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I'm Not Libertarian, Though I Vote That Way

Responding to a letter regarding the July 18 column.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 25, 2001

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I'm Not Libertarian, Though I Vote That Way_James Leroy Wilson-Responding to a letter regarding the July 18 column. What is in italics is what the correspondent, "Rural Wisconsite," wrote to the Editor. What is in plain text is my response.

Sent: Thursday, July 19, 2001 5:26 AM
Subject: New Letter to Editor
Author: Rural Wisconsinite
Responding to: "Security and Liberty" by James Leroy Wilson

Comments: I am not averse to libertarian principles at all.

That's funny, because I am. I have plenty of problems with the libertarian philosophy. It proves your ignorance, probably representative of the American population, of both libertarian philosophy and the Constitution. I do not support libertarian philosophy, and next to nothing of what I wrote last week reflects libertarian philosophy. I voted Libertarian because I support Constitutional government and the Libertarian Party, with all its flaws, is the only one that takes the Constitution seriously. My political philosophy laid out in last week's column was not intended as support for libertarian principles, but for Constitutional government.

Writing such a brief summary of a philosophy causes omissions. Were I to rewrite, I would say, as I probably imply in most of my columns, that I believe unauthorized use of power is always the greatest danger facing humankind. Any party that believes in obeying Constitutional limits is preferable to any party that does not. All of that said, I will address the following questions, not as a defense of libertarian principles, which are not mine, nor as a mouthpiece of the Libertarian Party, which earns my support only at the federal, not local, level. I will answer these questions, however, to re-state my main point: invoking "morality" as an excuse to acquire more political power, at the expense of the actual security and liberty of the people, is an irreconciliable contradiction.

I agree with most of what James Leroy Wilson says, but I apply it differently because I am unclear on the following.
1) On what principle of natural or revealed law does individual property take precedence over the God's gift of the natural world--land, water, air--to all living things? The same question may be asked of the pre-emptive powers that states take for themselves without "the consent of the governed."

I will not be baited into metaphysical questions. The question of natural or revealed law is irrelevent. Such are the excuses of theologians and philosophers to make the rest of us do what appeases their conscience. The fact is, people do occupy houses and do till the soil. In a working civilization, the "de facto" (what is actually going on) is the same as the "de jure" (the legal reality). The right to property, to me, is to keep what one has gained through one's own labor. Did you know that the Third World's poor are worth $9 trillion, if only they had legal title to the land they actually farm? Legal private property is capital, the means to increase wealth. Property without legal claim is subsistence farming - no opportunity to sell the land or take out a loan, and utterly susceptible to whichever governmental or rebel forces might decide to claim it. For a real government to exist, property rights, determining who has claim to what, is one of the minimal requirements. A state that lacks this might have a bunch of thugs with a monopoly of arms, but no government. And a world without government is a world of tribal nomads. If God's will is to have government, then property must be defined and secured in law. I'm not saying how it must be defined and secured - that may vary according to culture and environmental threats - but it must be nonetheless. I can't conceive how it can be any other way.

2) For certain tasks, both resources, and the legal authority to discipline their use, are required. Since, "by the consent of the governed" we have ceded to the government the power to claim our property, our time, and even our lives in extreme circumstances, who else but the government has the resources and the power to care for the helpless among us?

If the number of helpless (meaning, I suppose, the handicapped, the weak, the horribly unlucky, and the bad) is large, then the civil society is terribly disordered - probably due to government's efforts to care for us, or refuse to leave us alone, in the first place. If the number is small, then civil society has sufficient resources to care for the helpless without government help - but on its own terms of charity and ministry, not bureaucratic caseloads, stifling regulations, and confiscatory taxation on productive people. Of course, freedom within civil society doesn't guarantee that the helpless will be helped - that issue will be addressed in question #6.

In any case, modelling society along the lines of a John Rawls-ish utopia of defining our laws according to the needs of the weakest and worst among us is socially destabilizing. Government shouldn't cater to the needs of the extremely unfortunate at the expense of properly securing life and property for the many. It is the many, after all, who provide the resources and manpower to secure life and liberty in the first place. Moral rigidity is antithetical to sound government.

