Real divide: libertarians vs. statists

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By Rob Witwer

Sometimes I wonder whether we use the right nomenclature to describe the basic political divide in America. We see “liberals” on this side and “conservatives” on that side, with Democrats generally representing the former and Republicans the latter.

But a compelling case can be made that the political landscape is really more sensibly divided into those who believe government should have a limited role (libertarians) and those who prefer government to have a more active role (statists). 

On the right, libertarians tend to define themselves by pushing for lower taxes, less regulation and reduction of government bureaucracy. Left-leaning libertarians advocate for limitations on search and seizure, bans on police profiling, separation of church and state, and curbing the power of prosecutors.  The common thread is an elevation of the rights of the individual over the power of the state.

Statists tend to adhere to the Aristotelian notion that government, through laws, can and should shape human behavior toward a desirable social end. The principle disagreement between right- and left-wing statists is what that end should be. 

On the right, you have George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which sought to use the federal government to enable faith-based community programs, or efforts to pass a federal marriage amendment banning gay marriage. On the left, statists use public education to inculcate certain social views, or push regulations on personal conduct (riding a motorcycle without a helmet, eating trans-fats, using tanning beds, smoking, etc.). 

Most people aren’t wholly one way or the other. It’s human nature to form one’s political views on the basis of experience, rather than a coldly rational fidelity to abstract doctrines. An otherwise libertarian-leaning person may vehemently support a smoking ban because of personal experience with lung cancer; similarly, one inclined toward statism may be strongly opposed to higher taxes for personal financial reasons. 

I suspect if lawmakers, reporters and citizens viewed policy decisions through the “libertarian vs. statist” lens, political debate would be quite different. For one thing, party lines would have less meaning.  Conservative typically means Republican, and liberal typically means Democrat — but do the words “libertarian” and “statist” evoke the same partisan alignments? Not so much. Looking at things in a new way would obliterate preconceptions about which policy ideas belong to this party or the other. 

People may find they have more in common with folks in the other party based on ideology, if not political alignment. They may also find people in their own party aren’t quite as close to them as they thought. 

It might lead to some interesting, unexpected results.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”