The libertarian philosophy holds that people should be free to do whatever they want, so long as their conduct is peaceful. Therefore, government’s role in life should be limited to: (1) punishing people who initiate force against others — murderers, rapists, thieves, invaders, and the like; and (2) serving as a judicial arbiter in the event of disputes among people — e.g., breaches of contracts and torts. Therefore, libertarianism demands the repeal of all laws that interfere with peaceful activity — such as drug laws, economic regulations, and licensing laws. And it calls for the eradication, not the reform, of almost all of the departments and agencies of the national government — HUD, HHS, INS, FTC, IRS, BATF, DEA, and so forth.
The libertarian philosophy is a counter-intuitive one. For example, it says that poverty exists because governments have the power to wage war on poverty; if a society wants to become wealthy, it must prohibit its government from combating poverty. Minimum wage laws and rent controls hurt those at the bottom of the economic ladder; if you want to help the poor, repeal such laws.
Thus, unlike the interventionist and socialist philosophies, an understanding and appreciation of libertarianism requires a process called thinking. For example, a public official points to a public housing project and says to people, “This public housing project has brought help for the poor and jobs for your community.” The average person who has received his “education” in public (government) schools will have no reason to recognize the fallacies in the official’s comment. He will simply believe what his eyes and ears are telling him.
A libertarian, on the other hand, refuses to accept such a statement at face value. He thinks, questions, challenges. He asks, “Where did the money that paid for that project come from? Did it not come from taxpayers? Wouldn’t they have spent that money in some way if it had not been taken from them? What about all the help for the poor, including jobs, that did not come into existence because people never had the opportunity to spend their own money?”
Libertarianism requires a person to think — to reason — to figure out-and to reflect on important moral, philosophical, and economic principles. Thus, a person advancing libertarianism must engage in the challenging task of not only igniting people’s interest in liberty but also getting them to think about such things as freedom, force, and government.
Unfortunately, however, there are an increasing number of libertarians, in both the ideological and political arenas, who are rejecting this arduous, time-consuming approach to advancing liberty. Libertarians in the ideological arena say that America is going down the tubes fast and that there just isn’t enough time to teach people the principles of libertarianism. And libertarians in the political arena argue that the purpose of a political campaign is to win public office, not to teach people about libertarian principles.
These libertarians are using a different approach to advance freedom. Instead of calling for the abolition of departments and agencies and the repeal of laws and regulations, they call for such things as “reducing the size of government, reducing spending, reducing taxes, and balancing the budget.”
What is their rationale? Why undertake the difficult task of persuading people to abolish, for example, the U.S. Postal Service? To reach that conclusion, a person would have to understand why government should not, on moral grounds, prevent people from engaging in first-class mail delivery. And he would have to appreciate why this peaceful activity would operate better in a free market.
But by using the “reducing” rhetoric, the reasoning and thinking process can mostly be avoided. We simply have to persuade people to continue “reducing the size of government” until agencies, for all practical purposes, disappear. Voilà! Freedom achieved without having to teach people the principles of freedom! This approach might be called “the lazy man’s way to liberty.”
There are only three problems with the lazy man’s way to liberty. It won’t work. It will make the situation worse. And it will give libertarians and libertarianism a bad name.
Let’s consider an example. Suppose a “lazy man’s” libertarian travels around the country talking about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He says, “The FAA doesn’t make the planes fly on time. Cut its budget now!” People ask, “By how much?” The libertarian responds: “50 percent the first year, another 50 percent the second year, and another 50 percent the third year.”
What the “lazy man’s” libertarian doesn’t understand, however, is the nature of government — and the propensity of government officials to retaliate when their budgets are attacked. What would happen if the FAA’s budget were cut by 50 percent the first year? The FAA bureaucrats would immediately mobilize and counterattack. Contrary to the libertarian’s hope that the bureaucrats would end “waste, fraud, and abuse” as part of the budget reduction process, the bureaucrats would do the exact opposite. They would eliminate the most important aspects of air travel regulation, including those dealing with on-time arrivals and airline safety. People would be furious. “Why, plane arrival time is horrible. With the layoff of thousands of air traffic controllers, my trip from Dallas to San Antonio was delayed six hours. And why did they have to get rid of thousands of safety inspectors? I’ve never seen so many plane crashes.”
