Friday, August 21, 2009

Politics: A Libertarian Country

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Right-wing commentators in the United States like to assert that the US is a conservative country, and therefore any attempt at progressive change is doomed to failure, and that furthermore left-wing parties (read: Democrats) are inherently not mainstream and will never maintain power for long in favor of right-wing parties (read: Republicans). The biggest mistake the Republicans can take, in favor of those with this point of view, is to diverge from conservative principles.

There's a major problem with this assertion, and it relates to the definition of conservative discussed last week. If "conservative" is taken to mean "traditionally disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, and to limit change," then the United States clearly can't be a conservative country. Any country founded by a revolution didn't start as conservative place; a revolution is by definition a very major change. The United States has continued to change throughout its history, from major events like ending slavery or becoming a world military power to comparatively minor events like states legalizing gay marriage. Its economy is famously adaptable and changing, one of the country's greatest strengths in the world.

So what do the right-wing commentators really mean? It seems to me that they mean that the United States is a libertarian country. A common definition of "libertarian" is "favors minimal government and maximum individual freedom." This matches United States history much more closely. The emphasis on individual freedom is clear from reading the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution, and anyone who has lived in another country and the United States is amazed at the comparative emphasis on individuals over community that exists in the United States. The emphasis on minimal government also originates in the founding of the country, as the whole structure of government was designed to minimize the power of any one individual or even branch of government to avoid the kind of tyranny thought to have brought on the colonies by Great Britain. It continues to be reflected today in the visceral mistrust of government demonstrated by protesters in the current health care debate. I would go so far as to say that it would be hard to deny that the United States is a very libertarian country.

The next time a conservative starts going off about the US being a "conservative" country, listen carefully for what they actually mean. If they mean that it believes in minimal government and individual over group rights, then they really mean it is a "libertarian" country and it is hard to argue with them. If they really mean that is a country that wants to preserve its existing institutions and is ill-equipped for change, then they have their terminology correct, but they fundamentally don't understand the country.

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