The Case Against Libertarianism, Against Fear

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

—1 Corintians 13:11

I have often chided libertarians and libertarian-ish conservatives for embracing a “childish” philosophy, one that worked well when we were cutting and shooting our way to the Pacific, living out our self-serving Manifest Destiny.

But it’s time we put away childish things.

America has matured; it has blossomed into the most powerful nation in the history of civilization.  And as it has developed and gained world prominence and dominance, its Constitution has remained the preeminent document guarding liberty and justice for all Americans, partly because courageous interpreters dared to understand it in terms conducive to life in the modern world.

For the moment, libertarians and social conservative zealots and haters of either our progressive or pigmented president—take your pick—are playing nice as they join together to rout the Democrats this November.  But as the conservative fanatic Richard Viguerie suggested the other day in the New York Times, after November 2, the Peace Train will collide head-on with the Soul Train—the fight will be on in earnest for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

But for now, let’s look briefly at libertarian philosophy through the eyes of one of its most famous national proponents, Barry Goldwater, whom George Will married to the Tea Party movement in today’s Joplin Globe:

In 1964, the slogan of the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, was “A choice, not an echo.” Forty-six years on, the tea party is a loud echo of his attempt to reconnect American politics with the tradition of limited government.

I have owned a copy of Goldwater’s, The Conscience of a Conservative, for more than 25 years. The book was first published in 1960, four years before Goldwater was overwhelmingly rejected in his run for the presidency.  The following is an excerpt from the book that sounds eerily similar to what one might hear today, as teapartiers temporarily coalesce around demands for a drastically smaller government, some even calling for an end to what libertarians love to call the Welfare State: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid:

The long range political consequences of Welfarism are plain enough: as we have seen, the State that is able to deal with its citizens as wards and dependents has gathered unto itself unlimited political and economic power and is thus able to rule as absolutely as any oriental despot.

Unlimited political and economic power“?  “Oriental despot“?  Keep in mind that was in 1960, and Medicare and Medicaid were still liberal dreams, not to come until 1965.  One would think that after 50 years of even greater “Welfarism” than Goldwater could imagine in 1960, today we would all be bowing to our oriental despot, given a 50-year reign with “unlimited political and economic power.”  

But there just isn’t any oriental despot around, and as our elected President Obama struggles to use the federal government to lift us out of our economic doldrums, one can hardly say the feds have “unlimited” anything, especially “political and economic power.”

Such extremist talk was silly in 1960 and its just as silly today coming from platforms at Tea Party rallies or from 30-second television spots.  In fact, it is embarrassingly immature talk, and fortunately we have half a century of evidence that such fears are cynical and baseless.  Despite an increase in the role of government in overseeing our social well-being, our government is not tyrannical and we still enjoy our liberties.

In 1960, not only was there no Medicare and Medicaid, but the top marginal tax rate was a whopping 91%. Today’s top marginal rate is 35%. Hardly a sign that we are slouching toward oriental despotism.

As far as Social Security, always an object of libertarian and conservative angst, in 1960 the government only taxed the first $4,800 of income at a rate of 3%.  Today, the tax rate is more than twice that and it applies to all earnings up to $106,800. Yet despite that increase, which would have terrified the 1960 Goldwater, there still is no oriental despot on the horizon. 

In fact, Social Security is wildly successful—USA Today reported that the program “kept 14 million seniors above the poverty level” last year. Yet, despite that success, anti-government sentiment is as thick today as when Goldwater wrote in 1960:

Let welfare be a private concern. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose.

You hear this argument a lot from libertarians and conservatives.  In fact, it is one of their core beliefs that taxing citizens to pay for social programs is illegitimate, amounting to “theft.” The idea that taxation is stealing is creeping into the minds of otherwise sober Americans, who have begun buying into the notion that the government has no business in promoting the general welfare by establishing government social programs. 

Yet what we don’t hear from liber-cons is, what happens if we leave to private concerns all the needs of the needy and those private concerns aren’t all that concerned?  Before Social Security—when private concerns were free to promote the welfare of the poor—seniors were likely to die in poverty. The estimated poverty rate for the elderly was between 70 and 90%.  By 2008, it had dropped to less than 10%.

And whether one thinks that improvement was because of or in spite of Social Security and other “entitlement” programs—programs that are now threatened by Tea Party hysteria—there is simply no denying that the fears that have always accompanied an increased federal role in promoting the general welfare—that promotion rooted in the Constitution itself—are never realized.  Never.

We are not ruled by a despotic federal government, oriental or otherwise.  Goldwater’s State does not have “unlimited political and economic power.”

And contrary to libertarian assumptions, federal involvement in the well-being of the less fortunate, in the well-being of the elderly, has not led to less freedom, but to more.

Because thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” today than at any time in our history.



  1. Would Goldwater be as comfortable with a superstate for national security purposes and the current crop of constitution fanatics. I’l like to think that in his later years he wouldn’t have, or any case I think he would have been a more consistent libertarian than many current Republicans.


