Since this blog started, back in September, 2008, readers have seen numerous comments regarding the inefficiencies of the public sector and the greater efficiencies of the private sector; the power of markets relative to the powerlessness of monetary policy and spending to stimulate growth; and the fatal flaws of legislation (e.g., Obamacare) that pretends to better organize significant portions of the U.S. economy. This has been the weakest recovery on record not because government has failed to do enough, but because government has done far too much: too much "stimulus," too much regulation, and too many mandates. It is my fondest hope that the electorate is beginning to understand this, and that the 2016 elections will result in a mandate for less, rather than more, government.
Readers will also know that I am a huge fan and supporter of the Cato Institute. The scholars who inhabit Cato are some of the best thinkers on the planet.
Cato's David Boaz is arguably the best spokesman for what it means to be a "Libertarian." He recently published The Libertarian Mind, an excellent book that explains the Libertarian world view in a way that most people can understand, yet in a way which too few people have seen. The book was distilled in a superb essay in Cato's recent Policy Report, which I highly, highly recommend. Here are just a few excerpts—read them, but please read the whole thing if you possibly can. His main point is that too many politicians these days—on both sides of the aisle—try to convince us that our collective identities are more important than our individual needs and ambitions. That sleight of hand can and does lead to huge problems that, fortunately, can be solved by fairly simple remedies.
Individuals are, in all cases, the source and foundation of creativity, activity, and society. Only individuals can think, love, pursue projects, act. Groups don’t have plans or intentions. Only individuals are capable of choice, in the sense of anticipating the outcomes of alternative courses of action and weighing the consequences. Individuals, of course, often create and deliberate in groups, but it is the individual mind that ultimately makes choices. Most important, only individuals can take responsibility for their actions.
But what about society? Doesn’t society have rights? Isn’t society responsible for lots of problems? Society is vitally important to individuals. It is to achieve the benefits of interaction with others, as Locke and Hume explained, that individuals enter into society and establish a system of rights. But at the conceptual level, we must understand that society is composed of individuals. It has no independent existence.
The human need for cooperation has helped to create vast and complex networks of trust, credit, and exchange. For such networks to function, we need several things: a willingness on the part of most people to cooperate with others and to keep their promises, the freedom to refuse to do business with those who refuse to live up to their commitments, a legal system that enforces the fulfillment of contracts, and a market economy that allows us to produce and exchange goods and services on the basis of secure property rights and individual consent.
Today libertarians believe, as John Stuart Mill famously wrote, that “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” That applies to gay people and to everyone else. Thus libertarians oppose laws criminalizing any consensual sexual activity among adults, in the United States and elsewhere. Many libertarians argue for the complete privatization of marriage, making marriage a matter of individual contract and for some people a religious ceremony, thus removing any need for state recognition of marriages.
How fares the individual in America today? Conservatives, liberals, and communitarians all complain at times about “excessive individualism,” generally meaning that Americans seem more interested in their own jobs and families than in the schemes of social planners, pundits, and Washington interest groups. However, the real problem in America today is not an excess of individual freedom but the myriad ways in which government infringes on the rights and dignity of individuals.
Libertarians sometimes say, “Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult.” Libertarianism is the kind of individualism that is appropriate to a free society: treating adults as adults, letting them make their own decisions even when they make mistakes, trusting them to find the best solutions for their own lives.