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Thursday, June 1, 1995

Turning Libertarian: An Appreciation

What Is Libertarianism?

The earliest remembrance I have of the people called libertarians was a day, some years ago, when I flipped on the TV and saw some sort of libertarian convention. It was being held in Hartford, I believe, and was televised, probably to the horror of the delegates, by PBS. But to a young boy like me the libertarians might as well have been on Mars. They shared in my mind the same position as the communists: heathens caught up in some soul-threatening enthusiasm. After all, my Catholic parents called themselves neither communists nor libertarians.

But, over the course of my life, I, like many conservatives, such as William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will, have tasted the worldly enthusiasms, and find myself undergoing a metamorphosis which leads me each day to identify myself more and more as a “libertarian.”

Why does this happen to so many traditional conservatives? Where once I stood at my mother’s knee in our warm and cozy kitchen, and listened as she told me about her hope for a pro-family tax credit, I now rage against the wind for a flat tax. Once I hoped the Supreme Court would allow prayer in schools, now I pray for school choice. Once I worried about the ERA, now I worry about the EPA, FDA, HHS, and the IRS.

Is it simply cynicism, a recognition of the pervasive “intrigue” in government? It’s true that as we grow older, and learn how politics works, we realize that politicians are not only people, but they are often small-minded people, of small ideas and imagination. This is true of local politicians, and all national politicians start local.

But no matter how much of this we see, corruption in government is something which merely shakes us from a deeper mythology about our world, namely our tendency to slough off our personal responsibility, and to invest life and moral qualities into things larger than ourselves. Libertarianism, it seems to me, has always been at its best an attack on this larger sort of thinking. In many ways the libertarian movement, by no means a monolith, has brought a certain “dialectical” quality to American political philosophy, much the way the pre-Socratics challenged Hellenic mythology. Libertarianism, like other good intellectual movements, is about questioning assumed premises. And the premises in need of questioning today are those of the all-knowing expert-laden government.

A great period of questioning occurred in my life when I studied philosophy at St. John’s University in New York. There I took a class in political philosophy with a lively, iconoclastic professor by the name of Douglas Rasmussen, who was something of an authority on Ayn Rand, and who flatly announced to us that he would teach the class from a libertarian point of view. “So this is what a libertarian looks like up close,” I thought.

He used a book called The Libertarian Reader, by Tibor Machan, which to this day is one of those books that, when I open it, I relive the time in which I first read it. (I’m sure you all have books like that.) We began the class by analyzing the political theory of John Rawls. If there is ever a mythology about the state this is it. Rawls is, perhaps other than Marx, the archetypal mythologizer of the collective. Under the withering criticism of Rasmussen, with a little help from Robert Nozick, I felt a paradigm being shattered. It was a paradigm of the world as a collection of forces beyond my control. (I had a little help from Aristotle’s virtue theory and Augustine’s criticisms of determinism as well, I might add.) But as I reflect on this time in my life, and as I have seen years later as a college professor myself, the young often enter adulthood blithely unaware of the mechanisms of their own free will, the power they have over their character and destiny. Yet, they are stuffed full of enthusiasms about how they must, must, change the world, a mantra which begins at the high school graduation. The more I reflect on the state of mind with which we begin adulthood, the more I call myself a libertarian.

My library is now well supplied with books by Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, and yes, Ayn Rand. Many have yet to be read, but are on the list. As we all know, a library is a reflection of what its owner aspires to, not what he has accomplished. Yet I believe I have already assented to the core of libertarianism, the remainder is the fleshing out. The libertarian knows that the world makes sense, that it will work for you, if you have but the mind and the will for it. Otherwise, it is all a confusing series of transfer payments.


—Matthew Carolan
Executive Editor, National Review

Who Is a Libertarian?

• A libertarian believes that the government should protect all persons equally against external and internal aggression, but should otherwise generally leave people alone to work out their own problems and aspirations.

• A libertarian respects the right of every person to use and enjoy his honestly acquired property–to trade it, to sell it, or even to give it away–for he knows that human liberty cannot long endure when that fundamental right is rejected or even seriously impaired.

• A libertarian believes that the daily needs of the people can best be satisfied through the voluntary processes of a free and competitive market. And he holds the strong belief that free persons, using their own honestly acquired money, are in the best possible position to understand and aid their fellow men who are in need of help.

• A libertarian favors a strictly limited form of government with many checks and balances–and divisions of authority–to foil the abuses of the fearful power of government.

• A libertarian has much faith in himself and other free persons to find maximum happiness and prosperity in a society wherein no person has the authority to force any other peaceful person to conform to his viewpoints or desires in any manner. His way of life is based on respect for himself and for all others.

—Dean Russell
Ideas on Liberty (FEE), May 1955