26 November 2007

Here's another of my long, unreadable screeds...

The Washington Post gave over half the front page of their Outlook section on Sunday to a free advertisement for libertarianism, penned by the editors of (un)Reason Magazine. Libertarianism is a widespread philosophy that's pretty to think about but bears about as much relation to reality as World of Warcraft (or, as I'm discovering, Webkinz).

According to the authors, libertarianism boils down to "1. a person who believes in the doctrine of the freedom of the will; 2. a person who believes in full individual freedom of thought, expression and action." Sounds good, right? In fact, it's so broad that it becomes utterly meaningless and fairly soon libertarians themselves have to discard the feel-good rhetoric and qualify it: "full freedom of thought, expression and action" morphs into full freedom etc so long as you don't impact another's rights...so with this slogan, we're basically back at ground zero for any philosophy that has emerged after the Enlightenment...including the bete noir of libertarians...socialism/Marxism/communism (you have to remember, that like libertarians, we're talking about the philosophy of the movements, not of the governments that actually called themselves by those names -- for instance, while the German Democratic Republic held itself to be communist and called itself Democratic, I would argue that in fact it was neither). But to get back to the point, what exactly distinguishes libertarians from the unwashed masses who also happen to believe in individual rights (so long as those individual rights do not impact the rights of others)?

First, there's a completely naive belief in what they like to call the "free market," which as anyone with half a day's time spent on Wall Street will tell you is about as "free" as a crooked roulette table in Vegas (is there any other kind?). Markets are simply objects to be manipulated: learn the rules of the game, understand the symbols that produce fear or confidence, and manipulate them.

However, if you'd like to delve deeper into what libertarianism is, you shouldn't bother to read the Washington Post article, because it's mainly about 31 year government employee Ron Paul's run for the highest government position in the land and how this man who's been collecting government paychecks for nearly half his life is a rebel against government. In the moments when the authors aren't talking about Ron Paul, they're busy avoiding explaining what libertarianism entails, except to call it "freewheeling fun" and "a live-and-let-live ethos" and -- in the only descriptor that even comes close to a philosophical statement -- "the fundamental notion that a smaller government allows individuals the freedom to pursue happiness as they see fit."

Unfortunately for all of us who aren't in the military industrial complex, a smaller government usually means going after the social benefits that we enjoy in this country (and that other countries enjoy to a much greater extent), from the big bugaboo of welfare to the several other programs that fund libraries, public schools, national parks, and the like. To be fair, a certain brand of libertarians aren't even interested in maintaining the military, but then again, you are getting into the question of whether libertarianism isn't such a big tent that it's essentially meaningless as a label (if you want an example of that, check out the wikipedia article on libertarianism -- more flavors than Baskin-Robbins).

For libertarians, personal choice is all there is: you choose to be a drug addict, you choose to be a welfare bum, you choose to be homeless; conversely, you choose to be a CEO, you choose to be a K Street lawyer, you choose to be a middle-manager. Fundamentally, libertarians do not believe in society -- we're all atomized individuals running around on our own and we bump into one another, but that's not really important -- my only interaction with you is an economic interaction (unlike Marxists, who tend to believe that economic relations form the basis of social relations, libertarians like to believe that economic relations signify nothing more than a matter of choice). Essentially, it's everyone for him or her self (the most absurd manifestation of this tendency can be found in Ayn Rand's Objectivism, which her devotees liken to a philosophy).

So we've entered fantasyland, in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there are no consequences. We're all equal of course, so long as you don't mind the fact that I inherited Daddy's factory and stocks and you inherited a crack habit...personal choice, don't you know.

Hugo's Les Miserables is a comedy compared to the selfish, smug, and utterly unrealistic version of social relations held by your typical libertarian.

But it's all freewheeling good fun.

UPDATE: I read through the nearly useless WashingtonPost.com live online discussion with Gillespie and Welch, and noticed they're repeating that tired old mistake of arguing that the Nazis were simply socialists who espoused nationalism:
Nick Gillespie: In fact, Mussolini started as a communist and then became a fascist (best understood as a nationalist variation on communism; hence National Socialism uin Germany).
Yawn. This supposed similarity breaks down as soon as you realize that Hitler didn't nationalize industry -- in fact, while the US government and US businesses shunned the Soviet Union, they invested heavily in Nazi Germany...ask our current president's dead granddaddy, Prescott Bush. Fascism isn't best understood as a "nationalist variation on communism" but as the logical progression of capitalism as it asserts control at the state level (before replacing the state -- the period in which we are currently, where multinationals seem beyond government control mechanisms).


Momentary Academic said...

I suppose that one has to be privileged enough to declare oneself as a libertarian? I don't know what I am. I need to take that political test again.

Anonymous said...

I found this blog linked through Wonkette. Your analysis is dead on, and you are clear and accessible. Now all you need to do is to get this out to a larger audience. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

this blog has been brought to you by the machinations of capitalism. thanks for playing!

cuff said...

This is what I get for showing up on Wonkette. Anonymouse comments. At least one is nice. The other of course reveals the blinders typical of libertarians, whom I insist are the biggest freeloaders ever to walk the earth. This blog has actually been brought to us by the machinations of millions or maybe billions of government dollars poured into universities over the past forty or so years to develop the internet and networking technologies. Capitalists tend to be late to the party because they're unwilling to fund years of profitless research, but like all the loafers who surround The Little Red Hen, they come around once the heavy lifting is over. But thanks for trying.

And, MA, I think libertarianism has great appeal to anyone concerned about civil liberties. It's the economic underpinnings that make it so tragic.

Lonnie Bruner said...

I know the dude who puts up Ron Paul bumper stickers all over Adams Morgan ....