The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808–1890) famously said that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” This epigram is a perfect description of the American electoral process.
Americans elect a new president every four years. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a two-year term. U.S. senators are elected for six years. That means that every two years all House seats and one-third of the Senate seats are up for grabs. Although the president is limited by the Twenty-Second Amendment to just two terms, there are no term limits for U.S. representatives and senators. Over the past fifty years, the reelection rate for House incumbents has not dropped below 85 percent. And only six times has it even fallen below 90 percent. The percentages are lower in the Senate, but Senate races still overwhelmingly favor the incumbent. Since the election of 1982, the reelection rate for Senate incumbents has ranged from 75 to 96 percent.
Over the last twenty-odd years, it seems, on the surface, as though some radical changes on the national level have taken place. In the election of 1994 — for the first time in fifty years — the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. They have held on to control of the House ever since, except for the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Republicans likewise controlled the Senate until the election of 2006, except for a brief interruption in 2001 and 2002 because Sen. Jim Jeffords switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent. They regained control of the Senate in the 2014 election. For more than four years during George W. Bush’s presidency, the Republicans had absolute control of the Congress and the White House. For the first two years of Obama’s presidency, Democrats held the same.
On paper, Bush and Obama couldn’t be more different. But after enduring eight years of each one, it is evident that nothing has really changed under their respective administrations as far as the federal government is concerned. Certainly nothing for the better. In fact, almost every one of Bush’s bad policies was continued by Obama. Republicans and Democrats likewise appear to be different animals, but during this same period, what has really changed? The national debt has continued to increase. Federal regulation of almost every area of commerce and life has not abated. Tens of thousands of Americans are still incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. The United States still has the world’s largest prison population per capita. The federal budget continues to increase. Budget deficits are still the norm. Social Security and Medicare continue to be insolvent. The United States is still engaged in numerous overseas military interventions. Senseless foreign wars are still raging. Hundreds of U.S. military bases still encircle the globe. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops continue to garrison the planet. U.S. foreign policy continues to be reckless, belligerent, and meddling. The welfare state continues to redistribute wealth. The warfare state continues to bleed Americans dry in order to line the pockets of defense contractors. The war on poverty continues to impoverish those who have to pay for it. Americans increasingly live in a police state. The government continues to take from those who work and give to those who don’t. Money is still being taken from American taxpayers and given to corrupt foreign governments. The size and scope of the federal government continues to increase.
Americans have now endured yet another election cycle. Many promises have been made; many assurances have been given; many changes have been proposed. And many changes will undoubtedly take place. But what kind of changes will they be? If they are not changes in the direction of more liberty and less government, then they are the wrong kind of changes. That is why the change America needs is libertarianism.
Libertarianism is the philosophy that says that people should be free from individual, societal, or government interference to live their lives any way they desire, pursue their own happiness, accumulate as much wealth as they can, assess their own risks, make their own choices, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, participate in any economic activity for their profit, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. As libertarianism’s greatest theorist, Murray Rothbard, puts it, “Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.”
The creed of libertarianism is nonaggression: freedom from aggression and violence against person and property as long as one respects the person and property of others. The principle undergirding the libertarian philosophy is what is known as the nonaggression principle. As explained by Rothbard, “The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another.” It is the initiation of aggression or violence against the person or property of others that is always wrong — unless, of course it is consensual. Boxing and mixed martial arts are violent sports where the initiation of aggression against one’s opponent is the whole purpose of the event. But the violence is consensual. By stepping into the ring one fighter is granting the other fighter permission to use violence against him.
The nonaggression principle is designed to prohibit someone from infringing upon the liberty of another. It is the core premise of the philosophy of libertarianism. Aggression is theft, fraud, the initiation of nonconsensual violence, or the threat of nonconsensual violence. The initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong. Violence is justified only against violence. No violence may be used against a non-aggressor. Force is justified only in defense or retaliation, but is neither essential nor required: You can chase a burglar away instead of shooting him. Force must also be proportional: You may not kill someone just because he walks across your lawn.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy of liberty, property, and peace. It is not a government philosophy of efficiency, privatization, and deregulation. Libertarianism is not a composite of social liberalism and economic or fiscal conservatism. Libertarianism respects personal privacy, financial privacy, free thought, individual responsibility, freedom of conscience, free exchange, free markets, and private property. It should not be identified with “rugged individualism,” “unrestrained freedom of speech,” “survival of the fittest,” “unfettered capitalism,” “every man for himself,” or “dog eat dog.” Libertarianism celebrates individual liberty, personal freedom, peaceful activity, voluntary interaction, laissez faire, free enterprise, free assembly, free association, free speech, and free expression. It has nothing to do with hedonism, libertinism, moral relativism, licentiousness, pragmatism, utopianism, materialism, selfishness, anarchy, or nihilism. Libertarianism is silent about people’s lifestyles, tastes, vices, sex life, sexual orientation, traditions, religion, aesthetics, cultural norms, or social attitudes. It makes no moral or ethical judgments about individual actions or behaviors as long as they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
Because government is the greatest violator of the nonaggression principle, personal liberty, and property rights, libertarians oppose and seek to limit the intervention, regulation, and control of government. To the libertarian, the only possible legitimate functions of government are defense, judicial, and policing activities. All government actions, at any level of government, beyond those functions are illegitimate. Henry David Thoreau said he agreed with the motto, “That government is best which governs least.” And libertarians would certainly agree with him.
