Last weekend, America's Future Foundation (AFF) – a national organization that educates young professionals on free market economics, politics, and current events – had a table at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. The event is billed as the largest outdoor literary festival in the Midwest, drawing over 125,000 people over two days. The sheer volume of curious minds at the event means it's a great place for AFF to meet people who don't normally seek political conversation, but are open to learning new ideas.
AFF is a group of young professionals who identify as conservatives and libertarians, people who believe the government has a limited role to protect the rights of individuals and to defend the institutions of civil society, such as property rights.
This is the second year AFF exhibited at the festival, and the second year festival-goers had the opportunity to learn about libertarianism, the political philosophy that holds liberty as its maxim. We offered books by free market luminaries and administered a short survey that polled people's views on ten political issues, allowing us to place them on a grid that indicated whether the person was a libertarian, conservative, or something else.
We discovered many new libertarians at the festival. Actually, it would be more accurate to say they discovered themselves. Most people understand liberty is indivisible – that a government cannot protect a person's personal liberties without also protecting his or her economic freedoms. It is through having the freedom to earn a living in the occupation of one's choice and to keep the vast majority of one's earnings that a person can realize personal liberties, such as building a life with the person of their choice. Yes, a government is necessary to provide public goods, like courts and roads, and to offer a basic social safety net, but it is improper and destructive for government to bestow special favors or offer exemptions to the law.
Although most visitors were curious about libertarianism, a handful believed they understood libertarianism well enough to make some pretty confused or even outrageous statements.
Here are the top ten misunderstandings about libertarianism shared at the Printers Row Lit Fest:
10. You must be a member of the Libertarian Party to identify as libertarian.
Rebuttal: They have the same name, but a libertarian can be a member of any political party (or none at all). In the upcoming presidential election, some libertarians support the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, others support Mitt Romney, and still others support Barack Obama (although there will be fewer of those this election).
9. Libertarians are pacifists.
Rebuttal: Truthfully, libertarians tend to agree with Randolph Bourne who said, "War is the health of the state." Government's power grows when it mobilizes a people to fight. Self-defense is necessary when faced with a threat, but wars of choice must be opposed every time. Also, remember that a libertarian called Milton Friedman persuaded Richard Nixon to end the military draft.
8. Libertarians are against any and all economic regulation.
Rebuttal: Regulation is a crucial government duty. Government must take steps to address fraud, environmental pollution, and trade barriers wherever they appear. A free market can only work well when there are a few, simple rules by which everyone must abide.
7. Libertarians are for the few deciding the direction of the economy at the expense of the many.
Rebuttal: One visitor tried to explain how we need "many minds" to determine how the economy is structured rather than it being planned by a few corporate bigwigs. These minds would plan the economy for everyone's benefit. I then asked him whether a few government officials at the top would have superior knowledge or insight on how the economy should be planned, or whether the purchasing decisions of every participant in the market should "plan" the economy from the bottom-up. The government is comprised of people who are just as susceptible to corruption and just as limited in knowledge as anyone outside of government, and yet we're all bound by their decisions.
6. Libertarians are indifferent about monopolies.
Rebuttal: In fact, libertarians are against empowering the greatest monopoly of all: government. Why would someone be against a monopoly in computer software or food production, but support a monopoly in schooling or health insurance?
5. Libertarians advocate racist or sexist policies.
Rebuttal: Equal treatment under the law. Also, libertarians want to end the failed and destructive War on Drugs.
4. Libertarians are for private ownership of schools for the sake of private ownership of schools.
Rebuttal: This fallacy emerges regularly in Chicago, where the high school graduation rate from traditional public schools is just over 50%. We've seen how a government monopoly in schooling continues to lower standards; incentives to improve are mostly absent. Schools that must serve students or face losing them (and their attendant tuition) perform better. Private incentives work to create innovative products for satisfied customers in nearly every other sector of the economy, and they work well today for the relatively few lucky students who can attend a non-government monopoly school. Libertarians seek to make consumer-driven schooling available to the most children possible.
3. Libertarians are "wing-men for private plutocrats."
Rebuttal: The guy who said that probably enjoyed using those words repeatedly in that particular sequence. When I explained libertarians are against every form of crony capitalism (whereby a private company or organization lobbies for special treatment or benefits from government), he argued that my not wanting government to do certain things cedes those functions to an unaccountable private plutocracy. He assumed (wrongly) private businesses can somehow survive in a free market without serving their customers well. He didn't want to answer when I asked why he was a wing-man for public plutocrats who retain massive power over everyone's lives, election after election despite public disapproval.
2. Libertarians are anarchists.
Rebuttal: A couple people argued libertarians don't want any government at all. In truth, libertarians advocate a strictly limited government that protects everyone's rights equally.
1. Libertarians want poor people to die.
Rebuttal: Someone actually said that after I tried to explain how prices work to direct goods and services to the people who value them most, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. A free price system doesn't mean prices always rise necessarily, but that they change to address the scarcity and need of the moment.
Libertarians are notorious for having their own spin on the philosophy, but these ideas represent the mainstream of libertarian thought today. Libertarians do not seek to create a heaven on earth, but to discover rules and institutions that maximize everyone's freedom and prosperity. I was happy to see so many new people walk away from Printers Row with the understanding that there is a political philosophy that demands that government protect liberty as a whole, not just certain pieces of it.
Filed under: Chicago institutions