2005-12-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart W. Mirsky

When I retired at the end of 2002 one of the first things I did was try to find a Republican organization I could contribute some time to. To my great surprise, there wasn’t very much out there. When I contacted the New York State and national GOP organizations, no one contacted me back. But after a couple of weeks of searching I finally stumbled onto something called the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC).

Unlike the other GOP organizations, these folks got back to me right away and we began talking. Since I’m basically libertarian (albeit not dogmatically so), I was fairly comfortable with them. It turned out they were seeking someone to represent them in New York State since there was no chapter of the RLC here. They asked if I’d help get them rolling in New York and, seeing as they were the only Republicans who’d bothered to respond to me and given my high comfort level with libertarianism, I said sure. That’s how I became New York State Coordinator for the RLC.

But “libertarian” sometimes seems to be a dirty word among many conservatives in New York these days since I haven’t had a lot of luck in the organization building I undertook for them. Conservatives around here, I soon found out, hear a very different word when I say “libertarian”. They hear “liberal.” And many hear something far worse, as in “libertine,” and practically run screaming from the room. Of course, libertinism is the philosophy of moral license, which espouses the view that we ought to do anything we want without regard to social convention or the interests or sensibilities of others around us. But libertarianism is neither libertinism nor political liberalism (the philosophy of today’s Democrats which supports robust government to guide and shape our lives for the good). But if it’s neither of these, what is it, and why should anyone be one (a libertarian, that is)?  

Libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds individual liberty (and its corollaries) to be the highest of all political values. It’s generally understood as standing in opposition to all forms of statism, i.e., that aspect of liberalism and other political philosophies that translates into a belief in robust government. Thus libertarianism, at its heart, is seen to be fundamentally anti-statist. This does not mean it opposes the idea of the state completely, of course, only that it holds that the state should be kept to the smallest size practical for running a country. Running a country necessarily includes performing certain core functions such as ensuring external and internal security for the state’s citizens, though there’s some  disagreement as to what else counts as such “core” government functions.

The idea of a tightly restricted government that is essential to safeguarding individual liberty is, itself, deeply embedded in our Constitution and early history. As a result, believers in libertarianism are generally regarded as conservatives in this country because they want to hew a close line to the early values and institutions that informed our founding fathers’ efforts to create a free nation.

The political philosophy of libertarianism is actually one of two main branches of classical nineteenth century liberalism. That philosophy basically arose in England in reaction to the excesses of an intrusive and heavy-handed aristocrat-dominated society. The liberalism of that era believed in constraining the intrusiveness of the state by maximizing the freedom of the individual while improving the lot of the less well off in society. But in the twentieth century liberalism came to focus primarily on those in need and, under FDR, to embrace the use of an expansive government to achieve this. Modern liberalism thus became severed from its anti-statist nineteenth century roots. The libertarian movement, which caught the public imagination when Barry Goldwater ran for president in the early sixties, was, in fact, a reaction to the increasingly statist mindset of modern liberals.

Thus, liberals and libertarians share a common heritage while differing on the values they most revere. Increasingly, the statist tendency of modern liberals has led them to make common cause with the equally statist philosophy of socialism. That is, today’s liberals have, for the most part, come to believe that the socialists’ statist prescriptions are, in large part, the remedy for what they believe ails this country.

Libertarians, while not losing sight of the idea of concern for the needy, which all liberals hold dear, believe individual liberty and its corollary of personal responsibility are the paramount values with which we must concern ourselves. Thus, when confronted with a choice that offers more government spending, more taxation to support that spending and more government programs, no matter how intrusive, vs. a choice that favors rigorously controlling government spending, taxation and program growth, the libertarian will opt for the latter on the grounds that these best secure individual liberty.

Because of libertarianism’s emphasis on the idea of small government and strong protection for individual liberties, as found in our national historical beginnings, and because this emphasis accords with the emphasis that socially conservative folks place on preserving our tried and true social values and institutions, and with the preference of fiscal conservatives for keeping government from becoming too overblown and unaccountable, libertarians find great philosophical comfort in the Republican Party where they can ally themselves with these other conservative types.

Of course, there are stress lines, too, as we have begun to see today. For instance, libertarians tend to be very laissez-faire on questions of individual values, desiring to see government stay out of our lives as much as possible, while social conservatives tend to believe government should be used to advance and support those values in which they believe, even if others don’t share such beliefs. But at this juncture in our history, robust government has largely become the tool of the self-styled progressives (including both modern day liberals and socialist leftists) who want to demolish old values and institutions and replace them with new ones like gay marriage, abortion on demand, the removal of religious references in public life and government dependency.

Thus, libertarians and social conservatives have a common interest in fighting these excesses of statism . . . at least for now. And that’s why, as a libertarian, I find myself at ease in the Republican Party. It’s just that I’m not always sure many of my fellow Republicans are equally at ease with me.


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