At its heart, libertarianism speaks to something I agree with very much. A world where we are free to succeed or fail as we choose, where I can make a bad decision if I’m prepared to live with the consequences, and where I can choose for myself what the shape of myself will be. I believe a world like that is one where humanity is at its best, where the small minded and fearful don’t have their hands on the reigns of power. At its heart, libertarianism and I are not so different.
This is not so much the case in practice. The policies and political candidates championed by the libertarian movement infuriate me. Their reactions to what I believe suggest they feel the same way. With few exceptions – drug policy, executive power, terrorism’s exemption from our judicial processes – we don’t have much of anything in common.
I think about these differences a lot. How can we share the important ideal but be so very far apart in its implementation? Certainly people part ways in sometimes violent fashion when they share similar beliefs. Look no further than the bitterness and war between the Catholic and Protestant churches throughout their histories. But when it comes to libertarians, it’s like we don’t have anything in common at all.
The reason, I think, is that while we both believe in giving as much freedom to an individual as possible, what we hear when someone says “freedom” are two very different things.
The modern libertarian movement is concerned entirely with freedom from legislation. This is as far as the concept of liberty goes for them. A government law requiring anything is a reduction in freedom. The repeal of that law is an increase in freedom. This isn’t to say libertarians are anarchists; I know most believe that some sort of legal structure is important. I’ve never heard a libertarian argue in favor of decriminalizing murder. But I’ve also rarely, if ever, hear libertarians discuss freedom outside the bounds of government legislation. If a person legally has the option of choosing this or that, then they are free.
My view of freedom is wider and deeper. Freedom is not simply the right to make a choice, it’s having the power to make that choice as well. That I have the legal right to do a thing is not the same as that choice existing for me in any meaningful way. I have the legal right to choose any cable provider I’d like, but in practice, I have one and only one option: Comcast. I am technically free to choose, but the power to exercise that choice has been denied to me by an effective monopoly. In most cases, the government will not block me from receiving life saving medical treatment, but if I have lost my job and my medical insurance, I lack the power to exercise that freedom. I am free to pursue any career path I wish, but if the circumstances of my birth have led to a poor education, that technical freedom has little value to me.
A truly free society does not simply maximize the legal options available to its citizens, but maximizes their ability to exercise those choices as well. Taxation is one of the ways we remove one choice – you can’t keep all of your income – to enable other choices. Taxes pay for our police and firefighters, our schools and our roads. More importantly, taxes distribute resources based on need, not profit. Paved roads and salt trucks and plows in a rural area may not make economic sense for a corporation to provide, but they open up options for the people in that area that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Without a post office, or laws requiring telephone service be provided to all citizens, profit motive would lead to people cut off from the rest of their country. What good is the legal right to keep a higher percentage of their income if they can’t drive, call or write to anywhere else in the country?
Freedom is not just at risk from government overreach. It’s equally at risk by every concentrated source of power, including corporate entities that are members of an unfettered market. Freedom is meaningless without the power to exercise that freedom, and the society the libertarian arm our country is trying to create would lead to a loss of that power for the majority of Americans. As long as their definition of freedom prioritizes less taxation and fewer corporate regulations above all else, that won’t change.