Trying to identify the one thing – the one sentiment – the one perception – the one belief – the one value – that separates libertarians (and classical liberals) from others is risky. The world’s not that simple.
But I’ve become convinced that a major difference separating libertarians from non-libertarians is libertarians’ hostility to secular superstitions.
I’m not talking here about belief in spiritual deities. Many libertarians (like myself) are atheists; many others (like my co-blogger Russ Roberts) are deeply religious. But almost by definition, all libertarians reject the notion that the state is something other than a human institution deserving more credence, respect, deference, and trust than is commonly given to other human institutions such as supermarkets and bowling leagues.
Libertarians understand in their guts that flags, anthems, marble domes and columns, fancy titles, embassies, and majoritarian-voting procedures do not transform human beings and human institutions into something higher than human beings and human institutions.
There’s nothing special about the policemen who protect my house from burglars, my son from kidnappers, and my wife from rapists. There’s nothing special about the troops who protect us from foreign armies and terrorists. These activities are important and valuable when done properly. But there’s nothing special about them. Nothing about these activities gives the people who carry them out any exceptional claims upon our affections or wallets.
If the policeman or soldier agrees to render unto me a certain degree of protection in exchange for $100 of my money, neither of us owes anything more to the other as long as I pay him $100 and he performs his contractual duty accordingly. I owe him no special allegiance just because he specializes in using force to counteract force. Nor does he gain superhuman knowledge or wisdom just because he is a force-specialist.
And nor should the fact that we today choose our force-specialists collectively – mostly by voting – give force-specialists dispensation from the normal rules of decency that we expect to be followed by our friends, neighbors, and others who specialize in something other than force.
And yet secular superstitions routinely elevate force-specialists into a priestly class. Force-specialists do get special privileges; they are treated as if they are inherently more trustworthy and more important than non-force-specialists.
Consider the lamentable U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down today in the case of Kelo v. City of New London. In it, the Supreme Court (well, five of its members) ruled that local governments can seize property from private citizen A and give it to private citizen B if it, the government – the gaggle of force-specialists – declares publicly a belief that such seizures will create jobs and increase the amount of money the force-specialists will succeed in forcibly extracting from non-force-specialists.
Suppose that a majority of this very same group of nine black-robed worthies were to declare that I, a private citizen, can poke a gun in my neighbor’s nose and demand that he sell his house to me so that I can give or sell it to someone else. The only condition demanded of this ‘court’ is that I proclaim with as much sincerity as I can muster that my seizure of this house will ‘improve the neighborhood’ and generate more income for me — more income that I promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, to spend wisely on further efforts to improve the neighborhood.
Would you – would anyone – respect such a ruling of this ‘court’?
The only reason the City of New London and other governments have the audacity to seize the property of others, the only reason a ‘court’ of seemingly adult and learned citizens upholds such seizures, and the only reason such a ruling and the seizures it permits will be widely respected is because We the People believe, without warrant or reason, that force-specialists possess supernatural powers and dignity.
We worship and raise hosannas to force-specialists. Why?