How to think like a libertarian

Problems on the premises

Several years ago, I built a house on a piece of vacant land. There was some work to be done before the electrical service could be wired up, so I sent a contractor over to my neighbor’s house to ask her if we could plug an extension cord into an exterior outlet on her house so we could run some power tools. The contractor later showed up with a gas-powered generator, explaining that the neighbor refused to let us use her electricity. I had talked to this woman previously and she seemed nice enough, so I was puzzled why she would mind us powering a circular saw from her house. The next time I talked to her, I asked her if someone had come over asking if we could plug an extension cord into her house for a few hours. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I thought we was asking if he could wire your house off of mine!”

Well, no wonder she said no! She had thought I was planning on powering my entire house from hers, indefinitely. Like I was going to plug an extension cord into her house, bury it underground, and just let her pay for my electricity for the next 30 years. I can hardly imagine how a miscommunication on such a scale could occur, but once you understood what she thought the contractor was asking, her refusal seemed perfectly reasonable.

Yelling against the wall

When I get into political arguments, I often feel the way that contractor must have felt. My opinions are often greeted with befuddlement, if not outright horror, because in the absence of the proper context my opinions seem counterintuitive, unfair or even cruel. If you don’t understand why I believe what I do, you’re not going to understand the beliefs themselves. It’s as if a strange man had asked to plug an extension cord into your outlet: if you don’t understand his motivations, you might well dismiss him as a no-good freeloader.

If, for example, I say I don’t believe in gun control, or that I don’t think a business should be forced to pay for contraceptive drugs for its employees, or that I don’t think the minimum wage is a good idea, the tendency for some people is to assume that I’m asshole–that I want to children to shot, women to be treated badly and employees to be exploited. After all, what other explanation could there be?

The problem with this sort of thinking is that these people are assuming that they and I hold the same basic premises about the relationship between government, laws and individuals. There seems to be a basic human tendency to assume that one’s own deeply held beliefs are universal–that it’s impossible for any rational person to believe something fundamentally different. So if I come to a different conclusion regarding policy, then it must be because I’m somehow morally deficient.

If you assume, for example, that gun control works, that it doesn’t violate the Constitution, and that it won’t cause more problems than it solves, then of course you’d be in favor of it–unless you actually want people to get shot. Similarly, if you assume that an increase in the minimum wage actually helps the people it’s supposed to help, and doesn’t just raise prices, punish businesses, and make it harder to find entry-level jobs, then of course you’d be in favor of increasing it–unless you just don’t want people to be able to make a living. The same goes for dozens of other issues: assuming everybody holds the same premises I do, then x policy is the only sane solution. If you disagree, then clearly you’re an asshole (or racist, sexist, homophobe, etc.).

For whatever reason, when it comes to political issues, the prevailing human tendency seems to be to cast one’s opponents as morally deficient, rather than considering the possibility that other people might be starting from a different set of premises, even though charity and a basic level of familiarity with other human beings would lead one to do the opposite. People think, “What this guy is saying sounds horrible, so he must be an asshole,” rather than “What this guy is saying sounds horrible, so there must be more to it than I’m seeing right now.”

When I run into someone who is actually interested in hearing the underlying reasons for my positions, I’m usually so flabbergasted that I don’t even know where to begin. In one such discussion, I ended up outlining a few ways that one can practice “thinking like a libertarian.” Mostly these guidelines are ways to be more precise in your thinking, to avoid falling into what I call “the statist trap” — thinking that the government is the solution to every problem. If you’re not afraid that being exposed to a different way of thinking will irrevocably corrupt your soul, read on.

Six Ways to Think Like a Libertarian

1. Don’t use the word “we” or “society” when you mean “the government.” If, when you say “we need to do something about x,” you mean that the government must take some action, then you are eliminating any serious discussion of people as individuals ever doing anything about a problem without government intervention. Yes, some problems require government intervention, but some can be solved by “us” outside of government. By conflating “us” with the government, you are essentially skipping an important step in the argument, wherein you would demonstrate that the only way for “us” to do solve the problem at hand is through state action.

2. Don’t use passive voice to explain what the government should do. For example, don’t say, “That should be illegal.” Or “That shouldn’t be allowed.” Say “The government should put a stop to that.” Statists like to use the passive voice because it ignores the presence of the state as a coercive agent, as if a law against smoking marijuana somehow magically makes marijuana disappear, when what it actually does is empower men with guns to imprison people smoking it.

3. Better still, rather than say that the government should “stop” something, be specific about what you want the government to do. Don’t use weasel words like “reasonable gun control”, “common sense reforms, or “livable wage.” And for the love of all that’s good and true, don’t ask the government to “do something” or “take action.” Government “did something” about terrorism, and we ended up spending $2 trillion invading the wrong country. It “took action” against drug abuse and we ended up with the highest incarceration rate in the world. “Doing something” is not necessarily better than doing nothing. If you simply urge the government to “do something,” you’re ratcheting up the volume level of the discussion without adding any value.

4. Understand that all laws are ultimately enforced at the point of a gun. Want to enact a $1 fine for walking on the grass? Swell. What happens if I don’t pay? Additional penalties get levied against me, right? What if I don’t pay those? I get thrown in prison. What happens if I try to escape prison and go on with my life? I get shot. The fact that I’m not consciously aware of this entire process when I walk around the grass is irrelevant. Ultimately, I’m acting out of fear of starting a chain of events that, taken to their logical conclusion, gets me shot. Behind every law is a man with a gun. So every time you vote for another law, you give more power to people with guns.

5. Be clear about what you mean when you say something is a “right”. The Founders envisioned rights very narrowly; basically, they believed that people had the right to be left alone, as long as they weren’t bothering anyone else. In their view, rights predate government, so it’s impossible to have a “right” to a job or free health care, because in the absence of a government to provide free stuff, there could be no guaranteed jobs or “free” stuff paid for by taxpayers. You have the right (ha!) to your own definition of the word “right,” but if your definition differs from the definition used by the Founders, the onus is on you to explain what your definition is. And whatever definition you use, realize that “rights” imply corresponding obligations. If you have a right to free stuff, then someone else has an obligation to provide you with free stuff. If you use the word “right” without having any idea what a “right” actually is, or who possesses the corresponding obligation, then you aren’t making a coherent argument.

6. Understand that people are not magically transformed into virtuous agents when they act on behalf of the government. People are people, wherever they are. So if you’re trying to fix a societal problem like greed, violence, or sexual immorality by using the power of government, realize that the people inside the government are likely to be just as greedy, violent and immoral as those outside. By giving government power over these things, all you’re doing is transferring the problem from the scope of individuals to that of government. People who argue for “income redistribution,” for example, tend to forget that the people in charge of the redistribution process are likely to be just as greedy as the people whose money is being taken. The result is that money ends up in the hands of bureaucrats and their political allies, rather than the people who need it.

I don’t think any of these guidelines are particularly controversial. In fact, you could easily follow all of these rules and still not be a libertarian. But by being clear in one’s language, and not making unwarranted assumptions, it becomes a lot easier to understand the positions of those who tend to be skeptical of government-centric solutions to complex problems. Try it sometime. It’s fun!