Tibor R. Machan
So the other day I was awoken from my occasional complacency and shocked to be told that Glenn Beck, Fox TV’s most recent addition of conservative commentators, has been calling himself a libertarian. Wow. That’s all libertarianism needs, to have become the victim of this confusion or perhaps out and out distortion. Therefore let me spend a few paragraphs again on just what libertarianism is.
The libertarian political philosophy is defined as one according to which the most fundamental principle of public affairs, admitting of no official compromise, is that the right to individual liberty of everyone in society is the most precious value to be upheld, protected and promoted by the law. If you read the Declaration of Independence carefully, its basic theme is libertarianism, plain and simple. Everyone has basic, unalienable rights, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (among other, less fundamental rights). This includes all men and women who carry on peacefully in their lives, however much their personal conduct may or may not conform to a given ethical or religious code. The political philosophy of libertarianism, along with the ideas sketched in the Declaration, are what a genuine free country is about.
Libertarianism is not an aesthetics, not a religion, not a personal ethical code, not even first and foremost an economic theory. Abraham Lincoln captured this when he said that "[The American system…] has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwined itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle ‘Liberty for all’–the principle that clears the path to all–gives hope to all–and, by consequences, enterprise, and industry to all.”
One of the major elements of libertarianism, especially crucial to recall when considering whether conservatives are libertarians, is that it is committed to a purely defensive foreign and military policy for a county; no aggression is acceptable by the standards of a bona fide free country. (George Washington’s farewell address, in which he warns about entanglements with foreign countries, is a precursor of libertarianism vis-a-vis foreign affairs.)
More germane to my motivating point here is that libertarianism tolerates no public policies that deny the right to liberty to any segment of society, none. And it refuses to let governments interfere with people’s private conduct, including their ill advised private conduct such as the consumption of anything that can produce harm for them. That’s not a political project in a free society. Nor is the prohibition of gambling, prostitution, tobacco smoking when this does not involve dumping harm on others, censorship, religious heretic-ism, nothing. It is all about individual liberty.
And it is this that makes libertarianism so revolutionary, so much the advancement of the achievements of the American founders, something that altered the focus and tone of public policy throughout the world. And this also explains why libertarianism is so difficult to promote, since the bulk of humanity was raised under regimes wherein the right to individual liberty was systematically denied. The governmental habit, which is so evident throughout American society today, not to mention elsewhere around the globe, is not easy to change. Too many people hope to gain advantages in life by forcibly–though not always brutally–imposing their ideas and ideals on others. (Recently supporters of such impositions have come up with a new term, "nudging," to serve their purpose of making their version of tyranny palatable.)
No, Mr. Beck is no libertarian. But no one in a free society is permitted to force him to change his corrupt use of the term. All that can be done is to engage in that eternal task of vigilance in support of the proper understanding of the free, libertarian society. Which also shows, clearly, why libertarianism is not utopian–it doesn’t promise to solve political problems permanently. The defense of liberty can never end, never conclude in a final triumph.