Will the real libertarians please stand up?

Gary Johnson Libertarian Presidential Candidate
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In the late 1970’s, with interest rates, inflation and taxes at back-breaking levels, a broad array of politicians and interest groups with a shared conviction that excess spending, taxes and regulation must be turned around coalesced into a “conservative movement” that elected Ronald Reagan and set into motion a fundamental shift in American politics. That coalition included a lot of different interests who did not necessarily agree on all issues, but for whom the imperative to save the economy was the rightful priority of the day.

The result was a “movement” that had the effect of expanding the traditional definition of conservatives beyond the one embodied in the likes of Barry Goldwater, and to an extent, Ronald Reagan — a traditional definition that essentially described those among us who believe that government intrusion in our lives and the cost of that government must be kept to the minimums required to protect our liberty and individual freedom. Over time, the conservative movement came to include not only those traditional conservatives, but also those who wanted not just less spending and taxes, but who also opposed, for example, abortion and gay marriage, and who supported policies to protect and promote “values.”

In short, we ended up with a disconnect in which conservatism became a bit selective: Smaller government and greater freedom . . . except for abortion, gay rights, and the whole gamut of “social issues” in which many wanted the government to be involved, notwithstanding the notion of smaller and less intrusive government.

To deal with that disconnect, there emerged labels like “social conservatives” and “fiscal conservatives” and other hyphenations. In the process, policies and positions came to be described as “conservative” that, in fact, were not entirely consistent with the philosophy that spawned the movement in the first place.

Today, with the ascension of the Tea Party movement and a rejection of government-gone-wild like we have never seen before, I fear we are on the verge of another label-morph. This time, however, the potential morphing applies to libertarian philosophy.

As one who, since long before it was fashionable, has lived and governed according to what is essentially a libertarian approach, I am certainly encouraged by the fact that we have reached a point in American politics at which attaching a libertarian label to one’s views is considered a good thing. At the same time, I fear the beginnings of “label creep” — at the expense of intellectual and philosophical consistency.

Granted, there have long been many varieties of libertarianism, with philosophies ranging from minarchism to Austrian economics to libertarian socialism all being lumped together as different flavors of libertarian thought. In the U.S., however, a basic and intellectually sound set of principles has largely come to define what it really means to be a libertarian in the American political belief system.

Those ideas are simple: Maximum liberty; government that is essentially limited to protecting individuals’ freedom, lives and property; individual responsibility; tolerance; civil liberties; and, a truly free market.

If one takes these principles to heart — without a bunch of asterisks — governing becomes easy. If you hedge, but want to act like a libertarian, it gets complicated.

I am frankly amused at the angst among not only Democrats, but many Republicans, over the feasibility of cutting 40% of the federal budget to live within our means. Applying a principled libertarian “screen” to the federal government as it exists today quickly reveals that it simply shouldn’t be doing much, if not most, of what it does. Whether it be health care, housing, or education, the government either shouldn’t be involved at all — or at most, should be dealing with it at the state or local level, as the Founders clearly intended.

A government that protects liberty and individual responsibility should not be in the messy business of imposing value judgments on its citizens. If one believes that government has neither the right nor the moral authority to tell individuals how to live their personal lives, a host of issues ranging from gay rights to the regulation of the foods we eat become far less vexing.

The point is clear: As traditional politicians and their parties rush to repackage and realign themselves to try to exploit Americans’ clear movement toward real liberty and truly constrained government, it is critical that adherents to libertarianism not allow themselves to become hyphenated, regardless of their formal political affiliation.

We either believe in liberty . . . or we don’t.

Gary Johnson, a Republican and two-term Governor of New Mexico from 1994-2002, has been a consistent and outspoken advocate for efficient government and lowering taxes. As Governor of New Mexico, Johnson was known for his common-sense business approach to governing. He eliminated New Mexico’s budget deficit and cut the rate of growth in state government by 50%.