Are Libertarian Values The Key To Bridging The Political Divide ?

Michael Shermer had an interesting piece over at The Huffington Post last week in which he posits that libertarian ideas can be the basis on which conservatives and liberals find common political ground:

Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, as long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes “infringement,” but there are at least a dozen essentials to protecting from infringements our basic freedoms:

1. The rule of law.
2. Property rights.
3. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system.
4. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country.
5. Freedom of speech and the press.
6. Freedom of association.
7. Mass education.
8. Protection of civil liberties.
9. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states.
10. A potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state.
11. A viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws.
12. An effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.

These essentials incorporate the moral values embraced by both liberals and conservatives, and as such form the foundation for a bridge between left and right.

Of course, as Bruce McQuain points out in his own post about Shermer’s article, there’s at least one item in the list above — “mass education” — that may not exactly be a libertarian value, at least not if we’re talking about education under the exclusive monopolistic auspices of the state. At the same time, though, I think that most libertarians will agree with a sentiment that Thomas Jefferson expressed two centuries ago:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

So, on some level, an educated citizenry is essential for the existence of a free state. How that is accomplished is another question.

On Shermer’s broader point, though, I’m not as sanguine about the ability of libertarian ideas to unite liberals and conservatives. Both sides use rhetoric that appeals to liberty and America’s founding principles, but when they actually get into power, it’s a much different story. I’m no longer sure that the values Shermer talks about are anything more than talking points to them anymore.

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  • Peter

    Why “Freedom to move about the country” and not “Freedom to move about the world”? I guess this list is for the Nationalist.

  • Akston

    I agree that education is of paramount value. Education by government is not an effective or ethical means to provide it.

  • southernjames

    I didn’t read the piece – just looked at that list and the proposition that there could be 12 issues or principles that “conservatives” and “liberals” can allegedly find common ground on.

    First, doesn’t that require defining what the terms “conservative” and “liberal” mean? If by liberal, you mean what is often called “classical liberalism,” that is one thing. If it is instead a description of modern progressive leftism, then it means something else. Right? And a political conservative and a modern progressive are highly UNlikely to “find common political ground” on at least half of those items. IMO.

    Example: The differing view of “property rights” or for that matter “rights” in general. One viewpoint may be that “rights” are naturally inherent within the individual, endowed from the Creator and not from fellow men, and that the ONLY powers given TO the state are those which are granted FROM the people – with all other rights reserved to individuals. Another viewpoint would be that all power lies with the state and it cedes or doles out rights or freedoms as it deems appropriate. Take the Bill of Rights – does it represent a clarification of the LIMITs on the power of the government over people, or are those a specific GRANT of rights TO the people? As one example, most political science scholars (like Daniel Webster as one example) who were around when the Bill of Rights authors were still living, and it was still a new and fresh document, opined that the 2nd Amendment was simply a re-affirmation of an INALIENABLE right which ALREADY existed – and was not the creation of a NEW right bestowed upon the people FROM the government – so that it could never be argued that “what is given can be taken away.” Because it was never “given” in the first place – it was already there. The amendment was just a clarification for future elected officials – a reminder, if you will, to them – that you shall “not abridge” this right.

    This of course only touches the tiniest microscopic tip of the iceberg. But you get my point. There are extreme and profound philosophical differences in perspective as to how issues like this should be viewed, across the political spectrum from right to left.

    On even the non-philosophical issues – how is there any common ground between conservatives, who are generally knee-jerk in being pro-defense, and liberals, who are consistently knee-jerk in being against such things as new generation fighters, new weapons technology, the missile defense system, not to mention the size and scope of the overall military itself. Good luck to you, in finding “common ground” between the right and left on defining what the phrase “robust military” even means. It means different things to different people…depending on where you fall in the political spectrum. Right?

  • Dr.D

    The words do not mean the same thing to people on the Left and on the Right. Thus each may read those statements and say, “yes,” but they are saying “yes” to different ideas. There is not a single one of those concepts that will be understood the same way on both sides. So, while this proposal may sound wonderful, it is pure fiction.

  • Akston

    I think the effort to find common ground is extremely valuable. In order for that effort to succeed, participants need to define terms and examine first principles.

    As southernjames elicits above, some participants’ first principles are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive to other participant’s first principles. What is a “right”? How is it obtained? How should it be exercised? How should it be defended? Are any endeavors ineligible to be rights? How do we identify those?

    The founding documents of America present the results of an attempt to define terms and find common ground in that era. In one of those earliest documents, government is defined as being “instituted among Men, deriving [its] just Powers from the consent of the governed” to secure “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Government was defined as existing to secure unalienable rights.

    Does government also exist to secure equal outcomes? Can it? Have citizens adapted government to attempt that role before in history? How did it work out?

    To find common ground again, we need to define the purpose of government.

    To quote another one of those guys, Washington:
    “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

    This is the crux. Government is where we citizens have consented to invest force. When used by “public servants” to secure unalienable rights government is a dangerous (but some would say essential) servant. If allowed to become a master, liberties are suborned to that force.

    I think one of the first questions to answer in order to find the current era’s common ground is: Where do we consent to allow the force of government to serve us?

    Do we have a right to pursue “happiness” in liberty? Or do we have a right to employ the force of government obtain “happiness” from other citizens, and their liberties be damned?

  • KipEsquire

    There’s a fairly obvious — and fatal — partition between the first ten (which are strictly objective standards*) and the last two, which are subjective gobbledygook:

    11. fair and just — to whom, by what standard?
    12. equitable — to whom, by what standard?

    The loftier the terminology, the easier for non-libertarians to twist that terminology to argue for non-libertarian goals.

    (*We’ll leave #7 for another day.)