Political discussions in modern America are almost always divided between liberalism and conservatism. The meanings of these terms have drifted and changed over the years and they are difficult to precisely define, but they are clean and safe and provide the minimum elements necessary to perpetuate the conflict between “Us” and “Them.”

Growing up with a liberal/conservative dichotomy was very comfortable for me. It provided an ironclad identity that tied together every aspect of life into an instantly-recognizable package.

Every question, every conflict fit neatly into this two-category filing system like a perfectly-engineered component in a perfectly-engineered machine. And why shouldn’t it?  These two perspectives were comprehensive and adequate. If an issue did not fit, it was merely because it was not correctly understood. There were no other serious political positions and if there were other positions, they were held by harmless radicals with too much time and not enough marbles. Two viewpoints were already quite enough for reasonable adults. The situation was simple enough — yes or no, for or against?  Should the government do such-and-such a thing or not?

I was a good boy. I was extra careful not to rock the boat. There was a definite plan for the world and everything in it and my job was to make sure that everything went according to plan. Certain groups of people were “wrong,” which frustrated me greatly, but the “good guys vs. bad guys” template offered a soothing explanation and framework for the conflict. I guess that was part of the plan too.

And then people I knew started asking strange questions, objecting to both the common-sense structures we had grown up with as well as the alternatives offered by the other side.  One-by-one they descended into the morass of unconventional politics and third-party systems, some even declaring themselves as Libertarians. I knew these people. They had good hearts. How could they support the “right” of people to mess things up? How could a good person demand that the “way things should be” ought to be vulnerable?

I made the mistake of arguing instead of dismissing and I lost my arguments. I discovered that I was full of contradictions and that my assumptions contradicted my values. It was a long process, but I have become what I mistrusted and discovered that it’s not so bad. My journey into libertarianism was painful but rewarding and I want to pass on the lessons I learned in the hope that others can profit. There are some bridges here that deserve crossing, and the first step in crossing a bridge is knowing that it exists.

The dichotomy between liberalism and conservatism is not entirely false, but it is incomplete. They ask the question, “How should the world be?” It is an important question, but there is a second one which they do not ask – “What is my place in the world?”  Or put another way, “What is the proper extent of my power?” It is with this second question that libertarianism attempts to answer.

Conventional politics assumes a large authority to move, direct, mandate and control. The primary conflict is how to use that authority. Libertarianism largely rejects it. Just because something ought to be a certain way doesn’t mean that we have the right to force it to happen and just because we have the power to do something doesn’t mean that we have the authority to do so. I did not have the right to make sure that everything turns out okay. No one does.

I do not have the right to fix people. Even if I could wave a wand and heal the world of all its faults, it would be a crime against humanity because I am not God. To be a Libertarian is to recognize that your place in the world is humble and that your influence is one of cooperation and consent instead of coercion and control.

But if your place in the world is humble, it is also proud, because no one else can take it. To be a Libertarian is to recognize that each person has an area of responsibility and power. It is small, but it is sacred, and no one can invade it without deeply violating the proper order of the world.

To be a Libertarian is to accept that you must take responsibility for yourself, nobody else can properly do it for you. Responsibility is a novel idea today, but that is why we are in so much trouble. We are drowning in the belief that everything will be better if only we could figure out a sufficiently clever method of forcing people to change. But no form of cleverness can help us because we have assumed a false premise that forcing people to change is a solution.

Modern politics is a lot like dancing barefoot on broken glass. Liberalism claims we should be forced to tango while conservatism claims we should be forced to line dance, but they both believe that if we could just dance correctly our feet will stop hurting. Libertarianism recognizes that the only solution is to stop dancing.

Eric Baldwin is an electrical engineering senior.

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8 Comments

  1. Hey Eric Baldwin,

    You are a child.

    Only a child would say something like

    “To be a Libertarian is to recognize that your place in the world is humble and that your influence is one of cooperation and consent instead of coercion and control.”

    and not see things like radical deregulation and unchecked corporate power as forms of “coercion” and “control” in their own right.

