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Give me liberty or -- oh, never mind

I have considerable respect for Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the latter now the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from my native state, as gentlemen of principle. But I think that Paul fils is beginning to discover that the public prefers its libertarianism, like its whiskey, with a little water.

Or, to switch metaphors, I suspect that many people will come through the door for the low taxes but decide not to stay for the dance. Libertarianism in its purest form — and it yearns for purity — is uncompromising about personal responsibility in a way that would make many citizens of the Republic nervous.

One of the purest expressions I know can be found in H.L. Mencken’s famous essay “Chiropractic.”* Though he considered it bogus science, his defense of the right to seek it is pure libertarianism: “I believe that every free-born man has a clear right, when he is ill, to seek any sort of treatment that he yearns for. ...To preach any contrary doctrine is to advocate despotism and slavery.”

Warming to the work, he remarks on the social utility of quackeries, which “suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal”:

If a man, being ill of a pus appendix, resorts to a shaved and fumigated longshoreman to have it disposed of, and submits willingly to a treatment that involves balancing him on McBurney’s spot and playing on his vertebrae as on a concertina, then I am willing, for one, to believe that he is badly wanted in Heaven. And if that same man, having achieved lawfully a lovely babe, hires a blacksmith to cure its diphtheria by pulling its neck, then I do not resist the divine will that there shall be one less radio fan in 1967. **

There, in Mencken’s characteristic hyperbole, is the core of you-pays-your-money-and-takes-your-chances, choices-have-consequences libertarianism. You want limited, constitutional government? Follow that line to its consequences.

Social Security? Medicare? People used to save money to provide for themselves when they were no longer able to work, or they were cared for by their families in their decrepitude.

Where does the Constitution give the federal government the power to send inspectors into meat-packing plants? It’s a free market. Let the buyer beware. The same with regulators swarming over investment banks. You want to invest in the stock market? Take the risk. Let the buyer beware.

Why do we have military garrisons in Western Europe and Asia? The Framers thought that a standing army was a potential instrument of tyranny, and they took pains during the early years of the Republic to make the military minimal.

Tax breaks and subsidies for corporations and other businesses? Let them stand or fall on their own in a free market. You get a tax deduction for the interest on your home mortgage? Why should you expect the federal government to subsidize you?

Not that I am suggesting that the Pauls, elder and younger, advocate any of these positions, and no doubt some fellow of the Cato Institute could explain to me why I’ve got it all wrong. I’m just sayin’ that though individual liberty and freedom from the trammels of governmental statute and regulation are attractive, my fellow citizens, eager as they are to receive governmental services though disinclined to pay for them, are apt to balk once they see where libertarianism is likely to lead.

*Please, before you start writing letters, I am not endorsing Mencken’s view that chiropractic is quackery — a local chiropractor and I were devoted patrons of the public library in Fleming County, Kentucky, years ago and had many engaging talks about books. I’m just using a portion of the essay to illustrate something about libertarianism.

**Cf. Jenny McCarthy on vaccination.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (2)


Please, before you start writing letters, I am not endorsing Mencken’s view that chiropractic is quackery

Perhaps you should endorse his view.

You are absolutely right, but the government doesn't see it that way. Buyer beware is too late if an entire town gets infected by your unhygienic meat-packing plant. They don't have time for individual people, and this leads to security theatre and things that inconvenience a small number to supposedly benefit a large number. Sadly I think most of the population will definitely "balk once they see where libertarianism is likely to lead", and vote socialist. True libertarianism can only work in small cities where most people know each other.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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