Sunday, June 20, 2010

Will a real Libertarian please stand up?

The Libertarian credo is that the government should be minimized to the "essential" functions, typically listed as: national defense, local police and fire departments, immigration enforcement, judiciary, and prisons. This idea has an inherent appeal as it provides a clear framework that says "this" is good and "that" is bad.  No judgement required. No compromise allowed. No haggling. No lobbying. No earmarks. No handouts. Just good old American self-reliance and devil take the hindmost. This credo of rugged individualism provides a pedestal from which the Libertarian looks down on the squabbling parties of a democratic government and says "You're all wrong; you're arguing over things that none of you should be doing. I earned my money and property and its immoral for you to take any of it or limit my use of it."

The next time you meet a Libertarian, ask them what they would do if the guy who owns the house next door decided to bulldoze his house and build a 24-hour skateboard park with stadium lighting and loudspeakers with the latest music for entertaining his customers. If you've got a real Libertarian on your hands, he'll say "Well, I wouldn't like it, but it's his property after all, so I guess I'd have to sell my house and move." Any other answer is inconsistent with the Libertarian philosophy of property rights (if he says he'd threaten the neighbor with a gun, then he's simply an anarchist). Of course, for all of us who live in typical urban/suburban city and small town neighborhoods, this scenario is absurd. We all live with zoning ordinances that are established and enforced by our elected government. These laws specifically limit private property rights by balancing the rights of the greater community against the liberty of the individual. Zoning ordinances should be anathema to the true Libertarian.

Once Libertarians admit government interference through zoning ordinances, their logical philosophy of absolutes is broken. Pandora's box springs open and spews and infinity of arguments. If you need one kind of regulation on liberty for the good of the community, then why not others? Why should zoning ordinances be allowed and not environmental protection regulations? Why should environmental regulations be allowed and not banking regulations? Why should banking regulations be allowed and not workplace safety regulations? Why should workplace safety regulations be allowed and not worker's compensation insurance? The list goes on. The critical question is "Who gets to decide what government interference is necessary?" Reasonable people can differ on where to draw the line, but there is always an open question as to what forms of government interference are necessary and appropriate. Deciding provides the fundamental push/pull of democracy. You either stand on the pedestal and argue that all government interference in private property is bad, or you have to argue why your preferred forms of interference are good and theirs are bad. You can only stand on the absolute Libertarian pedestal if you can honestly say zoning ordinances are immoral restrictions on property rights. Logic is a tough taskmaster.

Balancing the rights of individuals against the rights of the community is not an easy task and has no provably correct answer. Individuals owning property would like to get the greatest monetary benefit, whether or not they infringe on rights of others. In a democratic society, we argue out these issues in our elections and with our government. Sometimes the side that leans more towards the individuals wins. Sometimes its the side that leans more towards the community. Recently, it has been a side (made up by members of both parties) that leans toward the needs of corporations, with individual and community rights ignored. Nevertheless if we can all agree on using the electoral/democratic processes our nation will muddle its way forwards between the extremes and find the path that works. However, when one side decides that if it doesn't get its way the system is broken and needs to be fixed at the point of a gun, then we are looking at the beginning of our decline.

Anyone who has the answer doesn't understand the question.

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