When I was a child, I was a voracious reader. I would take home huge stacks of books from the library. My mother likes to tell the story of when I was finally old enough to pack my own suitcase for a family trip. I filled it entirely with books and had no clean clothes to wear at our destination.
My reading habits intensified as a teenager. If I ran out of books to read, I would search the house for a book I hadn’t read yet. I read quite a few books I would never have attempted otherwise. I remember some children’s science fiction from the 50’s and 60’s that was already quite dated and a story in a Readers Digest compilation by a disaffected Mormon, who recounted her positive memories of her previous church experience.
This was how I first met libertarianism. My father had no fear of leaving the ideological mainstream. Somewhere on a bookshelf, he had tucked away a book on libertarianism. It was full of carefully constructed arguments that described our current government as overly oppressive.
The author disliked any government regulation, any government interference in private affairs and any government control of anything. He argued for privatized police and fire protection. He praised the Articles of Confederation as the freest form of government in US history and mourned the ratification of the Constitution as an end to the most blessed period in American history.
Many of his nicely-formed arguments were convincing to me at the time, but it didn’t take long for the holes to become apparent. Someone pointed out to me that a privatized fire department, funded by insurance payments, would mean that people would stand by and watch while their neighbor’s house burned. In this author’s arguments, such a negative outcome was not even considered.
It was his dislike for the Constitution, however, that was truly difficult for me to accept. At the time I simply found it odd. Later, I came to see the Constitution as a masterpiece of government construction. It attempts to anticipate and neutralize every threat to freedom that might arise in a democracy. It distributes power and creates the famous checks and balances that keep any individual or group from gaining too much control over the country’s affairs. It is as if its framers looked deep into the soul of mankind, seeing all its goodness and all its flaws, and designed a government to match.
I do not know how many libertarians would agree that the Constitution gives the government too much power or how many would like to see it repealed. I think it is likely that the vast majority of libertarians would be uncomfortable with such statements, but the flaws in the arguments they do make are essentially the same as the flaws in that author’s arguments. Their conclusions rest on the idea that people can always be trusted to make reasonable decisions, and that this makes government almost unnecessary.
This was the exact error that Alan Greenspan admitted to when he said he had mistakenly trusted banks to regulate themselves. He said he had truly believed they would avoid the poor financial decisions that eventually caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the near-collapse of our economy. It is the same kind of thinking that nearly tripped up Rand Paul in his Senate race when he was asked about laws guaranteeing civil rights. He struggled to give an answer to that question that the vast majority of Americans would find acceptable, precisely because such laws violate the basic principles of libertarianism that inspire him and his father, Ron Paul.
Civil rights laws are one of the places that libertarian optimism meets hard reality. During the slavery period and in the century following it, man’s inhumanity to man is difficult to deny. The libertarian faith in mankind’s innate goodness and reasonableness meets lynchings, segregation, exclusion and the dehumanization of other ethnic groups.
Many people, who would not like to see such things in themselves or their neighbors, simply blame the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow laws on some inferior aspect of Southern culture at that time, some characteristic that does not exist within ourselves. We do the same to World War II Germans and, to a certain extent, to all Americans who lived during the centuries-long Indian Wars. We convince ourselves that we, somehow, are different. We are good. We have grown up.
This sort of denial is critical to libertarian philosophy, which is based almost exclusively on the idea that people can be trusted because they are inherently reasonable. To a libertarian, it is unthinkable that a business owner would harm himself by refusing to do business with the descendants of slaves, the same way it was unthinkable to Alan Greenspan that banks would ever expose themselves to the kinds of financial risks that almost ended up destroying them. Even so, each of these decisions was the norm in a particular time and place in recent American history.
This denial allows us to believe that we do not need a government that would prevent us or our neighbors from committing similar mistakes. This is probably why the libertarian author I read in high school was uncomfortable with the Constitution, for the Constitution not only recognizes the inherent goodness of mankind by giving ultimate power to the masses, but also recognizes inherent flaws in our nature, especially a lust for power and control that must be checked if our democracy and freedom are going to endure. The Constitution is simply too pessimistic for a real libertarian.
It is easy to believe that people are inherently trustworthy, except when we come face to face with history, like the history reflected in civil rights laws. Those laws stopped Americans from legally excluding and dehumanizing members of other ethnic groups. We all know that such exclusions ended only after the laws were passed, not before, so what would the result be if we removed them? No one can say for sure and no one is going to win an election by arguing for their removal.
As a result, Rand Paul fumbled the question on civil rights. He managed to clarify himself later, when he had had time to formulate an appropriate response, apparently reconciling his libertarianism distaste of any government control with the obvious necessity of civil rights laws, not to mention their obvious popularity among voters.
However, the philosophical underpinnings of the Tea Party remain the same as they were. They build on an unqualified optimism about mankind—especially our brand of mankind—that makes government intervention an unnecessary intrusion. Personally, I prefer the vision of the Constitution’s framers. They saw both good and evil in mankind—and in themselves—and they built a government around that vision. Their tea party was one I could have joined.