Published by Chris Clarke February 23rd, 2007 in Conservatives Sure Are Funny, Libertarians
Eventually, it happens to all of us. You’ll be talking to someone, online or in person, who seems completely normal. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the person will say something really weird, like “You can’t fix a problem like underpaid public school teachers by just throwing money at them!” or “Why do they need tax-funded traffic lights at this corner? All the cross-traffic’s already stopped, which shows the Free Market works!” or “Hitler was a Communist! They called themselves the ‘National Socialists’ for a reason!”
You, my friend, have just made the unpleasant discovery that you’ve been talking to a Libertarian.
Now don’t get me wrong! Most smart people are, to a certain extent, libertarians with a lower-case “L.” We all like to be left alone to determine the course of our own lives without state intrusion. But Capital-L Libertarians tend to take those admirable sentiments to their logical extreme, wanting to shrink fire departments and public libraries and FEMA down to the size where they can be drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub, or, failing that, at least stabbed to death like Marat.
And some of them are smart people despite it all: they’ve just been sadly misled. I blame the proselytizers, who are every bit as creepily efficient as the Scientologists, if not quite as well regarded by society.* Young people, who from time immemorial have had to learn to find their way among varying political philosophies, come upon deceptive “political quizzes” left laying around on the internet like leg-hold traps in a beaver pond, designed to lure the unwary into the clutches of Official Libertarianism. The carefully designed questions display a subtle, nearly undetectable bias in favor of a Libertarian point of view:
And after about 89 similar questions designed to pinpoint their opinons mathematically, the test-takers are told to plot themselves appropriately on a two-axis political graph. “If you land in the shaded area,” they’re told, “You Just Might Be A Libertarian!”
And they get sucked in from there.
Now most new Libertarians eventually, after repeated contact with reality, temper their beliefs. This article is not about them, the people who concede that some taxes are necessary to pay firefighters, who recognize that their success as business people might just depend on public education to give them a pool of potentially competent employees, and so forth. These people are fun to argue with over beer, once they get past the zealot stage. And it’s just possible that you might be the person who provides that needed spark of thought, who points out that, oh, I dunno, the government they decry for limiting suburban construction in the old growth forest also paves the roads that make housing developments in other places possible, or that their popular Free Marketeer blog owes its existence to several decades of government funding of ARPANET. If those don’t work, sometimes these people are persuaded when it’s pointed out to them that back in the late 19th century, the US essentially was the Libertarian state they now advocate, and a very few people got very wealthy while the rest of us died of food poisoning or coal mine collapses or shirtwaist factory fires. Or you can just give them a copy of Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish. With repeated exposure to reality, over time, the rational libertarian will grant that absolutism is not very useful, usually at about the same time they get their learner’s permit.
But there are some Libertarians who remain unswayed by such ugly facts. Whether through persistent ignorance or sociopathy or a mixture of the two, they hold as an article of near-religious faith that they derive no benefit from the modern regulatory apparatus that they could not duplicate on their own with the homebrew FDA they have in their garage. Or even worse, they manifestly hold the welfare of others as far less important than their own profit and comfort. (As an example of that last, witness this notable Bay Area Libertarian, a meat-packing magnate, who did not want the law to see how his sausage was made.) In a cutthroat economic free-for-all, with the mass of people on the bottom and a handful of ruthless Machiavellian princes at the top, each one of these goobers thinks it’s inevitable that he (gender specificity deliberate) will inevitably become one of the princes.**
You cannot argue these people into rationality, nor can you persuade them by logic to show compassion for their fellow humans. The best you can do is to make their heads explode with simple, fact-based declarative sentences. I’ve found a few reliable ways to do so, which I will describe here briefly. (You might know of others. Feel free to describe them in comments.) Using these sentences will cause Libertarian cultists to sputter, stammer, and occasionally start to think. Worst-case scenario: these sentences will usually at least cause them to shut up, and it’s hard to downplay the importance of that in making your typical day a bit rosier.
Libertarian Cranial Detonation Technique #1: Mentioning Libertarian history.
Most American Libertarians have precious little grasp of the history of their political philosophy. They seem to think that the Libertarian school of thought sprang fully formed like Athena from Ayn Rand’s beetled brow, with Robert Heinlein as attending midwife. Libertarianism’s true origins, however, unsettle most Libertarians to the point where the mere acceptance of that history often starts those rusty old mental gears grinding again. To wit, and here is tactical nuclear sentence number one:
“Libertarianism originated in the philosophy of a left-wing French political philosopher who also influenced Karl Marx.”
