Some friends in Durham sent me an invitation to a Libertarian Party fund-raiser, an opportunity to meet the party’s candidate for governor of North Carolina. It’s natural that Libertarians would mark me as a fellow traveler. The basic libertarian philosophy is irresistible to me — the same philosophical catnip that made me a Goldwater conservative back when all my college classmates were mesmerized by the myth of Camelot and the martyred John F. Kennedy.
In today’s media climate, Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative would be dismissed as the standard, self-serving manifesto of a presidential candidate on the make. But to me, at 19, it was the siren song of a better world. Along with the late Sen. Goldwater, along with the libertarians, I harbor this deep-seated conviction that privacy and self-reliance are the bedrock of an acceptable civilization, and that taxing decent citizens to support vast, unaccountable bureaucracies is a heinous form of tyranny.
“The passionate Tory sense of freedom,” as Ford Madox Ford called it, is even more seductive than altruism to an idealist who’s never been tested. When did it become less seductive to me? When I’d been around the block a few times, I guess — journalism is a profession that accelerates the normal process of disillusionment — and began to see how few of my fellow citizens are equipped to live in a society based on libertarian principles.
Some aren’t smart enough, some aren’t tough enough, most of them aren’t nice enough. I discovered that there are two kinds of people who rage against big government. First, there are natural predators, big fish who resent any effort to restrain them from eating all the little fish they can digest. Though I still like to think that Barry Goldwater was a virtuous believer, most of his supporters were Bull Moose reactionaries who yearned for the status quo of the 1920s — pre-regulation, pre-New Deal, pre-income tax — when big fish and big business could feed without interference.
The second group? They’re sane, self-sufficient people fed up with governments that treat them like children — but people who fail, it seems, to notice that most of their compatriots are behaving like children. This group of blinkered idealists includes most modern libertarians. Libertarianism is politics for responsible adults, with limited possibilities for a population of petulant adolescents.
I don’t intend to sound patronizing. When it comes to policy, libertarian thinking is a precious resource. The most appealing thing about Libertarians is that they aren’t Democrats or Republicans, tarnished by decades of sham, corruption and gridlock. How can you go wrong with a party whose platform would decriminalize drugs, ban capital punishment, and mainstream home-schooling (perhaps the children’s last hope in this rapidly deteriorating culture)? But you can go way wrong with some other planks in the Libertarian platform. It would eliminate taxes and welfare — entrusting the poor to the Lord and private charity, or to their own untapped initiative. It opposes zoning laws, commercial regulations, and any limits on the sacred rights of private property. More alarmingly, it sides with the National Rifle Association in demanding the unrestricted ownership of private firearms.
You catch the drift of this. Steering only by principle, a libertarian often finds himself on the same course with individuals who steer only by self-interest and prejudice (and, in the case of the NRA, by no small degree of psychopathology). For its credibility, the libertarian ideal depends on a profound belief that most people will behave well. Yet every chapter of human history, ancient and recent, teaches us that most folks will not.
It shocks me when someone dares to argue that free-market capitalism will regulate itself, or that human beings in a state of nature will use their property responsibly and manage their firearms safely. Am I the only one who still reads the newspapers? Everything I’ve seen since I was a wide-eyed “boy conservative” convinces me that government — and rather more than less of it — is a necessary evil among the fractious race of men.
The government is no less corrupt, inefficient and insensitive than the police — and no less indispensable. Where would you dare to live without your police? To me, the libertarian vision of unrestricted freedom is like putting Leavenworth and San Quentin on the honor system.
Fire the guards — a bunch of sadists, perverts and drug dealers, after all — and let the felons explore their potential for mature choices and self-restraint. Democracy has been drastically diluted by American plutocrats who convert their “unrestricted” property into political influence. But insofar as the elected government and its bureaucracy can be construed to represent the will of the majority, it’s the only will on earth that could stand up to a bullying behemoth like Microsoft. I believe in cops.
At its least intrusive, the government exercises positive peer pressure on weak-minded citizens who respond so predictably to the negative peer pressures of bigotry, xenophobia and relentless, militant materialism.
If I’m arguing from a depressed and depressing view of human nature, it’s one I’ve earned the hard way. But if you prefer optimism that verges on denial and delusion, the Libertarians are the party for you. I’m afraid they’re an example of the politics of “Be like me.” The neo-fascists — fundamentalists of the religious Right and the multicultural Left — are saying, “Be like me, or suffer the consequences.” The libertarian, a more amiable and attractive innocent, is saying, “if you just had a chance, I know your best self would step forward, and then you’d be just like me.”
Like a sincere communist, anarchist or free-marketeer, he sustains his doctrine with an entirely unwarranted faith in his fellow man. To put it bluntly, he’s naive. I’m no longer much taken with utopias, or political visions that begin with, “If only…”
I hate to cross swords with idealists, an endangered species that deserves support and respect. I hate to alienate these particular idealists, my co-worshipers in the Church of Privacy who want to build a world where I could live oh, so comfortably. Indeed, the libertarian utopia was designed for the likes of me — for older, milder types with no burning desires that are likely to scorch our neighbors. At this stage of life, I’m a safe bet — with a gun, a corporation or my neighbor’s maidservant.
I don’t need much government to keep me in line. But I’m not so sure about you. That’s the crux of it — a sane form of government is compelled to cramp my style a little, so that Ted Kaczynski’s style doesn’t swell up and swallow us all.
Libertarians, unconsciously elitist, demand something close to moral perfection from themselves; the Democrats and Republicans praise us for our wisdom and virtue and patriotism, at least until our votes are in their pockets. People hear so much flattery they begin to believe it.
If I had a party to call my own (I never will), it would deal with people the way they really are — sometimes wonderful, always gullible, often violent and grasping and cruel. If I could choose my government (I never do), it would be run by some old-fashioned commonsense liberals — enemies of both the be-like-me’s and the holier-than-thou’s.
They’d set their compass by what’s reasonable, what’s fair and what’s feasible, in an imperfect and imperfectible world. My pragmatic idealists would help the helpless, serve the deserving, and strike down the disgusting. They’d emphasize the carrot, but never surrender the stick. And, short of altering the genetic code, that’s about the best we can do.