Gary Johnson is polling well as the Libertarian Party presidential candidate and is sure to garner more media attention. That will lead many voters to wonder what a libertarian is—as they do every four years. Lest they become stuck on “Oh, right, the people who want pot legalized,” Ken White at Popehat offers a better way to understand the libertarian approach to politics.
White’s essay resonates with those of us who appreciate the fundamentals of libertarian thought even though we don’t embrace the label, because White reminds us that libertarians—rightly— are always questioning the role of the state, the size of its power, and the competence of its bureaucrats.
He flips the typical political analysis from a focus on proposals for solving problems to a focus on incisive questions about what government is supposed to be doing and how well we should expect it to do that. Anyone who cares about the freedom of the individual and the health of civil society should be thinking this way.
Question Before You Vote
Perhaps there was a time in the United States when a majority of voters actually thought and deliberated over problems and how our political leaders should address them. I’d like to think so, at least. My parents and grandparents, especially the latter, were more thoughtful and less emotional about politics than more recent generations are. Whether college-educated or not, they had the capacity to think in both rational and moral terms. You know, they were literate and numerate and had a clear sense of right and wrong.
Thinking people do not begin to offer solutions to problems without first examining the problems, asking who, what, why, where, and how. Once sufficient facts are laid out, solutions can be considered and then more questions consider the possible consequences of making a given decision. Thomas Sowell argues well in “The Vision of the Anointed” that policies comprised only of good intentions and self-righteous proclamations have been failing us for generations. If more policymakers and voters would bother to take the time to truly think about policy problems and solutions systematically and in humility rather than simply shooting ideology-based policy bullets at one another, we’d make progress in solving the problems.
One cannot think and deliberate without asking questions. The ancient Greeks taught us this, as did the nobler Romans. The Bible is filled with examples like the book of Job, the gospels, and the Apostle Paul’s letters, where questions lead to both moral and rational conclusions. The doctors of the church and wiser thinkers of the Enlightenment used questions to get to truth, too. Anyone worth reading or hearing is going to question, not just assert.
What Would Your Enemy Do With This Power?
So White’s suggestion is a fine one, and there is no question our whole culture needs it now. Just asking people to consider a policy issue by first asking them questions about the role of government, how much power it should have, what its success rate has been, etc., should promote more brain work rather than simply letting them issue the latest talking points they got from their favorite website or Facebook post.
Here are just a few of White’s libertarian questions to put to someone who is issuing policy proposals based on an uncritical approach:
- Does the U.S. Constitution permit the government to do this?
- What would this power look like if it were expanded dramatically in scope or in time?
- Does this power represent the government putting its thumb on the scales to prefer some competitors over others, perhaps based on their relative power and influence?
- Are we acting out of fear, anger, or self-promotion?
- Is there any evidence the government is any good at this?
- What would your worst enemy do with this power?
That last is one of my favorites because it highlights how the public seems never to appreciate that what your guy does today my guy will do in the next administration or Congress. One of the essential features of a democratic republic is that we can throw out politicians who fail us; but gladness over that benefit must be tempered with the realization that politicians are not eager to give up the powers and levers at their disposal. They can always rationalize the good of some innovation once it is in their wiser and more ethical hands.
But let’s consider this question with a twist: What would a well-meaning but dumb person whom you might actually like do with this power? That is the greater danger. There are evil people in politics, of course. But far more numerous among them are the stupid and the ignorant. After all, all you have to do to get into power is to convince enough uncritical and emotion-driven voters you’ll solve their problems. That takes a certain talent for empathy and showmanship, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are intelligent, wise, deliberative, and intellectually curious. All of those things are what is actually needed to get policy right.
I am not terribly hopeful that many people will go into the November election asking hard questions based on a realistic view of human nature and the capacity of government to avoid making matters worse. Republican primary voters had plenty of candidates to choose from who answered these questions in ways that should have satisfied anyone who cares about individual freedom and responsibility and the fundamentals of constitutional republican government.
As for the Democrats, they quit putting forward such candidates long ago. But just because we are in an era when emotion and knee-jerk reaction dominates our policy “discussions” does not mean we all have to succumb to it. At some point, Deo volente, thoughtful people whose deliberative skills haven’t grown rusty will have a chance to repair the republic.