ECONOMICS, LAW, PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

“Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate….A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination—even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.” ~ Rand Paul (letter to the editor of the Bowling Green Daily News—May 2002)

Let’s be clear: Rand Paul thinks business owners should be able to discriminate (i.e., “install racist policies”) against minorities in the name of private-property rights. Such discrimination represents, for Paul, a certain level of acceptable noise within the libertarian system. In a hand-waving defense of libertarianism, a friend suggested we cannot “legislate morality.” So true. With respect to secular government—as opposed to, say, a theocracy—natural law is perforce reduced to a set of accepted coeval standards. So, no, we can’t (constitutionally) legislate morality—although the history of constitutional amendments and the rulings of the SCOTUS, to a certain degree, suggest something of a moral touchstone—but we can legislate against premeditated, reckless, or immoral behaviors that negatively impact others. Refusing to serve African Americans within one’s privately-owned establishment, for example, is hardly synonymous with refusing to have an eclectic group of friends with whom you associate, and wielding the Constitution to defend exclusively white lunch counters as a defense against generic racist policies even fails an objective logic test (i.e., ignoratio elenchi).

Because we cannot convince people to “live morally” with respect to others (i.e., the notion that choosing the moral path is, ipso facto, the reward for moral decision-making) is the reason we need legislation, “red lines,” to use Netanyahu’s familiar phrase, that regulate such behavior. Are you free to commit murder? Drive drunk? Run a stop sign? Cheat on your tax returns? Beat your children? Assist a suicide (in some states)? Bet against doomed investments actively sold to consumers? Sure you are, but the empowerment that emerges from individual autonomy will never stand as a justification for immorality. This is why we have laws in this country, a legislative feature of our democracy that implies the moral sentence of ignominy is simply insufficient to dissuade free moral agents from engaging in harmful behavior. If Goldman Sachs can generate 500 billion dollars by screwing a number of gullible clients, they will. And the shame they might feel as a result of their immoral-but-legal behavior—if they felt any at all—would be quickly washed away by the euphoric wave of, well, 500 billion dollars. This is when government needs to outline clear legislative restrictions.

Even in a more general sense, though, there’s something profoundly disturbing about the entire libertarian project, something akin to the infantile absurdity of “object permanence” writ large upon the socio-macroeconomic landscape. Libertarians wish to eliminate the conscious recognition of significant social and economic inequalities by placing severely opaque, ambiguous, and patriotic-looking objects—things like “individual liberty,” “property,” “private ownership,” and, worse, constitutional “originalism”—in front of, as it were, the objects that should truly demand our collective attention: poverty, the insidiousness of plutocratic rule, wage stagnation, corporate avarice, discrimination, economic and opportunistic inequality, and the insufficiency of our secondary educational system. Put a different way, libertarianism is that Brobdingnagian picture of some Parisian locale—the kind of deceptive photomontage used by, say, inner-city street vendors—where visitors can pretend their fatuous photographic moment temporarily transports them to a different reality, a vision far more pleasant than the project-ridden dystopia conveniently hidden behind the photo.

Such a tactic is even more embarrassing than the historically disingenuous attempts to distract us with those impossibly shiny objects—notions of the “American Dream” and “economic mobility”—that are waved at us by the trickle-down one-percenters, as if capitalizing the ‘a’ and ‘d’ increases the viability of such an ideal for the vast majority of Americans within the current economic infrastructure. Begin a discussion concerning disadvantaged families living in depressed areas without any real opportunity for economic mobility—an issue directly related to the sizable (and exponential) income-inequality gap—and the libertarian response is always the same, tired refrain:

“No one is forcing them to live there!”
“Other people have escaped, so why can’t they?!”
“They’re struggling because they haven’t taken responsibility for their lives!”

(That last statement sounds awfully familiar, Mr. Romney.) Such unacceptably tenuous, eyebrow-raising “arguments” really suggest an “object permanence” metaphor. If we shift our focus away from inequality and inequality of opportunity toward notions of “self-empowerment,” “freedom,” and “God-given autonomy,” as the libertarian project would have us do, then we replace genuine causation (imposed inequality) with a specious one (i.e., liberty—read: moral bankruptcy that results in substandard living as a function of one’s free, non-determined choices). That slight-of-hand moment, my friends, the moment where we replace the real cause of inequality with a weakly-constructed one, represents the seamy underbelly of the libertarian project, an ideology clothed in patriotic garb and painted with roll-up-your-sleeves, red-white-and-blue-sounding slogans that cleverly evoke the American machismo of “manifest destiny.”

This does not, however, represent the worst of libertarianism. The evil of the libertarian experiment resides not only in its desire to subversively enact a sort of bait-and-switch morality on the American people, but also because it models, in a number of abstract ways, the non-genocidal dangers of the National Socialist experiment: a desire to institutionalize public racism and discrimination under the guise of state-facilitated ownership; the individual-as-totalitarian state; rejection of general social contracts in the name of a fascist sense of “liberty”; support for economic internment camps, which replace barbed fences with economic immobility; and an economic “master race” that is fitter—in a fiscally eugenic sense—than the less fortunate and less educated. An insidious project must begin, as it always does, with a popular-yet-specious allure. Libertarianism has chosen the buzzword “liberty.”

To be sure, it is the principal desire of the libertarian project to effectuate a cognitive denial of the true cause(s) of inequality, and libertarianism secures this by suggesting its weakly-constructed alternative (free choice) is the real cause. That is, by effacing genuine causes of inequality, libertarianism is able to substitute its own prescriptions for inequality (e.g., indolence, lack of an entrepreneurial spirit, entitlement mindset, socialism, poor decision-making, etc.). In this way, libertarians have found a way to reject the very existence of inequality itself—and here is the important part—by claiming its presence within society is nothing more than a manifestation (and, with respect to the penury, an agglomeration) of individual decisions to be poor and disadvantaged. In other words, if inequality is simply a “decision to be unequal,” then even (the visual evidence of) inequality can be dismissed by the very libertarian dogma (i.e., free will) that reifies it.

How convenient.

And when libertarians respond by arguing that inequality IS, in fact, a product of free choice, then that statement, ipso facto, represents the vindication of my argument; it becomes the very evidence that libertarians—like ignorant viewers flipping through someone’s old vacation photos—believe the faux reality of the Parisian photomontage means we’re really in Paris. That is the immorality—the unshirted evil—of libertarianism, that the “solution” to the problem of inequity merely resides in its cause: an individual’s free will.

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