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I Used to be a Libertarian

I funded my engineering degree by working the drilling rigs during the summer months. Working hard, foregoing recreation, facing the elements, and exposing myself to more workplace danger contributed to a big paycheck. I had contempt for those male students who took an easier and lower-paying job. I was tough; they were not. So when the libertarian philosophy was first introduced to me, it seemed quite logical: one earns based on one’s effort—and one gets to enjoy the benefits of that effort.

Then I got to thinking. I came from the working poor demographic. My father was a farmer, one of these proud traditional farmers putting in long hours in the fields to eke out a meager living for his family while providing food for all the city people. Society honored such farmers. But we were still working poor.

My father did not have a great value for education. In his mind, a strong back and long hours were the way to make a living. Had society demanded that he pay for his children’s education, he probably would have kept me at home doing the farm labor small boys were capable of. And he just didn’t have the money anyways.

Had the government not paid the expenses for my primary schooling, I could not have gained the skills to enter post-secondary education—and eventually learn about libertarianism. My intellectual abilities were, in large part, developed by my rural school, the great teachers I had, and my university. And the government coffers.

The best answer I could find within libertarian philosophy on how to educate the children of the working poor would be that some wealthy person or organization would make a deal with my father. They would pay for his children’s primary education, and either we children or my father would somehow pay them back in future labor. That “indentured servitude” didn’t sound right to me at the time, so I abandoned the libertarian philosophy.

Still the urge to identify with an ideology was strong. For a very brief time, socialism sounded great. Fortunately, that period lasted shorter than my time as a libertarian. Eventually I parked myself into a version of conservatism, one that emphasized self-reliance and independence from government but allowed some interference from government to the “natural order”. This stage of my life lasted about 15 years.

One day, I came across a stunning fact. The drilling rig wages I had put towards my tuition fees only covered 10% of the costs for my post-secondary education. My provincial government picked up the rest of the bill. So here I was with my conservatism ideology, but my education came from a socialist agenda. I had trouble reconciling this paradox. If I were  truly to be a conservative, I should have paid for all my education up front. But even the high wages of the drilling rigs would not have covered these costs.

Had society not collectively educated young men and women from working poor backgrounds, many of them would not have gone on to fill important occupations in society. In essence, society made an investment in its people, and society attained its profit a decade or two later. I could see that logic, so I was starting to think like a socialist again.

After several years of thinking, I am neither a conservative nor a socialist. I have gravitated towards this political philosophy:

1. There are situations where society must let individuals make their own choices and live with the consequences.

2. There are situations where society must take collective action to better society. This means paying taxes and providing services to those who cannot afford them.

3. The balance between #1 and #2 shall be determined by democratic means.

4. Each time government tries to effect change in society, it should monitor how well the change is working and make appropriate adjustments.

Western democracies are already providing some sort of balance. I would argue that it is probably not the best balance we could attain for political parties are far more interested in electoral success than the society they may govern. It’s time for a new system, one not based on “isms.” 

Ironically, I can now see how a libertarian philosophy could work. Those with higher abilities and ambition should be allowed to keep much of their earnings. But they also need to be trained to recognize that they have talents, health, skills, and experience other people could never attain. The more ambitious need to become more compassionate and generous and recognize that a strong civil society helps them earn and enjoy a higher income. And for those on the “receiving” end, they must learn to be more grateful and responsible. They too have a duty to move themselves forward in life.

But we are not in a functional libertarian mindset yet. The only way to get there is to apply a better balance of individual freedom and collective action.

Published in in 2017

The TDG Essay

Building a Wiser Kinder Democracy