I was recently hanging out with some pretty smart liberals and heard one of them say, "There are a lot of people putting crazy ideas out there." And then, not missing a beat, someone else from the group quipped, "They're called libertarians." The room shook with laughter except for me and a few others. I have some libertarian friends and having read more than a few issues of Reason magazine, I recognize that there are some good ideas coming out of that political philosophy. I found myself wondering if such snide comments are emblematic of how we view each other and our contrasting ideas in this polarized political climate. And it repelled me.
Even such staunch liberals as Noam Chomsky note the historical relationship between libertarianism and liberalism. They both grew out of the Enlightenment ideals of reason and equality, with their disdain for government oppression and unjust authority. Given libertarians' philosophical bent, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that libertarianism took its name from a philosophical point of principle, that humans have free will and their actions are not determined by some outside force.
Many see libertarians as living in what German philosopher Schopenhauer called Wolkenkuckucksheim, or the cloud-cuckoo land of naive optimism. They believe their ideas will solve everything if only government would get out of the way. The foot-in-mouth syndrome many leading libertarians have come down with doesn't help to eliminate the view that their absolutism bleeds into other areas. Newsletters published in Ron Paul's name in the '80s and '90s contained racist overtones. In his own words, Ron Paul has said edgy things that make people wonder if libertarianism has a heart, such as during a Tea Party debate in September, when he advocated letting people die if they don't have insurance. "That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks," he said to loud applause. Recently Paul said that in cases of "honest rape," a strange qualification that makes one wonder what kind of attributions he makes about rape victims, a woman should seek help.
But libertarianism is bigger than gaffes and much bigger than one man. There are parts of libertarianism that make a lot of sense, not matter what side of the political aisle one comes from. As the Libertarian Party's candidate for president Gary Johnson recently said on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, libertarian ideas have appeal across the political spectrum. "The notion that most people in this country are fiscally responsible, socially tolerant, I'm in that group," he said. "I think most Americans are in that group. The libertarian candidate is going to come at Obama from the left and going to come at Romney from the right."
There are certain truths that those with libertarian tendencies recognize quite well, better than the entrenched liberals and conservatives. Their affinity for pacifism would serve us well in these times when drone attacks in foreign countries may be riling up anti-American sentiment and thus defeating the purpose of our actions. So too would their championing of civil liberties. Their questioning of standard economic dogma is also a breath of fresh air. Even liberal economists recognize that tax cuts for the wealthy alone may not be a silver bullet, as they reduce GDP in the short term. Additionally, libertarians who are wary of state power and herald the ability of the market to right our current crisis can back up their beliefs with studies that show how larger public sectors grow slower than smaller ones.
Libertarian solutions could go far in addressing climate change. As Elisa Wood writes in her article about how net metering can democratize energy, "Our market signals, not central planning, shape the infrastructure we build." Indeed, a world of decentralized distribution where we can produce and sell back energy to others, as opposed to one in which the grid and utilities dominate the energy game, could be much more secure. Today's grid is vulnerable to malware attack and shutdowns. In a much-discussed post, Jonathan Adler advocates a carbon tax as part of a libertarian approach to the global warming crisis. Some leading libertarian economists think actively about how climate change policies will affect the poor, putting lie to the notion that they are heartless.
Personally I am not a libertarian. I agree with them on the civil liberties and foreign policy fronts. But I prefer a government that is robust enough to fix social problems (by instituting a graduated consumption tax, not taxing the wealthy, for example) and nimble enough to promote growth with a healthy, but not bloated public sector.
I see enough of myself in libertarians to recognize that they do not deserve to be marginalized. Though they are certainly quirky, any group with this many original ideas should be listened to, not scorned.