Libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds individual freedom as the central, most important principle of society. At its heart, the libertarian ideal advocates a minimization of government and the maximization of individual freedom. Since the election of the nation’s first African-American president, there has been increased fervor from the newly formed Tea Party and conservatives within the Republican Party, to embrace libertarian ideals.
But libertarian idealism has its limits. And if politics is the art of what is possible, then political realities must meet practical ends.
For instance, ex-NBA player Joe Barry Carroll was refused service at a Southern tavern in 2006 when he and his friend would not give up their seats at the bar for a couple of white female customers.
According to reports the tavern’s owner had instituted an official policy unironically called “Southern Hospitality”, where they “prohibited, then limited, the number of black hostesses, cocktail waitresses and bartenders on busy nights; limited blender drinks that he thought would appeal to black people; and intentionally delayed service to black customers.”
By some of the current GOP candidates standards this kind of policy should be tolerated if not encouraged.
Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman and Republican Presidential candidate, is perhaps the best known and most vocal libertarian on the political landscape.
But the Tea Party — without embracing the title — has promoted libertarian principles, most notably a rage against the machine of big government. The main enemy has been universal health care, which they ignorantly seem to believe is socialism at its worst. Regulations on the environment and the financial markets are a close second and third.
In their world, it is perfectly acceptable for pollution to go unchecked and banks to both defraud people and fail, without government intervention. One positive aspect of Paul’s view at least is his firm commitment to a check on military action and intervention, as he has fiercely argued against the imperialistic expansion of U.S. military power. But a deeper look at supposed Tea Party ideals reveal the hypocrisy inherent in modern-day libertarian theories, and the subtle prejudice which informs their beliefs.
Rand Paul, the freshman Senator from Kentucky, made headlines last year when he admitted in a May 2010 interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal that he saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an overreach of federal authority.
When pressed on the issue in a subsequent television interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Paul became cryptic in his response, but his basic stance was that though he would have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, he would have opposed the law that forced businesses to serve him.
As Paul sees it, the Civil Rights Act was fair to regulate discrimination in public institutions, but not for private businesses. His argument became further confused when he suggested that if the federal government could force racist private business owners to serve African-Americans, then they must also be forced to serve gun owners who wish to use force at lunchtime. A strange and incoherent argument, but one that both he and his father purport to be a fundamental tenement of their views on the limitations of government power.
During the conversation with Maddow, Paul claims the issue of desegregating lunch counters was “obscure” and “really not an issue”. As a darling of the Tea Party, Paul embraced a repeal of the Great Society, the New Deal, and all the laws that resulted from the civil rights movement. This is what got him elected and secured a win against the moderate Democratic candidate Jack Conway.
But why fight old battles if racism isn’t still at the center of the ideological argument? Because it is. The chants to take their country back belies the idea that America’s racist past was its golden age. The suggestion that the Founding Fathers were all-wise, when they supported a system of limiting the right to vote to wealthy, white male landowners, is antithetical to present-day realities and concepts of freedom.
In fact, they were antithetical to freedom in the 18th Century when the Bill of Rights was written. But since wealthy, white male landowners were the only ones at the table, their interests were the only interests protected. (Of course if you ask Rep. Michele Bachmann, they were busy fighting to abolish slavery.)
Ron Paul, the senior statesman, was confronted with a similar inconsistency in his own principles when Wolf Blitzer asked in Monday night’s debate if a hypothetical 30-year old man in a comma, who did not have insurance, should simply be allowed to die. This was a seminal moment in the Tea Party debate. Before Paul could answer the crowd cheered “let him die”.
This is emblematic of the ugliness in political discourse, and though conservative pundits claim that the rancor is equal on both sides, the truth is the far-right has become the proponent of divisiveness in Washington. Paul’s eventual answer to Blitzer’s question, though not as harsh as the audience response, was out-dated. In Paul’s view, years ago when he practiced medicine, the Church and communities would have raised money for the hypothetical 30-year old man. It was not the government’s role to provide health services.
It turns out this issue was closer to home than Wolf Blitzer has imagined. The following day media reports revealed that Paul’s 2008 campaign manager, Kent Snyder, went through a similar ordeal and lost his life. Just two weeks after Paul ended his presidential bid, Snyder contracted viral pneumonia and because he was uninsured, his family was forced to raise funds to cover $400,000 in medical bills. Their efforts even included setting up a website soliciting donations from Ron Paul supporters. But even with such real life examples, Paul remains opposed to any form of universal health care coverage.
The Republican argument has mostly been that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are broken systems. Governor Rick Perry has been praised by conservatives and derided by liberals for calling Social Security a ponzi scheme. Though the real problem with Perry’s stance is that he offers no policy solution for how to correct the under-funded program.
The libertarian arguments are flawed on all sides: let sick people die, leave the elderly to their own devices, let the poor pull themselves up by bootstraps they do not have. And this in the world’s richest country.
The political paralysis presently on display in Washington is the direct result of the ideological divide the Tea Party Caucus and Republicans have imposed. The lesson? Government becomes dysfunctional as a self-fulfilled prophecy of those who purport that government doesn’t work. It’s a backward way of achieving a goal which benefits no one.
As seen in the debate over the debt-ceiling, there are people in power who are diametrically opposed to the Obama White House. That position has now proven adverse to progress. So in seeking to defeat Obama, Republicans are destroying the American middle-class and further crippling the American poor. How is that a winning strategy? And if individual freedom is the goal, then don’t the poor, the elderly and the sick also deserve the dignity of self-determination? Or is libertarianism as conceived by the Tea Party, always separate and unequal?