Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Goldilocks and the Libertarians

At the beginning of the primary season before the last election, I was just emerging from a long night of the soul with respect to politics. Literally in despair over the direction my country had been going for a long, long time, I began with little hope that anything could be done to really change it. It seemed that the anti-intellectual forces of social Darwinism that ensured dominance of the very rich and ferociously powerful were too strong ever to be defeated.

America was fighting wars for no reason, torturing prisoners in secret prisons, denying its responsibilities for global climate change, and fumbling its efforts to help its citizens in the aftermath of disasters like Katrina. Friends from abroad confirmed what I suspected about America’s image in the world: we were universally regarded with fear, contempt, and even pity, but rarely with respect. With the possible (and still puzzling) exception of Tony Blair, Bush didn’t seem to have many friends—and in Blair’s case, that friendship cost him his job.

Very familiar with the philosophy and work of Hillary Clinton, I had some hope that she would, if she could, inch the country back toward at least some grudging sense of purpose and responsibility. But could a woman really be elected in America? And could any coalition of reasonable, responsible people ever really change much of what had been so wrong for so long? It required a great leap of faith to even hope for any significant change.

Ever the optimist, though, I pasted a Hillary for President sticker on the rear end of my car and carried on with my life. It took a while for me and many others to come around to the realization that what we do, what we say, and who we vote for could really make a difference.

My work often brings me to college campuses, and as campaign signs began to proliferate, I began to see a lot of them there and elsewhere for some guy named Ron Paul. Who was Ron Paul? At first I was afraid he might be some kind of a spoiler, like Ralph Nader, whom I blame in part for the debacle of the 2000 election. But as I talked with a few people who sported those signs, I was puzzled by their lack of advocacy. People who pasted up Ron Paul signs didn’t seem to want to talk about their candidate; when asked, they’d shrug their shoulders and make some off-handed remark like, “If you don’t know, I really can’t explain it to you.”

The thing that was interesting about this was that those who sported Ron Paul buttons and signs seemed to have one thing in common, as near as I could tell—they were very, very bright. None of them seemed to think their candidate had any chance of winning the presidency, and being pragmatic, most probably held their nose (as one libertarian said to me) and voted for someone else in the end. However, Ron Paul made a significant showing in the primaries in almost every state, and in a close election, his votes could have skewed the results one way or the other.

Ron Paul and the libertarians are important—not because they’re likely to launch a convention in 2012 and storm the White House, but rather because they’re highly unlikely to do any such thing. Libertarians take pride in staying above the fray—in having, as they like to put it, “no dog in the fight” when it comes to politics. Being individualists, they prefer not to sully themselves by engaging in mudslinging in public arenas (and who can blame them?). Being intellectuals, they tend to communicate over the Internet and fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media. There they kibitz, mostly with each other, about the evils of government.

But like it or not, if you have more than two people in a long-term relationship, you’ve got “government” of one kind or another. And like it or not, the country is changing in a way that may make it impossible for libertarians to stay “above the fray.” In the next few election cycles, I think the libertarians will make a big difference.

First, as noted earlier, libertarians are no dummies. While they may be few in number, I suspect that they may represent a fairly significant percentage of intelligent, educated Americans who are socially and politically aware. They represent a brain trust, a sort of political secret weapon. If they continue to eschew the world of politics, they make a difference; if they decide to engage, the game will never be the same. People with power can’t avoid responsibility: if they use it or withhold it, they still affect the outcome of the enterprise.

Second, libertarians like to think of themselves—accurately, so some extent—as being somewhere off the spectrum of “right” to “left” political advocacy. They tend to side with the “right,” for example, when it comes to limiting taxes and big government. They tend to be “lefties,” however, when it comes to social issues. And they tend to put much more emphasis than either the right or the left on certain values, such as individual autonomy. As both the Republican and Democratic parties begin to splinter into rival factions—a new trend that may come to define this era in American political history—centrists of all kinds will begin to take on a degree of importance that far exceeds their numbers. (Just ask Senator Blanche Lincoln about that.)

