Since I just linked to Reason magazine, a libertarian rag, I thought I’d post about an amusing political mistranslation I often encounter over here: Europeans who, for a few brief, shining moments, think they might be "libertarians."
Just last week I ran into a German fellow who thinks his country is over-regulated and hostile to entrepreneurs. These people, who usually self-identify as free-market conservatives on the German political spectrum, often happen upon websites like Reason or the U.S. Libertarian Party, and see lots of rhetoric they like ("Smaller Government…Lower Taxes…More Freedom…"; it reads on the Libertarian Party Website). "What’s not to like?" these conservative, business-friendly Germans think. Some of them even write off and try to join the Libertarians. And for every German I meet who thinks they might be a libertarian, there are probably several Eastern Europeans.
However, when they dig deeper, they encounter an amusing political mistranslation. When Libertarians say smaller government, they mean much, much smaller. According to their platform, for instance, Libertarians favor absolute freedom of speech, definitely including pornography. Also, you can kiss your Persoenlichkeitsrecht goodbye: "Language that is deemed offensive to certain groups is not a cause for legal action." Freedom of religion is absolute, and government may not aid or disadvantage any religion, in any way, period. An absolute, strict wall of separation must be preserved between religion and state.
Needless to say, all government pension, welfare, and unemployment schemes would be immediately scrapped. Oh, and property rights? Also absolute. No zoning, no government planning, no property taxes, and no public ownership of land, except for the most absolutely compelling reasons. This means, for instance, that all public parks (and even dams!) would be given back to whomever owned them before they were taken for public use, or sold to private owners at auction.
I’m not bashing the Libertarian Party or its political philosophy (although God knows I’m no libertarian). I’m just pointing out the gulf that separates Continental European free-marketeers from their American counterparts. Want proof? Go take the "Are you a Libertarian?" online quiz. Every German libertarian-leaner I know who’s taken the political quiz has turned out to be a least a centrist, and often a liberal, in (US)-American terms. Granted, that’s only a sample size of three people, but this is a blog, not a sociology journal.