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The Libertarian Option

By Alexander N. Harris, Crimson Staff Writer

The recent controversy surrounding top-level Bush administration officials, the apparent unwillingness of Democrats to fight the President’s Supreme Court nominations, and the political posturing surrounding the two-and-a-half-year-old Iraq question are the latest in a string of events that have left many in the country, and at Harvard, disenchanted with traditional party politics. But it’s not just periodic crises and scandals that have left many disappointed with the two major political parties: the parties’ ideologies leave no room for people to form separate opinions on each policy issue.

Harvard students vary in their political opinions as much as Harvard and Yale vary in their skills at playing football. Social security, the Patriot Act, tax cuts, affirmative action, gay marriage, drug prohibition deregulation, eminent domain, free trade: each student has an independent answer to each of these questions. Nonetheless, the two-party system forces people to pick one of two package deals of nonsensical and often contradictory opinions. If you favor gay marriage, you must oppose cuts in government spending; if you oppose racial profiling, you must believe in affirmative action; if you believe in free trade, you must oppose drug legalization.

There is no political home at Harvard for a person who wants gay marriage and spending cuts, who opposes affirmative action and racial profiling, and who believes in free trade and drug legalization. She must choose between two (to her) equally objectionable options, the Harvard Republican Club and the Harvard College Democrats. That is, until now.

Last November, the Committee on Campus Life voted to grant official status to the Harvard College Libertarian Forum (HLF), the College’s only libertarian group. The new group will provide a forum for discussion of a popular, comprehensive, consistent alternative political viewpoint as well as a voice for the College’s formerly excluded libertarians.

HLF will bring speakers to campus, host debates, help students find scholarships and internships, engage in political activism, and—most importantly—foster discussion about libertarian issues and libertarianism.

But what is libertarianism? Over 250 Harvard students list “libertarian” as their political affiliation on their profiles. Hundreds more may be libertarian-leaning without even knowing it. People who describe themselves as “socially liberal but economically conservative” Democrats who want deregulation, free trade, and reduced government spending, Republicans who oppose restrictions on civil liberties, free speech, and gay marriage, and all those who want less government intrusion across the board have a name: libertarian.

Libertarians more or less fall into two camps: consequentialists and deontologists. Consequentialist libertarians want a more limited government because they believe it will lead to better social conditions, such as a higher gross domestic product, more personal choice, and increased self-reliance. Many economists, like Milton Friedman and visiting professor of economics Jeffrey A. Miron—who teaches the popular course Economics 1017, “A Libertarian Perspective on Economics and Social Policy”—fit into this category.

Deontological libertarians, often referred to somewhat ambiguously as “philosophical libertarians,” desire limited government because they think it is the only government that can be morally justified. The fundamental claim of deontological libertarianism is that an innocent person—that is, someone who has not violated another’s rights to life or property—never deserves to be punished by having her rights violated. People should be allowed to do what they want with their lives and property, including making mutually consensual agreements with others, without having their lives or property taken away by a private actor or by the government. Some well-known philosophers, like John Locke and the late Harvard professor Robert Nozick, are deontological libertarians.

Most libertarians, like the late philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek, humorist Dave Barry, journalist John Stossel, and actor Clint Eastwood, evade such easy categorization. They find value in both lines of argument for libertarianism.

HLF welcomes all shades of libertarians and, more generally, all students who are interested in—either because they’re in favor of, or because they’re opposed to—any kind of libertarianism. Plans for future activities include both lectures on economics as well as discussions about philosophy. We will, of course, also discuss specific policy issues, libertarian views on law and constitutions, libertarian organizations, and opportunities for libertarian-related summer work and career paths. We will work to get libertarians involved in more of the political activities at the Institute of Politics, an organization traditionally dominated entirely by the two major Democrat and Republican student groups. The Harvard College Libertarian Forum promises to provide Harvard students with a fresh look at—and a fresh escape from—politics as we know it.

Alexander N. Harris ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. He is the president of the Harvard College Libertarian Forum.

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