    How old are you?

    Is there some Doogie Howser thing going on where they’re letting an eleven year old child prodigy write?

    The paternalism you probably despise is there, in plain sight, in your trite moral bullshit. Unfortunately, you and your editor are the only people at Cal-Poly incapable of seeing it.

    1. Keishi, thank you for your recent input on my nascent political column. While I respect your opinion, and it is against my morality both as a Christian who is not God and as a card-carrying Libertarian to try and exercise my power as an unpaid, freelance Mustang Daily contributer and sway your mind, I find that I must address the logical fallacies with which your web posting is rife.

      You claim that I must be a child, because only a child could write what I have written. You have taken a false assumption as premise to your argument, and from this you have come to the incorrect conclusion that I must be a child. I’m on Wikipedia right now, and it says what you did is called “ad hominem,” which may be a Latin phrase which means something, or it may not be. If it is, then it is. This is a fact, a necessary conclusion which I have arrived at based on the fundamental principles of logic.

      Facts, not false premises, are the soul of argumentation, according to Wikipedia. We must not distract ourselves from the matter at hand with petty name-calling! Either I am a child or I am not. If I am, then I must be under 18 years of age, the legal threshold of childhood. If I am not a child, however, then it necessarily follows that I must be 18 years old, or older.

      Some argue that life begins at conception. Others argue that at birth we achieve personhood. For simplicity, we accept that one of these positions must be true. As a result, it logically follows that humanity is attained somewhere between conception and birth.

      From all of this, when we consider the range of possibilities, we find that I must be somewhere between -9 months and infinity years old. Your flawed argument places me on the lower end of that spectrum, but there is equally compelling reasoning to suggest I may be endless, older than time itself. No amount of dismay or revulsion would change that fact. No amount of convenience or personal difficulty would erase that fact.

      Eric Baldwin, Libertarian-for-hire, Electrical Engineering senior since 2008

      Successful completion of GE Area A3 with a C- or better is a prerequisite for reading this comment

  2. Mr. Baldin,

    Your refutation of Keishi’s statement is indeed thorough, but I have a problem with your referencing of wikipedia.org. Wikipedia is not considered a viable source in the scientific or literary community, and I would strongly advise not to cite it as a reference point. I believe the Mustang Daily staff is above using such a shallow source of information.

    Lastly, I believe your statement that “Successful completion of GE Area A3 with a C- or better is a prerequisite for reading this comment” is way out of line. It is incredibly condescending to your readers to imply that they are not intelligent enough to understand what you are communicating to them. Writing like this is a sure way to anger readers, and will certainly affect the audiences’ perception of the Mustang Daily’s staff.

    1. Wikipedia is quite accurate (the journal Nature put it’s error rate at about the same as the printed encyclopedias), but not very authoritative. I’d say that it’s good enough to be used in a comment thread, but I wouldn’t cite it as a scholarly article. Just like with a print encyclopedia.

    2. Thoroughly irrelevant maybe. Sure Keishi opened with an ad hominem attack, but there are valid points in the comment. Baldwin should have just dismissed the name calling with a sentence or maybe a paragraph and moved on. Instead he spends five paragraphs dissecting what it means to literally be a child. We already know what a child is and so does Keishi.

      The whole child bit shouldn’t be so easily dismissed either. I believe Keishi is saying you are like a child in that you hold romantic notions of how the world works (as a child would) when the reality is more complex.

      It would have been more appropriate to address the main point on “radical deregulation and unchecked corporate power”. What is the libertarian response to this? Society concentrates power in individuals and organizations, we don’t each have an equal amount of social power in this world. Our government creates laws to hold these entities in check. The crisis today seems to indicate that removing such laws was a bad idea, an idea libertarian philosophy seems to support.

      So what is the libertarian solution to the concentration and abuse of power?

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