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Nov 8, 2013

“First, Do No Harm”

Libertarians get told we complain about government but never offer solutions. That’s not true—especially because limiting government often is the solution.

Derek Hunter is mad that libertarians don’t support Republicans enough. He ties this not to our principled disagreements with Republican policy preference but, instead, to our proclivity to merely complain instead of offering legitimate solutions. In a recent essay at Townhall.com, Hunter writes that, “What Libertarians [sic] do exceedingly well is sit on the sidelines, arms folded, and complain. No idea was ever put into action by complaining that it wasn’t so, yet that seems to be the Libertarian modus operandi.” (He also raises distinctly odd criticisms such as libertarians “allowing” Bill Maher to call himself a libertarian, none of which merit a response.)

This pains him, he says, because libertarians used to be so much better than that.

[Libertarians] went from the movement for individual responsibility, small government and free markets to a gaggle of misfits who want pot and prostitution legalized and a total non-interventionist foreign policy.

That pretty much sums it up.

Honestly, what does being a Libertarian mean beyond legalizing drugs, banging hookers and sitting by while the rest of the world blows itself up?

Let’s take a moment to parse this, because it’s a remarkably unreflective set of paragraphs.

First, it treats as a given that there’s little or no causal connection between the ideals of individual responsibility and limited government and the resulting policy prescriptions of legalized drugs, legalized sex work, and non-intervention. But, of course, clear arguments flow from those ideals to those policies—even if other arguments and policies might flow from those ideals as well. Taking responsibility for yourself means (in part) deciding what you put in your body and who you have sex with and why. Put another way, we maybe have other reasons for rejecting legalized drugs and prostitution, but legalized drugs and prostitution are not on their face incompatible with individual responsibility and limited government. Similarly, non-interventionism seems a good fit for a political system based on keeping government from overreaching and preventing it from violating the rights of others, even if those others happen to live in foreign lands.

Second, it treats the conservative position as so patently obvious that the only reason one would reject it—i.e., the only reason one would want to legalize drugs and prostitution and maintain a non-interventionist foreign policy—is because one simply likes taking drugs, “banging hookers,” and letting the world blow itself up. Yet the truth of those conservative positions is precisely what’s at issue. Of course it’s the case that if Derek Hunter’s brand of conservatism is true then libertarianism is false. But Hunter can’t point only to his belief in his position as dispositive evidence of libertarianism’s falsity. He has to do a good more than that.

But Hunter’s confusions go deeper than not understanding the connection between freedom and ending the war on drugs. We can see them most clearly when he writes about how some libertarians supported Obama over McCain in 2008.

But as bad as McCain was (and still is), he was better than Barack Obama. At least that’s a conclusion you’d expect anyone who supported liberty to draw.

This gets to a real misunderstanding conservatives have about libertarianism, one that leads them into the strange belief that libertarians have some sort of obligation to vote for conservatives. The confusion is in thinking this: Liberty means lower taxes. Thus the candidate who wants to lower taxes (or, at least, opposes raising them) is the candidate most in favor of liberty. All other positions he might hold are irrelevant. And if libertarians care about those other positions—same-sex marriage, the drug war, foreign policy, etc.—they are abandoning their commitment to liberty insofar as they let their views on those other positions push them toward voting for someone who might raise taxes. Taxes matter, yes, but if I have a choice between a candidate who would lower taxes by 10% while ramping up the drug war and a candidate who would end the drug war but raise taxes by 10%, I’d feel deeply unprincipled—not to mention immoral—if I voted for the former over the latter.

In this regard, a vote for Obama at the time isn’t unreasonable by libertarian standards. McCain had a lot of scary ideas. Obama did, too. But Obama also seemed much better on many issues than McCain. (That Obama turned out to be terrible on most of those issues is beside the point, because Hunter’s criticism is of libertarians voting for him then, not libertarians supporting him now.) Likewise, wanting Republicans to lose that election, after eight years of George W. Bush, is understandable, especially if you believed that McCain represented a more likely continuation of Bush’s dreadful policies. Thus it’s downright silly to claim, as Hunter does, that those libertarians who voted for Obama (or, at least, against McCain) did so because they wanted “to let the country lose, to get that smug sense of self-satisfaction they were feeling.” They simply believed—again, based on evidence available at the time, and not on the hindsight we have after half a decade of Obama’s rule—that a McCain victory represented more of a loss to the country than an Obama one.

Of course, even if I support a given candidate, that doesn’t mean I endorse all (or even most) of his positions. Which means I may still have much to complain about! And given how far from libertarian nearly all politicians are, libertarians do quite a lot of complaining. Still, to return to where we started, does complaining about the political solutions offered by candidates and lawmakers mean libertarians don’t also have their own solutions in mind?

In medical ethics, there’s the principle primum non nocere. “First, do no harm.” It’s one libertarians keep very much in mind when approaching politics. Most government “solutions” don’t simply not work. They actually make things worse than if they hadn’t been enacted at all. Thus standing in opposition to expanded government isn’t motivated by an uncaring attitude about America’s problems. Instead, it’s motivated by a well-founded understanding of how often government is the cause of those problems. Even so, opposition to most state-based solutions gets mischaracterized—by people like Derek Hunter—as petulance instead of principle. It’s a frustrating misunderstanding, as Thomas Sowell notes:

No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: “But what would you replace it with?” When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?

This misunderstanding is made worse by the abstract nature of genuinely libertarian solutions. What we offer is not some powerful man in Washington directing the country, but freedom. Which means freedom for Americans to do unpredictable things. Our solutions are based in the knowledge that many of those unpredictable things (many of the outcomes of unleashed market forces, for example) will radically improve the lives of nearly everyone touched by them. We know that a free market in health care will lower costs and improve quality, but we don’t know precisely how long it will take, or what form it will take when it happens. This ambiguity leads many to see libertarian solutions as not solutions at all, but rather refusal to do anything in the first place.

As libertarians, we need to recognize this confusion and be aware of its source. We need to do a better job drawing a clear line from increased freedom to better outcomes. We need to reiterate, again and again, that for many serious problems, getting government out of the way is the solution.

But we must never concede ground on the value of freedom. We must never allow partisans to cheapen the idea of liberty by illegitimately limiting it to a handful of their prefered uses. We must never admit to being an ideology of simple opposition. Because we aren’t. Libertarianism is an ideology of respect—for people, for their choices, for their values and desires. It is an ideology of hope, one that sees a path to a much better future. Even if that path isn’t as precisely drawn as some might like.