The Thin Line Between Libertarianism and Anarchy
Before 2007, most Americans probably did not know what a libertarian was, or where one fit along the familiar political spectrum. Vague notions of liberty, radicalism, and Montana may have come to mind. During the 2008 presidential campaign, however, Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, brought libertarian ideals to the fore of American consciousness. It was Paul, not Senator Hilary Clinton, Governor Mitt Romney, or Senator Barack Obama who set the campaign’s fundraising records with his $6 million Money Bomb. Paul attracted further attention when he disagreed with other Republican candidates about the War in Iraq. Listening to his rhetoric, laced with allusions to the Constitution and references to “small government” and “non-interventionist foreign policy,” people began to gain a substantive understanding of libertarianism, and many found themselves agreeing with a line of political thinking that fits neatly neither on the Left nor Right.
Although people, particularly academics, tend to haggle over what exactly it means to be a libertarian, the concept of a “small government” is a necessary element. A small government, in this sense, is one that does little in the way of taxation, spending, and regulation. Advocates of small government often frame their position in terms of a government of enumerated, and therefore limited, powers. The idea comes from the early defenders of the Constitution during the state ratification debates, and it was their reason for opposing a bill of rights. Excepting the amendments, the Constitution contains mostly grants of power. The idea was and is that government could exercise those specifically enumerated powers and no others. The short story of American history is that government practice has not supported this view.
The constitutional basis does not seem to be the only reason libertarians want small government: they tend to think it’s good policy, too. Libertarians value a private sphere, within which government has no place. The expanse of this private sphere is directly proportional to the magnitude of freedom and liberty in one’s life. Liberties are not safe, and freedom cannot exist where government regulates.
If personal liberty is prized above all else, is government the only enemy of freedom or merely the most visible?
Libertarians often call for privatization. They believe that the private sector can provide more efficiently many or all of the services the public sector endeavors to provide. In the quest for liberty, though, is the public-private distinction the most worthwhile one to draw?
I am not an expert on anarchy, but I understand it to be less concerned with this public-private distinction than libertarianism. Libertarians worry about domestic surveillance and national identification programs that put personal information in the government’s hands, but do not appear to have any problem with surrendering this information to private entities. Anarchists, it seems, do not make such a distinction. In theory, they would be just as likely to resist a federal identification program as they would giving similar information to a private corporation, like Google. Google offers a wide set of services free of financial cost, but with high information costs. Users give to Google the full contents of their emails, chats, and internet searches. Those who use Google’s web browser, Chrome, offer up the entirety of their online activity. It seems likely that even non-libertarians would think twice before granting the FBI full access to this information, but many Americans– perhaps a majority of internet users– use some of Google’s services every day without second thought.
Google isn’t the only example of private (non-governmental) gathering of personal information, of course. Private schools, financial institutions, athletic clubs, and grocery stores collect identifying information all the time and almost certainly without significant resistance. Even video stores ask for a substantial amount of personal information before issuing a membership card.
The question for libertarians is whether there is any basis for opposing perceived privacy invasions by government but not by corporations and other private entities. Indeed, one might think that there is more reason to be concerned with the information we give to Google and Visa than with that the Department of Homeland Security or the Internal Revenue Service collects; after all, libertarians do believe in democracy.
The libertarian response might have something to do with the voluntary nature of private engagement and the perceived involuntary nature of public information-gathering. For example, individuals can choose to rent movies from Blockbuster or not. If they don’t want to give the weird amount of information the store requests before customers can rent a video, they don’t have to patronize that store. On the other side, people perceive less participatory choice when it comes to governmental solicitation of information.
I am not sure that voluntariness is enough for libertarians to justify their public-private distinction. If there are reasons they don’t want to give personal information to the government, wouldn’t many of those reasons apply with equal force to private entities (or even counsel, as suggested above, a preference for public institutions over private ones)? Is there any solid foothold that allows libertarians to preserve this distinction and avoid pushing their views to their logical conclusion and down the slippery slope to anarchy?