Sometimes libertarians frustrate me because of their refusal to throw themselves behind important public initiatives, such as health reform. On the other hand, I definitely prefer their cerebral detachment and philosophical disinterestedness to hyper-emotional “teabag” Republicanism. I guess that’s why I currently define myself as a progressive Democrat: for my money, the libertarians are too intellectual, the Republicans are too emotional, and the Democrats are—just right!

8 comments:

Six said...

Interesting psychoanalysis - not sure if it really amounts to anything, but interesting nonetheless. On pet-peeve of mine about you though... I seem to remember posts from you complaining about Republicans essentially being mean in their rehtoric (name calling, etc) - however you continue to use a very derrogatory term when describing them (teabagging/teabagger, etc). Do you even know what that means? If someone was on here continuing to refer to Democrats as something along the lines of Douchcrats, would you adopt that in your posts?

I think the greater point you missed was not so much that libertarians side with the right on some things and the left on others... rather I would argue that it's the other way around. Libertarians are the consistent ones and the left/right are the ones who cannot make up their mind on liberty and the best way to govern. You see - libertarians for the most part would fall under the general philosophy of live and let live. So long as I am not infringing on your rights, I think the government should have a fairly minimal role - as did the founders.

Generally the right CLAIMS they want 'small government' when it pertains to things like taxing and regulating their business, etc. HOWEVER, they rush to their more true 'statist' big-government tendencies as soon as they need to make a criminal out you of for your own good. If you do something in the privacy of your own home that they don't approve of or want to do something to your body they disagree with or (gasp) want to marry someone they don't approve of - they become ready to to make you a criminal, even though you have infringed on no ones rights. The 'right' also will quickly abandon their 'small government' if it does not apply to someone that looks like them - pass horribly liberty-infringing rights such as the Patriot Act, bad immigration policy, etc because that can be used against all those brown people who don't look or sound like us!

Lefties on the other hand, more often recognize the danger of using the government to endorse morality, they tend to recognize that for instance, putting someone in jail for doing something that infringes on no ones rights and half of American has done (smoke pot) is a bad idea. They also want science to ask the difficult spiritually challenging questions with out the religious interference. However they quickly abandon their love for personal liberty because let's face it, most people are too stupid to really be trusted with making decisions for themselves anyway. After all, the more we regulate something, the safer we all are! - right? The government has ALL of the answers and can solve EVERYTHING if only they had enough money! I mean, the SECOND most heavily regulated/lobbied industry didn't just completely implode around us (banking industry) and the FIRST most regulated/lobbied industry (healthcare) is working just fine! Isn't it odd that the two most heavily regulated/lobbied industries are the most broken right now?

So at the end of the day, libertarians are the only consistent ones... it's the statists-in-denial (R's AND D's) that cannot make up thier mind.

Six said...

Also - I am going to two things I generally think are incredibly rude, but worth passing along on the subject.

1st- the double post. My bad.

2nd - Quote and link to someone elses blog -

But there is a much more articulate commentary that is 100% relevant to your post. His entire commentary is worth a read, but his final point sums it up well:

http://freestudents.blogspot.com/2009/11/left-right-intimidation-and-superiority.html

"Thus Left-wing ideologies tend toward the welfare state while Right-wing ideologies tend toward a theocratic state. One preaches compassion for the intellectually inferior man, the other preaches law and order to control the morally inferior man. And while these two ideologies are often seen as polar opposites they, in fact, have much in common. Both are movements of individuals who see themselves as superior to the bulk of their fellow citizens. Both feel justified to use coercion. They merely differ as to the justification for their use of force against others: the Left uses force to "help" individuals, whether they wish to be help or not; the Right uses force to punish evil."

Citizen Jane said...

HI, Six,

You know, you're right about the terms "tea-bagging" and "tea-baggers." I'll try to quit using them. Regardless of what Fox News intended when it so successfully promoted that movement, it now consists of many different kinds of people who are dissatisfied for many reasons--some intelligent, others not so much.

