Practicality

In a Facebook conversation about my “Three-Letter Worldview” series of posts, a friend and relative of mine, Carla, challenged me to write out “how I would put the worldview into practice in a country . . . how does my worldview translate to governing?”

She applied it to my self-described libertarianism and asked, “What is the practical application for governing in a democracy such as ours? . . . How would a Libertarian or libertarian [Ed: big or little “L” . . . for the record, I consider myself the latter, not the former] set up a system of government for 300 million+ diverse human beings to live under?”

I promised to respond, and then things got a bit crazy . . . My job got very busy, and then the area got hit by two major snowstorms in the course of a single week. On top of that, I’ve been helping my wife with the advertising and graphic design for a benefit concert she and a friend are planning for Save the Children to aid earthquake victims in Haiti.

So I’ve had very little time to write. But now that things are slowing down, I wanted to respond to Carla’s question.

First, my worldview is primarily that – a view of the world . . . an interpretation of what I see around me and how I see it working (or not working, as the case may be). It is not intended as a political system or a treatise on government.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my worldview has no implications for what I consider “ideal” government. What it does mean is that, in choosing what form of government I will assent to live under, I am willing to settle for less than ideal, if in the meantime I can work – and encourage others to work – in directions consistent with that ideal.

But all that is not answering the question – it’s merely talking around it.

That said, Carla has posed a question that is really three:

1) How does my worldview translate to governing?
2) What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?
3) How would I (or any libertarian) set up a system of government for 300 million people?

First: How does my worldview translate to governing? To tell the truth, my worldview as I have laid it out here doesn’t really speak much to how governing works, except to follow the advice of my favorite founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The government that governs least governs best, because the people discipline themselves.”

Note that this commonly repeated quote is usually truncated. Generally only the first half is recalled, but my worldview is dependent on both halves – a government that is restrained, and a governed citizenry that are restrained themselves . . . by themselves.

That’s basically the only broad implication my worldview as I have laid it out here has on governing, but the question that you are surely asking at this point is, “how is that practical??”

This threads very neatly into Carla’s second question “What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?

To begin with, as I stated fairly explicitly in my worldview series, the views I hold are fairly government-agnostic. I believe that the views I hold are just as true in a democracy as they are in a dictatorship. The only difference is that, under some governments, the penalty for living a live consistent with those views may be more or less severe.

That being the case, one of the most hospitable forms of government to this worldview is that of a representative republic. Contrary to Carla’s assertion, we do not live in a democracy. This makes a tremendous difference because a republic is by far friendlier to the views I have espoused. In a democracy, a whimsical populace can inflict whatever it wishes, as long as it persuades a majority of its members to agree. In a republic, that populace is far more restrained by several factors – the supremacy of codified law, the separation of power into multiple decision-making bodies, and restrictions on how far even a legitimate majority is allowed to go in imposing its will over the minority.

But that’s only a side discussion. The main discussion on this question is one of practicality. How is it practical to expect that people control themselves, rather than relying on the government to control them?

The problem is that this question presumes some sort of government that is not, itself, made up of people – subject to the same whims, faults, limitations and errors as any others. The only really just government would be a government ruled by one truly perfect human being . . . and no such thing exists, or ever can.

This being the case, any government at all is a concession . . . a surrender of control over our own choices. But it is a necessary concession if we are to live in relationship with one another. Anarchy – the absence of any government – simply pits everyone against each other in a harsh, primal struggle for survival.

What, then, should we look for in our government on a practical level? I believe that perhaps the most harmful force in our current national character has been the drive toward relativism . . . the belief that everything is subjective, and that nothing is universal.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that at least 99% of all the standards anybody holds – including, probably, some of my own – are misguided and wrong. But 99% is not the same as 100%. In order for a society to function . . . indeed, in order for there to be any concept at all of justice, good, or right . . . something must be universally true. Otherwise, these words are just so many letters combined in an aesthetically pleasing order.

So yes . . . I believe most of what each and every one of us believes to be true is, in fact, probably wrong, either by virtue of being incomplete or being off target. On a practical level, this means that we should not endeavor to impose our beliefs, behavioral systems or tastes on each other. The laws of this country should strive to respect the choices each of us make for ourselves. The only laws I would like to see . . . the only ones I believe to be truly “just” . . . are those which prevent us from imposing our will on each other . . . those which prevent us from *eliminating* one another’s choices.