The French Philosopher in question is, as some of you have guessed (and with whose description a few of you are no doubt ready to quibble), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who famously penned the Libertarians’ Sekrit Motto, “Property is Theft.” Of course unlike modern Libertarians, Proudhon meant that as a condemnation. Among the pre-Marxist political thinkers strongly influenced by Proudhon was Johann Kaspar Schmidt, who under the pen name Max Stirner wrote one of the first true capital-L Libertarian texts, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, which can be translated either as “The Ego and Its Own” or, more literally and more tellingly, “The Individual And His Property.” Stirner became a nucleus of a nascent school of political thought then called “individualist anarchism,”*** whose inheritance-tax-free heirs include Ludwig Von Mises, The Austrian and Chicago Schools, Murray Rothbard, Alan Greenspan, and so on.
Libertarian Cranial Detonation Technique #2: Mentioning Libertarianism’s siblings.
But Proudhon (and to a certain extent, Stirner) also influenced a number of political philosophers and activists who extended the anarchist critique of power relations to the economic sphere: Bakunin, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Goldman, Malatesta, etc. The early twentieth century saw a mass Anarchist movement in the industrial world, and though that got pretty much squelched the philosophy lived on, to influence much of the modern progressive left. Despite the Libertarians’ historically illiterate insistence that socialism is synonymous with totalitarianism, much of current left thought is libertarian at its root, which provides us with the useful sentence:
“I’m a libertarian socialist.”
Of course, it’s easier to say that if you actually are one, but the definitions of both adjectives are broad enough to encompass a range of people from Noam Chomsky to Paul Wellstone. In fact, the boundary between libertarian socialist and liberal democrat is pretty much impossible to delineate with any kind of precision: people who are libertarian socialists in the long view are often liberal democrats in the moment.
What’s the more libertarian way of running the world? Coming up with ever-evolving procedures by which the largest number of people possible have the largest amount of input possible into the policy by which we run the world, moderated by recognizing certain expertise and the efficiency of delegating some decision-making — which is a bright-eyed and optimistic way of describing the mission of liberal democracy**** — or letting the people who are best at accumulating money bribe, bully , and blackmail their way into running huge sections of the world?
Libertarian Cranial Detonation Technique #3: Mentioning Libertarianism’s blindspot.
That accumulation of serious political power is the end result of the Libertarian political wankdream, and yet somehow boss-based coercion escapes the Libertarian scrutiny to which municipal zoning boards and feminist bloggers with itchy banning fingers are routinely subjected.
Look at it this way: what would you call a political system that regulates its subjects activities on a minute-by-minute basis; that often requires of its citizens prior restraint on freedom of speech; that controls where its subjects go, what they wear, and who they talk to; that restricts online reading material in a Beijing-style manner; that has a rigid hierarchy to enforce edicts from the upper echelons and do routine surveillance of the rank and file; that denies its subjects privacy even to the point of demanding the right to examine their urine; and that punishes infractions by permanent banishment?
Some people would call it a dictatorship. But many of us call it “the workplace.” Somehow, Libertarians never seem to object to restrictions of Liberty done by The Boss. “You can always get another job,” they say, as if that answers anything, as if the class of people who can leave a job blithely isn’t the same class that’s most likely to be able to pick up and move away from a conventional, state-based dictatorship. And as corporations extend their control to people outside their employ, with DRM and increasingly prevalent, shameless propaganda and their own armed forces and even co-optation of the nominal forms of governmental authority, the truth of our next useful sentence becomes ever more manifestly clear, that sentence being:
“Corporations are governments.”
Which is, of course, the libertarian socialist criticism of Libertarianism in soundbite form. I’ve never known a Libertarian to be able to answer that one without changing the subject completely, usually to a defense of Guantanamo from a Libertarian POV. At which point they’ve been made incapable of influencing anyone who’s not a fellow Libertarian, which means you can get on with your life. Try it and see!
* And without the soup cans. And also without the practicing medicine without a license. Though the Libertarians would defend the Scientologists’ right to practice medicine without a license.
** This is, of course, known as the Renaissance Faire Fallacy.
*** And now called “classical liberalism”
**** And you can come up with all kinds of
objections to that description, I know, and I’d agree with most of
them. Give me a damn break. This is a polemic, not an operator’s manual.
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