What is Libertarianism?
Libertarianism is just a modern brand of Classical Liberalism, which is the name historians give to the philosophical movement started by John Locke, expanded by Adam Smith, popularized by Thomas Paine, and written into law through the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. At least, those are a scant few who were particularly revolutionary (there is a long list of great thinkers on liberty). Some argue that libertarianism and classical liberalism differ because of the focus of the movement relating to the political situation of the day. This seems like a silly distinction, since over the last few hundred years, classical liberals have tackled a myriad of issues in as many countries. Saying it is different this time due to its focus on anti-statism minimizes the power of the message. Perhaps an overreaching, nanny-state is one of the biggest problems in our day, but it is not what defines libertarian political doctrine.
Classical liberalism can be boiled down to the principle that men (and women) have the right to life, liberty, and property (which is the means by which we pursue happiness) and that these rights should be maximized.
There are two major justifications for having these particular rights. The first is that they are ‘Natural’ in the sense that if man lived in a vacuum these rights would exist and thereby are granted by man’s creator. But you don’t need to believe in God to believe in natural rights. Anything a man could do in a state of nature, or in a state outside of any society are ‘natural rights.’ In these circumstances he could neither infringe upon the actions of others, nor have his actions infringed upon. Thus in a society that recognizes natural rights, a man may not demand any compliance or support of anyone else. These things must be given with consent, if given at all.
The second justification is that economically, spiritually, emotionally, and in all other ways humans consider desirable, liberty yields the greatest utility. Both progressives and conservatives balk at this claim, in their own way advancing agendas of social engineering or control over the economy.
You might be asking, “Wait, aren’t conservatives all about the founding fathers and the Constitution?” I don’t mean to be irreverent, because I really do think this is the most apt characterization, but, “they draw near to [the constitution] with their lips, but their hearts are far from [it].” I want to go more in depth on this topic in a later post, but for now, their reputation on crony capitalism, homeland security (the police state in general), and the expansion of government (in the executive and otherwise) do not support the basic tenants of the Constitution.
Put another way, if you look at almost anything about the Obama administration as being unconstitutional, then you should say the same things about the Bush administration, since they are virtually the same. Both parties invoke the Constitution at their convenience and ignore it the rest of the time. True, there are a few staunch defenders of the Constitution in the Republican Party today (such as Rand and Ron Paul), but they are widely regarded as libertarians.
But I digress. The truth is, libertarians are all about the Constitution (here are two great essays about Libertarians and the Constitution). Do you know who else is all about the constitution? Mormons.
Searching ‘constitution’ on Lds.org yields the following conference talk titles:
Many other talks come up that speak the same message, probably best expressed in the Doctrine & Covenants: “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose…(D&C 101:80)”. The Lord also said, “According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment (D&C 101:77,78)”.
There is a lot in those scriptures, particularly as to how the constitution plays a role in God’s plan of happiness in the U.S. (by allowing men to be moral agents unto themselves), but unpacking all that they have to offer might be best suited for another post. The point is, we have canonized scripture that clearly states: a) the Lord established the constitution, b) the founding fathers were divinely inspired, and c) the constitution ‘should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh according to just and holy principles.’ It is no surprise that Joseph Smith said, “The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner.”
Brigham Young once said, “…and when the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the “Mormon” Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it. (Journal of Discourses 2:182)” This is most likely in reference to a prophesy given by Joseph Smith, as recorded by Mosiah Hancock. Now I ask, what modern political philosophy can best serve this end? I submit that it is the one that best reflects the political philosophy held by the framers of the Constitution: Libertarianism.