In a libertarian society, there is simply no justification for any government action beyond keeping the peace; prosecuting, punishing, and exacting restitution from those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or otherwise violate the personal or property rights of others; providing a forum for dispute resolution; and constraining those who would attempt to interfere with people’s peaceful actions. Actions would be prohibited only if they involve the initiation of violence or aggression against person (murder, rape, assault, et cetera), property (burglary, embezzlement, shoplifting, vandalism, arson, trespassing), or both (armed robbery). There would be no such thing as nebulous crimes against nature, society, or the state. Every crime would have to have a tangible victim and measurable damages. As long as people don’t infringe upon the liberty of others by committing, or threatening to commit, acts of fraud, theft, aggression, or violence against their person or property, the government should just leave them alone.
As things stand now, the government regularly criminalizes victimless crimes; violates individual liberty; tramples property rights; provides services that the private sector could and should be providing; redistributes wealth from “the rich” to “the poor” after funneling it through a vast bureaucracy; incarcerates people for nonviolent activity; transfers income from taxpayers to foreigners, contractors, and cronies; and interferes in the free market with rules and regulations it has no business making.
Not in any particular order, what follows is an eclectic mix of libertarian changes that America needs.
America needs a change when it comes to the war on drugs. Using drugs may be addictive, dangerous, immoral, and destructive, but it is not the job of the government to decide what kinds of behaviors Americans are allowed to engage in. All drugs should be legal for medical or recreational use. The war on drugs should be ended and the DEA should be abolished.
America needs a change when it comes to gambling laws. It is not the job of government to monitor how Americans use their money. All Americans should be able to do with their money as they see fit, whether that means to save it, invest it, spend it, hoard it, donate it, burn it, or waste it on vices such as gambling. All laws that regulate existing legal gambling or prohibit illegal gambling should be repealed.
America needs a change when it comes to prostitution laws. It is not the job of government to curb prostitution, legislate morality, stamp out vice, help anyone avoid a life of prostitution, deter men from buying sexual services, or criminalize one party or both parties who engage in peaceful, private, voluntary, and consensual activity. And besides, why should a service that is legal to give away be illegal if one charges for it? All laws against prostitution should be repealed.
America needs a change when it comes to alcohol laws. About 10 percent of the United States contains “dry” counties where alcohol cannot be sold. In most areas of the country, alcohol sales are restricted in some way on Sundays. Throughout the country, drinking alcoholic beverages is illegal for legal adults who are under twenty-one. It is an illegitimate function of government to prohibit people from drinking alcohol or to prevent or restrict commerce in alcohol. All laws that concern alcoholic beverages should be repealed and the ATF should be abolished.
America needs a change when it comes to foreign aid. The government has no right to take money from Americans against their will and give it to foreigners or their governments. Any American who wants to help the poor, starving, or underprivileged in any country is welcome to do so on his own or through any number of private organizations — as long as he uses his own money. All foreign aid should be private and voluntary. All foreign aid supplied by the U.S. government should be eliminated.
America needs a change when it comes to disaster relief. Americans are a generous people. They regularly donate millions of dollars to charitable organizations to provide relief in foreign countries whenever there is some major natural disaster. Not only is it not the job of government to take money from American and use it to provide disaster relief — even within the United States — government relief crowds out private relief efforts. All relief should be private and voluntary. No country should be given disaster relief by the U.S. government regardless of the circumstances.
America needs a change when it comes to unemployment compensation. What is unemployment compensation but the government’s taking money from those who work and giving it to those who don’t? Unemployment insurance should be purchased on the free market just like fire, car, homeowners’, and life insurance. All government unemployment programs should be ended.
America needs a change when it comes to entangling alliances. The United States has committed itself to coming to the defense of scores of countries. Those commitments are the epitome of the entangling alliances the Founding Fathers warned against making. The U.S. military should be used only for the defense of the United States. Each country should provide for its own defense. Any American who wants to take sides in a conflict between countries is welcome to do so as long as he does it on his own dime. No agreements to defend other countries are in the interests of the American people as a whole and should therefore be rescinded.
America needs a change when it comes to foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy is reckless, belligerent, and meddling. It creates enemies and terrorists. It makes America and Americans less safe. It is arrogant and immoral for the United States to be the self-appointed policeman of the world. U.S. foreign policy should return to the neutrality and nonintervention of the Founders.
