The Coming Libertarian Age
In 1995 Gallup pollsters found that 39 percent of Americans said that "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." Pollsters couldn't believe it, so they tried again, taking out the word "immediate." This time 52 percent of Americans agreed.
Later that year USA Today reported in a front-page story that "many of the 41 million members of Generation X--the so-called baby busters born from 1965 to 1976--are turning to an old philosophy that suddenly seems new: libertarianism." A front-page report in the Wall Street Journal agreed: "Much of the angry sentiment coursing through [voters'] veins today isn't traditionally Republican or even conservative. It's libertarian. . . . Because of their growing disdain for government, more and more Americans appear to be drifting--often unwittingly--toward a libertarian philosophy."
Writing in 1995 about the large numbers of Americans who say they'd welcome a third party, David Broder of the Washington Post commented, "The distinguishing characteristic of these potential independent voters--aside from their disillusionment with Washington politicians of both parties--is their libertarian streak. They are skeptical of the Democrats because they identify them with big government. They are wary of the Republicans because of the growing influence within the GOP of the religious right."
Where did this sudden media interest in libertarianism come from? As USA Today noted, libertarianism challenges the conventional wisdom and rejects outmoded statist ideas, so it often has a strong appeal to young people. As for myself, when I first discovered libertarian ideas in my college days, it seemed obvious to me that most libertarians would be young (even though I was dimly aware that the libertarian books I was reading were written by older people). Who but a young person could believe in such a robust vision of individual freedom? When I went to my first libertarian event off-campus, I was mildly surprised that the first person I encountered was about 40, which seemed quite old to me at the time. Then another person arrived, more the sort of person I had expected to meet, a young woman in her late twenties. But her first question was, "Have you seen my parents?" I soon learned that her sixtyish parents were the leading libertarian activists in the state, and my mistaken impressions about what kind of people would become libertarians were gone forever. I discovered that the young woman's parents, and the millions of Americans who today share libertarian beliefs, stand firmly in a long American tradition of individual liberty and opposition to coercive government.
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. (Throughout this book I use the traditional "he" and "his" to refer to individuals generically; unless the context indicates otherwise, "he" and "his" should be understood to refer to both men and women.) 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.
Most people habitually believe in and live by this code of ethics. Libertarians believe this code should be applied consistently--and specifically, that it should be applied to actions by governments as well as by individuals. Governments should exist to protect rights, to protect us from others who might use force against us. When governments themselves use force against people who have not violated the rights of others, then governments themselves become rights violators. Thus libertarians condemn such government actions as censorship, the draft, price controls, confiscation of property, and regulation of our personal and economic lives.
Put so starkly, the libertarian vision may sound other-worldly, like a doctrine for a universe of angels that never was and never will be. Surely, in today's messy and often unpleasant world, government must do a great deal? But here's the surprise: The answer is no. In fact, the more messy and modern the world, the better libertarianism works compared--for instance--with monarchy, dictatorship, and even postwar American-style welfarism. The political awakening in America today is first and foremost the realization that libertarianism is not a relic of the past. It is a philosophy--more, a pragmatic plan--for the future. In American politics it is the leading edge; not a backlash, but a vanguard.
Libertarian thought is so widespread today, and the American government has become so bloated and ludicrous, that the two funniest writers in America are both libertarians. P. J. O'Rourke summed up his political philosophy this way: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." Dave Barry understands government about as clearly as Tom Paine did: "The best way to understand this whole issue is to look at what the government does: it takes money from some people, keeps a bunch of it, and gives the rest to other people."
Libertarianism is an old philosophy, but its framework for liberty under law and economic progress makes it especially suited for the dynamic world--call it the Information Age, or the Third Wave, or the Third Industrial Revolution--we are now entering.
The Resurgence of Libertarianism
Some readers may well wonder why people in a generally free and prosperous country like the United States need to adopt a new philosophy of government. Aren't we doing reasonably well with our current system? We do indeed have a society that has brought unprecedented prosperity to a larger number of people than ever before. But we face problems--from high taxes to poor schools to racial tensions to environmental destruction--that our current approach is not handling adequately. Libertarianism has answers for those problems, as I'll try to demonstrate. For now, I'll offer three reasons that libertarianism is the right approach for America on the eve of the new millennium.
First, we are not nearly as prosperous as we could be. If our economy were growing at the rate it grew from 1945 to 1973, our gross domestic product would be 40 percent larger than it is. But that's not the real measure of the economic harm that excessive government is doing to us. In a world of global markets and accelerating technological change, we shouldn't be growing at the same pace we did 40 years ago--we should be growing faster. More reliance on markets and individual enterprise would mean more wealth for all of us, which is especially important for those who have the least today.
Second, our government has become far too powerful and it increasingly threatens our freedom--as those 52 percent of Americans told the befuddled pollsters. Government taxes too much, regulates too much, interferes too much. Politicians from Jesse Helms to Jesse Jackson seek to impose their own moral agenda on 250 million Americans. Events like the assault on the Branch Davidians, the shootings of Vicki Weaver and Donald Scott, the beating of Rodney King, and the government's increasing attempts to take private property without judicial process make us fear an out-of-control government and remind us of the need to reestablish strict limits on power.
Third, in a fast-changing world where every individual has unprecedented access to information, centralized bureaucracies and coercive regulations just can't keep up with the real economy. Global capital markets mean that investors won't be held hostage by national governments and their confiscatory tax systems. New opportunities for telecommuting will mean that more and more workers will also have the ability to flee high taxes and other intrusive government policies. Prosperous nations in the 21st century will be those that attract productive people. We need a limited government to usher in an unlimited future.
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