There is one basic question that every society must answer: what is government for? What is its purpose and what are its proper limits?
Whether you want to call America’s current, vicious civic battles a “culture war,” or an assault by theocrats on the rest of us, one thing is clear: those waging that battle–the “warriors” who are intent upon using the power of the state to impose their beliefs on everyone else–have utterly rejected the libertarian premise upon which American government rests.
Libertarian, in this usage, refers to the nature of liberty, not today’s political ideology.
There is great wisdom in what has been dubbed the “libertarian principle.” Those who crafted America’s constituent documents were significantly influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and its then-new approach to the proper role of the state. That approach rejected notions of monarchy and the “divine right” of kings (the overwhelming authority of the state) in favor of the principle that Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they did not thereby harm the person or property of another, and so long as they were willing to accord an equal liberty to their fellow citizens.
Government was tasked with protecting that liberty.
The libertarian principle undergirds the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and its operation has been persuasive world-wide. (If we really wanted to make America great again, we would revisit and revive our allegiance to it.)
Those who crafted America’s Bill of Rights believed that individuals are entitled to basic human rights simply by virtue of being human–and they understood human rights to require respect for individual moral autonomy. The term “limited government” is recognition of that principle–“limited” isn’t a description of size, it is a limit on authority, a limit on the power of the state to invade and disregard the individual’s right to self-determination.
Handing government the power to prescribe citizens’ moral “dos and don’ts” is the antithesis of genuine liberty. If those in positions of power and authority can prescribe your life choices, and punish any deviation from officially sanctioned personal conduct, you are a subject, not a citizen–and you definitely are not exercising moral choice.
So what role should government play? What is implied by that libertarian construct?
Allow me to restate it: Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–free to “do their own thing”–so long as they do not harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to others.
Those caveats are important, and they require both action and restraint by government.
One of the most obvious purposes of government is to prevent some people from harming the person or property of others. What constitutes “harm,” of course, can be a contentious matter: does my use of profanity constitute a harm to society? What about pornography? Books with “anti-social” content? “Wrong” religious beliefs? (Contemporary Republicans insist that teaching accurate history constitutes a harm.)
Then, of course, there is that little matter of government’s responsibility for ensuring civic and legal equality….
As difficult as our arguments about the nature of the “harms” that justify government action continue to be, Americans have really balked at that second “so long as”–the one requiring those of us who insist on our own right to self-government to “accord an equal liberty to others.” Far too many of us prefer something along the lines of “liberty for me but not for thee.”
The problem with a system in which only some people have rights is that a government with the power to deny me my rights today can use that authority to deny you your rights tomorrow. Actually, a government with the power to grant and/or withdraw rights isn’t dealing with”rights” at all–it’s doling out privileges, and privileges can be withdrawn when the political environment changes.
As a wise man once told me, we’re equally free, or no one really is. Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.