practice of managing or governing individuals, businesses, nations, etc., in the manner of a father dealing benevolently and often intrusively with his children. The core character, then, is that the government knows what’s best for you. The Republican Party, by fighting against gay rights, abortion rights, and seeking to preserve a generally conservative society, can be said to be socially paternalistic. Similarly, the Democratic Party, by seeking to employ people in collective bargaining contexts and unions, increased taxation, and providing a whole host of expensive and largely inefficient government resources, can be said to be economically paternalistic. The libertarian would say that both forms of paternalism are equally invasive and destructive.
An example may help. An often cited policy preference for libertarians is drug legalization. By legalizing drugs, the libertarian is not condoning or arguing for drug use; instead, the libertarian argues that an informed discourse on drug use can only occur when the topic is brought into the fore and not swept under the carpet. People are going to use drugs. As a result, the libertarian would argue that rather than devote precious government resources to criminalizing drug use, we should make drugs legal. Furthermore, only when the behavior is institutionally de-stigmatized can real social discourse take place.
For me, drug use is immoral. The harder the drug, the more immoral. Why? I believe there is an inherent value in having control of our faculties at all times. So why, might you ask, do I believe that drugs should be legalized? The answer is simple – making drugs illegal only masks the problem and may, in fact, make the problem even worse. If a friend came to me and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about shooting up. What are your thoughts?” I would tell him that I value self-control and that drug use and the value of self-control are incompatible.
Let’s think of a parent and child; the child coming to the parent asking about potentially trying drugs. Parent 1 says, “Drugs are wrong. If you try drugs, you will be punished.” Parent 2 says, “Drugs are wrong. I cannot attempt to control you; however, I would encourage you not to do drugs for X, Y, and Z. If you do drugs, you will be responsible for any and all of the fallout.” Parent 1 is the classic paternalist; Parent 2 is the libertarian. Which parent do you think would be more successful in helping his child make the right decision for the right reasons?
For me, the answer is clearly Parent 2. The old adage – you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – should hold true. A society is the sum of its parts – in our case, individuals. Each individual has different capacities, values, and goals. In order to gain any kind of social harmony, individuals must be allowed as much freedom as possible. People have a tendency of rejecting, or at the very least, becoming resentful of ideas or behaviors that are impressed upon them by someone else. For the truly destitute perhaps not so much; here, maybe the hand of paternalism is not so overbearing. However, few people in our country are in this boat.
Furthermore, do we want people to make the right decisions because we say it is right or do we want people to make the right decisions because it is right? The bad parent attempts to control his child and put him in a position of submission. The good parent attempts to teach her child right and wrong and what qualities make this difference. To me, libertarianism represents individual autonomy and the highest respect for morality – the morality of choice.
Paternalism is a shallow way of attempting to gain socially desirable outcomes. Indeed our society would be healthier if women didn’t have abortions, if people saved for retirement, if every individual had enough money to live comfortably, if people didn’t do drugs, if a worker was capable of wielding bargaining power in the employment context, etc. However, for the government to take heavy-handed actions to implement these socially desirable outcomes is morally wrong – for the only real value that can come of these outcomes is knowing that they are rightfully achieved by the personal choice of all individuals.
It is important to understand that the social realm of human interaction is largely divorced of the governmental realm. The government’s fundamental function is to provide resources and benefits that could not adequately be provided by individuals or groups of individuals (the rule of law, roads, national defense, etc.). Ultimately, while there may be other things that are capable of being addressed by individuals, we as a society may elect to have these benefits or protections secured via the government (things such as zoning, public parks, police and fire departments, education, etc.). However, the government cannot act to implement largely moral policies. This is the domain of society. Society can seek to educate and inform individuals about the various choices they may make in life, such as whether to do drugs or whether to have an abortion. However, to force individuals into compliance by using the guise of legality is wrong. Thus, the libertarian is the champion of morality and value, not the destroyer as it so often claimed.