Thursday, February 4, 2010

Words That Have More Syllables Than Their Definition: "Libertarianism"


We've heard that word a lot lately. It's become en vogue in Albertan political circles to describe yourself as a Libertarian - especially since the political "it person" of the moment - Danielle Smith - calls herself one. Even people who AREN'T Libertarians call themselves by the label... it just sounds a lot sexier than "conservative".

But before we start trying to determine who is, and who ISN'T, a Libertarian - because of course, in Albertan political discourse, the most important thing is which broad, loosely-defined label you rally to - we need to define what, exactly a Libertarian IS.

The Libertarian social credo can be summed up thusly: "Live and Let Live".

In a nutshell, Libertarians are of the general belief that the more involved a government is in the day-to-day lives of the people, the worse off the people are. They don't necessarily believe that ALL government is bad - but they think that the government shouldn't be able to tell you what to think, how to act, or what to believe.

And I agree with them.

The similarity between the words "liberal" and "libertarian" are not accidental - they come from the same root word, "liber" - Latin for "free". The inadequacies of the old-world left-right axis to categorize political thought, then, is made all too evident by the task of trying to find somewhere for "libertarian" to fit on that spectrum... Liberals, we're taught, favour more government interference in the economy, but more tolerant and inclusive social policies. Since we rarely hear the term "fiscal libertarian", we'll focus on the 2nd half of the definition. So, if you're to the left of centre, you favour more tolerant and inclusive social policy. If you're on the right, socially, you tend to favour more government control in those areas - strict laws, prohibitions, harsher punishments for lawbreakers, government instituting legislation on moral grounds.

So where do you put a Libertarian, who wants government to set a few laws to keep people from hurting each other, and then butt out of their lives completely?

You'd be inclined, one would think, to assume that a Libertarian sounds a lot more likely to be parked on the left... "government doesn't get to tell me what to think, and they can take their stupid morality laws and shove them!". Libertarians themselves, though, tend to ardently insist that they are on the RIGHT side of the spectrum, in that they favour personal freedoms over the surrendering of those freedoms to the state.



So, here's the thing: Our political "it person" of the moment, Danielle Smith, is a smart woman. She knows everything you've just read, and she identifies as a Libertarian. And yet, much like her ideological cousins in the U.S., she's in a political party that seems poised to embrace the religious right - a group that, while completely entitled to its own views, professes a social conservative viewpoint that seems INCONGRUENT WITH LIBERTARIAN VIEWS.

In short - Danielle says she believes in "live and let live", but she's in a party whose grassroots membership may very well trend towards "do as we say".

Danielle has said, many times, that she doesn't determine policy for the Wildrose Alliance - the party membership does.

It's a stance I've gone on the record as agreeing with.

The problem IS, though, that when you delegate the entire policy-making process to the membership of your party, they could come back with just about ANYTHING - and, as leader, you've got to sell it to the voters.

I've asked before how founding members of the WAP might feel knowing that the their leader and 2 of their sitting MLA's, as well as many of the people who have joined their party in the past few months, are expatriate PC's. In effect, that the anti-Stelmach PC's were taking over their party. Talk today that the WAP has also approached other, sitting PC MLA's about running for them in the future will only add fuel to that fire - and the end of the day, what will this party look like if not Tory-redux?

I've got a more salient question to my current topic, though: How will Danielle Smith, Libertarian, be able to stand in front of the people of Alberta and, with a straight face, talk about her party's social policies when they are fundamentally opposed to her own beliefs? If the social conservative element takes over the policy-making process in the WAP, will Danielle be able to in good conscience support policies that make abortion an option only available to the wealthy? To legislate that marriage can be only between a man and woman? These sorts of social conservative policies are
anathema to the very nature of the Libertarian world-view.

We've heard time and again that the Wildrose Alliance doesn't take a position on divisive social issues - despite the fact that some of those same "divisive social issues" are in fact federally-guaranteed rights, and therefore no more a "divisive social issue" than the right for women to vote. In the short-term, until the party membership has had a chance to debate those issues, that's all fine and good. But once they DO get together and come out with a policy platform, is the policy platform they come back with going to look ANYTHING like what a Libertarian could support?

And if not, and Danielle supports it anyhow... and runs on that platform, under the promise of making it law should she win power... what does that tell us about her, and her self-described Libertarian views?

Danielle, do the right thing... this party elected you their Leader, not their Follower-in-Chief. Announce that if you get even a whiff of regressive, SoCon ideology in the party's policy platform, you'll step aside rather than betray your beliefs - the beliefs you've spent the last year telling everyone who would listen that you had.

Use the bully pulpit to shape this party into a government-in-waiting that won't send Libertarians running for the hills.

Gut check time, Ms. Smith.


Jarrett Leinweber said...

Excellent analysis and insight into the growing pains of the WRA.

Danielle Smith's resounding win over Dyrholm indicates to me that the party is moderating. WRA must be a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, big tent party if it is going to be seen as a government in waiting. To win an election the WRA will need to convince moderates, most of whom will be former PCs and the apathetic majority of people who didn't bother to vote in the last election, that they are worth voting for.

The WRA must be the party of ideas and have a clear vision for the future. Smart ideas and vision will attract bright and capable individuals who have elected to remain on the political sidelines.

I am young person who now supports the wildrose and was attracted to the party based on the fiscal conservative and social libertarian views of Danielle Smith.

I will continue to strongly support the WRA based on the stated goals of fiscal conservatism and refusal to take a position on and legislate morality on divisive social issues.

I do not push my social views on others and expect the same in return.

More importantly, we need to focus on the common values and goals we share and not the few areas where we don't see eye to eye.

Democratic reform, lower taxes, a competitive royalty regime, reducing the size of the bureaucracy in Edmonton, respecting property rights, etc.

These are just a few of the many common goals and values that libertarians and social conservatives share.

The incompetent leadership of Stelmach and the PCs has alienated and outraged Albertans across the political spectrum. It has created a void and Albertans are eager to fill.

Albertans want change. They want a government that listens to them, represents their interests and works hard to make their lives better.

It is up to the WRA to clearly communicate our vision for the future of Alberta based on these shared common values.

Anonymous said...

Some good points.

One quibble, however: "rights" do not issue from government.

Abortion and gay marriage are not "rights".

In a just society you would be FREE to have them, tho. No government should prevent them, as you DO have the right to manage your own body, and DO have the right to associate with whom you choose and call that association anything you like. Which is what arch-libertarian Ron Paul says, and what Danielle believes.

So the WAP position under Danielle will neither pay for nor prevent abortion. That is the libertarian position. Neither, if the WAP's leader has her way, will the province solemnize gay marriage, but will more likely (eventually) get government mostly OUT of the marriage biz.

Final quibble: as a libertarian, I do not consider myself "right wing", nor to most libertarians I know. Many do, admittedly.