My Turn: Examining what it means to be libertarian

  • The libertarian credentials of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have been questioned. AP

For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Since moving to Concord from my home state of Vermont 11 years ago, I’ve struggled to understand one of the most peculiar aspects of life in the Granite State – libertarianism. One cannot escape this philosophy when one lives in the capital city of the state that some blindfolded member of the Free State Project happened to land their dart on back in 2001.

For the past two days I’ve been reading up on libertarianism. I don’t really know if I’m any closer to understanding this movement, but I have come to some conclusions.

First, lots of people hate libertarians. A cursory search of the word on Google will bring up countless articles bashing libertarianism. Salon.com takes the cake, with numerous articles with titles such “The question libertarians just can’t answer” and “11 ways to test if libertarians are hypocrites.”

Not wanting to get a one-sided view of the subject, I did some more digging and soon came to my second conclusion: There is no one-size-fits-all form of libertarianism. You’ve got the “neo-classical liberalism” espoused by Adam Smith, John Locke and Friedrich Hayek. This seems to be what we commonly think of when we hear the term. But there are other strains.

Consider, “libertarian socialism.” Yes, these two words can coexist. And they do so in a movement that seems to have more in common with communism than capitalism. There seem to be more variations on the libertarian theme than just about any other political philosophy on the planet. You’ve got paleolibertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, the “Steiner–Vallentyne school” and others.

Not surprisingly, given the fact that the libertarian palette has so many colors, my third conclusion quickly followed: Libertarians don’t even like each other. There are numerous quotes from actual libertarians bad-mouthing other libertarians. For example, Ayn Rand – every libertarian’s favorite novelist – once called the movement the “hippies of the right.”

More recently, Republican presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin came to verbal blows over who was the “real libertarian.” Even the current champion of American libertarianism – Rand Paul – has had his libertarian credentials questioned. In a Newsweek article, Jim Young of Reuters claimed that if you look at Paul’s voting record in the Senate, you couldn’t possibly consider him to be a libertarian.

Finally, I went in search of evidence to prove that libertarianism can work – not just in theory, but in practice. This led me to an article at thelibertarianrepublic.com that listed the top five most libertarian nations. Topping the list was England, followed by Portugal, the United States, Uruguay and Luxembourg. I was surprised to see both the nation whose tyranny gave rise to the United States, as well as the United States itself, on this list. It also made me wonder, if America is so darned libertarian already, why do so many people in New Hampshire think so many aspects of our society – from education to taxes – need changing? In the end, the closest thing to a libertarian nation I could find was Chile, which flirted with libertarian economics during the Pinochet regime. We all know how that turned out.

Given the fact that libertarianism seems to be such an amorphous amalgam of economic and social philosophies; and the fact that so many of its adherents can’t even agree on who is or is not one; and the fact that there is not a single successful nation on the planet that uses libertarianism as a basis for its government: Why on earth would anyone ever entrust a libertarian with doing what’s best for New Hampshire or our nation?

(Dan Williams lives in Concord.)