America needs a change when it comes to the use of its military. The United States has hundreds of bases on foreign soil and many tens of thousands of troops stationed overseas. That results in the military’s being used more for offense than for defense. All foreign bases should be closed and all U.S. troops brought home.
America needs a change when it comes to the minimum wage. Many states (and cities) have already increased their minimum wage above the federal level. There is much agitation around the country for the minimum wage to be increased to $15 per hour. But what is the minimum wage but the forbidding of workers from freely contracting with firms under mutually agreeable terms? If someone can offer to sell his goods for whatever amount he chooses, then it stands to reason that he should likewise be able to offer to sell his labor for whatever amount he chooses. It is not the job of government to set a minimum wage or regulate the labor market. So, rather than being increased, the minimum wage should be eliminated.
America needs a change when it comes to education. It is not the job of the government to educate anyone’s children or subsidize anyone’s education. All education should be private, and none of it should be funded by the taxpayers. No American should be forced to pay for the education of any other American. All government schools should be closed, all government funding of education should be ended, and all departments of education should be abolished.
America needs a change when it comes to student loans. Student-loan debt and defaults are at the highest levels in history. But it is simply not the job of government to lend students money or to help anyone obtain a college education. All student loans should come from private sources. All government student-loan programs should be eliminated.
America needs a change when it comes to welfare. The United States has roughly 80 means-tested programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. But whether it is called SNAP, NSLP, LIEAP, EITC, WIC, SSI, TANF, or Section 8, it is still welfare. And before the government can provide a welfare benefit it must first take the monetary equivalent from American taxpayers. But it is not the job of government to fight poverty or provide a safety net. All charity should be private and voluntary. All welfare programs should be eliminated in their entirety.
America needs a change when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are nothing but socialized medicine. The fact that they are for the poor and the elderly doesn’t change the nature of the programs. It is not the job of the government to subsidize anyone’s health insurance or health care, pay for anyone’s prescription drugs, have health-care programs, or have anything whatsoever to do with health insurance, health care, or medicine. No one has the right to health care. And no American should be forced to pay for the health care of any other American. Medicare and Medicaid should be ended.
America needs a change when it comes to Social Security. With more than 10,000 Americans becoming eligible for benefits every month, the system is unsustainable, since there are now fewer than three workers funding the program per recipient of benefits. Although Social Security is mostly funded by payroll deductions, there is no connection between the taxes paid and the benefits received. There is also no contractual right even to receive benefits. Social Security is an intergenerational income transfer from the working population to retired workers, survivors of deceased workers, and disabled workers. Even so, it is not the job of the government to operate a retirement or disability plan. Social Security should be ended and the payroll taxes that fund it should be eliminated.
America needs a change when it comes to funding for research and the arts. It is not the job of the government to subsidize scientific or medical research or cultural activities of individuals or organizations. All grants for research or the arts should come from private sources. All government grants should be canceled and all governmental grant-making agencies abolished.
America needs a change when it comes to farm subsidies. It is not the job of the government to subsidize agriculture or any other sector of the economy. Farming should be treated just like any other business. All farm subsidies should be eliminated and the Department of Agriculture should be abolished.
America needs a change when it comes to anti-discrimination laws. These laws violate private-property rights, freedom of association, freedom of contract, and freedom of thought. All anti-discrimination laws should be repealed and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) should be abolished.
America needs a change when it comes to organ sales. If you own your own body, then you also own the organs in your body. Right now it is illegal to sell any of your organs. The federal government also basically controls the procurement and transplantation of organs. This is an illegitimate function of government that could be handled entirely and more efficiently by the free market. The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 should be repealed.
America needs a change when it comes to occupational licensing. It is not just professionals such as doctors and lawyers who must obtain a certificate of permission and approval from a government-sponsored board before they can work in a certain occupation, it is also (depending on the state) barbers, travel agents, locksmiths, auctioneers, and others who need permission from the government to work. But why should anyone have to get permission from the government to open a business, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have a particular vocation, or provide a service to willing customers? Occupational licensing is an illegitimate function of government. There is absolutely no reason why all occupations cannot be privately certified. All occupational-licensing laws should be repealed.
America needs a change when it comes to Amtrak. It is not the job of government to own or operate a rail service. All passenger rail traffic throughout the United States should be privately owned and operated. All of Amtrak’s assets should be sold to the highest bidder.
America needs a change when it comes to the TSA. The abusive treatment given travelers by the TSA is widely known. But the real problem with the TSA is that it is not the job of government to provide security for private businesses. Airports and airlines should handle their own security just as banks, theme parks, jewelry stores, and any other business does if it feels the need to have security. The TSA should be abolished.
Yes, America needs a change. But the change America needs is libertarianism.