“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Libertarians are sometimes described as being “conservative on economic issues” and “liberal on social issues.” Sometimes we even describe ourselves that way.
I’ve never been really comfortable with this, for several reasons:
- There is often a fine line between an “economic” issue and a “social” issue.
- Your social issue becomes my economic issue when you start asking the government to subsidize your life choices (or the consequences thereof.)
- There may be issues that are neither economic nor social. Or, maybe they’re both. (Think slavery, for an extreme example.)
- By using the language of our opposition, we are allowing them (in a way) to define us.
When trying to explain libertarianism to the “liberty-curious,” I have even sometimes used the “economic” and “social” model myself. But I always found it lacking.
Instead, I’ve started describing libertarianism in a different way.
First I ask a person to split the world up into two very broad groups: the government and consenting adults. Then ask two (also broad) questions:
Should the government be allowed to do “A,” “B,” or “C?”
We say: mostly no.
Should consenting adults allowed to do “X,” “Y”, or “Z?”
We say: Yeah, sure. Who gives a shit?
Easy peasy, right? If you believe the government shouldn’t be involved in much of anything, that more or less puts you on the liberal side of social issues and the conservative side of economic issues. Without having to use that terminology.
One could argue that as long as the government is taking well over 25% of your livelihood, economic issues are the only issues that matter. I tend to agree with that assessment.
I’ve never given a rat’s ass about social issues. I don’t care where strangers put their genitals, who or what they pray to, or what substances they put in their bodies. I was raised with a “MYOFB” (mind your own f*cking business) mindset. One thing often heard around my childhood home: “Who cares what so-and-so is doing, as long as they’re not hurting anyone?”
I was also raised to believe that everyone should work and pay their own way in life (if they are able.) Freeloaders and moochers were considered to be the absolute lowest scum of the Earth, above maybe only child molesters and televangelists.
Put “MYOFB” and “pay your own way” together. If that doesn’t distill libertarianism right down to the basics, I’ll kiss your arse.
Unfortunately, many people still get very fired up over social issues. The religious right comes immediately to mind, but also many rank and file working class folks in flyover country. Republicans have picked up on this and used it to their advantage time and again.
Think back to the presidential election of 1988. Vice President Bush was somehow in a tight race with the robotic Gov. Michael Dukakis, despite Bush having served as second in command under a very popular president and also benefiting from a roaring economy. (Poppy Bush’s less than magnetic personality probably had something to do with this.)
Fear not: Bush released the Kraken. A Kraken otherwise known as Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, who proceeded to lay waste to Dukakis in one of the more memorable negative campaigns in history. (Dubya’s “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry sixteen years later was also quite memorable.)
Atwater and Bush used a slew of attacks that were largely social in nature:
Attacking Dukakis for being a “card carrying member of the ACLU”
Railing against flag burning
Advocating for the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools
Criticizing Dukakis for the Willie Horton furlough
Three of those four attack points are largely smoke and mirrors. The only one that had any real world relevance was the Horton furlough; “law and order” is a powerful issue, perhaps even more so today. The rest were shallow, feel-good appeals to the latent jingoism lurking in many Americans.
Yet it was this shallow, feel-good, jingoistic campaign that managed to turn “liberal” into a dirty word. And it worked; Bush won forty states and 426 electoral votes. Bob’s your uncle. (Bush did not fare so well four years later against not one, but two more formidable opponents.)
Republicans have been going back to social issues to gin up their base in every election since. Economic issues often take a back seat. The GOP often rides a wave of “God, guns, and abortion” into office while ignoring lots of other things.
The thing is—Republicans often rail against these various social issues, yet when elected, prove powerless to stop their momentum. Think of all the things social conservatives were against twenty years ago that are no big deal now: LGBTQ rights. Same-sex marriage. Drug legalization (cannabis now, other things later). Immigration. Languages that aren’t English. Republicans keep fighting against social change, but social change keeps happening anyway.
Here we are in 2020. Yet, abortion is still quite legal in all fifty states, you can still burn flags (assuming it’s in fact your flag; otherwise it could be considered property damage), and the Pledge of Allegiance is still a no-show in public schools. Not to mention all those gay marriages going on out there that have completely wrecked our country. Or not.
Combine this GOP near-total failure on social issues with their profligate spending when in office (which has been, in many cases, actually worse than that of the Democrats), and you may find yourself asking— why is the Republican Party even still around?
You could even make an argument that libertarians wishing to be in one of the two major parties would be better off in the Democratic Party. At least with the Democrats, you’ll win (eventually) on social issues. With Republicans, you’re going to lose the social issues and most of the economic ones.
President Trump is the new poster child for this social issue warfare. His two campaigns have leaned heavily on such things. He lashed out against immigrants on literally the first day of his campaign. Later, he he went off on “shithole countries”, most pointedly Haiti, which is (spoiler alert) a decidedly non-white nation. He demonized Muslims. He portrayed himself as a champion of the Christian right while at the same time being quite poorly versed on Christianity itself. It almost goes without saying that he has a morally checkered past (and present) that should give holy rollers considerable pause. As recently as this past June, he was talking about flag burning, an issue almost no one has cared about since Bush vs. Dukakis.
Still, his supporters buy all this hook, line, and sinker. If a Manhattan billionaire somehow manages to become the patron saint of Joe and Jane Sixpack, that’s what we call in my business a “red flag.” It probably has something to do with how well he measures the pulse of middle America on hot button issues.
America will never return to the good old days of Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, or Happy Days. And truth be told, those good old days weren’t good for everyone. America is a weirder, more colorful place now. (“Colorful” literally and figuratively.)
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy the weirdness. Honestly, I don’t really dig diversity because of any high minded devotion to egalitarianism; I just find diversity interesting. Plus diversity brings us so many interesting restaurants. Typical selfish libertarian, I know.
If America is going downhill—and I’m not convinced that it is—I have resolved to just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
In the words of Savoy Brown:
You know some people are different
Now ain’t that a crying shame
Now wouldn’t be a real drag if we were all the same?
But now I wonder: if I ever run for office again, do you think “YEAH, SURE. WHO GIVES A SHIT?” would fit on a red baseball cap?