Monday, April 25, 2011

What I Hate About Libertarianism (If I Haven't Touched On This Already)

Yup.  That was my older brother commenting on my political blog a few entries back.

I need to mention this to you, bro: posting as Anonymous puts you down amongst the spammer heathens.  Put your name to your comments or not at all.

And so, in honor of my older brother finding my political blog, this one goes out to you.

What I Hate About Libertarianism.  (NOTE: This was edited the following day for some misspells and grammar, and for additional points to be made.  Carry on.).

Primarily: it's an -Ism.  With that, I'm on the side of Ferris Bueller:
Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the Walrus. I could be the Walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off of people.

The point being, any -Ism is at face value a risky thing.  It's a creed or ideology that requires you to accept its tenets wholeheartedly as absolutes, and views any variation or deviation from those tenets as heresy.  And the problem with thinking in absolutes is that not everything fits those absolutes: there are always exceptions, anomalies, people or events that don't fit easily into the hypotheses, axioms and theories that make up an Ism.

There are a slew of Isms in the political ideology spectrum.  Liberalism and Conservatism, obviously.  Socialism and Communism and Capitalism covering the economic aspects.  Variations of religious theocracy.  Hell, there's a whole list of Isms in philosophy.

So why does libertarianism get special mention as an Ism I hate?

Because somehow in this nation, there's this whole fetish in the mainstream media of viewing libertarianism as a viable alternative to the existing dominant Isms of conservatism and liberalism.  Even though libertarianism hasn't really been fully tested and proven to work - and that the elements of libertarianism (applied by conservatives who simply love the anti-government tenets that underscore libertarianism... and ignore the rest) that have been tried haven't exactly impressed.

Other issues I have with libertarianism is that its obsession with personal liberty and reduction of government bureaucracy end up with the same equation of getting rid of government regulations and laws that were put in place to protect individuals and families in the first place.  David Frum, writing about why he figured out that maybe just maybe a welfare state had its reasons for existing, quoted G.K. Chesterton (some snippage for flow of reading):

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built... Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid... Which does not mean that I have become suddenly indifferent to the growth of government. Not at all... Yet that same conservative sensibility is also properly distrustful of the fantasy that society can be remade according to a preconceived plan... 

Frum writes earlier in that essay about how he viewed his once-hardline stance on what he thought was his conservative-libertarianism: that there would be trade-offs between liberty and social safety, and that the people making the decisions would have some honor in what they did:

Some of the terms of that trade were honored. From 1983 through 2008, the US enjoyed a quarter-century of economic expansion, punctuated by only two relatively mild recessions. In the late 1980s, the country was hit by the savings & loan crisis, the worst financial crisis to that point since the 1930s – and although the S&L crisis did deliver a blow, the country rapidly recovered and came up smiling. New industries were born, new jobs created on an epic scale, incomes did improve, and the urban poor were drawn into the working economy... But of course, other terms of the trade were not honored... Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

Frum's article, and other articles he'd written over the past few years, highlight a person who's spent long hours thinking and writing his political beliefs into a coherent philosophy... only to find that the absolutes he counted on fell apart once the complexities and harshness of the real world intervened.

Earlier I wrote about how libertarianism's focus on gutting regulations and laws was a reason I'm not a fan of this Ism.  That's because as a student of history I can recall eras of human history where we didn't have many rules or regulations that protected workers and consumers and other individuals from harm. Has no one read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair?  Anyone ever read up the reasons why Teddy Roosevelt went after the trusts?  Can I just point out that this is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire?

Regulations exist for a reason: TO PROTECT PEOPLE.  To make sure that the innocent are not harmed or made sick or forced to work to death or driven into poverty because of other people's greed and mismanagement of our markets.  There's a reason these fences were built, and libertarians don't seem to notice or care.  Because their Ism insists that personal freedom supersedes the community's need for safety and common service.

Without government regulations we'd have airplanes crashing every other week instead of every other year.  Without government regulations we'd have salmonella in all the food, just not from a peanut corporation with a horrible health record.  Without OSHA we'd have more workplace accidents and deaths.

For all the hassles and complaints about the costs of regulations and the costs of fines and the costs of this and that, they pale in comparison to the costs of businesses destroying themselves by poisoning their customers or burning down their buildings and killing their workers.  People seem to forget that 100 years ago your can of meat had a 50/50 chance of killing you, either because the meat was toxic or the label wrapping the can was toxic.  Or that the can itself would probably explode.  We live in a safer world today... and people forget that it's due to those regulations put in place before we were born.  (EDIT: I'd like to add how the libertarian free-market crowd believes that Regulation can be replaced by "Enlightened Self-Interest".  I'd also like to highlight that Enlightened Self-Interest means nothing compared to Greed when most of our economic overlords had a choice between either).

I think my rant started at one point, and dove toward another, but both of them cover the same issue at hand: Why I Hate Libertarianism.  And I'd like to get back to my earlier argument about how the Ism aspect of libertarianism is that it's an ideology that deals in absolutes.  Because my final argument against libertarianism is how it insists that its vision of the world could create a better cleaner happier loving world.  In short, libertarians are what I call Utopians (Utopianists is apparently not a word).

I studied literary utopias in my freshman year at University of Florida back in 1988.  It was a bit of an eye-opener.  Not only covering More's Utopia (the Trope Namer as it were), the class also covered Butler's Erewhon, Bellamy's Looking Backward (a forgotten text today but a major bestseller in the 19th Century: it was so prevalent that its critics wrote "sequels" denouncing the original's themes), and one other that I can't recall (although Bacon's New Atlantis seems familiar).  And the one thing I took from the class was: Utopias don't work.

Each Utopia I read about highlighted the writer's already-established biases about human behavior and what could be changed or fixed to make humanity "improve".  But as the professor noted with all the "response" books that sprung up after each Utopian novel, each of those Utopian writers would either ignore a human trait - Greed, Arrogance, Ignorance, Ineptitude, Fear, Lust, Wrath, etc. - or underplay how damaging those traits could derail a society.  Usually on the hand-wave premise that "well, it will work because people will WANT it to work."  Even the "response" books to Looking Backward tried to create their own visions of utopia to counter Bellamy's vision... and those critics created flawed worlds as well.

And it wasn't just novels: the class also examined real-life attempts at creating Utopian communities here in the United States.  Places like New Harmony.  There was Oneida (yes, the silverware guys). You might have heard of Fruitlands: it's the one founded (and failed) under the leadership of Louisa May Alcott's father.  It's why Alcott wrote and published Little Women and its sequels, to regain the family's finances.  A lot of these Utopian communities failed because their founders believed they could overcome certain human traits... and couldn't.  The attempts at real-life Utopias either fell apart because of the fatal flaw their founders overlooked and wouldn't confront... or because they changed their rules - like the Mormons, for the most part - in order to continue existing.

And so every time I look at Libertarianism - and as much as I see in Communism and Socialism and Liberalism and Conservatism and a ton of other Isms - I see a Utopian ideology, one that's obsessed with its Absolute view of perfecting society that can't really ever be perfected, refusing to compromise on either the big issues or the little details... and expecting to receive adulation and acceptance all because of its' purity of vision.

Even Pragmatism has its flaws.  Yeah.  Dude.  I went there.  Deal with it.

I expect a retort from my brother whenever he finds the time.  And this time, bro, put your name to it.

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