    • Bruce,

      Goldwater in his 1960 book was obviously preoccupied with the communist threat, particularly the Soviet Union:

      If our objective is victory over Communism, we must achieve superiority in all of the weapons—military, as well as political and economic—that may be useful in reaching that goal. Such a program costs money, but so long as the moneys spent wisely and efficiently, I would spend it. I am not in favor of “economizing” on the nation’s safety. As a Conservative, I deplore the huge tax levy tht is needed to finance the world’s number-one military establishment. But even more do I deplore the prospect of a foreign conquest, which the absence of that establishment would quickly accomplish.

      Naturally, as a strong anti-communist, Goldwater enthusiastically supported the Vietnam War all the way through Nixon’s prosecution of the war, which by then was obviously problematic to say the least.

      I don’t know what he would think of our massive military these days, which is morphing into a nation-building, anti-terrorist police force. But at the end, he was a staunch critic of some of the “kooks” who called themselves conservatives, and I’m sure he would have had a big problem with Homeland Security.



  2. Duane,

    I find it ironic that it was Goldwater who said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”. You have shown here that Barry’s extremism would have produced a nation much harsher than the one we now occupy.

    As I have said before, I often find Libertarian philosophies appealing, but in moderation. I prefer to see market forces at work, as I have posted, for things like fixing health care, but there are clearly some things that government does best, just as you say.

    For example, one Libertarian-like program touted by W. and others in the GOP for “fixing” the entitlement problem is privatizing Social Security. I find the idea of basing people’s retirement on the vagaries of the stock market positively frightening. The very LAST thing one needs in retirement is a market collapse like the one we had two years ago. We already have enough corrupt ministers, lawyers and scalawags preying on the elderly without loosing the stockbrokers on them too.

    Extremism in either direction, IMHO, is dangerous, and I remain pretty comfortable here in the middle.

    Your post is well-written and you make a powerful case, Duane. Nice going.



    • Jim,

      Thanks. I appreciate your remarks.

      Just one thing. You said, “I often find Libertarian philosophies appealing, but in moderation.” The problem with libertarianism—and this is what makes it so simplistic—is that by definition it cannot be moderated. Moderation on one front would make it closer to liberalism, on the other closer to conservatism. It’s approach is absolutist and is not nuanced.

      Let me give just one example from the 1960 book:

      It may be just or wise or expedient for negro children to attend the same schools as white children, but they do not have a civil right to do so which is protected by the federal constitution, or which is enforceable by the federal government.

      To the extent that libertarians back away from statements like that, they are not libertarians any longer.



  3. OK, then. I never liked labels anyway. Just picture me in a coat of many colors. I’ll take good ideas wherever I can find them. 🙂



  4. ansonburlingame

     /  October 1, 2010

    To both,

    But of course all the “good ideas” today come from extreme positions with little or no movement to compromise.

    And except maybe for Angle in Nevada, will you guys please get off this privatize SS. I hear NO ONE of any substance defending that alternative today. As I have posted, if my SS benefits went down in the GR as did my 401K I would be asking YOU to buy any coffee if we met.



    • Anson,

      Are you kidding? The Paul Ryan “Roadmap” plan that you have some fondness for involves allowing young folks to put Social Security money into private accounts. It also has a scheme for privatizing Medicare. And while it has only a handful of co-sponsors right now (12, I think), who knows what the future will bring should Republicans win the 100 seats that Dick Morris says they can win.

      Republicans aren’t going to advocate these ideas out in the open, although in addition to Angle, some have:

      Pat Toomey, who is running for the senate in Pennsylvania, was the president of Club for Growth and was a strong advocate of privatizing Social Security, although he has disavowed that idea during the campaign.

      Rand Paul, similarly, has been a supporter of privatization efforts, as well as raising the retirement age to 70. Of course, during the election he has shut up about that stuff, for good reason.

      Joe Miller, senate candidate from Alaska, has expressed it even more harshly, saying Social Security is unconstitutional and “should be transitioned” into either a state-run or private-run program.

      In the House, I heard Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who is on the Budget Committee, says he say that Social Security will have to be “reengineered,” and privatization is part of the plan.

      And our own Roy Blunt as argued for the privatization of Medicare, along with many others.

      You may think it’s nothing to worry about, but until you show me a statement from Republican leadership pledging to NOT privatize Social Security or Medicare, I won’t believe it. Their Pledge could have so promised, but it actually suggested a “review” of those programs that sounded a lot like privatization was on the table.



  5. ansonburlingame

     /  October 1, 2010

    For now I can only point to the Pledge which “promises” to keep entitlement programs for “seniors, veterans and troop” entact. IF they moved to privatization immediately I would rise up in support of saying NO, but here is an alternative…… MEANS test for now and see what comes later.

    Privatization of SS as a Republican Position is simply not true, for now. It at best a “red herring” thrown out by Dems in their attempt to further demonize based on the past, a mistake from the past. Let’s look ahead to what should be done.

    I doubt that it is a doable solution in the future. But we can only guess what happens then.



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