Sunday, April 1, 2012

What is a Libertarian?

By -  Rex Ballard

statism vs. libertarianism model
All labels, when applied to people, points of view or ideology are dangerous because they imply a level of binary discipline. You either "are" or you "aren’t". Early in my life, as I became more aware of the world around me and the fact that the world didn’t actually revolve around me, I decided to become more politically active and I would actually register to vote. So, of course the first thing you are confronted with is to declare your affiliation. When I asked the person helping me fill out the voter registration card what it meant to be a "republican" or a "democrat" (the "big two") I didn’t feel like I really fit into either of those camps – there were things he described a democrat as that I would think…"yeah that’s me", but there were also things about a republican that I would also think…"yeah, that’s me". So with this dilemma, I focused on the other choices, which at that time were "libertarian", or "unaffiliated". Well, unaffiliated didn’t seem like a real choice so through this crude process of elimination I decided I was a Libertarian – even though I didn’t actually know what a Libertarian was, I simply assumed it applied to someone like me who could see virtue in aspects of the democrat and republican dogma of the time.

I was a child of the 70’s. Too young to actually be sucked into the Vietnam War but old enough to know a lot of people who were. Also, old enough to have strong opinions about just how little was accomplished as a result of that war and what a high price was paid in terms of; a) human and financial sacrifice, b) public resentment both for and against the war and c) the huge rift that was created in our political thinking. I was personally conflicted in that I was and am a firm believer that capitalism and democracy, in spite of their inherent flaws are a better alternative to other forms of government as they contribute to an individual’s right and ability to pursue their own personal liberty, which is a foundational belief of libertarian political philosophy. So, this early thinking framed my belief of what it meant to be a "Libertarian".

However, after doing a bit more research and by listening to people of the time who tried to define what a Libertarian was, I began to have serious doubts that I really fit into this party affiliation. Historically, libertarians believe that individuals have a right to exercise their individual freedom and to freely associate. The underlying philosophy goes on to suggest that there should be little or no role for Government. These two key tenets of liberalism have made for some strange bedfellows. So, I find it interesting that liberalism, as the underlying tenet of Libertarian politics, has been co-opted by people on both ends of the political spectrum. In the 60’s, radical groups who were opposed to the Vietnam War advocated anarchy under a "Libertarian" call. At the same time, there were figures such as Barry Goldwater on the extreme right who espoused small Government under a "Libertarian" mantle.

Today, John Stossel is a public personality who defines himself as Libertarian and does a good job of articulating his view of what it means. John Stossel, currently has a regular program on Fox Business Channel and is frequently a contributor on other Fox News programs. Previously, John Stossel had a popular segment that often appeared on ABC’s 20/20. Stossel, chooses to emphasize individual freedom and "the free market" as an alternative to outright anarchy. However, his views on free market do suggest a much smaller role for Government. As an example he has suggested that the FDA as an agency contributes as much if not more so to the danger of the public as it does to its safety. He cites such examples as the delays in releasing drugs to the US market when many of these drugs are widely distributed and used in other countries and how the massive bureaucracy of the FDA contributes directly to the high cost of drugs in the U.S. He has also suggested that the FDA’s attempt to ban electronic cigarettes, while not banning cigarettes, suggest that they play a role in protecting an industry that kills thousands of people every year. Alternatively, Stossel suggests that the "free market" can sort this all out. If people want to kill themselves by smoking cigarettes, real or electronic – it’s their right to do so. Furthermore, if a company sells a drug that is dangerous, the legal system will penalize them for doing so.

So, once again I can see merit to his viewpoint on a number of levels, but I’m not sure I’m ready to completely eliminate the FDA and rely on the free market to decide what is and isn’t safe. If I’m the poor schmuck who dies after taking an untested medication it gives me little comfort to know that my survivors will be able to sue on my behalf. But at the same time, he has a legitimate point; we may be jeopardizing lives in attempt to guarantee the public’s safety. Furthermore, we see that the safety net has a lot of holes in it given the number of class action law suits drug developers face. All of which contribute to the high cost of medicine.

So, what is a Libertarian? As with all labels the definition depends on the point of view of the beholder. Its two most basic principles are a person’s right to exercise their individual liberty and a world with very limited government intervention.

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