Libertarians are often hit with the accusation “You are an extremist.” What the accuser means is that the libertarian holds political and economic beliefs that are at the outermost fringes of American society. The term is customarily used in an insulting or derogatory sense.
But isn’t “extremist” a relative term? That is, doesn’t being extreme depend, in large part, on the particular time and place in history where a person finds himself?
Most Americans living today have been born and have lived in a society that has had the following political and economic programs in existence: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, public schooling, public works, public spending, income taxation, economic regulations, government-business partnerships, a central bank, paper money, trade restrictions, and immigration controls. Americans have also been subjected to several domestic governmental wars against such things as drugs, illiteracy, racism, poverty, guns, and wealth.
The philosophy that underlies all of these programs and wars is one that says that the manner in which individuals conduct their peaceful affairs is subject to control and regulation by their government officials. The core element of this philosophy is that government is sovereign and supreme and that individuals, along with their choices and desires, are subordinate and inferior.
Americans are required by their government to financially assist the elderly and the poor through Social Security and other welfare programs because the government believes that it is important that Americans be caring and compassionate. People are required to subject their economic activities to political oversight and regulation because the interests of society require it.
Individuals must seek permission to travel and trade overseas, because the well-being of the nation depends on it. They are required to submit their children to a government-approved education because this is in the national interest.
Through its power to set income-tax rates, government officials decide how much money people shall be permitted to retain each year. Sometimes the percentage is high. Sometimes it’s low. But what is important is that the sovereign is ultimately deciding who gets what.
An American is not permitted to engage in self-destructive behavior that has not been previously approved by the sovereign. Thus, if a person sits in his home and ingests marijuana or cocaine, he will be punished for his behavior. Under the drug-law philosophy, the state decides the degree of responsibility that each person will exercise toward his own well-being.
What does the average American think about all of this? From the time he is six years old, and possibly earlier, and continually thereafter, he is taught that all of this is “freedom” and “free enterprise.” In fact, most Americans go all the way to their deathbeds grateful that they were able to live their lives in freedom. This attitude was clearly manifested during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, when Americans proudly proclaimed, “This shows the superiority of America’s capitalist system over socialism.” Or recall what Americans were singing during the Persian Gulf War: “Thank God I’m an American, because at least I know I’m free.”
Along comes the libertarian and advocates a political and economic philosophy that is totally contrary to the philosophy that undergirds American society today. The core element of the libertarian philosophy is very simple: that people should be free to do whatever they want in life, so long as it’s peaceful. Thus, libertarians believe that government’s role should be limited to punishing antipeaceful people, such as murderers, rapists, thieves, burglars, robbers, and invaders, and to provide a judiciary in which people can peacefully resolve their disputes.
Libertarians believe, at a minimum, that every single political program that takes money from one person and gives it to another should be immediately abolished. This includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, welfare, and the like. Why? Because people have the right to decide what to do with their own money — whether that means spending, saving, hoarding, donating, or even destroying it.
Libertarians also believe, at a minimum, that every single political regulation of peaceful activity should be immediately repealed. This includes drug laws, immigration restrictions, economic regulations, and licensure laws. Why? Because, again, people have the right to live their lives any way they choose, including entering into mutually beneficial transactions with others, so long as their conduct is peaceful.
In other words, the peaceful choices that people make with their lives and fortunes, according to the libertarian philosophy, are not properly subject to majority vote.
This always shocks nonlibertarians, especially ones who encounter libertarianism for the first time. Having grown up and lived in a society that maintains the exact opposite principle, it is extremely difficult for them to understand how libertarians can be so extreme.
Yes, government programs need reform, they will say. Yes, we need to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. Yes, we need to get better people in public office. Yes, we need to downsize government. Yes, we need to reduce government to the smallest size possible. But why in the world would anyone want to abolish these wonderful aspects of America’s free-enterprise system?
Many times, the immediate reaction of a person hearing about libertarianism for the first time is this: that libertarians must be advocating communism, socialism, or fascism. There is a logic to this reaction. If one honestly and deeply believes that today’s American way of life is freedom and free enterprise and then is confronted by someone calling for an opposite way of life, then it is perfectly natural for the person to conclude that what is being advocated is the opposite of freedom and free enterprise, i.e., communism, socialism, or fascism.
