I was looking at internet videos the other day when I came across one of a well-known political pundit talking about libertarians. His first words described libertarians as a faction of the Republican Party.
And he couldn’t be more wrong. I’d venture to guess that most every American in their heart is a libertarian, whether you identify with the Democrats, the Republicans, the Tea Party, or the Socialists. We’re just libertarians in different ways, as we see fit to be.
What’s a libertarian? Well, all political science is about who has control over whom, and this can be broken down into one of two camps. There’s the camp of people who want to make their own decisions, and there’s the camp of people who want others to make decisions for them. To illustrate this in your mind, imagine a straight line running from left to right. On the far left, 100 percent of a person’s actions is controlled by the government, and there is no right of individualism. We used to call those places “absolute monarchies,” but being that it’s the 21st Century we can just label that point North Korea. On the right, 100 percent of our actions are controlled by ourselves as individuals. We call those places “anarchist states,” but in this day and age it’s pretty much Somalia holding that end down.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of space on our imaginary line between North Korea and Somalia. Everything in between those two points represents how much control we want another person having over our own lives. It’s easy to peg where the Tea Partiers would be with many of their pet issues. Gun rights, control over their own money, health care, environmentalism: All of these would be points on the far right side of our imaginary line of control, reflecting their desire to control their own personal affairs. But consider the Tea Party when it comes to the military and infrastructure such as roads and water works. Those points would probably be just as far off to the left of the line, reflecting their belief that government should handle those things. Their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage would also be very decidedly un-libertarian.
It’s the same things for those who classify themselves as liberal Democrats. On their line of who should hold the power, they’d predictably put health care and other social initiatives to the left. But consider their many other signature issues, and it becomes apparent that they’re not as leftist as they may want to make themselves out to be. Liberal Democrats have a very libertarian stance towards marijuana, an example of their desire to let the individual – and not the state – decide whether he or she should use the substance. Their support of abortion is extremely libertarian, as is their support of paroling non-violent offenders. Should we even mention where their support of same-sex marriage would be? Yep, off to the far right, almost in Somalialand.
The truth is, regardless of what we claim to profess on our voter registration cards and on social media boards and to our families and friends, we Americans all have a very, very strong libertarian bent to our psyches, and through that to our personal politics. We are confident in making our own decisions and don’t like others telling us what to do. So why do we identify with being Republican or Democrat or Tea Party or Socialist? I don’t know, but it probably has something to do with our human desire to belong to a group.
Funny enough, however, despite our individual confidence at running our own lives, we sure don’t have any problem thinking we have the right to tell others what they can do. Maybe a lot of the political divisions we’re experiencing these days could be torn down if we just let ourselves trust that maybe, just maybe, other people are capable of making their own decisions.
Written by Matt Haarington, MPH
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