TAMPA, May 20, 2012 – Thanks to Ron Paul’s extraordinary presidential campaign, libertarianism is arguably getting its best hearing in decades. It’s catching on, especially with young people. While baby boomers prepare to retire and devour Social Security and Medicare to the bone, the generations succeeding them realize that they will be stuck with the bill for these financially insolvent social programs, along with an unsustainable foreign policy.
Proceeding from its central tenet of non-aggression, libertarianism sees government the way Thomas Paine did. “Even in its best state, [it] is but a necessary evil.” Some libertarians think Paine was only half right. Either way, a libertarian government would do far less and cost far less than the one we have now.
Ron Paul has presented one of the purest libertarian platforms of any presidential candidate in U.S. history. Paul absolutely refuses to consider preemptive war and wants to “march right out” of the Middle East, Germany, Japan and Korea. He doesn’t just want to reform Social Security and Medicare; he wants to let younger workers opt completely out.
He wants to end the drug war and pardon all non-violent drug offenders. He wants to repeal the Patriot Act and subsequent “war on terror” legislation.
Paul doesn’t pitch a watered down version of libertarianism to avoid ruffling feathers within his party. When asked about a federal prohibition on gay marriage, Paul responds that the government should get out of the marriage business altogether, even at the state level, except for enforcing marriage agreements like any other contract.
However, there are a few issues where Paul’s libertarianism has been questioned. The most consequential in terms of political impact is his stance on abortion. Paul is staunchly pro-life.
Some have said this violates the basic tenets of libertarianism. The government cannot be allowed to dictate what an individual does regarding her own body. All libertarian theory is rooted in property rights and the most basic, fundamental property right is self-ownership. This precedes modern libertarianism. John Locke, the philosopher that inspired Thomas Jefferson, established this principle before the right to any other kind of property.
“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”
The progressive pro-choice argument rests firmly upon this foundation. A woman owns her body and has sole dominion over what occurs within it. While progressives generally go on to violate this principle with their support for government regulation of virtually every other decision one makes with one’s body, they are very libertarian on this issue.
Or are they?
While libertarian theory is built upon property rights, it also recognizes a natural limit to the exercise thereof. That limit is what Locke called, “the law of nature,” which is that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Based upon this limit, the woman’s rights would seem to end before she can bring harm to the fetus. Yet, libertarians recognize that everyone has a right to forcibly remove an unwanted person from his or her property. What is the libertarian answer?
This is the only area of human interaction that libertarianism does not provide an unambiguous answer for. One person literally residing inside another is the one situation where the property rights of two people truly conflict. In any other dispute, one party is right and one is wrong. One has a property right and one does not. Here, it would seem that both parties have an equal right – the fetus to his or her body, the woman to hers.
Libertarians are split down the middle. Some argue that the taking of the fetus’ life is murder and can be forcibly prohibited. Others defer to the woman’s property right in her body and argue that the fetus cannot claim a right to live at another’s expense. Unlike his libertarian hero Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul is pro-life. The Libertarian Party’s platform and its 2012 presidential candidate Gary Johnson are pro-choice.
A compelling case can be made for both positions based purely on libertarian principles, meaning libertarianism doesn’t provide a clearer answer than conservatism or progressivism.
However, libertarianism does provide answers to just about everything else that currently ails the USA. A libertarian foreign policy based upon non-aggression and a strong national defense would address not only the exploding national debt but would also reduce the resentment that contributes to terrorism. Allowing young people to opt out of the social programs would be part of a long term solution to their inevitable bankruptcy. Moving towards a laissez faire free market, without a fiat currency and central bank, would end the perennial cycle of boom and bust.
The status quo regarding abortion isn’t going to change anytime soon, no matter who is elected. Perhaps it would be more prudent to focus on our $4 trillion federal failure instead. Conservatives and progressives have had many opportunities to solve that problem. They’ve failed.
Why not give a libertarian a chance, regardless of his stance on abortion?
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.
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