I found the quote you provided very interesting and will check out the post a little later.

I agree with some of what you said, at least in theory. However, there are a number of points upon which I think libertarians are as guilty as anyone else of oversimplification. For example, when you say "live and let live--so long as you are not infringing on my rights." I think there's very little we can do or not do in this world that does not affect other people, directly or indirectly. I don't think there is such a thing as individual well-being--or individual tragedy or corruption--that doesn't effect the whole society in some way.

Thanks for the comments and the link!

Six said...

BTW - I meant in my second post that his commentary was much more articulate than mine - re-read that and it almost sounded like I was saying something ill about your post - I was not.

ALSO - update that I don't know if you saw - the 'hate crimes' debated post you put up a couple months ago regarding 'Sticks and Stones' and the Bill Sparkman death... well it looks like the facts finally did bear out and it has been ruled a suicide after all. Others on here were ready to call it a so-called 'hate crime' (I still don't know how ANY murder is not a 'hate crime' per se), put blame on Fox News, Tea Parties and so on. Turns out the guy did it due to depression and protecting insurance money for his family.

The Tarquin said...

I think that, for many Libertarians, we tend to be apolitical largely because we think government shouldn't even be talking about most of these issues. The health care example you mentioned is a great example. We're not going to back "health care reform" because we thank that health care isn't any of the government's business.

Of course, to talk about "Libertarians" as if they were a monolithic group is a bit misleading. For instance, I'm a Minarchist. I believe that government does have some important responsibilities, but that it should fulfill those and NOTHING ELSE. There are some (e.g. Anarcho-Capitalists) that truly believe that government should be done away with entirely.

Any way you slice it, however, I think that Libertarians seem apolitical only because politics has gone so far beyond what we think is its proper role. It would be like accusing the Amish of not taking a stance on net neutrality.

That being said, I think that most Libertarians will, for most issues, answer with a resounding "Not Your Job". Trying to tell us who we can marry? Not Your Job! Trying to establish nationalize health care? Not Your Job! Trying to stop us from smoking, drinking, and eating fattening foods? Not Your Job! Etc. etc. etc.

So sure, it might be frustrating that we don't have an opinion about where the ship of state should be headed. But that's only because, if we'd had our way, we'd have never strayed this far from the harbor

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Six,

Yes, I did see the news about Bill Sparkman. If anything, the story that's emerging is even stranger and sadder than what it looked like to begin with.

And although this turned out not to be a murder motivated by political rage, plenty of that kind of violence does occur. Hate-filled speech leads to violent acts. No one will ever know how many crimes against Latinos may have been motivated or encouraged by Lou Dobbs' crazy talk. And the murderer of George Tiller was a Glenn Beck fan.

Citizen Jane said...

Welcome, Tarquin!

Well, there's a new word for my vocabulary--anarcho-capitalists. That only goes to show that every movement has its wingnuts. It makes no more sense to try to talk to those people than it does to try to talk to those who believe that God created the world 4,000 years ago.

As for you rational libertarians, I'm always glad to have a discussion with you. I generally learn something.

But here's how I see this whole government thing. We have a large, beautiful, well-furnished house with a rhino in the living room. (I almost said "elephant," but that symbol's been taken.) Democrats are trying to figure out a way to get the animal out of the house without harming him, the family, or the neighborhood. Republicans are busy trying to load their rifles and put the blame on the Democrats. Libertarians (who include some of the best strategic thinkers in the family) are sitting in out-of-the-way corners, reading books and saying from time to time, "It's not MY rhino."

Six said...

To carry your analogy though, it's more like Democrats are bringing in a pack of lions to eat the rhino in order to get rid of him - not concerned about what the heck we are to do with lions in the house once they are done eating him. The libertarians would just prefer to have kept the safari animals where they belonged in the first place - wondering how we always get blamed for not wanting to do anything to solve the problem, when we said all along you should not let a Rhino in to your house.

Ok this has gone too far... enough Rhino talk.