Calling Libertarians

America’s real Libertarians have the distinction of consistency over the last several years. Far different from their Republican cousins, who throw around terms like “small government”, “fiscal responsibility”, and “liberty”, Libertarians actually believe in those terms. That isn’t to say that I agree with the whole of their premise, but I do appreciate a political philosophy that accepts the consequences, good and bad, of its practice.

Libertarians believe in the most narrow interpretation of the Constitution, and in particular the commerce clause. They also believe in a minimum of intervention by state and local governments in the activities of citizens. This is an all-encompassing belief; social issues like sexual preference are off limits because civil liberties are absolute. Libertarians are close cousins of fiscal/business conservatives, and are as far removed from social conservatives as they are from liberal democrats. Their views on the size and scope of government, and the corresponding tax rates necessary to maintain needed activities have made libertarianism a natural political pairing for the Tea Parties.

Where liberals diverge from libertarians is, I believe, on the definition of government. To explain this, I will excerpt from comments on another blog. My comment is first, and a regular reader’s comment follows. You can find the cited post here.

To those of us who are liberal, who are proud to practice religion (or not) in privacy and outside of government, who believe that the democracy has a place and seat at the table of commerce…we are the “race” that many in the Tea Parties have condemned and threatened as LITERALLY the enemy of the “state”.-MC

That’s just a nice way of saying that you believe free enterprise is broken and government needs to fix it. Using the term “the democracy” as a substitute for “the government” leads one to the assumption that the citizenry are involved in government’s regulations of free enterprise. That the government’s actions are for their benefit. The citizenry ARE free enterprise, and as such, the government’s regulations are aimed at them, not some outside entity.

There’s a role for government to play in protecting it’s citizens, but most of the problems in free enterprise are caused by government interference. More interference will not correct problems caused by prior interference. That’s the message of the Tea Party.-TP

These two quotes neatly illustrate the difference between conservatism and liberalism. The reader who articulated pure conservative philosophy clearly and without prejudice, did so because his views are not colored by racial hatred or rampant corporatism. Unfortunately, much of his brethren are possessed of an ulterior motive, or set of motives, that color their attachment to this philosophy. It would be a wonderful thing to have discussions and build legislation in the presence of philosophy, and in the absence of -isms.

So how does a liberal react to the very reasonable quotes above? We shall go step by step:

That’s just a nice way of saying that you believe free enterprise is broken and government needs to fix it.

No, I don’t believe that free enterprise is broken, although some liberals do. Free markets fail. The facts in evidence are overwhelming in support of this point. Free markets always evolve towards cartels and monopolies which destroy individual liberties. At&T was one of those monopolies; how many small business operators have benefitted from the intrusive government break up of that monopoly? Free markets always choose the path of least resistance. Automakers did not install seat belts and airbags until the people, working through their government, mandated them. Acid rain fell until the people, working through their government, mandated controls on sulfur dioxide emissions. The reason American travelers choke on smog in Mexico City that we don’t have here, and the reason those same travelers worry about “Montezuma’s Revenge”, is because the people, working through our government, did what Mexican citizens couldn’t do through their government; mandate clean air and clean water.

Free markets do not move towards product safety or environmental protection on their own. They move in response to government action, or the threat of government action. Indeed, the pattern of money spent on pollution mitigation versus political action by major industrial firms has been quantified by a set of econometric models. Nigeria has been a major producer of oil for five decades, oil that is harvested by all of the big western firms. They have no regulations on where oil is sourced, how it is extracted, or the methods for transportation. Far from evolving towards safety and clean operations, these firms have inflicted oil spills that match Exxon Valdez in scope on a regular basis. The spills have destroyed all other forms of commerce in the Gulf of Guinea, and obliterated the ecosystem. Free markets do indeed fail.

They fail as well in the presence of insufficient regulation by the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The financial reform law passed this week was not, as has been falsely reported in the mainstream media, the first major restructuring of financial regulations in 70 years. That came during the late 90’s, when we scaled back financial regulation to get the government farther out of banking and finance. The financial collapse was nearly fatal to our economy because of interconnections that were previously banned by “intrusive regulations”.  Free markets, do indeed fail.

The Upper Big Branch mine was fined dozens of times by an impotent federal regulatory structure for safety violations. They were fined for violations of a safety code established by the people working through their government and, when enforced, make American mines the world’s model for safety. Ask miners in China about the intrusive government regulations that they don’t have. The weak fines imposed, combined with an appeals process designed to benefit the corporations, meant that Massey Energy could violate those intrusive safety regulations with impunity. Sadly, we know that free markets do indeed fail.

British Petroleum operated under what were supposed to be strict regulations for safety. They, and their contractors Halliburton and Transocean, were supposed to follow a set of protocols for drilling safety. They were also supposed to have a contingency plan that could handle catastrophic failure. The Bush Administration, who must have been admired by libertarians for their record on regulatory relaxation, and the Obama Administration, who didn’t want to antagonize oil companies in the run up to climate change legislation, both allowed regulations to founder. Ken Salazar believed the oil companies when they told him of their backups on the backups; he believed when they assured him of the worst case contingencies. Free markets fail, and so do under-regulated ones.

Using the term “the democracy” as a substitute for “the government” leads one to the assumption that the citizenry are involved in government’s regulations of free enterprise…… The citizenry ARE free enterprise, and as such, the government’s regulations are aimed at them, not some outside entity.

This of course is an interesting quote. Our “government” is a “democracy”; the citizenry are involved in government’s regulation of free enterprise. Government is not some foreign entity coming down from on-high. There are divergences between the will of the majority and actual practice to be sure, but how many of the 300 million are going to always have things done the way they want? Libertarians have an honest and consistent political philosophy, but are no more entitled to decide who the “citizenry” are than any other political group. This applies to liberals who reflexively attack capitalism and free enterprise. We are called to work towards a balance of ideologies and practice in these United States. When the citizens complain about tainted dog food from China, or E-Coli laced beef from Wisconsin, or a tragic environmental and personal disaster in the Gulf, they are complaining about a government that has not done enough.

President Obama’s approval ratings went down in the aftermath of the spill because many Americans, and probably at least a simple majority, want their democracy to mean something. Where was the vast calling of Americans for the President to stay away from the Gulf, and get out of the oil business altogether? The marketplace defines our lives. We have a vote in the democracy. If the democracy is not allowed to influence the marketplace, then why do we vote?

There is much to be said for changing the model by which we regulate ourselves, but that is a very different thing than abolishing the notion entirely. Regulations aren’t a dirty word, even if some are wrong and others are poorly executed. The insistence that all will be fine, and that freedom and liberty can stand in a world ruled by corporate interests is, I believe, an anachronistic concept.

The Rational Middle trusts that this post will draw some fire…