Libertarians vs. Communitariansby Doug Mataconis
Michael Kinsley has a short article in Time Magazine about the rise in public awareness of libertarian ideas manifested in Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign, and comes closer than most have to identifying the true nature of the political divide in America today:
Many people feel that neither party offers a coherent set of principles that they can agree with. For them, the choice is whether you believe in Big Government or you don’t. And if you don’t, you call yourself a libertarian. Libertarians are against government in all its manifestations. Domestically, they are against social-welfare programs. They favor self-reliance (as they see it) over Big Government spending. Internationally, they are isolationists. Like George Washington, they loathe “foreign entanglements,” and they think the rest of the world can go to hell without America’s help. They don’t care–or at least they don’t think the government should care–about what people are reading, thinking, drinking, smoking or doing in bed. And what is the opposite of libertarianism? Libertarians would say fascism. But in the American political context, it is something infinitely milder that calls itself communitarianism. The term is not as familiar, and communitarians are far less organized as a movement than libertarians, ironically enough. But in general communitarians emphasize society rather than the individual and believe that group responsibilities (to family, community, nation, the globe) should trump individual rights.
I think Kinsley has it mostly right here. Look at most political arguments today and you will find two opposing viewpoints. On one side are those of us who believe that government exists, if at all, for the limited purpose of protecting individuals from each other and providing a framework within which individual choices such as contract rights can be enforced. On the other side are those who believe that government exists for what they would call a higher purpose and that group rights, or tradition, or religion should trump individual liberty for the “good” of society.
As Kinsley goes on to note, neither political party fits neatly into either the libertarian or communitarian mold right now. There are libertarian elements to the basics of Republican ideas and rhetoric — smaller government, lower taxes, etc. — but the GOP has been woefully lacking in actually executing anything resembling a libertarian policy since George W. Bush took office. Similarly, there are libertarian elements within the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to issues like gay marriage and separation of church and state; but, on the whole, the Democrats’ economic and social policy is far closer to a communitarian ideal than anything that Thomas Jefferson would recognize as good government.
And, as Kinsley points out, recent events would seem to indicate that the future belongs to the libertarians:
The chance of the two political parties realigning so conveniently is slim. But the party that does well in the future will be the one that makes the better guess about where to place its bets. My money’s on the libertarians. People were shocked a couple of weeks ago when Ron Paul–one of those mysterious Republicans who seem to be running for President because everyone needs a hobby–raised $5 million from July through September, mostly on the Internet. Paul is a libertarian. In fact, he was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988. The computer revolution has bred a generation of smart loners, many of them rich and some of them complacently Darwinian, convinced that they don’t need society–nor should anyone else. They are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics.
It’s about time.