I’ve heard conservatives say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. I’ve heard liberals say a liberal is a conservative hauled in for something he didn’t do. I suppose a conservative beaten up by his cellmate during their night in the pokey has a lot to chew on. 

But what is a libertarian — besides good conversation? I’ve always thought of libertarians as necessary antibodies that keep government from smothering us and theocrats from tapping our phones, but who on their own terms are a little preposterous. It comes down to their idea of government, and mine. I don’t believe the less government the better. I believe there are certain things that people do collectively or not at all, and government — when its face is washed and its tie is straightened — is the people looking after themselves.

On the subway the other day I read a long piece by Robert Kuttner from a recent Columbia Journalism Review. (It’s become possible to read much longer articles during CTA trips.) CJR called the story “The Race: Newspapers can make it to a bright print-digital future after all — but only if they run fast and dodge Wall Street.” Kuttner’s message is that the times are perilous but there’s reason to hope, because there are now smart people at papers like the New York Times and Washington Post who aren’t afraid of the future and have ideas about how to reach it, though success is no sure thing. The article got me thinking. What if in the end it can’t be done? What if no profitable business model can be invented, not merely for journalism as we know it but for journalism however it’s reconstituted? Then what?

The Internet is an extraordinary pump, but it’s primed by a cadre of workers skilled at finding out things. I consider that cadre indispensable and the public’s need for reliable information as fundamental as its need for potable water and paved roads. Water and roads don’t pay for themselves. Public education doesn’t pick up its own bills. The spoils of war don’t pay for our wars. If good journalism can’t pay its own way, government could step in and cover the costs. It could make a vigorous press the responsibility of a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Health and Human Services.

I was able to sustain thought along those lines for just about a second, because the idea’s basically unthinkable. Government needs to keep its hands off journalism. Not because it’s venal and corrupt and self-serving and incompetent and contaminates whatever it touches — I don’t think of government in that primitive way. But because it’s government, and journalism and government must sleep in separate beds.

“My god,” I thought, “I’m having a libertarian moment.” It was such an odd sensation I needed to write about it.