Note: This was the third essay in my three-part series titled “The Doubting Lectures,” which I wrote in the summer of 2008.
Part Three: The Laughable Liturgy of Libertarianism
Ideology, like theater, is dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief. At the core of every ideology lies the worship of a bright new future, with only failure in the immediate past.
– John Ralston Saul
Like all religions, libertarian ideology is predicated on ridiculous leaps of faith when reason and common sense cannot prove—or at least render inconclusive—the tenets of their faith. However, much worse is the historical amnesia that afflicts the worshipers of libertarian ideology. Indeed, libertarians ignore history and its many inconvenient truths out of intellectual laziness or deliberate, willful ignorance, and because of this they overlook the many lessons that all liberal democracies have learned as they struggled and evolved over the last three centuries.
Libertarianism is a lousy religion and a disastrous and destructive ideology that is mostly espoused by what can best be described as post-modern children of the middle class and privileged meritocracy, very few of whom comprehend the 150 years of class struggle that afforded their generation such a haughty conceit and overblown sense of self worth. Libertarianism is, in short, the iconoclastic ideology of well-to-do brats who have benefited from being raised in a peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, and their sole purpose is to destroy this liberal democracy that raised and nurtured them and allowed them to succeed so well. They wish to forge a future with ideas long-ago proven to be destructive for a human society, and they reject the very system that led to their own prosperity and safe and peaceful existence. Their ideology is nihilism wrapped in childish sophistry, a vicious reverse class war determined to undermine social progress in favor of Social Darwinism, which is an attractive concept to individuals upon whom favor has already smiled, due to the luck of their birth into the meritocracy or because they excelled and succeeded within its system. I call it “The revenge of the bourgeoisie brats.”
Libertarians categorically reject all government as “evil” (of course grudgingly admitting some government—such as armies and police, for instance—is necessary) while at the same time unapologetically touting “the free, unfettered marketplace” as the most important aspect of human culture. What follows in their discourse are a series of trite slogans and aphorisms that sounds like religious liturgy, all delivered with an eerily arrogant certainty in the supremacy of their largely untested ideas, or worse, their insane devotion in supporting ideas—such as Chicago School “free market” economics—that have already been well proven to not only not to work, but have caused great damage when applied to large economic and social systems. Just ask Argentina, Bolivia, New Zealand, and Russia how their Chicago School-styled free market reforms fared, to name a few.
Debunking libertarian ideas is like proving the moon isn’t made of cheese, so I won’t waste valuable time here in this essay doing that. Not all libertarian ideas are wacky, but the base assumption of the ideology—that government is bad and must be extremely limited—is asking us to return to a society that existed before the social, economic, and political reforms of the last 150 years. No thanks.
I believe in the concept of liberty and the idea a government should stay out of the personal business of its citizens. I am against the War on Drugs, the FISA wiretapping laws, the Patriot Act, and all other forms of excessive government intrusion into the lives of citizens. I think most currently illegal drugs should be legalized, especially marijuana. I believe a woman has the right to choose. I think homosexuals should be afforded the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. I am against unjust taxation. I abhor all government waste of taxpayer money. I vehemently oppose any government policy that would promote religious intolerance, racism, sexism, or homophobia. So there are issues with which I agree with libertarians.
But I also believe in government. On this subject I cite the brilliant words of the Canadian novelist and philosopher John Ralston Saul, who so completely articulated in his book The Unconscious Civilization what government means and why we need it large and strong in a democratic state:
The most powerful force possessed by the individual citizen is her own government. Or governments, because a multiplicity of levels means a multiplicity of strengths.
The individual has no other large organized mechanism that he can call his own. There are other mechanisms, but they reduce the citizen to the status of a subject. Government is the only organized mechanism that makes possible that level of shared disinterest known as the public good. Without this greater interest the individual is reduced to a lesser, narrower being limited to immediate needs. He will then be subject to other, larger forces, which will necessarily come forward to fill the void left by the withering of the public good. Those forces will fill it with some other directing interest that will serve their purposes, not the larger purposes of the citizen. It would be naïve to blame them for occupying abandoned territory.
