Which is not to say that some otherwise admirable people have been seduced by a set of beliefs which, on first impression, can seem very beguiling.
After all, what rational human being doesn’t believe that government has become far too intrusive in our daily lives? Who likes the notion of the National Security Agency recording everything you say on the telephone and keeping records on every web site you visit?
Quick, name five stupid laws. If you can’t do it in a minute or two, you’re not paying attention.
And what reasonable human being isn’t a civil libertarian? Sure, there’s a huge mass of inertia and ignorance embodied in the vox populi, but most of us retain at least a smidgen of hope that exposure to folks of different pigmentations and beliefs will eventually allow most of us to see the common humanity that’s at the core of each of us.
But libertarianism also contains a strong strain of Calvinism involved, as well as a naive Platonic idealism.
The Calvinism comes in through the notion that anyone, with sufficient motivation and right-thinking, can attain a modicum of economic success in the world. Success and even survival aren’t givens, they’re desiderata to be earned by means of virtuous acts.
That point can’t be over-stressed: You’re inherently worthless, and must earn your way to a sustainable existence.
The Platonic aspect comes in the libertarian embrace of the notion that governance should be relegated to the “invisible hand” of the market. The
forces of the market, unencumbered by regulation, provides the only “just” governance of human action.
To which esnl can only respond, in the words of Voltaire, that cold only be true “in the best of all possible worlds.”
Libertarianism—and by this term I mean the unique form embraced by Americans who self-identify with the term—shares a common strain with the beliefs of Joseph Stalin, who embraced the doctrine of the blank slate, the belief that human character is entirely shaped by the present environment. Soviet scientists who disagreed with the doctrine were sent to camps, and worse, and the destructive doctrine of Lysenkoism led to near-collapse of the nation’s agriculture [much as similar beliefs led to tragedy in Maoist China].
What both the beliefs of Stalin and the libertarians hold in common is a willful ignorance that while we truly are shaped by our environment, our genes shape both our bodies and our mental predispositions to what is now often called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, or EEA.
We’re neither blank slates nor rugged individualists.
We’re complex organisms evolved to function in groups, and we’re both blessed and cursed by instincts and predispositions set in place during times very different from those in which we now live. These once-indispensable evolutionary presets often work against us in the mass societies which have existed for the merest of eye-blinks compared to the duration of our vast evolutionary history.
But beliefs such as libertarianism and Stalinism are tempting in times of crisis, offering both certainty and a stereotypical enemy on which to focus our rage at times when every other facet of existence has been thrown open to question.
And just as theocratic cults seize on such moments, so do political cults.
One of the brightest thinkers of the modern libertarian movement was University of California, Santa Barbara, ecologist Garrett Hardin. His Filters Against Folly remains an indispensable book for understanding the tools of critical thinking. But another of his works, The Tragedy of the Commons, fell victim to the misapplication of the first of his filters, literacy, meaning the correct statement of the problem at issue.
Observing the overgrazing of land by African pastoralists, Hardin assumed that the land in question was a commons, property of the community and governed by long-established rules. In fact, the land was what economists term a “free-for-all,” an amalgamation of lands which had been controlled by a relatively new national government and then thrown open to all. Rather than an established commons with long-established rules, the land was governed by no existing rules, paving the way for tragedy.
Hardin’s conclusion was that private ownership was the best way to assure the land was properly used, a step in thought that led him to the libertarian conclusion. Never mind that commons grazing had been the rule since humans first settled in villages.
Enclosure of public commons sparked peasant rebellion in England, the result of destroying a long-settled way of life and the resulting accumulation of wealth and power by a rising aristocracy and a growing mercantile class.
The weakness of the libertarian movement was recently demonstrated by the confrontation between Rand Paul, winner of the Kentucky GOP senatorial primary, and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. In the devastating interview, Maddow exposed the racism and elitism lurking beneath the glistening cosmetic surface of American libertarianism. If you haven’t seen the interview, it’s posted below.
Again, there’s much worthy of embrace in the libertarian philosophy. The respect for individual rights is exemplary. But it fails as a doctrine for governance.
While libertarians are quite right in criticizing many aspects of modern American governance, they miss the key point, which is that government isn’t necessarily evil in and of itself. The real question is control of government, and who benefits. Many of the aspects of government that are most troublesome were implemented during the regime of that president who most extolled the libertarian credo, Ronald Wilson Reagan.
So let’s hoist a glass of red to Rachel Maddow for exposing the movement’s darker side, then hoist another for the positive things libertarians have contributed to the modern political dialogue.