August 13, 2012
I’ve been impugned lately for my apparent cynicism. Several of my friends and readers seem to think that because I don’t trust the government, my views are not “constructive.” I should stop “whining” and work for change within the system.
I realized that I’m hardly the first to receive such criticism. Libertarians are frequently charged with cynicism by the media and by the public. Apparently, to distrust the government is to believe that human beings cannot cooperate on anything.
This could not be further from the truth. Certainly some libertarians are cynics, but the core of libertarianism is skepticism, not cynicism. The true libertarian watches every institution, scrutinizes it, and decides whether it is morally and socially acceptable. It’s not that the government cannot do good, but rather that its crimes almost always outweigh the good it does.
Nor does a distrust of government equal a distrust of cooperation. The overwhelming majority of human society is cooperative. Businesses, labor unions, credit unions, charities, co-ops, benefit societies, clubs, and families are all collective institutions, but are (potentially) separate from the state. If we libertarians get our way, and government is reduced to a manageable size, these other collectives will fill the gap.
Why be so skeptical of government in particular? Because it is built on violence. Every law the state passes, every tax it levies, is enforced by armed policemen and soldiers. Violence is, of course, sometimes necessary, but it should be subject to a high burden of proof. Society should only let the state expand when there is no nonviolent alternative.
Indeed, if anything, libertarians are the least cynical precisely because we distrust the state. Believing that society can only solve its problems through physical force is cynical. Liberals seem to think that the path to social justice is to force the public to pay for welfare programs, while conservatives offer imperialism and preemptive war as the remedy for terrorism. Libertarians believe that we can find other, more moral solutions to these problems. How are we the cynics?
Nor do libertarians sit on the sidelines, barking criticisms without trying to change things. We’ve been as active as any group in working for change. We’ve consistently opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, publicly protesting at every opportunity. Many of us have joined the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, trying to channel both the right and the left toward liberty. We’ve marched for gay rights, donated to charities, offered haven to illegal immigrants, boycotted bailout recipients, and opposed tyranny at every turn. We’ve hardly sat on the sidelines.
This conflation of skepticism with cynicism is irresponsible. To be a skeptic is to ask questions, to admit that no principle is so absolute that it is beyond scrutiny. To be a cynic is to embrace apathy and malcontent, to resign oneself to a failed civilization. Libertarians fall squarely in the former category.
Don’t waste your breath with arbitrary charges of cynicism. Attack our arguments, not strawmen. Everyone, regardless of ideology, could benefit from serious dialogue, but this is only possible if we treat each other with respect.