The Temptations of Libertarianism

“The Pursuit of Happiness” vs. “the General Welfare”

An Editorial

From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents

 

IT HAS BEEN PARALYZING FOR PROGRESSIVES to spend the bulk of our political energy cheerleading for the Democrats, however dispiritedly, for nearly three years. Yes, we joined Paul Krugman in criticizing their stimulus package as inadequate; we moaned as Congressional Democrats ignored the “Medicare for All” option and created a monstrously complicated health insurance reform act; we fumed about the major concessions to energy corporations contained in Henry Waxman’s failed cap-and-trade bill. Notwithstanding our criticisms, however, the left has been so afraid of seeing the Big Bad Republicans restored to power that we have largely abandoned independent action, except in the most desperate circumstances, and allowed ourselves to be cast as reluctant defenders of a worsening status quo.

Other Americans have been less loyal, withdrawing from both political parties in record numbers
(Gallup pegged it in 2010 at 31 percent Democratic, 27 percent Republican — all-time lows — and 38 percent independent). Meanwhile, the most passionate “anti-Establishment” political force has been the Tea Party, whose representatives in Congress have now foisted a major social experiment — trillions of dollars of harsh budget cuts — on the American people.

They’ve done so, sad to say, with President Obama’s complicity. Obama has shown little faith in the power of progressive policies to win popular support, and little ability to articulate a vision of government as the ally of working people. He ceded the argument about deficit-cutting to the Republicans at the very start of the debate by agreeing that excess government spending is a pressing problem, when actually it is the inadequate level of government spending that has helped prolong our economic hardship. Because of these and other failures of leadership, some polls now suggest that a majority of Americans actually do consider it a high priority to shrink the government. Those polls contradict themselves when specific cuts in programs are named — folks still want dollars for education, infrastructure, Medicare, and all of the basic programs put in place by the New Deal and the Great Society. All told, however, the Newsweek headline, “We’re All Socialists Now,” which startled America shortly after the financial meltdown, might well be replaced by “We’re All Libertarians Now,” as the 2012 presidential election gets underway.

This, at least, is reality as described by Reason magazine, the most intelligent proponent of libertarian politics (the journal is subtitled, “free minds and free markets”). A “yawning chasm” has opened “between popular opinion and the actions of politicians,” write Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief and editor, respectively, in their August/September 2011 issue’s “Declaration of Independents.” The Tea Party has successfully exploited this disaffection by showing independence from the Republican establishment: “Nothing,” they correctly observe, “shakes a major party to its core more than when the refrain of ‘yeah, but the other team might win’ no longer works.” As for the left, “Having followed their original champion, Howard Dean, into the bosom of the Democratic Party… anti-war progressives now have no organizational infrastructure…”

The “hands-off,” anti-government libertarianism espoused by Reason may offer some temptation to us “homeless” progressives, especially in the wake of Washington’s bipartisan betrayal of working people over the past decades. As self-proclaimed devotees of the Declaration of Independence’s call for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” for example, Reason’s editors advocate marital rights for same-sex couples, decriminalization of drugs, reproductive autonomy for women, and similar manifestations of liberty. The magazine also decries intrusions into private life by the national security establishment since September 11th, 2001, and worries about anti-Muslim bias in America. All of this contrasts sharply with the hypocrisy of the Christian Right and other conservative elements that condemn “government interference” yet are only too glad to pass laws that institutionalize their biases.

What Reason argues for under the rubric, “free markets,” is a whole lot less tempting, however. Welch and Gillespie unveil their logic as follows:

A growing majority of us has responded to the stale theatrics of Republican and Democratic misgovernment by making a rational choice: We ignore politics… and instead pursue happiness. We fall in love, start a home business, make mash-ups for YouTube… bum around Europe for a year or three… or trick out our El Caminos. Through these pursuits we eventually find… [that people] mostly left to their own devices and not empowered by the state to force others into servitude, will create riches far more meaningful and vast than the cramped business of tax-collecting, regulation-spewing, do-as-I-say-or-else governments.

