Libertarianism and Americanism
Tibor R. Machan
Given that in the main the American political system is still the closest to protecting varieties of individual liberty—regarding speech, commerce, religion, due process, etc.—most of those who peddle political ideas want to hitch their wagon to the ideas of the American Founders. Socialists, conservatives, populists, agrarians, and even some communists have laid claim to being the proper carriers of the American political flag. Libertarians, of course, are no different. They hold that it is their political philosophy that most fully realizes the vision first put into practice by the American Founders and Framers.
Why would a socialist think the same thing? Or a conservative or populist, let alone a communist?
Socialists tend to believe that the American Founders advocated egalitarianism, first and foremost. They focus on the paramount idea in that document that “all men are created equal.” Conservatives, in turn, consider their position to be validated by the Founders and Framers in light of how the latter derived their political theory from a study of history and the thoughts of numerous influential political philosophers and theorists. This confirms the conservative notion that to do nation building properly, one must consult tradition, history, and custom, not concoct ideas and ideals de novo. Populists, of course, focus on the democratic elements of the American political tradition, those that relate to how every citizen has a right to influence public policy. Never mind the limits imposed by, say, the Bill of Rights. What counts is mass participation, the “will of the people.” Agrarians will insist that Jefferson & Co. were mostly promoting the special but proper interest of the landed gentry. And communists will argue that the American system is simply a historical precursor to the ideal community in which a nation becomes a family of equals.
Libertarians, like me, insist that the Founders had a more realistic but also optimistic view of human community life than these other advocates do. They hold that listing the basic unalienable rights of every human being serves as a clear reminder of the radical true insight that no one has the proper authority to impose his or her agenda upon others however much these others may mismanage their lives, even threaten to influence some desirable features of culture. The political task is to secure the basic rights of all citizens. Everything else must be achieved without resort to the main instrument of public policy, namely, force. As the libertarian insists, initiating force against others even for purposes that are quite admirable just cannot be reconciled with a proper standard of justice. That standard, which is actually the first ingredient of civilized life, is to interact with one’s fellows voluntarily and rationally, even when one disagrees with them, even if they are recalcitrant, even if they act indecently themselves but they remain peaceful, respectful of the rights of others.
The idea that reference to all human beings being equal should usher in socialism is countered by the recognition that the equality referred to in the Declaration is about the equal possession of the unalienable rights all of us have, not about the equality of our health, welfare, good looks, and such admittedly widely valued matters. And only libertarianism acknowledges this constraint the Founders’ and Framers’ placed on “egalitarianism.”
Some features of the original American political ideas and ideals are clearly improved upon in libertarianism; abolition of any form of involuntary servitude, for example, including slavery, serfdom, taxation, the military draft, or other types of compulsion citizens may supposedly have imposed upon them as they do when they are taken to be subjects of a monarchy. As the libertarian sees it, some of these elements of the original American system are the unfortunate reactionary residue from pre-revolutionary times and not consistent with the fundamental principles laid out in the Declaration, especially the idea of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.
So, I submit, libertarians are indeed the faithful students of the American political tradition, one’s who learned well from their elders and went on to improve on what they have so learned.