Liberally Speaking

The Basics of American Libertarianism

Feb. 24, 2011

By Steve Mount

For the second year in a row, Ron Paul, a Republican Representative from Texas, won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The straw poll is seen as an indication of the most conservative voters’ choice for a presidential candidate in the next big election.

Paul has long been a darling of the extreme right. But I’m not here to write about CPAC, the straw poll, the 2012 presidential election, or even Ron Paul specifically. Instead, my topic this week is libertarianism.

Paul is widely seen as one of the most striking examples of a libertarian, and his rise to the top of the CPAC straw poll may signal a resurgence of libertarian sentiment in the far right wing of the conservative mindset.

The United States is host to the Libertarian Party, self-described as our third largest party, in terms of registered members. The Libertarian Party describes itself thusly:

“Our vision is for a world in which all individuals can freely exercise the natural right of sole dominion over their own lives, liberty and property by building a political party that elects Libertarians to public office, and moving public policy in a libertarian direction.”

Taken at face value, this statement sounds appealing. Boiled down to its basics, the statement expands on libertarianism’s two basic principles: freedom of thought and freedom of action.

The first of these is easy – I absolutely agree with the principle of freedom of thought. In fact, I think most Americans are on board with this basic principle.

It is in the second basic principle, freedom of action, that libertarians and I diverge. That being said, I agree with the broad idea that people should be allowed to do what they want, when they want, as long as no one else is harmed. The principle, though, taken to its logical extremes, quickly becomes troublesome.

The individual is important. But society matters, too. It has an interest in ensuring that its members are not only happy but healthy, too.

For example, under a libertarian state, the unregulated use of any substance would be perfectly fine, and government attempts to regulate those substances would not be allowed. Over time, science has made it clear that use of tobacco products is detrimental to any person’s health. There is not a single seriously-reported positive benefit of tobacco consumption.

Recognizing this, we tax tobacco products to the point where they are unaffordable by many; and the revenue is used, in part, to discourage further tobacco use. Such taxes and programs are completely contrary to the libertarian principle that anyone should be allowed to smoke or chew, period.

Similarly, libertarians do not see a place for government in social services. They would much rather see the poor, sick, and elderly taken care of by private charities, with funds willingly donated by individuals. Again, I agree with this in principle, but when reality raises its ugly head, it is clear that relying on private entities is insufficient.

A government such as ours should offer a minimum safety net. It cannot and should not be the only safety net, but in a society where we value human life and dignity above all other things, leaving this role to private charities is wrong-headed.

We often say that we live in a democracy. But this is not true. In a pure democracy, majority always rules. The rights of the minority are not relevant. In fact, “the rights of the minority” is a concept that a pure democracy does not hold. Instead, we live in a society that adheres to democratic principles, taking the best parts of democracy, like “one person, one vote,” and integrating them into our own system.

Likewise, libertarianism has a lot of great ideas. Its basic principles of freedom of thought and freedom of action are important to each of us. We accept these libertarian principles in general, and have integrated them into our system; applying modifications for the betterment of all members of our society.

Those who call themselves libertarians must continue to adhere to their principles – it is their right and duty. If they have ideas that are good for our country as a whole, it is only through their continued advocacy that those ideas will move from the fringes to the mainstream. With Republican Ron Paul as a de facto head of the movement, these principles will get a fair airing, and exposure to ideas is a benefit to us all.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at