We have all been there. Hell, I said it myself for several years, wielding it like a wedge to set myself apart from conservatives and liberals.
And I think that, as good Americans, the majority of us think and want to be there.
“There,” of course, is libertarianism.
This word indicates a fairly broad range of ideas and policies, but a simple definition in terms of the political spectrum would be “socially and economically liberal.” The idea is that a small government, with less rules and less regulation (less “intervention”) will allow individuals to create a wealthy and happy society.
A more precise accounting of libertarianism – true libertarianism, not neo-liberal economics, nor Tea-Party academic eyewash – places it just a beat to the right of anarchism. Its intellectual roots descend to us from classic liberalism (let’s say Adam Smith) but also from American religious-tinged utopianism, European academics who emigrated to the US (Leo Strauss’ Chicago School or economics and Ayn Rand) and far left socialism and its theories(Pierre-Joesph Proudhon, for example or the CNT in Republican Spain in the ’30s).
Libertarianism, is the academic term for what we mean when we say “the night-watchman’s state”. A skeleton a government which exists only to enforce a bare handful of laws; a referee who has adopted a very loose attitude towards enforcing the rules. As you can gather from the previous paragraph, libertarianism has a split personality between rightists and leftists. It is a bit muddled in its identity (more on this below). There is even a whiff of anti-modernism nostalgia about it.
Historically, there has never been a properly libertarian government (for the same reason there has never been a properly anarchist government). You can sense right away that there is a paradox here: a certain tension between people electing a government which promptly attempts to dismember itself.
This tension should give us pause, because it alerts us to an important point I need to make about “the State” and “Society”. They are not separate. The idea of “the State” is our German philosophical heritage speaking. Its Hegelian, Kantian, and smacks of ontological boundaries and Rousseauian ideas about the General Will and other Enlightenment utopia-fancies.
We live in a society, which to a vary extent attempts to organise itself through “government-tality.” So part of understanding the size of the government is in understanding the fundamental links; its organic one-ness with our larger society and economy. Thus part of understanding why we have “big government” in the US is acknowledging larger trends; the engines of our society.
Government-tality really got started during the early-modern period (approximately 1500 AD), with the first stirrings of the centralised, bureaucratic state (Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu etc). The simple reason for “centralisation and bureaucratisation” is the need to fund ever-larger and more professional armies. Taxation and the military are fundamentally and inextricably linked.
Fast forward about 450 years. Increasing centralisation and more efficient bureaucracy fuels a feedback loop of economic growth, taxation, militarisation, and technological advance. Ever-increasing military expense is justified by a growth of services provided to the tax-paying citizen; indeed, it is required because a well-managed citizenry provide more taxes for the military. Thus government-tality and “intervention” is part of the military-taxation imperative.
This reading could be challenged by some who would argue, classically, that military defence is a “public good” or a “service” and that “national security” and a “monopoly on legitimate violence” are the solid and sensible basis for governments. Fine. This argument is too abstract to mean anything though.
Let us consult the historical record and statistical reality to bring the idea of defence spending as a “public service” into perspective. Military spending has, since its inception been big business. Today we call it the “military-industrial complex” (remember Eisenhower warning us about it?). The result is that powerful, monied interests have always had a need to keep a certain amount of fear in a body of citizens; war is provoked and indulged for its own sake. Without hinting at conspiracy, I am merely noting that defence spending, while generating immense profits for some, requires a boogey-man so that people are inspired by fear to allow continued high-levels of spending.
Many nations spend so much money on their militaries that the result is nothing works in that society except the military. The result are juntas and dictatorships (I am thinking here of many nations in South America, Africa, and Asia). Militaries are often as dangerous to the citizenry as they are to potential enemies. The government-military link generates a zero-sum, highly-paranoid perspective that pretty much guarantees that politicians will launch wars simply because thats the easy thing to do.
In contemporary US politics, then, being an internally logically consistent libertarian means being in favour of a small military. Keeping in mind that the US spends more in military defence then the next five largest military budgets combined (this means Russia and China, as well as the UK and France) and that “terrorism” cannot be defeated with tanks, divisions of infantry, stealthy bombers or whatever, this means that the major obstacle to a small, libertarian US government is the US military, not social spending. I acknowledge that social spending is a huge part of the US budget, yet one cannot talk about being in favour of fiscal conservatism and small government and not immediately identify military spending as the chief culprit. It is as simple as that.
Let us get even more heavy here. The historical record of attempts to liberalise the US government and economy, the actual results of attempts to move towards a more liberal economy and more libertarian government, have been completely – let me emphasise this – completely to the benefit of big business, or to those who are already at least three standard deviations away from an average level of wealth.
Government regulation goes hand in hand with big business. They function as a sort of yin and yang of government-tality. Rhetoric aside, government stand ready to bail out the stock market when it invariably collapses. Arguments that anyone can and effectively is an investor in the stock market are ignoring a larger reality that most ownership of stock is in corporations, a handful of wealthy investor/owners and that wealthy investors (wether personal or corporate) are able to attract higher rates of return on their investment. In practical terms “Wall Street” is not something you or I are a part of. So unless you own enough stock in a company to merit consideration of your views at their monthly board meeting, you are, like most Americans, in the stock market simply to keep up with inflation.
Governments and big businesses are constant partners, in fact, they could hardly exist without each other. Corporations need complex legal frameworks to guarantee profits. Profits mean taxes; people who work 40+ hours a week are much less likely to be involved in the political process (statistically speaking, the US values leisure time the least in the entire world).
The big picture here is that if you are a committed libertarian you must be anti-military and anti-big business. Only then can you claim a logically consistent libertarianism. If you think current levels of military spending are a good idea, while social programs are dismantled, you are simply a conservative Republican; Tea-Partyism being simply a trend to bring wing-nuts into the sinking Republican ship.
Republican administrations are just as guilty as Democratic ones for increasing the size of government. One glance at the legacies of the Reagan and Bush II presidencies are evidence enough. Reagan rolled in neoliberalism into government and the economy. The result? Increasing corporate profit, the growth of the use of mercenaries (Blackwater, Xe, or whatever they call themselves now), and a shrinking, dying US middle class (do to the ultimate impressive of profit maximisation). If you are a libertarian, and you want to see small business and entrepreneurs thrive, then using the language of libertarianism as an excuse to vote Republican is not the answer. Quite the opposite will in fact occur, according the historical record.
Much like Bush II relied an exciting the social conservative base of the Republican party to win in 2000, the Tea-Party can be seen as an attempt to excite the socially neutral or liberal, yet fiscally conservative/neo-liberal wing of Republican voters. This is the Wall-Street/big business interests as well as the wing-nuts. Both of whom pretend a certain indifference on social issues (like abortion, for example). Yet libertarianism presupposes a freaky-left stance on these issues. Thus, being a true libertarian means that you believe that all drugs should be legalised, for example.
Most of the bile I read online or in mainstream news media confuses these issues freely. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to clarify our collective thinking on these issues. In a follow up posting, I will try to describe a properly American, true libertarianism would look like.