Opinion

What Else Are Libertarians Ahead Of The Curve On?

Cory Massimino Chair of Academic Programs, Students for Liberty

In 1972, the Libertarian Party endorsed gay rights in its very first platform. Four years later, they published a pamphlet by Ralph Raico making the case for the unique libertarian commitment to a free society that is tolerant of all the sorts of ways people find meaning:

On all these issues — and on many others — the Libertarian Party has adopted positions designed to move us toward a substantially freer society than the one we now have. And in our commitment to a world where gay people will have the same opportunity for meaning and dignity in their lives as all human beings, no other political party can touch us.

Libertarians have long maintained that public institutions ought to be applied to everyone equally and not discriminate based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, regardless of what minorities’ rights are being trampled on. As philosopher and libertarian Robert Nozick said, “Individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” Even if the majority of people and the government that happens to be in power doesn’t recognize or respect those rights, human beings are inherently deserving of the ability to live their lives on their own terms as long as they don’t prevent others from doing the same.

For over four decades, libertarians remained on the losing side of the battle for gay rights. While gay people are just as deserving of the rights that belong to any person, they were continually trampled on by those in power. Just seven years ago, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Joe Biden all opposed same-sex marriage. Even the top liberal politicians in the country were still clinging on to outdated, conservative norms and lacked the courage and moral fortitude to stand up for justice. Nonetheless, gay people still had the right to marry – the government was merely violating it. The right didn’t cease to exist, as libertarians have been arguing for over 40 years, but rather, it wasn’t being respected in the eyes of the law.

On June 26 the Supreme Court finally realized that 43-year-old LP plank and legalized same-sex marriage. The legal system finally recognizes the right of gay people to marry, just as any other pair of consensual adults. The institutionalized discrimination against gays in the realm of marriage is over and gay people are that much closer to having the “same opportunity for meaning and dignity in their lives as all human beings.” While no other political party could touch the libertarians in 1976 on the issue of gay rights, the rest of the country is finally catching up. And it’s about damn time.

Considering how far ahead of the curve libertarians were in the fight for gay rights, could libertarians be ahead of the curve on other important issues as well? They were shouting from the rooftops for gay rights in the 70s and it’s taken 40 years for those cries for justice to be heard. What else are libertarians saying that will someday be heard?

Libertarians, such as Murray Rothbard, have been pointing out the stupidity of the war on drugs since the 1970s, “it’s a war they can never win – perfect for the establishment.” Over the last 40 years, government spending aimed at reducing drug consumption has exploded, while the drug addiction rate has remained steady. This doesn’t surprise libertarians. Prohibition, by its nature, artificially lowers the supply of a good but doesn’t decrease the demand for the good. As a result, the good increases in price and taxpayer money is wasted on crushing suppliers. Meanwhile, the few remaining providers of the good become cartelized and violent as lawless, black markets replace peaceful, voluntary exchange between consenting parties.

Recent findings suggest Americans are finally ready to end the drug war. Two-thirds of Americans oppose prosecuting heroin and cocaine users. Over 60 percent of Americans say “state governments moving away from mandatory prison terms for drug law violations is a good thing,” and 54 percent favor marijuana legalization. There is work to be done in advancing people’s liberty to put in their bodies what they wish, but public opinion is increasingly tending towards the historical standard libertarian position on the drug war: end it.

Other wars are facing similar public opposition. The “war on terror” has justified massive government expansion in the last decade and a half. To keep Americans safe from foreign attacks, the government proclaims, they must sacrifice some of their privacy for greater security. But libertarians have always known that this is a farce. Nobel-prize winning Austrian economist F.A. Hayek surmised in the early 70s that, “Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”

Foreseeing the ways in which governments take advantage of a frightened public, Hayek correctly identified emergencies as key moments, ripe for rights violations and government intrusion. The “war on terror” continues to be used to justify a burgeoning surveillance state more reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia than a safe, free society. While Americans are more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist, bloated executive power continues to chow down on Americans’ civil liberties. And for what? Statistically, terrorism is less of a threat to me than lightning, yet I see no calls for a “war on lightning.”

The tyrannical government measures that have been thrust upon Americans in the last 15 years are finally starting to be viewed with suspicion. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Americans oppose “[giving] up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism,” and 54 percent “disapprove of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.”

Libertarians have been predicting the problems of the surveillance state for decades while Americans have largely bought into the purely political narrative that they must endure spying and snooping to be safe. Fortunately, public opinion is slowly swaying towards the side of liberty and many Americans are realizing the trade off between security and privacy is a false dichotomy. They can have both.

Another area where the historical libertarian position is gaining momentum is that of school choice. Since the 1950s, Nobel-Prize winning economist and libertarian, Milton Friedman, has been making the case for more choice in schooling. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman argued, “The injection of competition would do much to promote a healthy variety of schools.” He continued making the case for competition in schooling until he died, arguing in the 2000s that, “Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go. We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that – a system of free choice – we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.”

Libertarians have always understood that it is freedom that drives progress. The ability to freely choose among alternatives provides the kind of dynamism and incentive structure that creates economic growth and human flourishing. Insofar as the industry of education is in the hands of a government monopoly, making all the countless decisions for millions of people – decisions that ought be left up to the people actually involved: parents, educators, and children – then schooling will see no improvement.

While the last 40 years have seen massive increases in school funding, student outcomes have remained stagnant. Any libertarian could have told you that simply throwing more money at government schools wouldn’t make kids better educated. Improving the quality of schooling requires, not more funding, but alternative institutions. The mechanisms of competition and free choice lead to product improvement, not government bureaucracy and party politics.

Perhaps Americans are finally seeing the disastrous results of education devoid of choice. Or perhaps libertarians are finally getting through. Either way, public opinion is quickly and rapidly moving towards school choice:

Forty-four percent of Americans now favor allowing students to choose a private school to attend at public expense. School choice favorability has jumped 10 percentage points since last year, a sign that the proliferation of options such as vouchers, education savings accounts, and online learning is creating a welcome choice for families across the country.

If Americans wish to return progress and innovation to the education system, they will continue moving in the libertarian direction and heeding advice from Milton Friedman.

It took four decades, but Americans finally caught up to libertarians in the fight for gay rights. Of course, the fight isn’t over, but this is nonetheless a victory for justice and equality. Is this a sign of a broader trend? What else are libertarians talking about that Americans will warm up to in years to come? The drug war, the war on terrorism, and an education system lacking in choice are all issues that libertarians have been talking about for years, and it looks like the public is starting to come around to the freedom philosophy in these vital areas. Let this victory for gay rights be a reminder that social change, while often taking years, decades, or perhaps centuries, to realize, is entirely worth it. Justice always is.

Cory Massimino is a Young Voices Advocate and Students For Liberty Campus Coordinator.