Ron Swanson, a character from NBC’s Parks And Recreation, has recently attracted quite the body of supporters. Most people know him for his stone-faced indifference to government work, his love for silence and meat, and his self-proclaimed libertarian views. But despite what Ron says, or how angrily he says it, he is not actually a libertarian (or at least not a very good one).
Don’t get me wrong, everybody. I love me some Parks and Recreation, and I love me some Ron Swanson. His personality is respectable, his principles are trusty, and his advice is sage. Case in point:
^He gets it^
But many of his so-called libertarian values are, well, not really libertarian.
Now, I understand that Ron’s character is meant to be a satirical portrayal of the gruff, unfeeling libertarian. But Ron has accrued quite the following for his famous Ron Swanson values, a following that doesn’t seem to realize that being a “Swanson” does not actually make you a libertarian. I have wasted many a conversation attempting to defend some libertarian perspective, only to discover that my interlocutor’s understanding of “the libertarian perspective” is wholly comprised of the satirical remarks of a fictional character on NBC.
Let me explain:
First of all, there are many things that Ron Swanson says that are perfectly consistent with libertarian philosophy.
His opposition to Leslie’s “thinly veiled government bailout” is right on the money.
His assessment of personal liberty and how beautiful it is.
Unfortunately, however, he misses the target in other areas.
So, for the sake of anyone who incorrectly recognizes Swansonism as Libertarianism, let me attempt to delineate the separation between the two.
1. Libertarians are not necessarily anti-government.
Although some strains of libertarianism oppose a central government authority entirely, being libertarian does not make one anti-government—in fact, most libertarians aren’t anti-government. They may oppose particular forms of government, or a particular government’s execution of government, but they do not oppose government in theory. On the contrary, most libertarians believe that government has a very important, though very limited, role. In fact, it is argued that the very hallmarks of libertarianism (respect for individual liberty, the non-aggression principle, etc…) which necessitate a limited government, also necessitate the government’s existence.
Swanson’s stance on government, his charming goal of bringing “all [government] crumbling to the ground,” and his belief that the “entire government should be privatized” make him more of a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist. Anarcho-capitalism is indeed an extreme strain of libertarianism, so this fact alone does not eliminate Ron from libertarianism. I simply think it worth pointing out that being libertarian does not necessarily make you anti-government.
2. Even anti-government libertarians believe that governments perform important tasks—they just think that those tasks would be better performed in the private market.
It is one thing to say that the government performs no important, or necessary tasks. It is another to say that the government is not the best man for the job. Even Rothbard conceded the need for law enforcement, and courts. He simply wanted the private market to provide those very important things.
^Unfortunately, the government is in control of a lot of important tasks^
So when Ron states “that all government is a waste of taxpayer money,” as an anarcho-capitalist libertarian, he should be saying that “all government is wasteful of taxpayer money.” A lot of the things the government does are useful and important—the government is just bad at doing them.
3. Libertarians do not support government-granted monopolies.
I kinda feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this one, but whatever. In season 2, episode 15, the Department of Parks and Recreation decides to “privatize” concession stands in all Pawnee parks by allowing the local candy company, Sweetums, to take over the park concession stands. Ron’s response is that he “couldn’t be happier,” and goes on to tout the privatization of the entire government saying,
“I think the entire government should be privatized. Chuck E. Cheese could run the parks. Everything operated by tokens. Drop in a token, go on the swing set. Drop in another token, take a walk. Drop in a token, look at a duck.“
As any libertarian worth his salt knows, granting one company the right to sell food on public land does not “privatize” anything, it merely creates a government-granted monopoly. A libertarian would entirely oppose the idea that the government pick and choose businesses to protect from the competition of the free market. In the words of Ron himself, “that sounds like the government meddling in private enterprise.”
Anyway, there is much more that could be written on the differences between Swansonism, and Libertarianism. The important thing is not to equate Swansons and libertarians. By all means, let Ron Swanson be your guiding light. Continue to laud him as the purveyor of all things true. Just know that when he says he is a libertarian, he is wrong.