06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Understanding Americus Libertarius (Libertarians)

Imagine living in a world that is absolutely antithetical to how you view that world. Imagine knowing that the world in which you live will never, ever even remotely resemble the world in which you want to live. How frustrating must that be? Welcome to the world of the strange and wonderful species I call Americus Libertarius, known more commonly as the libertarian.

No, I'm not a member of this species. Quite to the contrary, I belong to the species Americus Leftius Liberalus, also known as liberals, who believe that an active government has the ability to positively impact its citizens' lives (though, admittedly, it doesn't always succeed). Not surprisingly then, my politically oriented blog posts have provoked strong reactions from libertarians. Their comments and the subsequent conversations that ensued have provoked in me fascination and curiosity.

Libertarians are best known for several core principles that make them sound like a traditionally conservative lot: smaller government, lower taxes, free-market economy, a balanced budget, and more individual freedom and responsibility. And, despite the fact that I belong to a very different species, I actually agree with their principles (though I have different priorities). At the same time, libertarians are full of contradictions that make it difficult to place them into any clearly defined category along the usual political spectrum. For example, many libertarians appear rather liberal on social issues, such gay marriage, abortion, the environment, and drug use (at least according to the National Platform of the Libertarian Party).

My interactions with libertarians have revealed them to be intelligent, well informed, engaged, and persuasive in their anti-government arguments. Libertarians also perceive themselves to be strong, independent, and self-determined -- direct philosophical descendants of our founding fathers. And I can see all of these qualities in them.

At the same time, when viewed through a different set of eyes (that is to say, mine), libertarians raise questions about certain other qualities. Please note that I am not intending to traffic in stereotypes, but rather simply ask questions based on my experience with libertarians:

  • Are libertarians out of touch with reality? The principles to which they adhere are truly admirable and worthy of aspiration in a tidy utopian world. Yet, those tenets don't always seem realistic in the rather messy world in which we live -- one that is filled with financial crises, natural and man-made disasters, corruption, wars, and, well, the complexity of the human condition.
  • Are libertarians selfish? In my interactions with them, I am aware that they typically reference their views in terms of how government impacts them as individuals rather than as citizens of America. There is also no sense of how government influences other members of our society.
  • Do libertarians lack compassion? I don't sense a great deal of empathy for those less fortunate than they. This, I suppose, fits in with their view on personal responsibility. If people want to change, libertarians would argue, well, they just need to stop looking for help from our government and pull themselves up by their own boot straps.
  • Are libertarians rigid thinkers? I've noticed that some tend to see the world in black and white: all government is bad, the Constitution is immutable, people are with them or against them, and beliefs are either right or wrong. Nuance, shades of gray, or common ground don't seem to exist in their world-view.
  • Do libertarians believe they are the only free thinkers? I've been told by libertarians that I believe what I believe because I'm being politically correct, following the herd, spouting a set of talking points, or not thinking. And they believe what they believe out of deep conviction.

I'm sure my impressions don't apply to all libertarians and that they hold a much wider range of ideology and experience than I have portrayed. My intentions for this post are curiosity and understanding rather than judgment and criticism. I hope libertarian readers will offer substantive answers to my questions so I, and others, can better appreciate the ideas and passions that they bring to our political system.