Let me start off by drawing a distinction between "libertarian" with a little "l", and "Libertarian" with a big "L". The little "l" libertarian refers to a philosophy whose core principle is the primacy of individual rights. Concomitant with this is a belief that the principal (if not only) function of government is to protect those rights. The big "L" Libertarian refers to the Libertarian Party. Of all the political parties in the United States, the Libertarian Party comes closest to embodying the libertarian philosophy.
I am a libertarian. I could attempt a lengthy reconstruction of my intellectual history in an attempt to explain why I believe as I do. A simple explanation that is probably sufficient is this: when I studied American history in school, I believed what I read. Remember the Declaration of Independence? The second paragraph says:
WE hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed...I trust I will be forgiven my repeated quotations of this passage (see, for example, The Mortal Bureaucracy), but I know of no more concise statement of what the United States is supposed to be about: we are all born with fundamental rights which cannot be taken, surrendered or transferred from us, and we have created our government to see that those rights are protected. In some circles today, the philosophy stated in the Declaration of Independence is considered at best passe and at worst atavistic. No less a person than President Bill Clinton has said that although the freedoms described in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence may have been acceptable 200 years ago, we clearly have too many freedoms today. (I wonder if such an idea would have even crossed his mind when he was protesting the war in Vietnam?) The President is entitled to his opinion, even if it does lead one to suspect he has no comprehension of the meaning of his oath of office. For better or worse, I believe that the libertarian philosophy espoused by the Declaration of Independence is just as valid today as it was in 1776.
Another component of libertarian philosophy is the belief that any government, if not constantly watched, will eventually become hostile to the rights it was created to protect. The people who signed the Declaration of Independence and later framed the Constitution and Bill of Rights held the same belief, as evidenced by their writings (including The Federalist), speeches, and debates in the 1st Congress. They knew that human foibles and the temptations of power were omnipresent and could lead even the best people astray. Ironically, the ink was barely dry on the Constitution and Bill of Rights when those in power passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which, among other things, made criticism of the federal government a crime. I say "ironically", because many of those responsible for passage of those laws were framers of the Constitution. Our Republic survived the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were eventually repealed. This proved the resilience of the libertarian design of our system of government even as it validated the concern that led to the design in the first place.
It is fashionable these days for some opinion makers and establishment politicians to attribute distrust of government to extremist paranoia and to characterize distrusting government as unpatriotic and un-American. I am unashamed to say that I distrust government. No less a person than George Washington, the father of our country, said, "Government, like fire, is a dangerous slave and a fearful master." I feel I'm in good company. Historically, fearing and distrusting government is as American as apple pie. Moreover, opinion surveys reveal that today, public trust of government is at an all-time low. So, the pundits and politicians are twice wrong: distrust of government is both traditional and widespread.
Interest groups throughout history have sought to expand governmental power and use it to advance their own agendas. Typically, this has involved using government to bludgeon their political adversaries. Government is the original blunt instrument. What those who use government as a weapon fail to realize is that when their adversaries gain access to governmental power, the weapon remains there for their adversaries to wield against them. Consequently, whenever considering granting power to government always operate from the assumption that the power will be controlled by your worst enemy.
There is also the "law of unintended consequences". Applied to government, this refers to the "side effects" that attend the workings of law -- side effects which are neither anticipated nor intended. Whether the government is operating within constitutional limits or not, adverse side effects will dog almost any law. The reason for this is that social and economic systems are fiendishly complicated things, with patterns of feedback and multiple causation, most of which are unobserved and unknown, possibly even ultimately unknowable. Only an omniscient deity would presume to create law without thought to unintended consequences; for mere mortals to legislate as though they possess godlike knowledge is certainly folly, probably hubris, and possibly evidence of delusions of grandeur.
While there are many examples that I could produce to illustrate that the above problems are more than theoretical, one should suffice. In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act -- RICO, for short. RICO was intended to give the federal government additional power to fight organized crime. RICO included provisions for civil forfeiture of property based upon the idea that if the money and property of a criminal enterprise could be easily seized, it would be fatally crippled.
In 1970, it will be recalled that a number of states had laws prohibiting abortion, and it is probably safe to say that abortion was the farthest thing from the minds of the Representatives and Senators who passed RICO in 1970. As a result of court decisions over the years, particularly in the 1980s, the scope of the RICO laws has been expanded. Most recently, the Supreme Court decided that a political group -- in this case an anti-abortion group -- can be subject to a RICO action and have all of its assets seized, which is tantamount to a death sentence for a group. Here is a perfect example of the expansion of governmental power making the political environment more hostile to the exercise of the fundamental rights of association and free speech. Ironically, many of those who voted for RICO in 1970 opposed abortion and would have been aghast had they known to what purpose the law would be applied. The point is that it ultimately doesn't matter what the rationale behind a law is; there will always be a tendency for it to expand in ways that its authors neither anticipated nor intended.
Abortion rights groups that had sought this decision from the Supreme Court were elated. That these groups were motivated by a desire to protect the fundamental right of privacy and the right to control one's body does not alter the fact that it was achieved at the cost of chilling the exercise of the right of free speech and the right of association. The bartering of rights is never a bargain and will almost certainly come back to haunt the abortion rights groups when the political winds shift. Lest anyone get the idea that my concern over RICO laws is motivated by an opposition to abortion, let me disabuse them of this misapprehension right now: I have long been an ardent supporter of abortion rights. Expanding RICO laws in order to gain a temporary advantage over anti-abortion groups is akin to the Vietnam-era formulation, "we had to destroy the village in order to save it."
At this point, some may ask, "If Hager distrusts government so much, does he see any role at all for the federal government?" My answer is, yes, and that role is spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. If the Constitution is actually adhered to, it is an excellent blueprint for achieving the kind of society promised by the Declaration of Independence: one in which government functions to protect fundamental rights.