The Libertarian Alamo

The horrible tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma reminds one that libertarians are people who like gambles in which heads, they rake it in; tails, you pay. They object to government regulations, even those of local municipalities, that would require residents in tornado-prone areas to include a life-saving "safe room" in their homes -- objecting even to requirements that such safe rooms be included in schools. Yet they then have the temerity to complain bitterly when federal aid for cleaning up and rebuilding their homes is delayed.

"This is a red state," notes state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, in explaining the state legislature's refusal to pass his several bills requiring the construction of safe rooms, adding, "People don't like anything that is mandated. They don't like it when the government says they have to do something." Similarly, the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association, spokesperson Mike Gilles, who opposed a law requiring that homes have a safe room, explains: "Most homebuilders would be against that because we think the market ought to drive what people are putting in the houses, not the government." However, these libertarian sentiments did not prevent officials in the Oklahoma City suburb from complaining that $2 million in federal grants to pay for "safe rooms" in 800 homes had been delayed by a shortage of funding and FEMA requirements. And now the same two Oklahoma senators who voted against federal aid for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are now demanding federal assistance to help with the damage inflicted by the tornado. So far, some 4,200 people from the region have applied for federal assistance.

The libertarian rank hypocrisy runs much deeper and further than these post-tornado cries for help, which surely deserve our sympathy. And it needs yet another debunking, as there is a sharp rise in libertarian sentiment among the general public. While only small minorities vote for libertarian presidential candidates, their views were long embraced by nearly half of all Americans according to polls conducted by CNN, and have gained a sharp increase in following, up to a strong majority of all Americans -- roughly two thirds as of 2011. Libertarian Ron Paul was on the short list of candidates for the GOP's presidential nominee in the last election, and Rand Paul is considered to be a serious contender for the next one.

The essence of the libertarian argument, as even middle school kids know these days, is that I am a grown up, I know what is good for me (and my family), and if I want to engage in risky behavior, it is none of your business, because I am the one who will have to live with the consequences of my actions. What, for some reason many overlook, is that the last part of the statement has no leg to stand on.

When libertarians get hurt because they refused vaccination or to wear a seat belt or a motorcycle helmet, or have their property damaged because they build too close to the shoreline -- they call on ambulances, hospitals, and FEMA for help.

They claim that they paid for these services with their tax dollars, but it turns out that what they pay does not even begin to cover the costs of training the doctors and nurses and building the hospitals. Instead, a good part of the funding for these emergency services comes from the national debt that libertarians claim to so hate, and which they want to reduce -- by cutting services to other people, especially those on food stamps and Medicaid. The rest of the money comes from the savings of those people who acted responsibly -- but pay taxes just the same. Libertarianism is, thus, basically an agenda that calls for a transfer of wealth from responsible citizens to the self-indulgent ones.

The philosopher most often cited by those who study libertarianism is John Stuart Mill. He famously called for letting people do whatever they please, even if they harm themselves through their actions (with rare exceptions). However, even he rejected any behavior that harms others. Hence he would have had no trouble with banning smoking in public, setting speed limits, protecting the environment, controlling guns, requiring that people pick up after their dogs, and surely not charging others when risky behavior comes back to bite you in the tush.

True, regulations can go overboard. When the connection between a particular behavior and the harm to others or the public is weak and tenuous, people should be allowed to follow their proclivities. Anyone who enjoyed a brownie with a diet coke or a salad with a tall drink, knows that reducing caloric intake from one source does not a diet make. There is little reason to believe that preventing people from purchasing 16 ounces sodas would have a discernable effect on their obesity. And requiring that those who transport milk follow the same safety rules to avoid spills as those who transport oil fails by Mill's principle as it does any other sensible consideration. The same goes for requiring that people obtain a government license before calling themselves an "interior designer." It follows that the argument ought to be about which regulations are sensible (quite a few) and which are not (a fair number) rather than opposing regulation a a matter of principle, to which one holds until a storm hits.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of International Relations at the George Washington University and the author of over twenty books, most recently Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World.