3) In a libertarian government as now defined, what would happen to the Center for Disease Control?
Medicare? Social Security? Minimum wage? Environmental protection? Where is it written that the security of the nation is maintained only against hostile nations and criminals, but not against the ravages of disease, poverty, and economic exploitation of the citizenry and unrenewable resources? If there is a line between "do this, not that" what makes the distinction more than a matter of opinion and affordability?

"Rural Wisconsite" misunderstands me. I thought it was abundantly clear that socially destabilitzing forces, from whatever source, are proper for the government to regulate. But this is where it gets tricky: I wish for the security and liberty of all through government. The moralists, who are always, in the final analysis, totalitarians or anarchists, think that such a desire is "amoral" or "Machiavellian."

I'm not an advocate for Libertarian philosophy, which is always individualist, laissez-faire (let the market sort it out), anti-government, and defenders of what they think are the ideals of the American Revolution. Some things I might believe are both useful and Constitutional might not be considered useful to a die-hard Libertarian. But I do know that the "general welfare" in both the Preamble and in Article I, section 8, refers to the general welfare of "the United States," not of "the people." It is for the welfare of the states, their security and stability, that the Constitution is written. The Constitution, as amended, provides three functions of federal government:
1. A military alliance among the states;
2. A customs union in which the federal government regulates interstate commerce and external trade policy.
3. Insurance that each state remains republican and free by protecting individuals and minority groups from unequal, tyrannical treatment.

Therfore, hazards to, say, public health, should be banned by the federal government to the extent that such hazards cross state lines. Polluting oceans, rivers, or the air? Fine, regulate that.

But our venerable Democratic and Republican Parties have construed the Constitution to mean all governmental power should be consolidated in Washington. The importation of heroin? I think it probably should be prohibited. Banning possession, sale, or use of herion by certain indiviudals within a state? That's beyond the powers granted to the federal government. The only plausible argument against this is that the "necessary and proper" powers of Article I, section 8, empowers the Congress to do whatever it wanted, even regardless of subsequent amendments, such as the Ninth and Tenth.

The purpose of government, in the Demo/Repub point of view, is to impose through raw declaration of force, at the expense of democracy and state sovereignty, the idealist social agenda that's in fashion. And whatever can promote that agenda: judicial decree, Congressional passage, Executive Order of the President, the ends justify the means.

Social Security has too many internal contradictions to survive long; it's a fraudulent Ponzi scheme that punishes the working poor - and neglects the non-working poor - with confiscatory taxation, whose ultimate benefits they will rarely see because they died too young to enjoy them. The middle class are robbed by a low rate of return, and the rich never needed it. Don't ask me; ask Pat Moynihan. Medical care would be far more inexpensively and efficiently delivered to the sick if the government didn't try to regulate and fund it. The Constitution doesn't provide for the health care of individuals.

4) Once we have decided to do certain things and not others, on what grounds are these decisions made?

Federally, they should be made in accordance to the powers invested in the federal government by the Constitution as it responds to various threats and crises that may undermine the security of the nation. By state, the least dangerous course, meaning the best course for social stability, should be followed. The genius of our Constitution is that not all decisions have to be uniform; bad decisions in one state might cause the people there to suffer a while, but such bad policies are not inflicted on all of the United States. I do not understand the mindset by which a partial-birth abortion ban in Nebraska, or a student-led prayer at a Texas public high school football game, violates the Constitution. To say I believe they are Constitutional doesn't mean I agree with them. Bad laws will show themselves to be bad, and good laws good. What goes in the French Quarter doesn't have to go on in Omaha; Utah and Nevada don't have to have the same requirements for, say, divorce. What goes on in states aside from my own is hardly ever my business.

Do we care for asthma in children, but not rotten teeth? Since every government makes such decisions "for purposes of national security," where is the distinction between libertarians and socialists merely a matter of degree?

Only sound government, not every government, makes decisions for the purposes of national security. Socialists don't care one whit about national security, unless in an actual war. Neither did Al Gore, neither does George W. Bush. They're consumed with doing the kind, compassionate, or just thing so that they may recieve the approbation of the media and future history departments. Both parties have, through history, proved that they would enslave their own people to appease their own conscience or make themselves look good. Worse, this has often been with the "consent of the governed." My task is to get the governed to change their minds, so that they no longer agree that a vote that gives more power to the government is a vote that morally justifies oneself before God or anyone else.

