Libertarians are easy to mis-categorize, both intentionally and unintentionally. They are principled rather than pragmatic, which puts them in a different class from the two major political parties in the US. People aren’t used to seeing politicians who can actually identify some guiding principles. Libertarians also believe enough in their principles to act on them, which has resulted in a nasty case of heartburn for Congressional leaders courtesy of the Tea Party freshmen. Last, they are bucking a decades-old trend toward bigger and more intrusive government, which makes them a high-priority target for defenders of the status grow.
No wonder libertarians are often confused with every species of political animal except the one they really are. Most comparisons are unflattering but so ridiculous as to invite no rejoinder. One, however, is particularly wrong-headed and borderline dangerous: We are not anarchists.
My own political philosophy evolved from a gradual recognition that government growth had finally reached a tipping point. I was aware early on in my adult life that economic liberty worked extremely well in supplying and distributing various goods and that freedom to speak one’s mind was indispensable to freedom in general. It did not sink in on me until much later that there were a thousand sinister ways for government to take away those (and other) rights without actually looking like it was doing so. Too soon old; too late wise.
When it did sink in that this country no longer had authority figures who were merely annoying blowhards, but were genuine threats to liberty, I woke up. A dose of Ayn Rand and a diet of Austrian-school economics inflamed the ideas that I had discovered but failed to develop over the years. One might say that I discovered I was a libertarian already.
I also had some sense, which is what some of my first acquaintances who called themselves libertarians sorely lacked. I discovered that liberty was for some a negative claim, a rejection of authority but little else–containing no positive contribution to humanity except “Don’t tell me what to do!” Though later I would find many libertarians who did not share this vice, I always remembered to be on the lookout for the anarchist in libertarian’s clothing.
Anarchism is the political equivalent of teen angst–rebellion for rebellion’s sake. It is found in many forms, but the theme running through all is a universal rejection of authority. We may forgive teenagers for exercising their newfound identities in inappropriate ways. Most tire soon enough of spiking and dying their hair to look like self-conscious parrots. It is then that they realize that individualism is not quite that conspicuous and that doing something because someone else dislikes it is a thin substitute for authentic living. Excusing adults for such behavior is problematic.
Yet this is what we see in anarchy, with bombs sometimes thrown in for good measure. Regrading Occupy Wall Street, Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard nails it:
The truth is that the violence is not an aberration and Occupy Wall Street should not be laughed away. What we are seeing here is the latest iteration of an old political program that has been given new strength by the failures of the global economy and the power of postmodern technology…Whether the sympathizers or the critics really understand the idea and the method of the movement is a good question. The idea is utopian socialism. The method is revolutionary anarchism.
The Left in general, but anarchism in particular, is long on destruction and short on construction. Having a keen eye for what is allegedly wrong, leftists are conspicuously silent on creating what is obviously right. Transferring goodies from the haves to the have-nots is the horizon of their moral world. A deft stab to the ribs of the well-off suffices to quiet the vague sense of guilt they have for not suffering enough. From Marx to Michael Moore, the Left annoys, destroys, and redistributes. True anarchists do not even pretend to be about anything except destruction. Sneaky ones frame the violence as a necessary evil.
Anarchism is imbued with the dubious idea that this will result in something good. Ask a Tea Party libertarian what he/she wants and you’ll get some ideas. You may disagree that all of us are better off with less government, but you’ll know what you disagree with. You will also know what we think the world should look like and how it will work when we’re done. Ask an OWS anarchist and you’ll get destructive passion with no intelligible vision of the world to follow in its wake.
We libertarians know that the liberty we value so much comes only from a government that can guarantee it for the weakest and poorest among us. Destroying all institutions of authority will not, as the anarchist dreams, allow the flowering of an authority-free socialist utopia. You can be damn sure that they won’t mind exercising a bit of authority over those of us who object to being owned by the collective.
We may bitch and moan about all the things authorities keep us from doing, but deep down we all know that man does not live on liberty alone. He lives by an intelligent balance of rights, responsibilities, and restraint. Government, when restricted to its rightful place as the guarantor of liberty for all, is the institution that makes individual liberty possible.
The Founders knew this, but we have forgotten it. We trusted those in power to restrain themselves, a virtue long abandoned in the halls of Congress. We allowed government little by little to become the dispenser of favors to the well-heeled and politically astute. The result is what we are living now–a disgrace.
Now we teeter on the edge of a great decision, one that will lead us to either reclaim our government and clip its wings or lose it altogether. I hope we don’t look back and realize that we made the wrong choice.