Monday, June 25, 2012

Libertarian Knowledge #1

The Task Confronting Libertarians

Part of who I am and what shapes my thinking is the philosophy of liberty.  For that reason I consider myself to be a Libertarian.  I have struggled with the best way to share this side of me on Paul's Ponderings because politics can be so divisive and I don't want what I believe politically to become an obstacle as I write about faith and following Jesus.  On the other hand I truly believe that protecting personal liberty and reducing the size of government, if not getting rid of it all together, is the best way for people to live, so it is hard for me to keep silent about it.  The last few months I have tried to keep a separate blog where I wrote the intersection of Libertarianism and Christianity, but it was just not possible to keep up with two blogs.

I have decided to devote a little bit of space here at Paul's Ponderings to do just that.  Feel free to disagree with me and let us rally around the one thing we can always hold in common: faith in Jesus Christ.  My desire isn't to start arguments, but to positively talk about a political philosophy that is overlooked or badly misrepresented.

Almost two weeks ago at Robert Wenzel  had an article entitled The 30-Day Reading List That Will Lead You to Becoming a Knowledgeable Libertarian. As I pondered the best way to bring a little Libertarian content to Paul's Ponderings I landed on the idea to go through this list of 30 articles and post my thoughts on them from a Christian perspective.  Every Monday I will take one of these articles and blog about it, and hopefully that will ease us into this whole Christian Libertarian discussion.

This first article is an excerpt from a chapter from Man vs. Welfare State written by Henry Hazlitt in 1969: The Task Confronting Libertarians.

Hazlitt wrote:
 The task of the tiny minority that is trying to combat this socialistic drift seems nearly hopeless. The war must be fought on a thousand fronts, and the true libertarians are grossly outnumbered on practically all these fronts.
This is a reminder that often the tasks in our lives which we will feel the most passionate about will be tasks that are opposed.  I think this same sentiment can be said about the Christian task of making disciples of all nations.  It isn’t going to be easy, but it is still worth doing what we can for the cause.

Painting a bleak picture of what lies before the libertarian Hazlitt wrote:
What chance does the individual businessman, the occasional disinterested professor of economics, or columnist, or editorial writer, have in arguing against the policies and actions of this 120,000-man army, even if he has had time to learn the detailed facts of a particular issue? His criticisms are either ignored or drowned out in the organized counterstatements.
When we choose to engage in such a task it will feel overwhelming and we will face the temptation to quit because we wonder how we can make a difference. This is where we have to remind ourselves that what is important isn’t “success” but standing on the side of truth.  If we believe that the cause of personal liberty is important and the best way to live in this world, then we have an obligation to influence the lives of other people with what we believe.

What we are up against isn’t just a mountain of misinformation, but also hundreds of different laws and regulations that are debated and put out by the bureaucracy of the State.
Yet how can the individual economist, student of government, journalist, or anyone interested in defending or preserving liberty, hope to keep abreast of this Niagara of decisions, regulations, and administrative laws? He may sometimes consider himself lucky to be able to master in many months the facts concerning one of these decisions.
What Hazlitt wants us to know is that the task before us is an impossible task.  There is no way that we can master all the small details of hundreds of different decisions and regulations since the amount of information becomes too overwhelming.  One reason I became a libertarian is because the fundamental principles which make up libertarian thought.  It seemed to me that these principles helped to cut through the details of the political debate which in turn helped a person to focus on the big picture rather than to concentrate on the ever changing details of a multitude of different regulations.

Not only is there the massive bureaucracy that libertarians oppose, but there is also the hardcore individuals promoting their positions that need to answered:
In order to indicate further the dimensions of this work, it is not merely the organized bureaucracy that the libertarian has to answer; it is the individual private zealots.  
This part reminds me of the work the Christian apologist who has to continue to answer the objections of the skeptics because the skeptic has no idea that his objection has already been heard and answered.

Hazlitt pushed libertarians to become specialists:
We libertarians cannot content ourselves merely with repeating pious generalities about liberty, free enterprise, and limited government. To assert and repeat these general principles is absolutely necessary, of course, either as prologue or conclusion. But if we hope to be individually or collectively effective, we must individually master a great deal of detailed knowledge, and make ourselves specialists in one or two lines, so that we can show how our libertarian principles apply in special fields, and so that we can convincingly dispute the proponents of statist schemes for public housing, farm subsidies, increased relief, bigger Social Security benefits, bigger Medicare, guaranteed incomes, bigger government spending, bigger taxation, especially more progressive income taxation, higher tariffs or import quotas, restrictions or penalties on foreign investment and foreign travel, price controls, wage controls, rent controls, interest rate controls, more laws for so-called “consumer protection,” and still tighter regulations and restrictions on business everywhere.
Knowing the big principles are important, but we must also know the ins and outs of various topics so we can demonstrate how libertarian principles apply to specific cases.  In other words what is a needed are individuals working together while focusing on the issues they are passionate about.  The Church will be effective in this world in much the same way.  People have to come together to use their specific knowledge and abilities to work on completing the task.

Not only is a division of labor important for the task but libertarians also need to know a few basic principles which speak to the majority of issues that are faced.  One principle is that the State does not create products or resources:
One simple truth that could be endlessly reiterated, and effectively applied to nine-tenths of the statist proposals now being put forward or enacted in such profusion, is that the government has nothing to give to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else. In other words, all its relief and subsidy schemes are merely ways of robbing Peter to support Paul.
It seems like many people think the government can make things magically appear.  They don’t have a good idea of what money is or where the resources for all government programs come from and so they don’t oppose the State’s intervention because they wrongly believe that the State is the best way to make things happen.

There are always consequences and usually there are a number of unintended consequences as the result of government action.  This leads to a second principle Hazlitt suggests:
Another very important principle to which the libertarian can constantly appeal is to ask the statists to consider the secondary and long-run consequences of their proposals as well as merely their intended direct and immediate consequences.
While this isn’t always the easiest thing to do, it is important to help people to see the big picture rather than just the small area they hope will be changed because of State intervention.

The final principle Hazlitt mentions is the need for honest money.
This brings me, finally, to one more single issue on which all those libertarians who lack the time or background for specialized study can effectively concentrate. This is in demanding that the government provide an honest currency, and that it stop inflating.
Not only is this a practical issue for a healthy economy, but it is also a moral issue.  One of the best ways to care for the poor is to provide honest weights and measures.  Inflation hurts the poor because it devalues the money they worked so hard to have.  The issue of inflation and solid money is an issue both libertarians and Christians should be concerned about, because there can be no justice for the poor when money is being inflated.

The task before libertarians is a great one because there is so much misinformation out in the public square and because people are so passionately tied to their political positions.  In order to accomplish this task of defending personal liberty a libertarian needs to try to become a specialist in one or two areas as well as learning some basic principles which will help inform people about the big picture of personal liberty and State intervention.

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