When the second year arrived, would people be willing to cut another 50 percent from the FAA’s budget? Not on your life! Instead, they would say, “This is all the fault of you libertarians. You said that reducing the size of government would bring better, safer, and more efficient airline service. Well, you’re wrong. Libertarianism made things worse. We need to triple the budget of the FAA in order to get things back to normal. Next time, you libertarians can keep your great ideas to yourselves.” As long as people believe that one of government’s proper roles is airline regulation, they’re going to want the job to be done well. If “libertarian” budget cuts result in more plane crashes, poorer mail delivery, falling bridges, and the like, libertarians and libertarianism are going to bear the brunt of the public reaction.
Wouldn’t it be better to leave such claptrap as “reducing the size of government” to conservatives and Republicans, while libertarians continued to position themselves as calling for the dismantling of departments and agencies? In this way, when things go wrong with programs whose budgets are reduced, libertarians can say, “We told you that reducing wouldn’t work. We told you that the only solution was eradication.”
Recent experience in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union confirms the futility of trying to reduce, rather than eradicate, socialism and interventionism. In those areas where departments and agencies were terminated, there has been an economic revival. In those areas where they were reduced, there is still economic stagnation.
How could it be otherwise? If a person has cancer, does he go to the doctor to have it reduced? If a homeowner finds termites, does he call for their reduction?
The only practical and realistic approach is for libertarians to call for immediately ending, not reforming or reducing, all socialistic and interventionist programs.
“But that would result in chaos,” the “lazy man’s” libertarian responds. “People will not take us seriously if we call for such a radical solution.”
But immediately ending such programs would not result in chaos. On the contrary, it would result in an immediate outburst of creative energy and soaring prosperity. Let’s look at two historical examples.
Prior to the War of Secession, people argued that it would be immoral and impractical to immediately free the slaves. To do so would be cruel to the slaves, the argument went. They had no savings and few job skills for a free market. “We must gradually reduce slavery, rather than end it all at once,” the reducers claimed. Otherwise, there would be chaos and starvation among the former slaves.
Yet, when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomatox, the slaves were immediately freed. And despite all the predictions of chaos, strife, and starvation, the former slaves did well financially. In fact, they did so well that white legislators later passed Jim Crow laws to protect themselves from economic competition from the former slaves.
Another example: Post-World War II Germany. After the war, the Allied authorities imposed a detailed and extensive set of regulations on German society. When German economic minister Ludwig Erhard asked the authorities to lift the controls, American officials responded with predictions of chaos if the controls were immediately lifted rather than gradually phased out. Gradual reduction, they argued, was the only way to go.
One Sunday morning, contrary to Allied instructions, Erhard publicly announced an immediate lifting of the economic controls. The result? The beginning of what became known as the German economic miracle.
What about those libertarians in the political arena who argue that a political campaign is no place to teach people about the principles of libertarianism? They’re wrong. The contrary is true. A political race is a perfect vehicle for expounding libertarian principles. People’s attention is focused in a political race. Newspapers cover what candidates say. There are innumerable opportunities for campaign speeches and debates. National television coverage through C-Span is always a possibility. What better opportunity to expose people to libertarian principles and excite them into wanting to learn more about libertarianism?
Moreover, if libertarians won’t fight for libertarianism, how in the world are people expected to ever learn about libertarian principles? Those who have discovered libertarianism have a duty to share these principles with others, especially those who are seeking answers to American woes. And that applies equally to those in the ideological and the political arenas.
The libertarian movement has come a long way in the last 50 years and especially in the last 20 years. There are those who are now suggesting that with the libertarian movement’s growing success and prestige, libertarians must begin compromising and concealing their important positions, especially the unpopular ones.
What those people don’t understand is that the success and prestige that libertarians are enjoying today are a direct result of the unswerving allegiance to libertarian principles that libertarians have held for so many decades. To abandon their allegiance to principle in the false hope of achieving a final breakthrough to liberty will only doom libertarians and their hope for freedom. As the old country-music refrain goes, you gotta dance with the one who brung you.