To more straightforwardly answer your question: socialists think that intellectuals with power over all will bring more social benefit than would individuals seeking profit. My position is that, historically, this is absurd, and the entire American way of life bears this out. Also, if we believe that humans are so flawed that mutually agreeable exchanges of money and products is socially bad, how can any other system, particularly one where government calls all of the shots, be any better?

5) Who is expendable to a libertarian government? Is the philosophy, in the words of a Victorian satirist, "Thou shalt not kill, but need not strive/Officiously to keep alive"? Was he essentially correct?

Is it wrong to live and let die? It depends on your point of view. No one's expendable except in times of war. Self-destructive habits, however, do not qualify as rising to the level of political intervention unless the public danger is self-evidently clear or actually present. That people die young is not destabilizing; that lots of people die young is. Threats to working, child-bearing and child-rearing generations may endanger the long-term security of the republic. The trick is to tell which habits instill republic-destroying habits and values, and which do not. It is not obvious which destructive behaviors should be prudently tolerated and which should be prohibited. Such questions must be addressed by each state, not imposed by the federal government, so that we don't risk universally binding and utterly disasterous laws. The underlying question is, what is in the best interests of the republic, not what best satisfies my philosophical or theological belief on how other people should live? When you reason with concern for other people's - including future generations' - security, you acknowledge their dignity; when you believe you should control how other people live, you make them slaves to your own conscience. One way of thinking is government truly liberal and truly conservative; the other views government as a struggle for power without regard for anyone's actual lives, property, and security.

6) Do libertarians reject the idea of "commonwealth" in its obvious original meaning?

I don't know. I'd hope not. To me, the obvious original meaning of "commonwealth" is that which abets the stability and security of the nation and its people.

Show me how to exercise the biblical mandate of "caring for the poor of the land" without the resources and power (both are required) of government as society and economy are now constituted, and Libertarianism might have some legitimacy.

I have another idea. Perhaps you can show me "how to exercise the biblical mandate of 'caring for the poor of the land' with the resources and power (both are required) of government as society and economy are now constituted" without the effect of Christians putting a gun the heads of wealthy non-Christians saying, "Pay up, you heathen bastards; our God says that the money you have legally earned by law should actually be given to other people whom we judge to be "poor" and deserving of our "care." There is no such Biblical mandate.

It is not my, or the Libertarian position, to keep society and economy the way they are now. Our project is to leave society alone; to leave the economy alone, and to intervene only where there is danger. Liberatarianism and federalism leave open the possibility of change and improvement, as opposed to rolling the dice on how well a top-down nationalist approach will work.

I can't and won't judge whose wealth is deserved; nor will I judge which poor deserve government control, er, care. Such are the work of pride, not love; power, not humility. Government is of the kingdom of darkness, instituted out of necessity due to the hardness of our hearts. I would use its powers, even to the point of killing or being killed, as a means to serve our human brothers and sisters by protecting their lives and whatever belongs to them. But I will not use such powers to impose what I believe is good for them or for myself. Goodness can not be imposed on people.

In conclusion, my challenge is not, ultimately, about the efficacy of free markets or of strict interpretations of the Constitution, but rather how we think about government. When we check our ideals at the door and agree that what we really want from government is security and the liberty that comes with it, we are then able to debate policy on pragmatic grounds. I do not believe I am doing God's will, or obeying some metaphysical universal moral law, by taking away the security and liberty of others for supposedly higher purposes.

Comments (1)

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JWilson writes:
July 25, 2001
Goodness cannot be imposed on people. Well said - about as precise a statement on the human condition as rendered by any theologian. I have to confess that in the course of my life I had cherished many arrogant assumptions that a ruling class of elite intellectuals (a la Plato) would serve the world better than ignorant, profit-driven masses. I have been shown the error of my ways.

Thank you also for the distinction between voting Libertarian and being a member of the party.

Recommended reading: Paul Johnson, The Intellectuals.

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