How then could individuals possibly replace government? In a democracy they are government.
Individuals do not beat large companies or defeat large armies. Why would one expect them to replace governments? The point is there will be a government as there always has been. People ask: What kind of government? How much government? I think the primary question is: Whose government? If individuals do not occupy their legitimate position, then it will be occupied by a god or king or a coalition of interest groups. If citizens do not exercise the powers conferred by their legitimacy, others will do so.
The citizenry might well wonder why they should put artificial limits on their only force. The power we refuse ourselves goes somewhere else. Yet no other legitimacy is capable of disinterest. If the citizenry agree to exclude themselves from any given area, they are automatically excluding the possibility that in that domain the public good could have any role to play.
It is therefore naïve or disingenuous for those leading the fight against government to suggest that society will be reinvigorated by smaller government. Responsibility will simply have been transferred to an equally if not more sluggish bureaucracy in the private sector. What’s more, by demonizing the public civil servant they are obscuring the matter of the citizen’s legitimacy and of the public good which only that legitimacy can produce. People become so obsessed by hating government that they forget it is meant to be their government and is the only powerful public force they have purchase on.
My point is that the individual and the government are linked together by an artery. If we act to sever that artery by replacing or opposing a central role for government, we cease to be individuals and revert to the status of subject. If democracy fails, then it is ultimately the citizen who has failed, not the politician. The politician can always find a new place in a new configuration of power—witness the growing attachment of the elected to private sector interests.
I would argue that to a greater extent we are already well engaged in the act of cutting our own arteries—in both the wrists and the throat. If we are slipping into such a foolish act, it is largely because we have allowed ourselves to be convinced by our own elites that the democratic system is a secondary product of the free market system. And so, if the system and managers—supported by their acolytes in departments of economics around the West and by the invasive buzz of their eager neo-conservative courtiers—if all these people and institutions indicate that there must be changes, well, we bow our head in respect.
And that pretty much sums up why I reject libertarianism. To reject government is to reject democracy…in favor of what? Anarchy? Organized chaos? Social Darwinism? Who will take the place of government? Warlords? Gangsters? Will corporations become our overlords?
To me, the society espoused by libertarians sounds like a hippie commune run by steroid-gobbling, in-your-face jock frat rats, where the poor, weak, and uneducated become subjects to the whims of the rich, brilliant, strong, and educated. It’s a nice world if you belong to the right side of this divide. If you don’t, you’re doomed to the same existence so many millions faced before the social reforms of the 20th century, when poverty, inadequate health care, unsafe work conditions, unfairly low wages, unsanitary living conditions, an unsafe food supply, racism, sexism, and many other injustices and social ills prevented so many from the pursuit of happiness. The marketplace didn’t create these reforms; democratic governments did. Libertarians call a social democracy a “nanny state.” I call it the best and most enlightened society humans can create; most importantly, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. Since most libertarians are beneficiaries of this generous social democracy—whether they admit it or not—the fact they, in their comfortable affluence and peaceful existence, wish to destroy the mechanism that created this good life for themselves, is insanely irrational.
But such is the pathology of the affluent brats we’ve created today. They are ignorant of history and obsessed with the false belief they are “self-made individualists.” They won’t be satisfied until our great social democracy is destroyed and they find themselves licking the boots of some master or other whose power is not restrained and who is a million times more evil than anything these dingbat brats can even imagine our government to be. Without the power of government to protect individuals, no matter how smart or cool or tough you think you are (or how many assault rifles you have in your gun cabinet), there will always be others out there who can easily dominate you, and they will without the restraint and check government provides against their power.
Libertarianism is the false religion of affluent conceit in a free democratic society. It is a self-defeating proposition and a delusion, post-modern science fiction for spoiled brats who are consumed with self-love and an inflated sense of self-worth, and who possess seriously deformed civic virtues.
What it is not is a rational system of ideas worthy of much examination. So much of its ethos is wrapped in anti-government sophistry and delusional conceit that there’s not much substance left except that which liberal thinkers for the last three centuries have already expressed much better and with more ethical authority. So let’s move on.