America and Libertarianism
Tibor R. Machan
Because America is still widely regarded as a pretty decent country, even while Left, Right and the rest find a lot of fault with it, the question of whether Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Populists, or Libertarians are the most faithful to its central ideas and ideals is important to ask and answer.
The Left—or modern liberals—claim they are the true champions of American values because they stand up for the little guy and reject dominance by big business, just as some of the Founders did. The Right—or conservatives—believe they are the most faithful Americans because the country was founded by more or less avid Christians and has always embraced various important religious traditions, both social and political. Populists think they are the most American of them all because they claim they stand up for the power of the underdog, the people without much means but large in number.
Why does the libertarian think America is best understood in terms of libertarian ideas, principles, theories, and ideals? Because of what the Declaration of Independence states. Libertarians hold, with that venerable document, that everyone has an unalienable right to his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. This means that others must secure one’s permission before utilizing one’s labor, time, works, resources for any purpose whatever. No one may intrude on another person without that person’s permission or consent.
The rights mentioned in the Declaration are unalienable, which means no one can lose his or her rights, they cannot be voted away, no one, government or neighbor, is authorized to violate them regardless of how important the purpose might be used to justify such violation. If one is concerned about the poor, others’ support must be obtained without coercion. If one is interested in converting someone to a different faith from the one he or she is practicing, this must be done by means of persuasion, by convincing people, not be forcing them to change their beliefs. If one disapproves of homosexuality, drug use, gambling, hunting, horseback riding or any other fundamentally non-coercive conduct by others, one must never resort to force to try to change their beliefs and behavior. If one wants to further space research or the fine arts, that too must be achieved without conscription anyone into these pursuits.
That is what having an unalienable right to one’s life and liberty and so forth means. No exceptions, even if there are complications and nuances involved in how these ideas and ideals are implemented.
It is interesting that Osama bin Laden’s latest lecture to those in the West urged them all to convert to Islam. Now urging them to do this is fully consistent with the principles of the Declaration. But terrorizing them if they refuse completely violates them. (One can ask Mr. bin Laden why one ought to convert to Islam but the answer cannot be because the Koran commands it, since that Koran has authority only over those who are Muslims, not over anyone else! But this holds also for anyone who urges another to convert to any faith at all—the reasons must be independent of the doctrine to which one is urged to convert.)
Many people in the West are not all that far from believing what Mr. bin Laden does, namely, that everyone ought to covert to their way of life, leave everything else behind. And it is only because of certain principles, the ones the Declaration lays out so succinctly, that most do not resort to coercion to try to get others to convert.
It used to be quite popular in the West, this coercive conversion idea. And in many ways it still is, as when people use the power of government—of physical force and its threat—to force others to give up their own resources, their own private property, so as to support some worthy cause. That is totally against what the Declaration identifies are our unalienable rights. Sure, most people in the West resort not to out and out terror but to more indirect force, via the legislative process, to pursue public policies that treat others as unwilling means to their ends. But the principle isn’t all that different from rank terror—the prospect of spending years in jail unless one pays up when the legislature insists one must for some cause or another is certainly terrifying to anyone.
The only contemporary political idea that really squares with the letter and spirit of the American founders is, then, libertarianism. Sure, they may not have gone so far as libertarians do to affirm the absolutely sovereignty of every adult individual. They may not have come up with substitutes for taxation, a system of extortion that violates the principle that one has an unalienable right to one’s life and liberty. But they laid the groundwork for advancing toward a truly free society. And it is libertarianism that most fully captures the implications of what they did declare to hold as being self-evidently true.