Never mind the callow obliviousness to their own class privilege (Hey, guys: a bunch of Americans are living in their El Caminos): Welch and Gillespie have here revealed the central fallacy of their libertarianism. They see a smooth highway, “the pursuit of happiness,” running between the private and the economic, between “free minds” and “free markets” — if only the government would stop erecting traffic signs and toll booths! But economic activity is never private. All aspects of wealth-creation are “social”: from the natural resources we use (our shared inheritance), to the process of invention and innovation that sets in motion new products (dependent upon previous centuries of education, infrastructure and scientific advance), to the labor that manufactures, ships, harvests, bills, etc., right on through to the solutions we must now collectively seek to the blunt the global-warming impact of industry.

Jewish Currents has pointed out time and time again that the recognition of this social reality-principle of economics is one of the great insights of Jewish tradition. It is an insight applied via “regulatory” mechanisms of Jewish law that consistently subordinate private property rights to communal needs, and via the advocacy of tsedoke, i.e., the paying of taxes in the name of social justice.

Libertarianism, by contrast, ignores this economic reality-principle altogether, and instead treats livelihood as a private “pursuit of happiness” — and regulation and taxation as “the cramped business” of “do-as-I-say-or-else governments.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, economic libertarianism leads to Social Darwinism, the doctrine
that sees it as proper that the fortunate few who are endowed with talent, endurance and, above all, luck, should thrive at the top, while the rest of us fall by the wayside. Progressives want to cultivate a very different doctrine, one that believes human society to be capable of moving beyond the “survival of the fittest” to seek the greatest good for the greatest number — with democratic government as the tool for achieving that goal. This doctrine is just as deeply rooted in America’s founding documents as hands-off libertarianism, since our Founding Fathers saw fit to mention in the preamble to the Constitution a governmental obligation “to promote the general welfare.”

Political philosophy aside, what are the concrete results when economic libertarianism is implemented? The answer is simple: Look around! We are living through one of the least regulated, least taxed eras in modern history — and the results have been disastrous for the great majority of Americans.

Under Bill Clinton, for example, NAFTA abolished the few incentives that government gave to
manufacturing firms to stay in the U.S. — and decent-paying jobs fled these shores. Also under Clinton, financial deregulation was completed through repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act — resulting in the massively bloated banking industry and economic wreckage of today. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of corporations paid zero taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005 — and the income and wealth gaps between the top one percent of the population and everyone else is now as wide as at the dawn of the Great Depression. This is not only a moral issue, but an economic one: The lack of spending power among the majority of Americans is a major impediment to national economic recovery.

Like their less-polite associates in the Tea Party, Reason makes an idol out of what its editors call “the private pursuit of happiness.” They jauntily urge us to “foist the… creativity, openness and fun of our fantabulous non-governmental world onto the unwilling and unaffordable [government] bureaucracies” — as though the latest smart-phone technology or fashion trend could provide national health insurance, clean up a nuclear disaster, build a road, or put food on the table for the 20 percent of American children who live in poverty.

In cultivating a fundamental antipathy for government, Reason’s editors are not declaring “independence” from the political parties but are simply boosting the prospects of the Republicans (and conservative Democrats) — who don’t really give a damn about the size of government, only about who will pay for government and whose agenda government shall serve.

With the passage of the deficit-cutting legislation, our country is soon to be led deeper into the wilderness of unregulated capitalism, at the very time when a New Deal type of national mobilization is most needed. The fearful response of Wall Street to the libertarian mania has given the first indication of the risks ahead. We cannot depend upon the corporate class, however, to keep power out of the hands of “the crazies.” Instead, it must be progressives, organizing independently to challenge both political parties, who are heard from next.

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Comments (11)

  1. Pingback: Into Libertarian "Temptation," Knowing Full Well the Earth Will Rebel - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine

  2. Straw man’s arguments you make. The “free market” also includes the voluntary and cooperative actions of individuals to contribute to charitable ventures. Americans today remains some of the highest and most active volunteer contributors to a wide range of charities. And it’s not due to tax write offs, but as Alex de Tocqueville observed 180 years ago as “self interest rightly understood”, a trait he found surprisingly strong in Americans.

  3. “Political philosophy aside, what are the concrete results when economic libertarianism is implemented? The answer is simple: Look around! We are living through one of the least regulated, least taxed eras in modern history — and the results have been disastrous for the great majority of Americans.”

