Libertarian organizations contain some unusual folk. Perhaps one of the most unexpected twists in libertarian circles was Indian Activist Russell Means’ drive to gain the Libertarian Party’s nomination for the presidency in 1988. To most observers it would appear that Means was no libertarian at all. He has certainly never spoken about the virtues of a free market system, and one would have to dig pretty deep to find any affinity for industrial society within Means’ political philosophy. In spite of all that, Means thought that running on the Libertarian ticket would provide a good platform to discuss issues related to the American Indian.
Looking at Indian issues as issues of local sovereignty, it would appear that the (small “L”) libertarian and classical liberal cause is one that would behoove the traditionalists within the American Indian community. Unlike the modern nation-state that now commands favor within the American public philosophy, a truly libertarian polity would allow a traditional Indian society to exist within its borders. Many traditionalists like Means recognize that local sovereignty would be a helpful first step in protecting the cultural heritage that is under siege on many reservations.
That cultural heritage itself is no friend to libertarian ideals. Based in many ways on communal agrarianism, traditional tribal structure frowns upon independent economic ventures and has a view of nationhood similar in many ways to Burke’s ideal of the traditional society. Nevertheless, the traditionalists recognize that while libertarianism is a friend to industry and individualism, it does not demand the type of cultural conformity that the modern welfare state demands.
As has been noted many times with varying degrees of accuracy, libertarianism is a fairly nebulous ideology. It is not quite clear that civil society within a libertarian state need necessarily adhere to any particular world view. The early United States came fairly close to being a truly libertarian society, and contained highly variant views on all types of social issues from slavery to religion to urban life. As the power of the central government grew, local distinctions began to disappear and demands to conform to the “accepted” mode of American life began to increase.
The group that suffered the most with the rise of the Federal government was the American Indians. Tom DiLorenzo’s work on Indian policy as a continuation of the Civil War illustrates how the fortunes of the Indian tribes declined as the power of the federal government increased. It is the realization of this relationship that has struck a chord with many American Indian activists. A libertarian state has very low minimum requirements for public ideology. It requires little more than an unwillingness to interfere in nonviolent behavior practiced by one individual against another or between communities. Trade is the language of libertarianism. George Washington’s doctrine in foreign policy which demanded that Americans only engage in commercial ties with foreign nations would serve as a useful principle in domestic governing as well.
Sadly, the small, tolerant government or libertarianism has long been absent from American society. Government schools teach children to reject local customs in favor of a meaningless “multiculturalism” which rejects the validity of most real cultures. It is not hard to see why even those who disagree with many tenets of libertarianism would see the benefits in libertarianism’s tolerance for local distinctions.
Much as it did in North America in the 19th century, agents of the federal government now travel the globe denouncing local cultural distinctions in the name of bringing the blessings of liberty to the rest of the world in the form of “market democracy.” The hypocrisy of such a plan is as evident as is was a century ago when American soldiers brutally put down the Filipino rebellion in the name of securing the liberties of the Filipino people.
Stalin once claimed that if the entire world would simply adopt his philosophy, then communism would actually work. Fortunately for libertarianism, no such type of universal thought control is necessary. Only when locally controlled libertarianism degenerates into centrally controlled nationalism is widespread conformity demanded. The issue of local sovereignty is an issue of paramount importance to traditionalist American Indians. In recent decades, some tribes have grasped a new prosperity by opening casinos, selling cheap cigarettes, and charging yuppies for nature tours. Naturally, the federal government regularly throws a fit over such local autonomy.
The feds have managed to avoid a lot of tribal sovereignty issues by getting Indians addicted to the welfare dollar, but when they realize that more money is to be made by subverting the federal government than by collaborating with it, the American Indian population may prove a little harder to handle. While free markets unquestionably provide a freer, wealthier society, the issue of local sovereignty is a strength in libertarianism that is often neglected. Libertarianism does not demand ideological loyalty in order to function. It functions when people simply try to carry on their lives in peace. In a libertarian society, traditionalists like Russell Means could live life in their own way, and we’d live it in ours.
January 3, 2001
Ryan McMaken is a graduate student in American politics at the University of Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.