While individuals' views on the proper role of government in society are often highly nuanced, the debate played out through the media tends to split down a single major fault line: Liberals and the left are supposed to be for expansive government as a mechanism to cure all sorts of social ills, while conservatives, libertarians, and the right are supposed to be for limited government, often one so small that you could "drown it in the bathtub."
I've never really understood this schism. Government is a tool, and like any tool it can be used skillfully or ineptly, and for both good ends and ill ones.
So we don't have to allow ourselves to be defined by this false dichotomy: I, for one, am a pro-government libertarian.
Many will argue that that is an oxymoron, or that I'm trolling. Such is the strength of belief in the left-right paradigm. But I promise, I am not.
Now, some background: I was first drawn into libertarianism in my early 20s, after a brief flirtation with Marxism in my teens. What interested me about Marxism was its promise to radically overturn the vast array of material disparities visible throughout society.
Growing up in Northern England in Stoke-on-Trent, an economically depressed post-industrial city, I witnessed a lot of social deprivation — derelict housing, urban decay, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and a deep sense of hopelessness. It was a city struggling to find its footing after its major source of employment — the pottery industry — went overseas (mostly to China and Indonesia) seeking out cheaper labor. What was left was a shell of a service economy, and hordes of welfare claimants.
Marx's explanation for the root of my hometown's problems — capitalist exploitation — provided a plausible explanation for the social ills I witnessed. But a few months of studying Marxism soon made me realize that Marxism was an extremely flawed political and economic philosophy. Not only was its diagnosis of society's ills suspect, but history illustrated that Marx's want for violence begot violence. In every single historical instance of Marxist revolution, revolutionaries gained power through a violent overthrow, if not a civil war. The governments that grew out of these violent revolutions and brutal civil wars tended to remain violent, brutal, and paranoid, more concerned with purging rivals and imprisoning dissidents than helping others and building up a strong, self-sustaining economy. I was left with a profound moral and intellectual disgust for Marxism, and a strong desire for a less violent ethos.
This led me to libertarianism.
Libertarianism is often portrayed as a fringe ideology — the domain of eccentric perennial candidates like Ron Paul, gun-toting militia-men, Tea Partiers who allege that Obama's birth certificate is a fake, and wealthy businessmen looking for a coherent ideology to justify their aversion to taxation.
And the modern libertarian movement includes all of those elements. But libertarianism's philosophical heart is the non-aggression principle, the moral stance that coercion unless in self-defense is morally illegitimate. The state should limit its role to that of a night-watchman: defense, policing, enforcement of contracts, emergency rescue, and the level of infrastructure necessary for commerce. In other words, just enough to prevent societal violence and create the conditions necessary for a market economy.
But what really interested me — and the main reason I still consider myself to be a libertarian — was the experimentalism of libertarian capitalism, the idea that the free market is a giant laboratory for economic and social discovery where the forces of market competition validate socially useful products, systems, and ideas, and discredit unpopular ones. The failures of companies and social systems provide important information about what isn't sustainable and needs to either be rebuilt, replaced, or abandoned. Society grows in a beneficent cycle of creative destruction. The stagnation I had witnessed growing up wasn't caused by capitalism per se — it was caused by the absence of those fires of creative destruction.
But my admiration for experimental capitalism is why I began to depart from conventional libertarianism: the government institutions necessary to achieve and maintain a system of experimental capitalism seem to exceed those of a night-watchman state. In other words, I realized that the existence of a free market itself requires a lot of government. Indeed, absent these institutions, markets tend toward feudalism or breakdown.
The history of the Great Depression in the 1930s — where mass unemployment and severe deflation in Germany led to the collapse of democratic capitalism and the rise of the Nazis — illustrates that capitalism can collapse entirely if forces such as deflation and mass unemployment are not kept in check. Countries exhibiting severe economic inequality — such as pre-Soviet Russia, pre-Maoist China, and pre-Revolutionary France — can be prone to violent revolution or civil war. So stabilizing the economy through maintaining a stable currency, keeping unemployment low through employing idle resources, and redistributing enough wealth to prevent the acceleration of economic inequality is as crucial for the sustained existence of economic freedom as maintaining defense forces, courts, police, and building roads and bridges.
So too are institutions of public health. Individuals cannot participate or compete in the economy if they are dying of curable diseases, afflicted by productivity-sapping chronic conditions, or killed or injured by food poisoning or industrial or environmental pollution.
The conventional libertarian response to these arguments is that the coercive taxation necessary for such endeavors violates the non-aggression principle — if you refuse to pay your taxes, the state will send police to arrest you, and a court will send you to jail. But conventional libertarians allow the state to tax in the interests of maintaining national defense, police, and courts, because they are necessary precursors to a free market system. Why can't other functions of government play an important role in realizing that ideal too?