    This is the worst kind of sophistry. By no honest estimation could one say that the current system of regulation and taxation is anywhere close to a libertarian one.

    “It is an insight applied via “regulatory” mechanisms of Jewish law that consistently subordinate private property rights to communal needs, and via the advocacy of tsedoke, i.e., the paying of taxes in the name of social justice.”

    Ever heard of separation of church and state? Tzedakah is a private, moral decision, not one that should be mandated by the state. Libertarians are not against tzedakah; in fact we embrace it as non-coercive. Giving away other people’s stolen money, however, is NOT charity.

    “Taken to its logical conclusion, economic libertarianism leads to Social Darwinism, the doctrine that sees it as proper that the fortunate few who are endowed with talent, endurance and, above all, luck, should thrive at the top, while the rest of us fall by the wayside.”

    Another fallacy. The libertarian position is that people must *volunteer* to help those less fortunate. Forcing others to do good presents several moral quandaries. Not everyone agrees on what “doing good” means, so forcing others to conform to your beliefs on the matter is simply immoral. We know that the vast majority of people in the United States claims to believe that helping the poor and weak is good. If this is true then we should not need to force anyone to do so.

    I hope I cleared up some of the common misconceptions about libertarianism present in this article.

  4. I believe that the editorial board has missed the essential argument for libertarianism. The principle basis of libertarianism is self ownership. Since we own our bodies we have a right to life. What we earn with those bodies belongs to us, not the government or community. There are no circumstances where we or the government can initiate force against individuals who do not threaten us or meddle in the voluntary transactions between individuals.

    These are moral positions that do not conflict with the teachings of any major religion. But if the editors are more happy with the consequentialist argument we can point out that societies in which governments meddle least are healthier, wealthier, and more peaceful than those where governments meddle. We need to note that the problems are simply structural and have nothing to do with intentions. Even if politicians were angels and abhorred corruption we would still have problems because they do not have the knowledge necessary to make all of the millions of decisions that make an economy work. And while we are at it let us note that the economy is all of us acting as individuals, not some machine with buttons and levers that can be used by our ‘leaders’ to get a preferred outcome.

    Let us also note that nowhere do libertarians argue in favour of selfishness, hoarding, or corruption. Libertarians are quite aware that humans are sociable and have little problem cooperating with each other. They also know that in such cases there will always be rules. It is not rules that libertarians object to but the presence of the arbitrary ruler. That point seems to have been missed.

  5. Pingback: Into Libertarian “Temptation,” Knowing Full Well the Earth Will Rebel | Daily Libertarian

  6. Glad to see that the “progressive, secular” Jewish voice equates tzedakah with the taxation power of Leviathan. And that General Welfare is to be realized by the state’s coercive power that treats some as instruments for the essentially exclusive benefit of others.

    “The simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power, is not virtue, the meaning of which resides in the free choice of good over evil.” – Frank Meyer, In Defense of Freedom.

  7. It’s rather funny to see this exchange given that the libertarian who is actually running for president is espousing positions more radical than just about any Democrat. Ron Paul sounds like a 1960s anti-imperialist in calling for the end of the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, a protest against the war against Libya, a demand that there be no new wars against Iran, Syria or any other country, and end to the vast network of US military bases that encircle the globe, a drastic reduction in the military budget that would make the most strident liberal sound like an apologist for the war machine. He also sounds like a card carrying ACLU member with his critiques of the Patriot Act and other recent repressive legislation.
    Too bad that there’s no one on the left willing to take on even a fraction of these issues. It also raises the question of who exactly would be the lesser evil in 2012?

  8. “Taken to its logical conclusion, economic libertarianism leads to Social Darwinism, the doctrine that sees it as proper that the fortunate few who are endowed with talent, endurance and, above all, luck, should thrive at the top, while the rest of us fall by the wayside.”

    Of course you conveniently leave out the most important element in thriving at the top – hard work. Why is it that the Progressives see luck as the major force behind all those greedy rich people and forget that except for a rare few, the vast majority of those who thrive in our society are those that work the hardest at bettering themselves through education, skill building, creative endeavors and risk taking? I do, however, suspect that these same Progressives would balk at the suggestion that their own success is primarily based on luck. That argument is simply applied to all those “other” successful people.