Therefor, my answer is that, in our democracy, we should strive to eliminate as many laws, bureaucracies, and systems of control as possible. And where it is not possible, we should maximize the ability of those under the laws to make choices within them. If there must be politicians, then let us strive to elect politicians who believe this, rather than those who are simply out for more control. And where there are none who truly believe it, let us elect those who at least find it in their best interest to pretend that they do.

Carla’s final question is a bit different. Her first question had one foot still firmly in the theoretical world, and one in the practical. Her second question moved fully to the practical realm, but dealt with how to apply my worldview politically to our existing nation-state.

Her third question starts from scratch, and asks how a libertarian would set up a system of government for 300 million people such as those living in this country.

I cannot answer for all libertarians, but I will answer for myself, and my answer will be similar to the one I gave for the last question . . . that is . . . it’s the wrong question. How would I set up a government for 300 million people? I wouldn’t.

This may seem like a cop-out, but really it is not. A government is not something I believe can be legitimately “set up” for people. In order to be legitimate, they must set it up themselves – whether by electing representatives, choosing the strongest warrior to be their king, selecting the best hunter to be their tribal chief, or simply allowing citizens to participate in a direct democracy.

To be honest, I think it would be easier to establish an ideal government from scratch than it would be to try to turn our country, with its history, its many diverse cultures, its baggage and its existing power structures into that ideal government. While I don’t subscribe to the view that “we can’t get there from here,” I do think it’d be one hell of a trip to do so.

The problem with this whole discussion is the fact that it focuses too much on government. This is, I think, one of the key problems with small “L” liberalism . . . that is, the left wing political viewpoint in America today. Like Carla did in asking these questions, liberalism focuses on government for everything. See a problem? What can the government do to fix it? Have a good idea? Let’s pass a law and have the government put it into practice! See someone in need? Let’s have the government help them out.

Frankly, I just don’t see the government that way. A government is just a particular structure put in place by people who seek to protect themselves. But in doing so, they sacrifice complete control over their own choices, and once they have given the government a little of that control, it will always seek more.

That’s where the liberal comes in . . . the typical liberal trusts the government, trusts it enough to willingly hand over his or her own control to solve that problem, to make something of that good idea, or to help that person in need. The typical liberal truly believes that the government is the entity best suited to make those decisions.

I think that’s giving the government . . . and the people who operate it . . . way too much credit.

What’s the alternative then? How do we build up a truly effective system of self-government?

The key is not government, but culture. Whether we’re talking about an existing system or one built from the ground up, the key is to start with the broadly-shared cultural belief that what we’re building is a good thing.

“But,” you say, “doesn’t that fall afoul of your earlier assertion that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on one another?”

Not at all. I don’t advocate forcing this belief on anybody . . . I simply believe that my ideal culture cannot exist in its absence. Besides, the belief I’m talking about is already broadly shared among much of western civilization. Those who believe in God call it the “golden rule,” but it is known by various secular aphorisms as well, “live and let live,” “let sleeping dogs lie,” “don’t tread on me.” These are all manifestations of the same thing. I prefer the Biblical expression because it is somehow fuller . . . deeper than the others. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is just another way of stating the foundational libertarian principle. It says, “I would like to be allowed the freedom to make my own choices, and because that is what I would like, I will give you that freedom as well.”

So the very first thing I would do to move this country – or ANY country – toward my ideal is work to instill within its people the importance of this vital principle. Right now, we have no central guiding principle . . . quite honestly, we have very little by way of cohesive culture at all, any more. Some of us operate on the hippocratic, “first, do no harm.” Others operate on the principle of “take what you can get.” Still others operate on various manufactured ethical codes that claim to have their basis in some form of religion or moral code, but few if any of these are truly internally consistent. Most are contradictory, and virtually all – when they find themselves with a hand on the strings of government – simply pull those strings in their direction, figuring that when an opposing viewpoint recaptures the reins it will do the same. All of these codes are, in some ways at odds . . . either with themselves, with each other, or both.

I’m afraid, Carla, that I probably haven’t really answered your questions. I suspect what you were looking for is an outline of how to restructure our government along libertarian lines, according to the worldview I outlined on this blog. The problem is, that is not - and was never - the point. The point is to outline how I, myself, try to live. Personally, I believe that if more people lived this way, we would all be happier, healthier, and more alive than we are now, but that’s not my choice – it’s theirs.

I can wish they would choose as I have, but truly I don’t have a lot of hope for that. So in the meantime I will simply keep developing my thinking, and keep sharing it with others. I may not be able to impact 300 million people, but perhaps I can impact one or two.

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