Practical Libertarianism

Libertarianism has sometimes been used to argue against almost any role for government. But the key concepts of Libertarianism, free will and limitation of coercion, support a role for government that is appropriate for our modern industrial economy and consistent with our democratic ideas. Practical Libertarianism offers a realistic approach to the challenges of governing our country.

Libertarianism is based upon the primacy of free will, the idea that each and every person should have the right to choose the course of his or her life. Free will is undermined by the coercive power of institutions that keeps individuals from making decisions for himself or herself.

Often this has led Libertarians to argue against a role for the government in our economy, viewing government intrusions in the free market as undermining free will. But the ability of individuals to participate in our free market is dependent upon a role for government. We count on government to insure that each child has access to education, regardless of the ability of parents to pay for that education. We count on government to insure that every person has access to roads and highways, regardless of a person’s ability to pay taxes in support of road building. We count on government to regulate and insure access to the financial system. These and many other tasks of government take us away from the pure concept of a free market, yet are critical to insuring that each and every American can participate in the free market – the government insures that each individual has the skills and opportunities to exercise his or her free will in our economy.

Government forcing people with more resources to pay for public education, roads and financial regulations for those that can’t afford them is certainly a form of coercion, and undoubtedly a form of redistribution. But while our country has always shied away from redistribution of outcomes, we have always supported redistribution of opportunity – we have always counted on our government to extend equality of opportunity to all Americans. We count on our government to insure individual free will.

And in our increasingly complex, interconnected world, the market itself can also be coercive. We pretend that participation in all markets is voluntary, and because we can choose to withdraw the market cannot coerce us. But markets can force individuals to be involuntary participants. In 2010 British Petroleum took a calculated risk to spend less on drilling safety for its Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico. It turns out British Petroleum guessed wrong, and the resulting oil spill fouled thousands of miles of shoreline. The people that live on the shores of the Gulf did not agree to join the market for British Petroleum risk, and in fact did not even know they were participants. They were coerced into the market by British Petroleum against their free will.

This is hardly the only example of the coercive potential of the free market. We don’t think about it, but literally every square inch of our country is owned by someone or an entity. In the abstract, we are free to go wherever we want. In the concrete we are only free to go on the property we own, that is controlled by a government, or on the property of a person or business, with their approval. At a very basic level, no person in the United States has the option of not participating in our free market. If we want to drive, we have to buy gasoline from a filling station. If we want to eat, we have to buy food from a grocery store. Because we have no choice but to participate, the market has an opportunity to be coercive. Gas stations could choose to charge some customers more for their gas, or grocery stores could require consumers to purchase items they don’t want before being allowed to purchase necessities. In ways large and small, the free market can strip individuals of their free will.

Government, certainly, can be coercive and limit free will. But government can also limit coercion and extend free will. In our interconnected, industrial world, we need government to play this role. We need government to actively insure that all Americans have the skills and opportunity they need to participate in our economy and exercise their free will. We need government to protect Americans again the coercion of the market. This is the core of Practical Libertarianism – the belief that the power of government should be used to extend free will and protect against coercion. Practical Libertarianism offers a viable philosophy for governing the United States.

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