Jim Keller (jimkeller) wrote,
Jim Keller

A Primer on (Libertarian) Small-Government Conservatism

I'm once again seeing a lot of folks bashing on small-government conservatives, invariably in the form of rants that are based on a lot of presuppositions about what small-government conservatives believe. I can't speak for the myriad philosophies that come together under the "small government" coalition, but I can take a moment to explain libertarian philosophy.

Now, I'm not going to deny that there are lot of terrible people in the world who wrap themselves in the "libertarian" label. They fall in love with one of the trappings of libertarianism (usually freedom of expression and/or laissez-faire capitalism) and use it to wrap themselves in a collectivist "It's OK to be awful because lots of people agree with me" mantle and happily spew their hatred. Let me assure you that these people are not true libertarians.

The modern libertarian philosophy grew out of pacifism.

Yes, you read that right. Libertarians are inherently, at the core of their being, pacifists. Full stop. This is the core belief system. Any argument you try to make against small-government conservatism that assumes otherwise is going to sound ignorant and arrogant to someone with a truly libertarian mindset.

So, you may wonder, how does a pacifist end up supporting small government? Well, that's actually pretty simple, but it involves rewiring the way we think about government. If you inherently see government as a force for peace and good in the world, pacifists should be all in favor of more government, more laws, right?

Well, the libertarian sees things differently. Again, this is core belief we're talking about. You're not going to change this in a libertarian, any more than you're going to convince a Christian that God isn't real. Work with it when you're trying to have a policy discussion. This is how the libertarian mind works:

What is government? Government is the organization that has the power to make and enforce laws. There's widespread agreement about what a law is: a rule that those it applies to are expected to follow. But what does it mean to enforce a law?

To a libertarian, law enforcement is the use of violence.

Again, period, all stop. You are not going to succeed in changing the libertarian's mind about this. When the rest of the world is up in arms about police officers gunning down a young man for allegedly stealing a package of Swisher Sweets, the libertarian is nodding resignedly and saying, "Yep, that's what happens when you make a law." The truth is, that could have happened to anyone, regardless of the color of their skin. Does it happen to African Americans more frequently? Absolutely. But the libertarian sees the fact that cops have racial biases as the fact we have to deal with, and wonders why any of them are allowed to carry guns.*

Any law we pass, no matter how innocuous, carries the implicit threat that we could be gunned down in the street over it. If I water my lawn on a Monday, I get a fine. If I refuse to pay the fine, eventually I get a summons. If I ignore the summons, eventually I get a bench warrant issued. If I refuse to come along quietly when the police try to arrest me on the bench warrant... well, I get gunned down in the street. Ergo, libertarians fear and distrust all laws and all law enforcement, and therefore want as little of it as possible. Hence, libertarians tend to join the "small government" coalition.

Some libertarians take this to the extreme of wanting no government whatsoever. They're call anarchists, or more commonly nowadays "anarcho-capitalists" (to clarify that they don't favor the popular image of anarchy in which gangs roam the streets killing and raping indiscriminately).

Most libertarians, however -- and this includes most of the ones who tend to vote Republican -- operate on the assumption that there's a clear exception to the no-violence tenets of pacifism: Self-defense. Anyone has the right to use violence to stop someone else's use of violence. Hence, most libertarians see a strong defensive military and a well-regulated police force as necessary evils. Laws that are clearly designed to keep people safe make sense to these folks, so long as they're written narrowly and enforced equally. When some jerk with a gun starts shooting up a movie theatre, libertarians love their local police force. This isn't cognitive dissonance. This is very simply a clear understanding of what government should do.

So when you mock a small-government conservative for favoring intervention in Syria (and, for the record, I do not) by saying, "How can you be in favor of small government and favor WAR?" you sound like a moron who doesn't care that people are dying in Syria right now. Pacfism requires us to value all human life, and the nature of government is that we empower it to act on all our behalf to protect life, liberty, and property. And that means that the pacifist will sometimes favor sending in the troops. If you oppose intervention in Syria (as I do), your argument to the libertarian small-government types must be rooted in pacifist principles (in my case, it's the inappropriateness of one nation appointing itself as world police because that inherently violates the right of other nations to determine their own best practices).

So now that we've established how the libertarian mind works, I'd like to ask my big-government friends to think about how you sound to a libertarian. Remember, government is inherently violent to a libertarian. You say, "There should be a law for this..." and "Government should do something about..." and "We need more..." but the libertarian hears "I want to use violence for this..." and "I want to use violence about..." and "I'm willing to use violence for more..."

So, to a libertarian, when you claim to favor peace and then favor more government, you're the one who has cognitive dissonance.

Now, of course, I understand that your core beliefs are different from mine. Perhaps you're not inherently a pacifist. Perhaps you cling to the belief that government has power to enforce laws in a way that is non-violent. (Yes, I'd love to live in the world where we all just follow the rules because we understand that it's better if we do, but what do you do when someone doesn't?) And I welcome policy debate. But please, please, please -- especially in this election cycle when there is someone as dangerously frightening as Trump looming as the presumptive Republican nominee -- stop painting all small-government conservatives as evil morons.

I'm going to say that again.

Stop painting all small-government conservatives as evil morons!

It's counter-productive. It's wrong. It's ignorant. And when you do it, you turn them off and make them more likely to decide that the candidate you find terrifying is the lesser of the two evils.

Now, I'm not going to deny that there are a lot of policy discussions that need to be had. What are we going to do about racist cops gunning people down in the street? How are we going to break the cycle of poverty in this country? How can we ensure that everyone has access to quality health care? What can we do to help everyone earn a living wage?

However, if you're willing to accept that your methodology for achieving your goals may not be right, you'll probably find you have a lot more common ground with the authentic libertarians than you think you do.

But you have to first assume that they're good people who are willing to find solutions to these problems.

* As part of their day-to-day, official duties.
Tags: libertarianism

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