Enlightened Libertarianism?

by Sam Buntz

“Practice no-action; attend to do-nothing; taste the flavorless, magnify the small, multiply the few, return love for hate.” – Tao Te Ching

Libertarianism is ready to strike, but has yet to prove whether its attack will be that of a wasp, stinging once and dying, its innards ripped out by the force of its initial attempt, or that of a more tenacious and canny beast.  At present, I think the main problem with Libertarianism, from a practical and not a philosophical standpoint, is that it has yoked its wagon to a waning star: back in the bad old days, when Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard were at the helm of the Libertarian Party, they sought foolishly to seek out the support of that inelegant species, the Enraged White Southern Male—hence, the racism and homophobia present in Ron Paul’s newsletters from the ’80s and ’90s.  And even though Rothbard was Jewish, he called for a “Redneck Outreach” effort to bolster the movement, and once seemed to defend David Duke.  That Klan-ish specter still haunts contemporary Libertarians—most of whom are, I believe, socially liberal, or tend that way—evidenced by the fact that Jack Hunter, with whom Rand Paul co-authored his first book, performed as a radio personality named the “Southern Avenger”, praising Lincoln’s assassination whilst donning a Confederate-flag mask (among other objectionable words and actions).  Politicians can, evidently, live anything down once, and I suspect Hunter’s former racism (or, at least, his woefully misguided notion of what “states rights” means) won’t impact Senator Rand more negatively than President Obama’s friendship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright affected him.  It’s pretty easy for a Southern Republican to disavow a racist past, and even easier to dismiss that of an associate.  However, minimal as it may ultimately prove to be, I do think that this situation illustrates an important point about the precariously hopeful situation of the wider Libertarian movement.  It’s full of potential, but its own impurities may deliver it stillborn.

Looking back to the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, we can find plenty of Republicans who took essentially the same attitude towards foreign and domestic politics that Libertarians take today.  For instance, the man known as “Mr. Republican”, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, intensely opposed all overseas intervention, most notably, by objecting to American involvement in World War II (maybe not his best decision, but still one that demonstrated his commitment to the ideal of non-coercion.)  He was also a major antagonist of the New Deal, though his biggest victory came with the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947, which, among other things, prevented unions from enforcing a “closed shop”.  With a few caveats, it remains the Federal labor law to this day.  Additionally, in the same way that most Libertarians oppose the drug war, Taft objected to Prohibition.  But, despite these parallels with contemporary Libertarianism—namely, a dogged commitment to non-aggression in spheres both international and domestic—Taft was far from the racism and “Redneck Outreach” of the early Ron Paul.  He resolutely opposed the Ku Klux Klan at a time when its political influence in the South and Midwest was enormous, voted against mandatory Bible-reading in public schools, and cast one of the very few votes against the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.  Also, although he disliked the New Deal—particularly condemning deficit spending and agricultural subsidies (reminiscent of those offered to the farmers who are paid not to grow alfalfa in Catch 22)—he supported Social Security.  John F. Kennedy later made Taft one of his “Profiles in Courage”, honoring him for questioning the lack of due process in the Nuremberg trials when it was extremely unpopular to do so.  Taft combined Libertarian principles with a humane sensibility—a combination that occurs, in the present day, all too infrequently.

Going back even further, Abraham Lincoln’s version of the Republican Party was much closer to true economic Libertarianism than were the politics of the slave-owning oligarchs in the South—which ought to prove a particularly valuable lesson for Rand Paul and his confreres.  People often forget that the Civil War commenced not because the North attempted to infringe on “states rights” in the South, but because the Southern Slave Power tried to expand slavery into the West and (effectively) the North, turning Kansas and Nebraska into a blood-drenched battleground, passing legislation that would’ve forced Northerners to hand over escaped slaves, and even—with the notorious Dred Scott decision (the most horrific example of judicial activism in our nation’s history)—allowing slave-masters to bring their slaves into free states without fear of prosecution, essentially spreading slavery into the North.  In the true Libertarian spirit—if Liberty has anything to do with Libertarianism (and it should)—Lincoln’s Republicans and “Free Soil” Democrats (like Walt Whitman) were simply trying to make sure that new states would operate on the basis of free-exchange, instead of on the authoritarian basis of the Slave Power.  The Libertarians who identify with the Neo-Confederate South-will-rise-again mentality doom themselves by associating intellectually dead and discredited ideas with a much broader and more truly “progressive” set of ideals.  Most reasonable people agree that free markets have done more good than bad, increasing global prosperity—or, at the very least, the potential for global prosperity—everywhere they’ve developed, provided they’re not being hampered by corruption and favoritism.  It’s the very thing Lincoln attempted to insure against the shackles of the slaveholder (and the reason why radical collectivists like the late Howard Zinn won’t say anything too nice about Lincoln.  He too readily disturbs their conceits.)  The anti-immigrant bigotry of the Know-Nothing Party was countered and ultimately overwhelmed by the tide of history, which turned towards the more inclusive vision of the American Way favored by Lincoln, the “Radical Republicans”, Coolidge, Taft, and others.  Those who seek to chain the noble ideal of Libertarianism to far-right populism ought to take heed.

I trot out my admittedly amateurish knowledge of American history only to provide a few humble suggestions to those who lean toward supporting the free-market, working to reduce elements of centralized-control in the economy while de-centralizing government.  If the Libertarians and the fiscally concerned Republicans want to make real gains, they’re going to need to lighten-up on issues like immigration and gay marriage and fully distance themselves from unfortunate racist associations, while more ardently courting Latino, Asian, and African-American voters.  Then, they’ll be free to take desperately needed measures, like breaking the teachers’ unions’ stranglehold on the educational system, and pursuing a balanced budget amendment and a “Read the Bills” law.  If they’re prudent, they can hopefully help turn the tide against the over-zealous hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have been dominating the Republican Party and even exercising undue influence on the Democrats.  The Libertarians can re-direct America’s foreign policy towards subtler diplomatic tactics (and here, Rand Paul has proven himself to be a gifted statesman).  The age of Taft’s full-stop non-interventionism is over, but a lighter touch—found neither on the Left or the Right—is much desired.  And medical marijuana legalization will certainly prove to be another winning issue.  If the Libertarians can disassociate themselves from their ideologically incompatible Neo-Confederate Tea Party fellow-travelers, and embrace a humane attitude towards gays and immigrants and support the very basic guarantees of equal opportunity—while wholeheartedly and sincerely rejecting the Romney-ite tendency to dismiss nearly half of the population as moochers—they might actually manage to free the American people to better their own lot, if they can but extend their influence with care and craft.  It is the most enlightened Libertarians who better grasp the peculiar brand of wisdom enunciated by the Tao Te Ching than many of our current ideologues: “When government is lazy and informal / The people are kind and honest; / When government is efficient and severe / The people are discontented and deceitful.”

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