Question: When does a libertarian call for bigger government?
Libertarianism persists as a phenomenon despite more schisms than you can shake a stick at: Anarchist versus minarchist, deontological versus consequentialist, purist versus pragmatist, radical versus reformer, political versus anti-political … you name it, there’s a schism for it.
What gives the libertarian movement such coherence as it possesses is that libertarians support “less state power.” Some libertarians support a little less state power, some libertarians support a lot less state power, and some libertarians support no state power — no state — at all.
What libertarians don’t support is more state power. Ever. Even in the biggest libertarian tent, that’s the dividing line: Less is libertarian, more isn’t.
So, when the Libertarian Party issues a press release calling on the US government to exercise more power than it does at present — more power than even Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano thinks is called for — something is obviously rotten in the state of Denmark. Or, rather, something’s rotten in Suite 200 of the Watergate, where the LP keeps its national headquarters.
Disclaimer: The Center for a Stateless Society is an anarchist, anti-political organization. The Libertarian Party is a political organization with members from across the nominally libertarian portion of the philosophical spectrum. There’s no formal cross-affiliation between the two, and in fact some members of each organization would argue that the other organization’s existence damages the movement. I’m in the often (especially so at this particular moment) uncomfortable position of being affiliated with both organizations.
In this case, it’s difficult to dispute the argument that the LP has crossed the line from libertarian advocacy to anti-libertarian advocacy. Its publicly stated position on “securing the borders” to combat, of all things, the swine flu “pandemic” (a phenomenon most associated with hysteria, not epidemiology) fails even the most broad-spectrum litmus test of libertarianism.
The unfortunate reality is that when one institution associated with the libertarian movement goes rogue in this manner, other such institutions are expected to respond. Silence is presumed to constitute assent, and that presumed assent can quickly taint public understanding of what our movement is all about.
Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from this incident. The press release is a symptom. The Libertarian Party’s systemic failure to uphold its own most basic principles is the disease … and it’s a contagious disease for which understanding is the vaccine.
Last year, the Libertarian Party held its biennial national convention in Denver, Colorado. At that convention, it adopted a new platform, including the following plank on Free Trade and Migration:
We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. However, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a threat to security, health or property.
The portion of the plank following the word “however” is the portion used to justify the LP’s call for more state power on the border. It comes at the end of the plank. It constitutes only one of the plank’s four sentences. And it constitutes a minor exception to the positions outlined in the plank.
Since that plank was adopted, the LP has issued two press releases on immigration. One of those releases took a libertarian position (against the construction of a “border fence”), but prominently mentioned the “exceptions clause.” The other — this one — centered entirely around the “exceptions clause.”
That clause, like a few others in the platform, was included and adopted for the purpose of obtaining buy-in from “centrist” members of the LP — those who want “a little less government than we have now” and labor under a constant compulsion to “mainstream” the party by moving it closer to the existing political center.
That’s a dangerous compulsion. The libertarian movement — in both its political and anti-political manifestations — isn’t here to move to the center, it’s here to move the center. This incident graphically illustrates what happens when we confuse the two: Lean toward the center, and you’re likely to find yourself pulled right over the center line into enemy territory before you know what’s happening.
The jury is still out on whether political means can serve libertarian ends. This week’s evidence isn’t promising. If the Libertarian Party continues to promote anti-libertarianism, one hopes its members will act honestly — and change its name.