Basic Political Choices
For centuries people have argued about the basic issues of politics and government. According to Aristotle, the possible political systems were tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. In the middle of the 20th century it seemed to many that the choices were communism, fascism, and democratic capitalism. Today, all those choices have fallen from favor except democratic capitalism, and many intellectuals have embraced Francis Fukuyama's proclamation of "the end of history," meaning that the great battles over ideology have ended with the triumph of mixed-economy democracy. Even as his book appeared, however, Islamic fundamentalism was rising in one part of the world, and some Asian political leaders and intellectuals were beginning to develop a positive argument for a form of authoritarian capitalism they dubbed "Asian values."
In any case, the supposed triumph of democracy still leaves much room for contending ideologies. Even the identification of "democracy" as the Western alternative to fascism and socialism is problematic. Libertarians, as the name implies, believe that the most important political value is liberty, not democracy. Many modern readers may wonder, what's the difference? Aren't liberty and democracy the same thing? Certainly one could get that idea from the standard teaching of American history. But consider: India is the world's largest democracy, yet its commitment to free speech and pluralism is weak and its citizens are enmeshed in a web of protectionist regulations that limit their liberty at every turn. For the past several decades, Hong Kong has not been a democracy--its citizens have had no right to vote for their rulers--yet it has afforded more scope for individual choice and freedom than any other place in the world. There is a connection between liberty and democracy, but they are not identical.
Much of the confusion stems from two different senses of the word liberty, a distinction notably explored by the 19th-century French libertarian Benjamin Constant in an essay titled "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns." Constant noted that to the ancient Greek writers the idea of liberty meant the right to participate in public life, in making decisions for the entire community. Thus Athens was a free polity because all the citizens--that is, all the free, adult, Athenian men--could go to the arena and participate in the decision-making process. Socrates, indeed, was free because he could participate in the collective decision to execute him for his heretical opinions. The modern concept of liberty, however, emphasizes the right of individuals to live as they choose, to speak and worship freely, to own property, to engage in commerce, to be free from arbitrary arrest or detention, in Constant's words, "to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives and undertakings." A government based on the participation of the governed is a valuable safeguard for individual rights, but liberty itself is the right to make choices and to pursue projects of one's own choosing.
For libertarians, the basic political issue is the relationship of the individual to the state. What rights do individuals have (if any)? What form of government (if any) will best protect those rights? What powers should government have? What demands may individuals make on one another through the mechanism of government?
As Edward H. Crane of the Cato Institute puts it, there are only two basic ways to organize society: coercively, through government dictates, or voluntarily, through the myriad interactions among individuals and private associations. All the various political "isms"--monarchy, oligarchy, fascism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism--boil down to a single question: "Who is going to make the decision about this particular aspect of your life, you or somebody else?"
Do you spend the money you earn, or does Congress?
Do you pick the school your child goes to, or does the school board?
Do you decide what books you will read, or will a bureaucracy make that decision?
Do you decide what drugs to take when you're sick, or does the Food and Drug Administration in Washington?
In a civil society you make the choices about your life. In a political society someone else makes those choices. And because people naturally resist letting others make important choices for them, the political society is of necessity based on coercion. Throughout this book we'll explore the implications of this analysis.
| Order Libertarianism | About the Author | Home Page | The Libertarian Reader | Next Excerpt |