Some friends in Durham sent me an invitation to a Libertarian Party fundraiser, an opportunity to meet the party's candidate for governor of North Carolina. It's natural that Libertarians would mark me as a fellow traveler. The basic libertarian philosophy is irresistible to me, the same philosophical catnip that made me a Goldwater conservative back when all my college classmates were mesmerized by the myth of Camelot and the martyred John F. Kennedy.
In today's media climate, Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative would be dismissed as the standard self-serving manifesto of a presidential candidate on the make. To me, at 19, it was the siren song of a better world. Along with the late Sen. Goldwater, along with the libertarians, I harbored this deep-seated conviction that privacy and self-reliance are the bedrock of an acceptable civilization, and that taxing decent citizens to support vast, unaccountable bureaucracies is a heinous form of tyranny.
"The passionate Tory sense of freedom," as Ford Madox Ford called it, is even more seductive than altruism to an idealist who's never been tested.
When did it become less seductive to me? When I'd been around the block a few times, I guess—journalism is a profession that accelerates the normal process of disillusionment—and begun to see how few of my fellow citizens are equipped to live in a society based on libertarian principles.
Some aren't smart enough, some aren't tough enough. Most of them aren't nice enough. I discovered two kinds of people who rage against big government, against nearly all government. First there are natural predators, big fish who resent any effort to restrain them from eating all the little fish they can digest. Though I still like to think that Barry Goldwater was a virtuous believer, most of his supporters were Bullmoose reactionaries who yearned for the status quo of the 1920s—pre-regulation, pre-New Deal, pre-income tax—when big fish and big business could feed without interference.
The second group? They're sane, self-sufficient people fed up with governments that treat them like children—but people who fail, it seems, to notice that most of their compatriots are behaving like children. This group of blinkered idealists includes most modern libertarians. Libertarianism is politics for responsible adults, with limited possibilities for a population of petulant adolescents.
I don't intend to sound patronizing. Where it comes to policy, libertarian thinking is a vital resource. The most appealing thing about Libertarians is that they aren't Democrats or Republicans, tarnished by decades of sham, corruption and gridlock. How can you go wrong with a party whose platform would decriminalize drugs, ban capital punishment and mainstream home schooling, perhaps the children's last hope in this rapidly deteriorating culture?
But you can go way wrong with some other planks in the Libertarian platform. It would eliminate taxes and welfare, trusting the poor to the Lord and private charity, or to their own untapped initiative. It opposes zoning laws and commercial regulations, and any limits on the sacred rights of private property. More alarmingly, it sides with the National Rifle Association in demanding the unrestricted ownership of private firearms.
You catch the drift of this. Steering only by principle, a libertarian often finds himself on the same course with individuals who steer only by self-interest and prejudice, and in the case of the NRA by no small degree of psychopathology. For its credibility, the libertarian ideal depends on a profound belief that most people will behave well. Yet every chapter of human history, ancient and recent, teaches us that most people will not.
I cringe when someone dares to argue that free-market capitalism will regulate itself, or that human beings in a state of nature will use their property responsibly and manage their firearms safely. Am I the only one who still reads the newspapers? Everything I've seen since I was a wide-eyed boy conservative convinces me that government—and rather more than less—is a necessary evil among the fractious race of men.
The government is no less corrupt, inefficient and insensitive than the police, and no less indispensable. Where would you dare to live without your police? To me the libertarian vision of unrestricted freedom is like putting Leavenworth and San Quentin on the honor system. Fire the guards—a bunch of sadists, perverts and drug dealers, after all—and let the felons explore their potential for mature choices and self-restraint.
Me, I believe in cops. American plutocrats emasculate Jeffersonian democracy by converting "unrestricted" property into political influence, but on occasion the elected government still embodies the will of the majority, and it's the only will on earth that could stand up to a bullying behemoth like Microsoft.
Imagine any of the games we live by without a rulebook, without a referee. Sometimes the ref blows his whistle, sometimes he just growls a warning, a word to the wise. Any government of laws exerts positive peer pressure on weak-minded citizens who respond so predictably to the negative peer pressures of bigotry, xenophobia and relentless, militant materialism.
If I'm arguing from a depressed and depressing view of human nature, it's one I've earned the hard way. If you prefer optimism that verges on denial and delusion, the Libertarians are your party. I'm afraid they're an example of the politics of "Be like me." The neo-fascists, the fundamentalists of the religious Right and the multicultural Left, are saying "Be like me or suffer the consequences." The Libertarian, a more amiable and attractive innocent, is saying "If I gave you a chance, I know your best self would step forward and you'd be just like me." Like a sincere communist, anarchist or free marketeer, he sustains his doctrine with an entirely unwarranted faith in his fellow man.
To put it bluntly, he's naive. I'm no longer much taken with utopias, or political visions that begin with "If only ... " I hate to cross swords with idealists, an endangered species that deserves support and respect. I hate to alienate these particular idealists, my co-worshipers in the Church of Privacy who would build a society so much more to my taste than the one I live in. The libertarian utopia is designed for the likes of me, for older, milder types with no burning desires that are likely to scorch our neighbors. At this stage of my life I'm a safe bet with a gun, a corporation or my neighbor's maidservant.
I don't need much government to keep me in line. But I'm not so sure about you. That's the crux of it—a sane form of government is compelled to cramp my style a little so that Ted Kaczynski's style doesn't swell up and swallow us all.
Libertarians, unconsciously elitist, assume something close to moral perfection from their recruits; the Democrats and Republicans praise us for our wisdom and virtue and patriotism, at least until our votes are in their pockets. People hear so much flattery they begin to believe it. If I had a party to call my own (I never will), it would deal with people the way they really are—sometimes wonderful, always gullible, often violent and grasping and cruel. If I could choose my government (I never seem to), it would be run by old-fashioned commonsense liberals, enemies of the be-like-me's and the holier-than-thou's.
They'd set their compass by what's reasonable, what's fair and what's feasible, in an imperfect and imperfectible world. My pragmatic idealists would help the helpless, serve the deserving and strike down the disgusting. They'd emphasize the carrot but never surrender the stick. And short of altering the genetic code, that's about the best we can do.