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The Case for Libertarianism

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Anyone who follows politics on a regular basis through the standard channels of talk radio, talk television, newspaper editorials, magazine commentaries, popular books, blogs, tweets, and the like, knows the standard stereotype of what liberals think of conservatives:

Conservatives are a bunch of Hummer-driving, meat-eating, gun-toting, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white-thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally-hypocritical blowhards.

And what conservatives think of liberals:

Liberals are a bunch of hybrid-driving, tofu-eating, tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, bottled-water-drinking, ACLU-supporting, flip-flopping, wishy-washy, Namby Pamby bedwetters.

The stereotypes are so annealed into our culture that everyone understands them enough for comedians and commentators to exploit them. And like many stereotypes, they both have an element of truth to them that reflects an emphasis on differing moral values. According to the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in fact, such stereotypes reflect five foundations of morality upon which liberalism and conservatism are based:

1. Harm-Care (do not harm others, people should be cared for)
2. Fairness-Reciprocity (justice and equality for all)
3. In-Group Loyalty (we live in a dangerous tribal world so we need national unity)
4. Authority-Respect (tradition, faith, law-and-order)
5. Purity-Sanctity (sex, drugs, rock'n'roll)

Over the years Haidt and his colleagues have surveyed the moral opinions of over 23,000 people from Western nations all over the world, and have found a consistent difference between liberals and conservatives: Liberals are high on 1 and 2 (Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity), but low on 3, 4, and 5 (Loyalty, Authority-Respect, and Purity-Sanctity). Conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although place slightly less emphasis on 1 and 2 and slightly more on 3, 4, and 5.

In other words, liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, often flaunt faith and tradition in order to care for the weak and oppressed, and they want change and justice even at the risk of political and economic chaos. By contrast, conservatives emphasize institutions and traditions, faith and family, nation and creed, and they want order even at the cost of those at the bottom. Instead of viewing the left and the right as either right or wrong (depending on which one you are), a more reflective approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values.

An example of the tension between these moral values can be seen in the 1992 film, A Few Good Men, in which Jack Nicholson's character -- the battle-hardened Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup -- is being cross-examined by Tom Cruise's naive rookie Navy lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee. In the context of Haidt's moral dimensions, I think of Kaffee as the liberal and Jessup as the conservative. Kaffee is defending two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier at Guantanamo base in Cuba. He thinks Jessup ordered a "code red," an off-the-books command to rough up a lazy Marine trainee in need of discipline, and that matters got tragically out of hand. Kaffee wants individual justice for his clients; Jessup wants freedom for the nation even at the cost of individual liberty, as he explains:

"Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. ... You don't want the truth because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I'd prefer you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post."

Personally, I tend more toward the liberal emphasis on individual fairness, justice and liberty, and I worry that overemphasis on group loyalty will trigger our often divisive inner tribalisms. But ever since 9/11 I am grateful to all the brave soldiers who have stood a post and allowed me to sleep under the blanket of freedom that they have provided for us all.

Is there a way around this dilemma, a political position above and beyond the traditional left-right spectrum? There is. It's called libertarian. Libertarian? I know what you're thinking:

Libertarians are a bunch of beater-driving, fusion-food eating, pot-smoking, porn-watching, prostitution-supporting, secession-mongering, tax-revolting, morally-indecisive anti-government anarchists.

Yes, like the other two stereotypes, there is some element of truth in this one as well. But, basically, libertarians are for freedom and liberty for individuals, and yet we recognize that in order to be free we must also be protected. Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, as long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes "infringement," but there are at least a dozen essentials to protecting from infringements our basic freedoms:

1. The rule of law.
2. Property rights.
3. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system.
4. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country.
5. Freedom of speech and the press.
6. Freedom of association.
7. Mass education.
8. Protection of civil liberties.
9. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states.
10. A potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state.
11. A viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws.
12. An effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.

These essentials incorporate the moral values embraced by both liberals and conservatives, and as such form the foundation for a bridge between left and right.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of The Mind of the Market.