22% of U.S. Americans lean libertarian. This cohort can be broken into two main types. There are true libertarians who embrace the implications of libertarianism, and there are 'in-vogue' libertarians. You know the type--white, college-educated, middle class males between the ages of 18 and 25--the people shouting on your college campus and commenting "Ron Paul 2012" on the web. It's become cool, subversive, and even hipster to call yourself a libertarian.
I don't suppose to guess what percentage of libertarians are 'in-vogue,' but it is substantial. These are individuals who support the legalization of gay marriage, the decriminalization of drugs, and espouse the importance of freedom. The problem is that this is not libertarianism. Libertarianism is faith in a free market system that leads not to personal freedom but to corporate freedom--a freedom that's been embraced countless times in the past to pollute, pilfer, and oppress.
Thus, we have a generation of young, in-vogue libertarians supporting half of a libertarian agenda--the liberal half--and neglecting to fully understand the ramifications of the other half--the economic half. And this isn't an accident--true libertarians everywhere court these individuals' votes and dollars by telling them half-truths.
Most libertarians agree about high defense spending, government spying, antiquated drug laws, homophobia, and freedom from an oppressive, corrupt, wasteful, and hypocritical government--issues important to all young voters today.
But there are serious misconceptions about true libertarianism that lead in-vogue libertarians to identify as such. Through a concerted effort, 'true' libertarian leaders pander to young people with vague ideals that sound an awful lot like the ideals of the Democratic Party and ignore the detailed truth of the libertarian worldview--an unforgiving and unpopular belief in the freeing power of markets.
Faith in Free Markets
Libertarians flat out ignore the historical importance of government regulation. Child labor, 16-hour workdays, indentured servitude, and the collapse of the modern financial sector, for instance, are all free market inventions. Government oversight is necessary to account for the excesses of the free market economy and avoid abuse like we've seen throughout history and across the world.
Government regulation didn't come from nowhere to fix nonexistent problems--it came because children were working in dangerous factories and corporations that owned people's lives kept them in perpetual debt and servitude. Still, some current government regulations are surely unnecessary, but to put full faith and credit in the free market is to ignore all history has to show us. And many in-vogue libertarians seem not to fully grasp this ramification of their supposed political ideology.
The Small Government Myth
To understand what true libertarianism means is to understand what it aims to cut: the free education of tens of millions of children, physical and intellectual property and patent rights, security and free trade, safe roads, (relatively) stable markets, job retraining, health care, and low-income assistance programs. This list represents a huge portion of the U.S. government's budget. Slashing government means slashing these programs.
The myth propagated by libertarians is that we can somehow cut a vast amount of government spending without cutting all of these government programs that directly contribute to the economic success of the U.S. If the intent is to form a libertarian government--the question must be answered: if not the government, then who?
Private enterprise educating your children? Sure, if you can afford it--but what if you can't? That means a bleak future for your kids, with no money of their own to pay for their children's education. That's economic imprisonment, not economic freedom. It's a wholly unequal playing field driven by an unregulated aristocratic class, not equality of opportunity.
There's a reason a libertarian government has been attempted exactly zero times in the history of the world. To pursue a libertarian ideology means sacrificing help for those less fortunate: for the disabled, for the elderly, and for the unemployed. It means trading safety, security, and equality of opportunity for a tenuous hypothesis about the free market's ability to compensate for this loss. And yet, in-vogue libertarians seem only to discuss legalizing marijuana and ending "big government."
The myth crafted and fostered by true libertarians is that the free market economy, if released from government shackles, will flourish, allowing us all to live peacefully, productively, and prosperously. But this neglects fact and history--government, especially an established democracy like the U.S.--didn't appear one day to strip a peaceful and prosperous society of its peace and prosperity. It built itself to help foster and accommodate this peace and prosperity and it is our job to realize this goal.
And if you're saying to yourself, "But..." and preparing examples of government not acting in the best interest of society, you needn't bother. Of course it hasn't. But the other side of this coin is the free market--the system that brought us child labor, polluted water, poisonous toys, and the worldwide financial crisis of 2008. I'd trust the People over Big Business any day.
If you're a true libertarian, own it. But be prepared to be questioned vigorously about the role government has played in your life and your successes, and be prepared to defend decreased literacy and increased poverty, increased labor abuses and a vanishing social safety net. And explain what exactly in the mystical invisible hand of the free market is going to feed hungry children and level the playing field for disadvantaged individuals.