I remember listening to a video by a YouTuber named Steven Crowder in which Libertarians came up in the discussion. He made the statement, “When Bill Maher, Alex Jones, and Glenn Beck all consider themselves Libertarians then the term has no meaning.” The three of them have almost nothing in common and, it seems, the argument makes sense, to the extent that I have heard similar thoughts from many other political voices when discussing this topic. So, what does it mean to be a libertarian? To explain this seemingly all-encompassing term one must add to the traditional left vs. right dichotomy. If we use this as our X axis on a two dimensional graph, on the left we have liberals and Democrats and then conservatives and Republicans on the right. The roots of those terms are a bit more complicated than what we are often taught, but that is a different subject. Now we need to add a Y axis to our diagram creating the second dimension. The further up we go on that this axis the more authoritarian the philosophy becomes, and the further down we go the more libertarian the philosophy; thus creating this grid.
With this new visual we have two new directions to explain. To have an authoritarian position--moving up the top half of this axis--essentially means you believe that the government has an increasing role in that particular position. Unless you are a pure anarchist, we all have some authoritarian beliefs whether it is a social or an economic issue. For example, a democrat is typically authoritarian with positions like higher taxes and Republicans are typically authoritarian on drug policies. Moving down the bottom half of the axis, having a libertarian position on an issue means you believe the government has a decreasing role to play. Democrats took a libertarian positions when they were pushing for same sex marriage (although it was done in an authoritarian way by federalizing it) and Republicans have taken a libertarian position on gun rights issues (but they typically fracture on this when it comes to regulations).
Now that the grid is completed, what does it mean? When inspecting our political landscape from the party system, Republicans have the top right quadrant monopolized and the Democrats have the top left monopolized. Notice in my explanation above that I had to add a caveat to both parties when explaining their libertarian views. By staking their territories where they have it has left the bottom half of the grid almost unaccounted for and unrepresented on our national political landscape. That is how so many people who have almost nothing in common can call themselves Libertarians with a straight face: because they are scattered across the bottom half of the spectrum regardless of their orientation from left to right. Going back to our original scenario, if you put these Libertarians all in the same room I’m sure there would be a heated debate between Jones and Beck on the role of the federal government in the constitution, while Maher would keep trying to get them back to social issues. While the ideology of libertarianism means something completely different to each of them when they claim the title, they are nonetheless all Libertarians in this respect.
This is a very broad explanation for someone who understandably felt the way that Steven Crowder did when he asserted that the libertarian term didn’t mean anything. There are so many ways to dive deeper into this--and almost every issue out there today--because at the end of the day we only see the top half of this grid represented when we watch politicians or the media explain the issues that are currently so pressing to them. With only these two parties representing two adjacent quadrants on the same side of the spectrum calling the shots, it is no coincidence that the federal government continues to grow bigger and bigger. This is because at their core they are both authoritarian, they may have different goals to achieve with that authority but it benefits them to maintain that power.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at the debt. The exact numbers vary based on the source you decide to go by, but the national debt was roughly five trillion dollars when George W. Bush came into office and it was close to ten trillion when he left office. He, along with Congress, literally doubled the national debt that had accumulated in the previous two centuries in just eight short years. That is unacceptable by any measure, and one would not be alone in thinking the Republicans would never hold office again. But, then President Obama came into office and almost doubled that number again. He left office with the nation about 19 trillion dollars in debt. And these numbers do not even account for the unfunded liabilities the federal government has accumulated. So, what does this have to do with Libertarians? Libertarians typically seek a less involved government on most issues that, by nature, will shrink the government’s role and the amount of money it needs to spend. Thus, by implementing libertarian principles we can create a natural defense against ever growing debt. Each party, in its quest for more power, is bankrupting our nation, and election after election we hear little more than lip service from either side of the upper axis spectrum.
A man that I admire greatly once said that, after Reagan, Republicans quit teaching what they believe. I feel the same way about Libertarians. except we never really started. When I listen to most prominent Libertarians speak today, they tend to just assume the audience understands what was has been laid out in this article, and I believe that is a huge mistake. Americans today are busy, and many are lucky just to catch the news at night. When they do, they only hear from the authoritarian side at the top of the grid, but, because it’s coming from different quadrants on that grid, they believe that they are receiving both sides of the argument. The reality is that only half of the political spectrum is truly being represented in our political theatre, and there is another way of viewing this spectrum that doesn’t involve a crippling debt or a host of other issues.
If you already consider yourself a Libertarian, I urge you to take the time to explain or even teach what you believe when given the opportunity. And if you are not, I implore you to hear us out. At our core, I believe we are all Libertarians. Most of us just don’t know it yet. Whether you consider yourself a conservative libertarian on the bottom right quadrant or a liberal libertarian at the bottom left, I believe that we have more to agree on than to disagree.