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IPFS News Link • Philosophy: Libertarianism

The Problem with Microlibertarianism

•, By Ryan McMaken

It was the phenomenon of the "libertarian" who is free-market in the small stuff, but embraces war and statism in the big things.

I still remember that shuttle ride well. I had become involved in a discussion with a man who was probably twenty years my senior. He was on the way to the same Institute conference, and was expressing the usual free-market sentiments about low taxes and the problems with government regulation.

When the topic turned to foreign policy, however, freedom and the evils of the state were quickly forgotten. This man ended up singing the praises of Washington's interventions in Central America and in its illegal arms sales to Iran. That is, he sided with the neoconservatives who had perpetrated the Iran-Contra affair. This self-described libertarian was lamenting that the Reagan administration had been caught illegally spending federal money while meddling in wars in both the Middle East and in the Americas.

When I suggested that illegally fomenting foreign wars was not exactly compatible with a "limited" state or even constitutional government, he then reverted to a well-worn tactic often used by older men who lack a real argument: he said I was too young to understand.

Now that I am at least as old as that man was then, I've been around long enough to have encountered many people like him. It is easy to find libertarians who will act on principle on the small, easy topics, but will then abandon all principle on the big stuff.

What is the small stuff? It's things like smoking marijuana, rent control, prostitution, and ride-sharing. At libertarian conferences and in online discussions, it's pretty straightforward and easy to oppose government regulation of taxi services, or to denounce rent control, or be against locking up women—most of whom are poor—for accepting money in exchange for sex. These issues, however, are generally rather peripheral to state power. To remove state action from these areas does little to endanger the state or its core powers. To favor restraints on state power in these topics, we might say, is to be a "microlibertarian."