This past weekend I met someone who saw my Ron Paul bumper sticker and remarked to his friend, presumably a Republican, “hey, looks like there is another Republican in California!” I replied, “well I’m more of a libertarian really…”, not having the time to get into detail. Later on, I spoke with the same man again, who confessed “actually I’m a libertarian myself…but a libertarian Democrat!”
After speaking with him for a few minutes, it became clear that what the man meant by “libertarian Democrat” was that he’s a “Democrat for legal marijuana”. He didn’t seem to have any problem with government force applied in other areas, but was adamant that people not be thrown in jail for the simple act of smoking a naturally growing herb! I agreed with him and left the conversation there, not being in an appropriate position to elaborate much further, and happy to have an ally for now on an important issue.
Reflecting on it later on, I believe this conversation highlights a problem of the “libertarian qualifier”, where people who associate with libertarian ideas feel the need to qualify the “libertarian” with a more acceptable line of beliefs. In this case, the term “libertarian Democrat” allows the man to take a stance on an issue he is concerned with, marijuana, and yet keep his foot firmly planted in establishment thought by adding the “Democrat” afterward.
In today’s political realm, we most commonly see this phenomenon associated with the rise of “libertarian Republicans”.
The problem with the qualifiers is that they can muddy the ideas of just what “libertarian” means. When a “libertarian Republican” like Rand Paul says “any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States”, will the casual observer make any distinction as to whether this is the “libertarian” or the “Republican” talking? (Hint for new readers: it’s not the libertarian!)
The purpose of these qualifiers seems to be to “tone down” the radicalism of true libertarianism, which would entail taking consistent positions against government coercion and central planning, in order to not “frighten off” those that are currently more in life with mainstream political philosophy.
The qualifiers allow people to stay in their comfort zone. It allows my new friend to say “Hey I’m libertarian on marijuana, but don’t you worry I’m not into all that crazy stuff about free markets!”
This being Monday, I find myself asking, what would Murray Rothbard think of the “libertarian qualifier” phenomenon? We can find some insights in an excerpt from Chapter 15 of For a New Liberty:
Every “radical” creed has been subjected to the charge of being “utopian,” and the libertarian movement is no exception. Some libertarians themselves maintain that we should not frighten people off by being “too radical,” and that therefore the full libertarian ideology and program should be kept hidden from view. These people counsel a “Fabian” program of gradualism, concentrating solely on a gradual whittling away of State power. An example would be in the field of taxation: Instead of advocating the “radical” measure of abolition of all taxation, or even of abolishing income taxation, we should confine ourselves to a call for tiny improvements; say, for a two percent cut in income tax.
Re-reading this quote from Rothbard immediately brought to mind Rand Paul’s “radical” plan for cutting government spending, which entails cutting a whopping “1 percent a year for five or six years.”
Murray goes on to discuss the problem with what the Marxists referred to as “right-wing opportunists”:
The major problem with the opportunists is that by confining themselves strictly to gradual and “practical” programs, programs that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, they are in grave danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective, the libertarian goal. He who confines himself to calling for a two percent reduction in taxes helps to bury the ultimate goal of abolition of taxation altogether. By concentrating on the immediate means, he helps liquidate the ultimate goal, and therefore the point of being a libertarian in the first place. If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will? The answer is no one, hence another major source of defection from the ranks in recent years has been the erroneous path of opportunism.
An important distinction should be made between political opportunists who utilize the libertarian qualifier and the average man who may do so simply because they do not fully understand the ideas of liberty. The two should not be viewed in the same light.
In the case of my “libertarian Democrat” friend, common ground can be found on the marijuana issue. This man and others like him can be taught by others in the liberty movement, and shown that the same reasons he and his fellow man should not be thrown in a cage for smoking a natural herb can be applied to all issues across the board. Hopefully this type of person will become interested in the ideas of liberty, and some day come to see that the free market stuff isn’t so crazy after all! He utilizes the qualifier perhaps out of a need for social acceptance, perhaps out of ignorance, but not for some sort of immediate political gain.
It is the political opportunists – those that would water down the messages of liberty in order to achieve some sort of superficial political “victory” – who should be kept an eye on with the utmost scrutiny. Whenever we hear the libertarian qualifier from someone with political aspirations, our libertarian Spidey sense should start buzzing and alert us to possible danger ahead.
The ideas of liberty are simple and easy to understand, and there is no reason for a messenger of liberty not to fully tout them. As Rothbard so eloquently put it it, “If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will?”
It is the task of libertarians to carry the message of liberty as purely and succinctly as possible. And while doing so, remember: Beware the libertarian qualifiers!
Check out our past editions of Mondays with Murray!
8/12/13 – Rothbard on War Revisionism
7/22/13 – Rothbard on the George Zimmerman Verdict
7/15/13 – Rothbard on Orwell’s “1984”
7/1/13 – Why Be Libertarian?
6/17/13 – Who was the “best” U.S. President?
6/10/13 – Rothbard on State Surveillance
5/27/13 – Rothbard on America’s “Two Just Wars”
5/20/13 – Do Animals Have “Rights”
5/13/13 – A Further Insight on IP
5/6/13 – The Boston Lockdown
4/29/13 – The Problem with Empirical Studies
4/22/13 – The Real Story of the Whiskey Rebellion
4/15/13 – What is an Entrepreneur?
3/11/13 – Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
2/4/13 – The Death of Keynesian Economics
1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
9/24/12 – Rothbard on Quantitative Easing