We live in a world where truth, facts, reason, science, and even the ability of many citizens and elected officials to understand the meaning of “true knowledge” are either dangerously close to extinction, or already dead and buried, depending on how empty, full, or refillable your pint glass may be. Many of the basic principles, not just of governance, but also of both the written and unwritten rules of our democracy have been waylaid by conspiracy, falsities, half-baked, spurious claims, and even outright lies.
Ignoring for a moment the fact that there are few objective truths in the world, there are even fewer in a liberal democracy. You see, a liberal democracy is a system of governance in which individual rights and property are protected by law, and political power is limited by it. It’s those individual and property rights where things begin to get murky.
The United States of America, as the world’s oldest (and arguably most successful democracy), celebrates freedom and liberty as two of its most precious and fundamental principles, but those two words mean different things to different people, and a nation of 330,000,000 individuals with widely disparate religious, ethnic, sexual, economic, regional, local, and individual views is unlikely to agree upon matters, ranging from whether or not a turn-signal is a requirement vs. a courtesy, or whether or not same sex couples should be allowed to marry. We tend to like our freedoms as they benefit us, but dislike the freedoms of others, even when they do not affect us at all.
A central tenet of libertarian ideology is that there are two basic kinds of rights that human beings may exercise. The first is a “non-exclusive right,” meaning that I may exercise such a right without affecting my fellow human being at all. Its very simple really. Any action or behavior I engage in, which does not negatively the rights of others, is a “non-exclusive right.” It does not limit your own pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Such rights are fairly easy to agree upon and many of us engage in myriad examples on a daily basis, from listening to loud music in our cars while driving down the freeway, to reading a book on a park bench on a peaceful summer afternoon.
An “exclusive right” however, is both more nebulous, often subject to issues of law, and depends very much on a clear understanding of how our fellow citizens pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” For instance, listening to loud music in your car, parked by the bench on which I sit reading my book, may or may not infringe on my and the rights of others. One one hand, it’s a public space, and one might expect the screams of children playing, dogs barking, perhaps a busker….busking, and even the sound of passing cars and motorcycles. Exactly how much noise is tolerable before it becomes unbearable? The answer is both simple and complicated. Essentially my right to do “some thing” ends where your right to not have that thing affect you begin.
As fellow citizens of this planet we all make many concessions to the will of others every single day, forgiving, forgetting, and for the most part, moving on. Whether it’s a seemingly clueless person blocking an entrance to the grocery store because they just ran in to an friend they hadn’t seen in a decade, or someone making an ill-advised u-turn in the middle of the street because they are lost and obviously late, we shrug our shoulders, exhale, and practice our patience. These kinds of experiences are mostly mundane and harmless, but there are many other such circumstances which are neither, and even our own rule of law does not always have the answer.
Believe it or not, some of the most fundamental principles of the two basic political ideologies (conservative vs. liberal) are rooted in the exercise of basic rights, and the pundits of each party’s attempts to codify the defense of those rights. The struggle of us all to understand and respect each other’s desired rights has been long, laborious, and is more strained than ever, and I blame the politicians of both parties for intentionally obfuscating the issues for their own use.
Without delving too deeply in to the histories and different ideologies of “conservatives” and “liberals” let us agree that at a very high level, the basic premise of liberals is to use policy to intervene economically, while conservatives tend to use policy to intervene socially. Note that I’ve not referred to our two parties by their traditional names, because those names have no inherent meaning, and because both have strayed so very far from platforms upon which their ideologies had sat for decades.
As someone has identified deeply with libertarian doctrine for almost 20 years, I believe the capitalism, while imperfect, is still the best economic model. I believe in the concept of sovereign nations, free trade, the rule of law, sound monetary policy, national defense, states rights, individual property rights, and intellectual property rights. And dogs. I believe in dogs. But I also believe in same sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, legally rigorous immigration, and pro-growth economic policy. I believe that the best thing government can do for workers and entrepreneurs is to stay the hell out of the way. But I also believe that sometimes government needs to make sure we stop killing our planet, polluting our air, and poisoning our people.
The existential threat that the Covid-19 pandemic poses to both our people and our economy have provided a certain amount of cover for the current administration. While some may be shocked at the enormity $1.9T program that has been posed, it’s hard to argue that whatever the size of the stimulus, it needs to be significant enough to “move the needle.” Speaking of Covid and exclusive rights, you certainly have the right not to wear a mask in your car, but you don’t have a right to shop for groceries without a mask any more than you have the right to bring your loaded pistol in and hand it to your 3 year old while you select your artichokes. Back to the point, the current ongoing health and economic catastrophes will keep the government from enacting policy which would likely be much more liberal with a capital “L” than that which is on their current docket.
As for the other party, there is almost no conservative ideology left. Despite some adherence to what is closer to libertarianism than we’ve seen in a long time, Republican policy, even under “free trader” Reagan endorsed import tariffs, agricultural subsidies, and a massive increase in incarceration of non-violent drug offenders and subsequent administrations continued the erosion of traditional conservative governance.
That erosion turned in to an avalanche, in which the entire heart and soul of conservative doctrine when Donald Trump used weaponized words, political vindictiveness, and divided the country by throwing sticks of dynamite in to almost every nook and cranny of our system of governance. Whether it utilizing the Judiciary as his own private legal defense team, arguing (and convincing the Republicans in Congress) that he could shoot someone on 5th avenue and not lose a vote, but that as president he was immune from even being investigated, or myriad other usurpations of power for political or personal gain, during the years from 2016 to 2020 our country lived under the rule of an autocrat, a dictator, a czar, or at best, a feckless king. And none of those qualities are consistent with the classic definition of conservatism, in fact, they are most often associated with socialist dictators, many of whom pick and choose from liberal doctrine to impose command economy policy on their constituents, ensuring that food is free, and prices are low, but their is never enough food or low priced shoes on the shelves for them to buy. Libertarians often opine that because humans are seduced by power, and that since absolute power corrupts absolutely, the best leader would be a “benevolent dictator,” someone who was good, knew what the right thing to do was, and who could do so without having to muck about convincing 535 lawmakers to do that right thing. A decree would be made, and it would be the best thing for everyone, and everyone would understand that. Donald Trump was no benevolent dictator, and in fact is ill-suited to run even a hotel successfully. Long run shareholder value, or indeed value of any kind other than that which gains him the spoils and protects him from accountability when the investors are left holding the debt, is not his game. Neither is being conservative, and those who followed, supported, enabled, and rode the tails of his ill-fitting suits are not conservatives, so let’s all stop calling them that.