The following is based on a talk given at the Libertarian National Convention in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, May 24, 2008.
People often look upon those of us who choose to defend liberty with some curiosity. What could be our motivation? Those who see everything political purely in terms of economic motivations and personal gain have some trouble grappling with our ideas for society. They look at our position on Social Security and they think we must not care about the elderly. They know we want to slash taxes and promote free markets in a hundred directions, and they assume we must want to coddle the rich and big business. They think we are naïve about threats to national security, or that we are un-American, all because we favor peace, not just in Iraq, but as a general rule. For decades, some have associated libertarians with an obsession with drugs.
But of course, economic determinism is not an immutable fact of life. Karl Marx was wrong, and thank goodness. People don’t only respond to narrow class or self-interest. Were this not so, it would be impossible to account for the work done by political activists of all types, not just among us, but those of all political movements. The pro-life movement is not only interested in narrow self-interest. Neither is the pro-choice movement. The environmentalists, the gun rights advocates, antiwar protesters, conservatives and socialists of all stripes have among their ranks millions of people dedicated to their vision and determined to make the world better, not just for themselves but for others. Ideas are important. Principle motivates people to make all sorts of sacrifices to promote their version of justice, to make their abstract ideology a reality.
We see this even in the nightmarish general election process every four years. Not every single person is voting solely out of narrow self-interest. People are horrified by everything the other side is perceived to stand for. They believe they themselves are standing for something.
Even libertarian elements come into play here. Some Democrats navely vote against Republicans, out of a concern about war — not narrow economic self-interest alone. Republicans, too, sometimes find their inspiration in abstract concepts of justice.
Surely, what excited the Ron Paul movement — an unprecedented libertarian grassroots uprising — was ideas: the ideas of liberty.
So why is liberty the idea we choose to defend?
We choose to defend liberty because, in a sense, we have very little choice. It’s a matter of right and wrong. It’s a fundamental struggle. Looking at our world, we can see why.
We favor economic freedom because the alternative is to favor a slow enslavement. The state’s attacks on free enterprise lead to stagnation, impoverishment, inflation and wealth destruction on a horrific scale. It has brought this economy to this most precarious point we’re facing right now. It’s becoming more expensive to buy food. Health care is a mess. The unfunded liabilities in the entitlement state are going to cripple this country unless something fundamental changes. Subsidized easy credit has created a bubble and now the laws of gravity are kicking in.
The socialist, regulatory corporate state that has been fastened onto the economy for more than 100 years has come to the point now where Social Security is a bigger program than almost any government on earth. Eminent domain has taken on life in a particularly insidious way. This isn’t sustainable. It’s dividing people. It’s causing social conflict. It’s killing our country.
We defend personal liberties because the same principles apply. They used to say we were utopian about the drug war and victimless crimes, but what kind of real world have their policies created? The United States has the largest prison population on earth. We have more peaceful people in prison than almost any other nation has criminals in prison. This is supposed to be law enforcement but these prisons are totalitarian hells of lawlessness. People are raped, beaten and treated like slaves on an unspeakable scale. Half a million people are behind bars for drugs alone — and surely this is a human rights issue that should concern anyone wanting a civil society.
The Bill of Rights was made a mockery far before 9/11, as the government increasingly took on the role of using police force to make people into model citizens. Conservatives who think they oppose social engineering but support the drug war must not see the irony. They wanted to create a drug-free America. They instead created a police state where the 4th Amendment, economic freedom, and any semblance of the rule of law had to be left behind.
And now the police state has invaded every conceivable sector of society. It locks people up for hiring illegal aliens. It is targeted toward some of the most defensible players in the market. It leaves behind a trail of death and misery.
Recently, thanks to some remaining understanding of what is right and wrong, the Texas judiciary has ruled the kidnapping of more than 400 people from FLDS to be illegal. The thing was based on propaganda, as was the Waco incident, which didn’t end as peacefully. And this is an important point. What made Waco different was that people resisted. The state is always a threat to the most basic rights. It is ultimately enforced through bureaucratically directed violence. The threat of violence is always there. All over the country, families have been destroyed, lives ruined, communities ravaged by the drug war and other such crusades. And they think we are not looking at reality when we attack such programs as the drug war? Look at what their various domestic wars have actually created.
As for intervention overseas, the principles apply here too. We have a global empire that alienates lots of foreigners, cozies up with lots of politicians and despots, destabilizes cultures, promotes conflicts, gets us embroiled in civil wars, destroys our dollar, distorts the economy, and lays claim to our freedom and the unimpeded right to set policy and interrogate anyone all around the world. We oppose this unprecedented monstrosity not because we are naïve. If foreign interventionism were so defensible, why are Americans so antsy when other countries go to war and engage in conflict without the nod from the US?
