Libertarian ideas

I don’t consider myself to be a libertarian. I believe in the power of government to improve the lives of citizens and the role of government to regulate industries and interests that cause harm to others. I believe that it is necessary for there to be limits on power. I’ve been known, in friendly political debates with others, to advocate proportional representation as a desirable form of democracy. In my family of origin, I had two brothers who could occasionally sound quite libertarian in their discourse. One, Dan, ran for the U.S. Senate from Montana in 2006, losing in the Republican primary to an incumbent Senator. The other, Vernon, has also run unsuccessfully for office in his state. I know from personal experience that not all libertarians are cut from the same cloth. There are left-leaning libertarians and right-leaning libertarians. Don’t expect to see me run for office. It isn’t my style.

I was thinking of libertarians and their political positions recently, however. Those whom I know are not of the type that oppose all government. While they definitely are proponents of limited government and would like to see less regulation from the government, they adhere to the principle that personal liberty only extends to the next person. When one person’s liberty infringes on that of another, it is legitimate for government to step in to promote maximum liberty for the maximum number of people. The libertarians I know aren’t anarchists.

I remember a friendly debate with a libertarian-leaning friend years ago. This was during the time when there was a national 55 mph speed limit. My libertarian friend was completely opposed to the speed limit. In fact, he argued that there should be no speed limits at all except in urban areas. Out in the open country, he believed, people should be able to drive as fast as they want. “Ah,” I argued, “But what if that person driving 80 or 90 mph runs into you and injures you through no fault of your own? What does that do to your freedom?” My friend conceded that there was a potential problem, but thought that the risk was fairly low. In those days, I was a bit more combative, so a while later I confronted my friend with statistics about speed limits and brain injuries, citing the impact of such accidents on insurance rates. “What if your manner of driving causes insurance rates to rise for all people? Isn’t your liberty then bought at the cost of others?” It wasn’t the kind of debate where either of us expected to change the other’s mind, but it was a thoughtful exchange and the fact that we disagreed didn’t affect our friendship.

Another place where most thoughtful libertarians might agree to limits to personal liberties is where extreme injustices in the distribution of resources occurs. Most of my libertarian friends believe that those who are extremely wealthy have obtained their wealth in part by taking advantage of others. They simply take more than is their fair share. Some of my libertarian friends still wouldn’t favor putting limits on the greedy, but others argue that it is unethical to take more than one needs and that a completely laissez-faire government results in unfair distribution of resources. They believe in the right of the individual to acquire wealth, but might argue that hoarding is not a desirable outcome.

Here is an example of another debate one might have with a libertarian. Some libertarians would say that not having health insurance is an individual right. The government should not have the power to require individuals to have health insurance. However, in that scenario, what happens when a person with no insurance and no means encounters a life-threatening illness? Should that person be denied health care because of the choice that has been made? Or does the society pay the bill for that health care? And if so, is the choice not to have health insurance an infringement on the liberties of those who choose to carry appropriate insurance?

At what point does the liberty afforded to one individual infringe on the liberty of another? It is an area of discussion and debate that could be argued over and over again.

Although we do have a libertarian party in the United States and we see libertarian candidates from time to time, it simply doesn’t work to assume that all libertarians are of the same political persuasion. Libertarianism is more of a political philosophy than it is a coherent platform of proposed governmental policy.

I’m not exactly sure why I chose such a topic for my journal entry today, but it does reflect my interest in philosophy. I enjoy wrestling with systems of thought and seeking to understand the thoughts that underlie the opinions and actions of others. Furthermore, I miss opportunities for simple civil conversation in places where we don’t see eye-to-eye. It seems to me that our current political atmosphere is so partisan and so divisive that we hold back from speaking to one another out of fear of offending or of discovering some difference. Political difference escalates to enmity so quickly these days.

I want to go on record to say that people who disagree with me aren’t bad people. They are not my enemies. It is perfectly reasonable to disagree with a friend. Our differences are part of the strength of our society, but only so if we are able to engage one another in meaningful conversation without becoming enemies. As has been said so many times, “We’re all in this together.” I think it is a worthwhile investment of time to try to understand the thinking and the political philosophies of others. I don’t really believe that politics and religion are topics that should be avoided in polite conversation. I long for opportunities to discuss politics in an atmosphere of mutual respect and careful listening.

And, quite frankly, I love to discuss religion as well. Once you get me going on that topic, it is hard to get me to quit.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!