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Thursday, May 6, 2021
HomeOpinionDebunking a Straw-Man Attack Against Libertarianism

Debunking a Straw-Man Attack Against Libertarianism

Rand Paul 2016 Announcement
Rand Paul 2016 Announcement

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. arrive to a cheering and photo taking crowd for his announcement of the start of his presidential campaign, Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

I don’t understand why some people are hostile to libertarians. After all, our philosophy is based on the notion that we want government to be limited so it is less likely to reach into your wallet or your bedroom.

At the risk of oversimplifying, libertarians think it’s okay for government to safeguard life, liberty, and property from force and fraud, but we’re very leery about giving additional powers to the government. Seems like a reasonable governing philosophy to me, but some people object to being treated like adults and they lash out with very silly attacks on libertarianism.

Consider this article in the left-wing publication Slate, which makes it seem as if libertarians are hypocrites if they accept – and express appreciation for – assistance from firefighters.

…an Okanogan, Washington man named Brad Craig thanks firefighters for saving his home. It’s a nice moment, though if you look closely you’ll notice that Craig happened to be wearing a t-shirt that given the circumstances is quite ironic… The shirt says “Lower Taxes + Less Government = More Freedom.” …10 different government organizations are mentioned in the AP story about the large-scale coordinated response that worked to Craig’s benefit.

Wow. I’m not sure whether the author is malicious or clueless, but this is remarkable. He’s basically saying that if you want less government, you must be a hypocrite if you support or benefit from any government.

Which is the same as me asserting that leftists are hypocritical to buy I-Phones because their support for more government means that they therefore must favor total government and no private sector.

There are, of course, some libertarians who persuasively argue that we don’t need government fire departments. And some who even argue that we don’t need any government.

But even if Brad Craig (the guy with the t-shirt) was in one of these categories, that doesn’t make him a hypocrite. Many poor and middle-class families would like a voucherized education system so they could afford to send their kids to private schools. In the absence of such a reform, are they hypocrites for sending their kids to government-run schools?

Obviously not.

Here’s another example. The government today takes money from just about all of us to prop up a poorly designed Social Security system. Are the workers who have been coerced into that system hypocrites if they take Social Security benefits when they retire?

Of course not.

Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller also weighed in on this topic. Here’s some of what he wrote.

I can express a desire for less government interference in my life without rejecting the need for firefighters. Or police, or roads, or Stop signs, or whatever. I understand that it’s actually possible to advocate individual liberty while still admitting the need for government. People have been saying such things for hundreds of years.

Well said.

Let’s close with this look at how libertarians are the reasonable middle ground between two types of statists. I don’t fully agree with all the characterizations (many leftists favor corporate welfare and are not tolerant of other people’s personal choices, for instance, while there are folks on the right who aren’t very committed to economic freedom), but it’s worth reviewing.

Left-Right-and-Libertarian

 

If you want to figure out where you belong, there is a short way, medium way, and long way of answering that question. And while I don’t want put my thumb on the scale as you take these tests, I’ll simply note that decent and humane people tend to be libertarians.

P.S. Here’s a more scholarly look at the difference between libertarians and conservatives. P.P.S. And here’s my take on why there aren’t any pure libertarian societies. P.P.P.S. Here’s my collection of libertarian humor.

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Written by
Contributing Economist

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."

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