Let’s return to my point that “extremism” is a relative term — that is, it depends on the type of society in which one happens to live. Consider, for example, National Socialist Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. The regime that ruled Germany is and was commonly referred to by its contraction: the Nazi government, which, as everyone knows, was headed by Adolf Hitler. Most Americans would agree that the Nazi government was “extremist.”
What were the economic policies that the Nazis stood for? Here are some of them: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, public spending, public works, a national highway system, a central bank, paper money, economic regulations, government-business partnerships, trade restrictions, immigration controls, taxation, national service, conscription, a large military-industrial complex, and massive military spending to protect against the communist threat.
But aren’t these the same policies and programs that American Democrats and Republicans endorse, embrace, and support? Why are these policies considered “extremist” in the context of Nazi Germany but “moderate” and “respectable” in the context of the U.S. government?
Equally important, how can a set of programs be “national socialism” in one country during a particular period of time and then be “freedom” and “free enterprise” in another country during another period of time? The programs — and the philosophy that underlies them — are the same, aren’t they?
What was the attitude of the average non-Jewish German citizen toward these programs? Wouldn’t it be safe to say that most non-Jewish German citizens shared the same commitment to these programs that the average American has today?
One would think that the American who accuses the libertarian of being an extremist for wanting to abolish the types of programs that the Nazis supported, embraced, and adored would at least be a little troubled by these questions.
Unfortunately, citizens have a propensity to support their own government’s policies and consider only the bad things that other governments do as “extremist.” That’s why, for example, Americans view the medical experiments that the Nazis conducted on humans as extremist. But it’s also why they fail to view as extremist such acts committed by their own government as human syphilis experiments; human radiation experiments; the gassing of innocent women and children at Waco; the awarding of medals for valor for government agents’ shooting a child in the back at Ruby Ridge; the shooting of an innocent woman in the head and the subsequent opposition to the criminal prosecution of her government killer at Ruby Ridge; the blatant corruption and thuggery of the U.S. Justice Department; the repatriation of Cuban refugees into communist tyranny; and many more.
Let’s consider another society — that of the United States in 1880. What were the characteristics of that society? Here they are: no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no welfare, no income tax, no central bank; no paper money; virtually no public schooling; very little economic regulation; sparse licensure; no drug wars; no immigration controls; no national service; no conscription or registration for conscription; no military-industrial complex; and no enormous standing army.
Would the Americans of 1880 be considered “extremists”? By whom? Certainly not by themselves. They considered the extremists to be the socialists who were trying their best to move America in the opposite direction.
Suppose an average Democrat and an average Republican of today were magically transported back in time to the United States of 1880. They would arrive and proclaim: “We’re a Democrat and a Republican from the future. And we’re proud to be Americans. We believe in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, public spending, income taxation, economic regulations, trade restrictions, immigration controls, and all the other wonderful aspects of America’s freedom and free-enterprise system.”
Who can doubt that our American ancestors would stare at them as if they had lost their marbles? Who can doubt that our American ancestors would immediately view the nonlibertarians of today as extremists for supporting, embracing, and advocating a way of life opposite to their own?
The problem that American nonlibertarians face is much more serious than that faced by the German people in the 1930s. At least the Germans knew that their way of life was national socialism. When people know that they are unfree, at least there exists the possibility that they will demand to be unshackled.
Americans are in a totally different situation. They are absolutely convinced that America’s version of national socialism is actually freedom and free enterprise. Thus, when things go wrong with the government programs and the domestic wars, the average American responds with his immediate solution: “We need to expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, the drug war, and all of the other aspects of America’s free-enterprise system. We shouldn’t move toward socialism by repealing these programs.”
It is this life of the lie that libertarians must continue to pierce. For it is one of the major reasons Americans continue to suffer under the extremist and bizarre way of life known as the socialistic welfare state and the regulated society. If our fellow Americans discover the truth about the nature and origin of their beliefs and philosophy, there at least exists the possibility that they will join us libertarians in our quest to restore liberty to our land.