The Libertarian movement wants us to believe that less government implies more freedom, and more freedom implies more happiness. It's so easily stated, what could possibly go wrong?
Their theory is certainly easy to act on. One always knows what to do next: “See government? Apply axe.” Would that the world were simple enough that such a theory could work. No need to be concerned with messy consideration of consequences. Just take it on faith that the consequences will be Good. But will they be?
They apparently want us to accept the premise that freedom for one is freedom for all. Certainly they never discuss freedom as if it might bunch up, with some people getting more of it than another. They speak of freedom always in the unqualified form, not freedom for Joe or freedom for Sally. Just freedom—all by itself. They want us to think it doesn't matter who gets what freedom because freedom just naturally spreads out and reaches every Joe and Sally equally, with no need to be more specific.
Or maybe they just can't bear to see their simple-sounding message messed up by consideration of practical realities. Such simplistic messages seem to exploit the old notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” In other words, a good-sounding political message might be spoiled by mentioning messy realities, so maybe it's better not to mention them. We live in a world of sound bites, after all. Better a simple message that's wrong than a complicated one that's right.
And so a frequent sound bite of the Libertarians is that any government is bad government, and that any imposition of state power on anyone is bad, by definition. It's an easy message for people to want to believe, and so it has gained ground in the mainstream GOP, and even to some degree with Obama and the Democrats. In these times of debt concerns, who wouldn't want to believe that some easily-administered simplification would just fix everything? But can it really?
It just can't be the case that the less government you have, the more freedom everyone has. That would imply that everyone has the most freedom when there is zero government. In other words, it would imply that left to its own devices freedom just distributes itself evenly throughout society. But as I've noted many times: When there are no rules, bullies rule. After all, who's to stop them once you've dismantled government? Removing the imposition of state power won't remove the imposition of power. Power will still exist, it will just be applied by non-state entities.
There's an implication that more freedom implies more happiness. But suppose you're walking down the street and someone walks up and starts to beat you up because of your race or gender or religion. You protest loudly, but there are no police to come to your aid. As you're being beaten into unconsciousness, the bully doing so just chuckles smugly at you and says, “Hey, it's a free country.” By this they may mean, “the governmental checks on my freedom to do arbitrarily bad things has been removed, so why shouldn't I do them?”
The complete absence of government means more freedom for certain individuals sometimes at the expense of the freedom of others. And if freedom is tied up with happiness, then more happiness for some individuals may come at the expense of others. I'm not saying happiness is “zero sum.” That is, I'm not saying the happiness of one person must always come at the expense of the happiness of another. There are certainly many ways to make one or more people happier without diminishing the happiness of others. But I am saying that some happiness can come at the cost of robbing others' happiness, and that bullies seem to have a knack for finding such approaches.
So there is a point below which eliminating government doesn't make things free for all, nor perhaps even free for most. Rather, there is a point below which other individuals and groups and non-governmental organizations, including some businesses, start to act in ways that resemble governments, at least in the ways they throw around power and exercise control.
We're all brought up to believe that, as individuals, our society will allow us some say about the policies that affect us, for example through democratic process. But without a government that stands up to would-be bullies, whether individual or institutional, there's little hope that ordinary people will have any continued say. If there's no governmental check on the private commandeering of our would-be rights, those rights vanish and private entities effectively become our unassailable masters.
In fact, I would say that government's most important role is to ensure that a baseline of rights are maintained for each individual citizen. If you're looking for a sound bite, I'm saying that government's primary role is to stand against bullies. If government can do that, then everyone can have a decent shot at freedom and it doesn't just collect with a few individuals at the expense of the others.
There's a push lately by those same Libertarians to “make government more efficient” by eliminating those parts of government that they seem to think—or want us to think—are just meddling. They are systematically attempting to disable all roles of government that involve telling individuals and businesses what they cannot do. But if you believe my analysis, these are the most important aspects of government.
Over the years, we've painstakingly built up a system of protections for ourselves against bullies, and the Libertarians seem to me to be acting as agents, some witting and some unwitting, of the bullies to dismantle those protections as superfluous. They are not. We have protections for labor, that our workers are not exploited. They want to dismantle that. We have protections for the environment, that we don't sacrifice our long-term future for nearterm financial gain. They want to dismantle that.
Eliminating the aspects of government that protect our most vulnerable people and resources from exploitation isn't a way to get a more efficient government, free of unnecessary expense. It's a way to eliminate the primary function of government, leaving only those aspects of government which aren't a challenge to bullies. In effect, it's the wholesale dismantling of government itself, but offered as a mere cost savings so that people don't question it.
A government “freed” of its ability to put checks on would-be abusers of our human and natural resources will not make most of us more free or more happy. It will make a few free to make the rest of us less free and less happy. We must insist on a government willing to stand up to the bullies before the only freedom many of us are left with is the freedom to be their next victim.
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