Don't Conflate Ron Paul, the Tea Party, and Libertarianism

The conflation of Ron Paul, the Tea Party, and libertarianism is all too common. Using these terms interchangeably, without any real evidence that each of these entities share a similar viewpoint on a particular issue, paints an inaccurate and unjustified picture of each of them. 

Travis Higgins’ recent attempt to misinterpret libertarianism by branding it as something that it is not becomes evident to anyone with a deeper understanding of the tenets of libertarianism.

He writes, “The Libertarian platform states that any attempt by government to control capitalism impinges on a free society.” This is a mischaracterization of libertarianism. Libertarianism argues that the government has a very legitimate and important role in the proper functioning of a free-market system. It creates a code of fair and impartial laws, maintains property rights, enforces contracts, and, most importantly, ensures the rule of law is equally applied among all citizens (by the way, where the Right and Left argue about the importance of equality of opportunity versus outcomes, libertarians tend to ignore both, and cherish the equality of the enforcement of the rule of law). However, libertarians believe that any regulation beyond those basic functions is a not only detrimental to the market economy, but an unjustified use of government power. That is not a trivial distinction, as much as Higgins would like to obfuscate that fact.

He then says, “Our recent history suggests maximum liberty is not assured by smaller government and that the void created is often not filled by liberty.” Here, Higgins implies that a “smaller government” philosophy has dominated recent times, and that this has led to a series of undesirable outcomes. However, it is unclear what “small government” type policies have been in place in recent times. In the last decade, our federal government has spent around $1 out of every $5 that the U.S. economy has created; it has intervened and regulated nearly every industry in the country, including housing, finance, health care, energy, manufacturing, and education; and it assured the entire financial meltdown through loose monetary policy that made a credit bubble of massive proportion the only inevitable result. If this approach to government has not worked in the past, as I agree that it has not, it is not because it has espoused principles of limited government. Moreover, one should be careful to fault libertarian – or more specifically, free-market – ideology for the economic hardship of the past few years. 

Higgins writes, “Instead, lobbyists for the people who have the deck stacked in their favor are arguing to protect the status quo.” As pointed out above, those arguing for the “status quo” are not libertarians; they are more accurately defined as rent-seekers, who aim to profit off the protection of government instead of the innovation of consumer goods. More to the point, when lobbyists poured into the nation’s capital during the time health care reform was being debated, it was not because of incentives caused by a free market economy. It was due to the corrupting influence of large government interventions that prompted nearly every industry group, trade organization, and major existing company (including hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and so on) to maintain or enlarge their piece of the pie. When the future of $1 trillion is being decided in one building, that’s where lobbyists go to make their case for why they deserve it. When it’s being decided by millions of consumers across the country, that is where they’ll go to make their case. Libertarianism would prefer the latter.

But here’s the bigger point: My guess is that mischaracterizations of your political opponents do more to paralyze our political institutions than any form of Republican obstructionism. It is actually the kind of straw man arguments throughout Higgins’ article that “distract our national attention away from these realities.” Instead of debating the proper role of government, we (libertarians) are forced to begin by proving our belief in the legitimacy of government.  These accusations often, as is the case here, come in the form of contemptuous, misdirected attacks that reduce the chances of genuine, intellectual engagement from both sides of an argument.  I happen to think that there are reasoned, principled thinkers at every end of the political spectrum, and I await the day when the discourse is such that those people can have ideological disagreements without their opponents generalizing their beliefs as “bad for America.”  If Higgins feels otherwise, he certainly did not make that clear in his article.

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