When I tell people I’m a libertarian — you know, less government, more marketplace — they tend to assume I’m a conservative. (Or, more precisely, a “right-wing-nut”.) If they’re conservative, they think of me as a loose-cannon version of themselves: good on business issues but week-kneed on social ones. If they’re liberal, they assume I’m marching with Tea Partyers, sending contributions to the Koch brothers, and I have a little shrine to business embellished with a golden dollar bill.
I ask them, “How many conservatives do you know who support legalized pot, gay marriage, increased immigration, decreased Middle East militarism, and getting fat cats out of Washington?” To conservatives, I can ask, “How many liberals do you know who favor deregulation, ending entitlements, and reducing taxes on the rich?” They look startled for a moment, but soon enough they’ve all got me pigeonholed back into the slots where they’d first stashed me. (Otherwise my rather subversive views become little monkey wrenches in the engines of their beliefs. Can’t really blame them: it’s easier to blow me off than try to fix a stalled belief motor.)
Basically, libertarians think people should “live and let live”. In practice this means being a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. Libertarians argue that central governments should be restricted to defense of the homeland (and stepping in like an umpire when states or provinces get into boxing clinches). But they should not engage in adventure wars, social engineering, massive regulation, onerous taxation, and fat-cat bailouts. And libertarians don’t care for rules that prohibit victimless acts involving sex, drugs, and “private business dealings between consenting adults”.
Libertarians populate what I call “the radical middle” — their liberal social views and conservative economic opinions, though distinctly at the far ends of the political spectrum, average out to “political moderate”. In conversation, there’s a big advantage to being a libertarian: you tend to agree with about half of what the other person believes, whether they’re liberal or conservative. It’s easy, then, to find political topics to your mutual liking and, together, grouse about the people who’ve got it all wrong. Good times!
Of course, there’s no single type of libertarian, just as there’s no single type of conservative or progressive. Individuals tend to skew to the right or left of their parties’ central beliefs. But libertarians first came into prominence during the Reagan administration — which favored deregulation along with a light hand on the social tiller — and, ever since, libertarians have been thought of as a kind of spinoff of the Republican party. Though it’s just as easy for a libertarian to lean to the left, few actually do. To this day, it’s hard to interest a freedom-loving left-winger in the libertarian philosophy. It’s tainted with Reaganism.
I’ve long been proud that I have as many liberal as conservative political opinions — it seems ecumenical, open-minded, and rational — but recently I began to doubt myself. Much of my socializing over the years has involved liberals (well, they’re everywhere! Who could blame me?), but lately I dwell in a more conservative community, and for some time I’ve been marinating in right-wing political thought, and I’ve wondered if my thinking has been overwhelmed by it. So when a TIME magazine political quiz offered to predict whether I was liberal or conservative based on answers to innocuous cultural questions, I took the bait.
The quiz asked if I preferred cats or dogs, whether I’d rather watch a documentary or a thriller, if I’d choose to visit the Met or Times Square, and so forth. The test allowed you to shade your answers, as: “slightly agree”, “strongly disagree”, etc.
I’m a dog person Though I enjoy documentaries, I really love thrillers. I’d rather visit the Met than Times Square, but both interest me. I think the U.S. government should be fair-minded about all people, not just Americans, but it should give preferential treatment to its own taxpayers. And so forth. When I was done, I felt pretty good about my ecumenism: it seemed as if I’d been even-handed.
I was wrong. Very wrong. “You’re 24% conservative, 76% liberal.” What?!? Not only am I not conservative, I’m way liberal? As in, Nancy Pelosi liberal? This was too much.
I looked closer. The results page listed the traits I’d apparently revealed. First, the conservative ones:
• “You like dogs more than cats.” Well, for one thing, I’m allergic to felines.
• “You prefer action movies to documentaries.” I mean, duh! “The Avengers” totally rocked! Try making that movie into a documentary. On the other hand, I also enjoy non-fiction films. Why, I remember a great series by Carl Sagan on TV. Of course, that was thirty years ago.
• “You like a neat desk.” What, liberals have messy desks? Oh puh-leeze!
• “You think the government should treat the lives of its citizens as much more valuable than those of other countries.” Hold it right there, pal! I didn’t say that! I said the government should give preferential treatment to its own citizens. After all, they are paying for the government. It’s only fair. Foreigners are fine, too, but they’re not paying dues to our club, is all.
• “You’re proud of your country’s history.” Um, yes? Isn’t everyone?
Okay, now the liberal traits they claim to have detected in my personality:
• “You think kids should question authority.” Okay, okay! Guilty.
• “You think self-expression trumps self-control.” Wait just a minute, buddy! I never said that! I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it wasn’t that. Anyway, both traits are important.
• “You like fusion cuisine.” I’ve spent my life in or near Los Angeles. What else am I supposed to eat?
• “You think it’s okay for your partner to look at porn alone.” Well, I’d rather look at it with her, but if I’m busy she can start without me.
• “You use a modern browser.” Of course! I own a Mac, fer gossakes! Which makes me– oh, yeah, right. Liberal.
• “You wish there were no countries.” In fact, mainly I wish it were easier to get cigars from Cuba. And that’s a conservative trait, if you ask me.
• “You prefer the Met to Times Square.” This is like asking if I prefer the Champs-Elysées to Picadilly. I mean, how often do you people figure I’m walking around in New York City?
I don’t know where I can show my face anymore. If they find out about this, conservatives will laugh me out of their watering holes. Meanwhile, liberals will continue to accuse me of being the lapdog of evil corporate honchos. I guess I’m outside the political spectrum, no matter how I twist and turn.
In the end, I was afraid I was too conservative, yet I turned out to be very liberal. But wait: maybe if I average those two perspectives I’ll end up, once again, directly in the middle of things. Yeah, that’s the ticket!
Hey, a guy can dream.