Thomas L. Knapp

Tom Knapp is Managing Editor of Free-Market.Net and publisher of Rational Review.

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Did You Ever See a Meme Walking?

If we're to believe William F. Buckley, Jr. (whose "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" inspired the title and content of this essay), it's not really possible to define conservatism. A little less government here, a little more there, until it is just right -- and then stay, dammit! Sometimes the state is our enemy. Sometimes the state is "the proximate instrument of our deliverance." Which it is at any particular instant depends largely on an undefined, amorphous conception of what those calling themselves "conservatives" happen to want at the moment.

Liberalism, too -- at least to the extent that that term was hijacked in Wilsonian times and has been twisted beyond recognition by successive generations of power-seekers -- has an extensive wardrobe, despite Buckley's claim of an innate sensitivity which allows him to detect a liberal in the room "even if he hides behind the potted plant."

I'm pleased to inform you that I do not need a book to define libertarianism (as Buckley's Up From Liberalism attempts to do with liberalism), or even a long essay to tell you that I can't (as Buckley's "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" ends up doing).

Libertarianism as an idea can be defined in a paragraph, and L. Neil Smith did so some time ago:

"A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim."

On the political level, the libertarian idea also finds succinct expression:

"Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

"Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer."

Those two statments, taken together, are as concise a rendition of the libertarian idea as I can offer without resorting to the even more succinct "play nice." They are, if you will, the memes (pieces of verbally transmitted cultural information) which one is likely to find as common to people calling themselves "libertarians."

To the extent that these statements are accepted, of course, they have far-reaching effects. The purpose of Rational Review is to explore those effects and to persuade the reader that they are either worthwhile or worth risking.

I believe that they are. For all the wringing of hands among those who advocate larger, more powerful, more centralized, more intrusive government, the fact is that it hasn't worked by any standard that values human life. Hundreds of millions died at the hands of government in the last century. Untold wealth was stolen and squandered by them. Where government goes, poverty, enslavement, death follow with it.

The correlation between government power and human suffering is close enough to demand that we evaluate it as causation. And, having done so, reason demands that we regard government -- at the extreme -- as a necessary evil and, in the normal course of human lives, an unnecessary one.

Long-held ideas, of course, are difficult to dispel. No living American can remember the time when children were not schooled by government. Few can remember the time when a citizen might walk unquestioned down any street, carrying the weapon of his or her choice; or the time when a paycheck included all of the pay due, without withholding for income taxes or Ponzi-like retirement and medical insurance schemes.

And, not remembering those times, few are likely to connect the growth of government power with the decline of education, the rise of violent crime, the sprawl of regulation or the disastrous conditions attending retirement and medical care in their country.

The connection, however, is there, and the ember of understanding is preserved in the meme of the libertarian idea. Carried down through the generations, bursting into revolutionary flame when it comes head to head with encroaching state power at critical points, it finds expression in literature, political action and activism. It awaits only a sufficiency of tinder and a gentle breeze to kindle itself into a fire that will sweep unnecessary evils before it and usher in a newer, better society.

That is the vision that motivates us at Rational Review. That is the power of the libertarian idea.