For more than a hundred years, US foreign policy has been on the wrong track. The US was treating the Middle East like a playground for decades, and the blowback many of us were worried about happened. The result has been a total loss of rationality and some rather frightening blows against the traditions of this country. Congress suspended Habeas Corpus for the first time since the Civil War. Torture has become law in America. The US has laid to waste the lives and property of millions of people. Americans have lost liberty on every front. We have perhaps seen the largest expansion of state power since World War II.
These are urgent concerns, emergencies even. Stopping the next terrible war is an issue of utmost importance. We are, after all, talking here about mass murder.
We need to reverse all the depravations of our civil liberties since 9/11, and continue stripping the state of these despotic powers until we at least have some claim to being a free country again.
And yet, these horror stories I tell you are not the only reason we do what we do. We have the blessings of liberty all around us. In historical context, we are looking good in many crucial respects. We don’t have slavery, which was an unforgivable flaw in the original design of this republic, one that nearly destroyed the hope for a more perfect nation. We don’t have conscription. We don’t have total socialism. We don’t have internment camps for all Arabs. Some taxes, regulations, tariffs and many other burdens of the past have been lessened. For many segments of the population, this wasn’t much of a free society until relatively recently. And on a global level, there has been a remarkable advance in liberty in many places that we ignore to our own detriment. Every triumph for liberty must be cheered, and should be understood.
What’s more, we enjoy a civilization that itself depends wholly on the principles of individual rights and dignity. Without the emerging principle that people have certain rights the state or no man could trample, we wouldn’t be here at this convention. This hotel wouldn’t exist. The market economy is an impossibility without some degree of economic freedom, and we are fortunate, in relative terms, to be alive here and now.
So, one reason we defend the market and individual liberty is because life as we know it depends on it. We wish humanity to flourish, not to move backwards. And why has it moved at all?
Libertarians and our philosophical predecessors have done so much in the past that it is easy to take for granted. In the Old World, a slow battle that took place over centuries between liberty and tyranny, which exploded in clarity in the 18th century, culminating in the great event when American colonists risked it all, not just for their own personal gain, but to defend their liberty and the idea of liberty. A country was born, founded on the principle of revolution and secession. Newly inspired idealists in a fledgling America kept on with the revolution, applying these ideals to slavery, eventually awakening people worldwide to an evil institution that plagued the world for millennia. Now not even a dictator would openly defend slavery in principle. A few hundred years ago, some of the founders of this country did. Now that’s progress.
Classical liberals became more Americanized, more radicalized, throughout the 19th century, as abolitionists denounced Lincoln’s power grabs, and a big-tent anti-imperialist coalition developed at the turn of the century. Those determined not to give up the good legacies of this country resisted the Progressives, FDR and then the Cold War. Segregation laws were repealed, and now very few people would ever think of bringing them back. Conscription was met with great mass resistance during Vietnam, with libertarians making all the most fundamental arguments.
Some things have gotten better. At the time many people didn’t take the revolting Americans seriously, or think the abolitionists were grounded in reality, or believe those who tried to raise awareness of the perils of total economic central planning had any sense or honesty.
But on some major battles, our tradition has won, and civilization has become that much more civilized. Where we have not yet won, or where our enemies have won, of course we have seen a betrayal of the American dream, economic calamity and the retrograde motion of our society.
Ultimately, I believe most of us choose to defend liberty because it is under attack and defending it is the right thing to do. We admire and thank our predecessors even as we acknowledge their flaws and keep trying to move the culture toward a greater respect for liberty. Every little bit of progress means the world to someone out there, currently enslaved and impoverished and brutalized by the police and welfare state. Every big step toward freedom has enormous consequences that will benefit generations to come. Many timely battles have high stakes, for the economic well-being of this country, the safety of its people, the liberties they cherish, the lives of countless Americans and foreigners are on the line.
Sometimes we libertarians take positions that horrify detractors on the left and right. We defend people that many people won’t. We take some very unpopular stands.
But we have to. The statists on left and right have had their way, and they have devastated the lives of millions.
Libertarianism is not about protecting big business at the expense of the little guy. It is not an obsession with drugs, or a naïve view of foreign affairs or about throwing all manner of civility, community, law and personal discipline out the window. That is not our interest. Quite the reverse.
Ours is a program and philosophy concerned with dismantling state oppression and setting people free. We need not shy away from it, or make excuses. The tradition of liberty speaks for itself. It has brought on all these blessings most Americans take for granted. The opposite tradition had brought only disaster.
The short-term remedy and the long-term goal are the same thing: Liberty. Making ourselves clear will help to bring more people to understand this. If enough people understood this, got behind this, also chose the path that we choose, things would improve instantly and dramatically and continue to do so. If we succeed and to the extent we do, we see more prosperity, social harmony, peace and civil society. To the extent we do not, we see stagnation, poverty, class division, war, tyranny and lawlessness. Everything we care about is on the line.
And that’s why we choose to defend liberty.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.