Confessions of a Reformed Libertarian
I’ve been forcefully denouncing libertarianism for a few years now. It took me some time to connect the dots–and let my subscription to Reason lapse. Longtime readers of BSJ might remember some of my libertarian-leaning rhetoric from years ago. And anyone who takes the time to look will find I haven’t scrubbed those pages. I’m not afraid to show a bit of intellectual evolution. I wouldn’t be much of a shadow warrior if I hid from my past, would I? It’s better to claim it, to admit I learned something than to pretend perfect consistency. “Guilty with an explanation” is better than a whitewash. While many strands fed into my political philosophy, I now realize my libertarianism was both a reaction against the social conservatism and ironically a continuation of the anti-communism of my church. It was also a manifestation of legitimate revulsion at the conditional nature of forced religious altruism.
In the 1980s, Rush were my musical heroes, and they flirted with Ayn Rand in their Farewell to Kings/2112 period, dedicating the latter album to her. I eagerly lapped up Neil Peart’s lyrics praising the virtues of self-interest: “Well I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong, yet it was for me, not you I came to write this song.” Genius! I devoured Rand’s novella Anthem, which was the inspiration for the naming of Anthem Entertainment, the music publishing company for Rush. I was thrilled by Equality 7-2521’s discovery of the word “I.” And who doesn’t love the individual vs. the state heroism of one of the greatest rock-operas of all time 2112? With monochromatic intensity, the Priests of Syrinx pummeled the aspirations of the helpless protagonist. After his suicide, “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation, we have assumed control…” is the terrifying finale (and the end result of unfettered state power). Expressed in these terms, self-interest is an absolutely compelling imperative.
As I’ve often repeated to anyone who will listen, Rand was not wrong, just incomplete. She was caught up in her own reaction against the abuses of collectivism in the Soviet Union, and I don’t blame her at all. Her father’s business was expropriated by the Bolsheviks and her family left destitute. Fleeing the chaos, she was lucky to get out of the “worker’s paradise” alive. When you have the experience of taking off the golden handcuffs of an everything-provided-nothing-allowed religious community as I did, or forced collectivization as Rand did, you look for some alternative–some rational approach to dealing with other human beings. Whether it’s Equality 7-2521, Rearden or Roark, Rand’s heroes embody everything that’s good about self-interest and personal excellence. And their refusal to compromise their principles leads them to self-discovery which affords them great power. Rational self-interest makes for good boundaries and even better self-discipline.
The larger-than-life heroes can also teach us a valuable lesson about expressing our ego. It’s not just the state which tries to crush the individual, but also other people and their discomfort with social outliers. Anyone who’s ever decided to produce and publish anything realizes this. As soon as you start a blog, write a book, make a film, compose a song, or take a stand for anything, you will inevitably face “who-do-you-think-you-are?” opposition. People like others to “go along to get along.” On the web, this is less of an issue than it used to be since nearly everyone now tweets and posts their every whim. But “narcissism” and “navel-gazing” are still pejoratives for self-expression in some quarters. The right-wing is constantly denouncing “no-talent” celebrities. But this is incoherent, since celebrity is democratically defined as popularity, and “talent” is always eclipsed by hard work. New agers also babble incessantly about “getting rid of the ego,” the “human mind” as the enemy, “being in the moment.” I have little respect for either of these anti-individualist attitudes.
I hold that self-interest within the individual is absolutely necessary, that ego is healthy and we need more authentic ego expression–not less. Self-interest becomes problematic only when it draws its circle of empathy too narrowly or disregards the long-term. And when self-interest is extended to become the organizing principle for society–it translates directly into social Darwinism and vicious dog-eat-dog politics: Hobbes’ war of all against all. It’s a political philosophy which works really well for the young, the connected, the strong, the wealthy, and the dominant. What Rand’s work misses is that human beings naturally balance self-interest with communitarian values. Anyone with an ounce of self-awareness realizes that no matter how strong or rich we are, all of us will eventually become weak, get injured, lose our job or home, get sick, get old, and die. In their hubris, libertarians are loathe to admit that though they may have long ago left behind their diapers and pureed food, it’s overwhelmingly likely at some point they’ll take them up again.
Every society in human history has found some way to deal with its weaker members. In early nomadic cultures, a person went out to die when they could no longer move fast enough to stay with the group. There was simply no choice. It was a question of group survival. But every society with sufficient wealth or roots has since cared for its vulnerable members. In many parts of the world this still involves the keeping of multi-generational households. Or the building of religious orphanages and hospices. As religion and family ties have waned in modern democracies, the state remains the only actor strong enough to fulfill this role. Hate the burden of taxes or Social Security deductions? Imagine having absolutely no choice but to spend your entire youth taking care of your ailing grandparents or an injured sibling. Imagine if it was the church collecting tithes instead of government taxes. And remember we’re only a few generations removed from that harsh reality–and only our taxes which fund the safety net and allow the separation of church from state. It’s a price I’m very, very happy to pay.
We all know we have a 100% chance of suffering the great misfortune of death. Even if we live to age 100 or more without problems–no one on Earth gets out alive. Betty White is a shining example of a 90-year-old with elan. But she’s the exception, not the rule. Most people will count themselves fortunate to have 70 years of reasonably good health. But many will get far less. The social contract is therefore about how we manage inevitable human injury, misfortune, or decline with dignity. It is not a contract that it’s possible to opt in or out of. It is a condition of our birth.
Libertarians sneer at the social contract. “I never signed anything,” they say. But in the same breath they talk about human beings born with “natural” or “God-given rights.” I’ve personally brought three children into the world, and I examined them all very closely. None of them came with anything resembling “rights” attached to their bodies. They were protected by the good will of doctors, nurses, and their parents, and by extension the entire American society. Had they been born elsewhere in the world, they might not even have had the so-called “right” to avoid being killed by senseless violence or preventable childhood diseases. From this example, it’s clear human “rights” can only be provided by other human beings. They don’t exist in the abstract or the natural world. Like “rights,” wanting dignity is not the same as having it. We must make dignity for others if we want it for ourselves. It’s not enough to proclaim empty slogans like “libertarian” means we stand for liberty. To fully drink of the fount of liberty, we mush embrace our responsibilities to others as much as our rights. If we think our rights are valuable enough to talk about, we must recognize that we lose access to them as soon as we fail to protect them with a strong government.
NEXT: Libertarians vs. the commons.