Fiscally Conservative, Socially… Uh…
by BILL READER
Like every small-L libertarian everywhere, I am perpetually required to explain my beliefs to people who have me confused with one of the wide range of big-L Libertarian ideologies. And it was in one of these endless, unread letters to the internet about the difference between Anarcho-Syndicatilist-Voluntarist-Mocha-Grande-Double-Thunder-Signature-Homestyle-Extra-Crispy Libertarianism and libertarianism as practiced by sane people that I realized — the classic representation of a generic libertarian to a person new to the term has changed. Or rather, it should change.
Now, doubtlessly many of you will have been quicker on the uptake on this point, but here is how the average layperson (who even knows what libertarianism is) hears about libertarianism: fiscally conservative, socially liberal. Don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s heard that. Following the new Reason study on millennials, which found a profile somewhat matching that definition, there are tons of people concluding millennials are libertarians (Someone ought to study the effects of being endlessly over-examined and studied on a generation’s behavior. It didn’t do good things for boomers, I know that.).
Here’s the problem. As I was writing my rebuttal it suddenly fell on me that “Socially liberal” doesn’t mean what it used to. It used to mean — well, in any case, it used to be plausibly interpretable as — wanting the government to be uninvolved in social matters. But to the extent that the Democrats represent social liberalism anymore, here’s what it means now.
It means that I can force you to buy contraception, abortions, vasectomies, hysterectomies, sex-change operations and, really, anything else I deem even marginally related to sex, regardless of your personal moral beliefs. Out goes keeping the government away from the bedroom, in comes getting three government lobbyists and a tax inspector in on the action. Hope you bought a sturdy boxspring! Why do you have to buy these things? Because if it’s not subsidized it’s illegal. So why can’t I make you buy me guns, which I remind you I have an actual constitutional right to (I assure you the founders DID have prophylactics, even if they were made of leather, so we must assume the right to have them provided by the state was forgotten, not excluded)? But guns ought to be illegal, because why would you want guns anyway? It’s to kill black people, isn’t it? Shut up, racist.
It means that I can force churches, in even more blatant contravention of the first amendment, to marry gay couples. Never mind that the federal government, an institution whose only role should be mediation of interactions between states and representation of the states as a whole to the world, has no business in a wedding unless Maryland and Ohio get hitched. Marriage is all wrapped up in federal tax law, so in a parody of droit du segnoir, the government gets to participate in the entire life of both members in a married couple, forever. If you want to turn marriage over to contract law, which already has a country-wide body of legal precedent and which does not give a fig what the genders of the parties are, you’re homophobic and probably also sexist.
Speaking of which, it also means that you accept without question the claims of feminists, who of all the constituent parties of the left have gone the furthest off the deep end. Women’s rights is a pretty easy social issue. I believe women should have equal rights, the way I believe people of different races should have equal rights. Hell, it’s so basic I practically don’t even think about it. It’s like asking whether people have a right to breathe. But if you’re “socially liberal” then you see actual equal rights for women and minorities as sexist and racist. When a Democrat says equal rights for women, they mean throwing out sixth amendment rights for males, massive settlements in favor of women, believing that writing lengthy dissertations about the inherent evils of PIV is empowering and intellectual as opposed to jaw-droppingly insane (If you don’t know what that is, I wish I could see your expression when you Google it), and believing that rape culture is everywhere even as the definition of “rape” is reduced to feeling that someone has done something sexually inappropriate in your vicinity.
For that matter, believing that people of different races should have equal rights isn’t socially liberal any more. “Socially liberal” is believing people of different races are interchangeable widgets who can be hired according to quotas rather than competence, believing that disliking the president with arguably the worst economic and foreign policy record in living memory is purely because he tans well (to which I respond that Kerry, I’m sure, would have done just as badly, and I recall that he tans very poorly), and believing that wanting to protect our southern border is an act of racism rather than a defense of our cultural values (For that matter, it means throwing out the idea that a country even can have cultural values. And here I fear many of my fellow libertarians often wander into the weeds, especially the one-world, no-conflict crowd. It’s sad when even libertarians fail to understand the tragedy of the commons. But I could write an entire post about that, and if Sarah lets me, I may just.).
Even the little things don’t hold anymore. I want federal laws on marijuana taken off the books. As with marriage, it’s out of the government’s jurisdiction. And in all jurisdictions I believe it’s a silly thing to regulate, just as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are silly to regulate, but I at least respect the rights of citizens in individual states to say differently. Utah may well decide it wants to regulate alcohol and caffeine. Could it fairly be called a misrepresentation of the constituency in, say, Salt Lake City? Besides unless the government coerces states, as it does with the highway money to hold the drinking age where it is, there will always be a few states that allow marijuana. Democrats, to the extent they even do want action on marijuana legalization (the Obama administration, as in all things, talks a good game, but walks like it’s lame), would see it done through a federal amendment and the usual Washington pushing and pulling for general compliance. “Socially liberal” that may be, but a libertarian who turns around and asks for a centralized, top-down solution to a problem needs to examine the meaning of their terms.
I could go on forever, because the corruption of the Democratic party and, by extension, the public’s understanding of what “socially liberal” means has extended so deep an entire shelf of books could easily be written on the subject. Many of you will say it doesn’t matter. “Socially liberal” still means what it means regardless of how it’s used. I have a hunch you might also call yourself a “classical liberal”. I am forced to remind you again that you are misunderstanding how languages work. How words are used is primary and absolute in a language. Their technical definitions, as written in the dictionary, might as well be scribed in sand for all they mean beyond those pages. This is why languages known only through their written form are classified dead. Just as people who argue that “irony” should only be used in the strict theatrical sense are wrong, you too are wrong. You are dooming yourself to perpetually confusing those you communicate with and weakening your own ability to argue points over semantic disagreements. We both have an idea what “socially liberal” ought to mean, but I promise you that when we’re done hammering out the perfect definition between ourselves it will still mean the things I have said above to thousands of people out there. That, and many, many worse things, besides.
What am I, therefore? I am fiscally conservative and socially… well, socially libertarian. I believe in reserving to the states and to the people those rights and duties not clearly associated with mediating interactions between states and representing the United States as a whole to the world. I believe that, wherever possible, the individuals closest to an issue or, at worst, the state in which groups of individuals closest to an issue reside, should be allowed to decide on social issues. As a lodestar in that discussion I believe the best solutions will be the ones that involve the least paperwork, the least government interference, and the least litigation, but I also believe that groups and citizens alike are happiest, and find the best solutions fastest, when they are allowed to do things which I consider stupid. Because, ultimately, I am willing to admit that I am not omniscient, and suspect from history and from established patterns what the answers are, rather than knowing them absolutely. I am willing to let the laboratory of states take my hypotheses and test them. I do not demand 50 uncontested replicates of every idea, followed by endless press releases explaining the experiment was a success regardless of the actual results. I am many things. But I am no longer what we call a “social liberal”.