    It also constantly surprises me that those who profess to hold the moral high ground see no lack of morality in forcing their will on others and confiscating their property in order to achieve whatever results they think are correct. But then I guess claiming the moral high ground absolves you of any obligation for inward reflection on your own immoral positions.

    ———————–
    “He ceded the argument about deficit-cutting to the Republicans at the very start of the debate by agreeing that excess government spending is a pressing problem, when actually it is the inadequate level of government spending that has helped prolong our economic hardship.”

    Amazingly, whenever massive government spending fails miserably, as it has during the term of our current President, the lesson which should be obvious (that the government can’t spend it’s way out of a recession, because the money that’s being spent has to be taken out of the economy either now or in the future) goes unlearned by Progressives and instead they espouse the exact opposite – that somehow the government just didn’t spend enough.

    “This doctrine is just as deeply rooted in America’s founding documents as hands-off libertarianism, since our Founding Fathers saw fit to mention in the preamble to the Constitution a governmental obligation “to promote the general welfare.”

    You completely misunderstand this phrase as used in the Constitution. “The general welfare” refers to the general welfare of the people of the United States as a whole, not to an individual’s welfare. Webster’s American Dictionary (1828) defines welfare as:

    2. Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applies to states.

    Clearly, the founding fathers were not arguing for the government to have the power to promote an individual’s personal welfare, no matter how great their need may be. Also, this is an introductory phrase that gives context to the enumerated powers that are delineated next in the document. It does not grant a power to the government on its own. And none of those enumerated powers provides for the government to correct the “Social Darwinism” you so greatly fear from a freeing of government constraints on personal choice and liberty.

  9. “Political philosophy aside, what are the concrete results when economic libertarianism is implemented? The answer is simple: Look around! We are living through one of the least regulated, least taxed eras in modern history — and the results have been disastrous for the great majority of Americans.”

    This is so wrong that it calls into doubt your connection to reality.

    There is no question that we are living in the most regulated time of American History. The federal register of regulations grows and grows.

    Though personal income tax rates may be the lowest in quite a while (yet being more progressive than ever), the complexity of the tax code is greater than ever, and the number of other taxes continues to increase. The corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world.

    Also, spending is taxation. The money must come from somewhere. Borrowing is a tax on economic growth and printing money is a tax on savings.

    The burden of taxation does not lie lightly on the American people.

  10. Today I brought my 90-year-old mother to a medical office for a CT scan. I waved her HIP and Medicare cards and she was in. Libertarians (and the friggin’ Republicans) want me to pretend that my mother is a “health care consumer” who should be responsible for selecting the best private insurance and best doctors based on Internet explorations of consumer ratings. That’s a fantasy, a fantasy without mercy. My mother can’t even get herself to the bathroom in time.

    Surely, in as prosperous a country as ours — a prosperity in which so many generations of us have participated (it ain’t just entrepreneurs who work hard) — health care should be a right. And the government should enforce and fulfill that right.

    And how, exactly, would these highly opinionated libertarians arrange for the building of roads, highways, airports, and bridges? And how would they convince multi-national pharmaceutical companies not to fake test results or falsely advertise? How would they provide education for millions of children? Should we rely — as we increasingly do — on corporate largesse for the provision of education? Why not rely on corporations for military protection as well?

    How would libertarians have forced Exxon Mobil to use double-hulled tankers for shipping oil, which the government forced after the Alaska spill? If we wait for overworked Americans to organize an Exxon Mobil boycott to force the issue, we’ll drown in oil.

    I understand the temptations of libertarianism when our government is stuck in a two-party track that is owned by corporate lobbyists at almost every level. I understand hating the U.S. government. But libertarianism, as represented in these comments on our editorial, sounds to me like little more than the chest-puffing of ambitious young people who are simply convinced of their superior talents and are ready to win — and be magnanimous winners — in a “survival of the fittest” struggle. But as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, observed back in 1948, human beings are the one species capable of transcending “natural” selection to achieve “spiritual” selection, which has us concerned not only with “survival of the fittest” but with helping make the most people “fit to survive.” There are risks involved into trying to cultivate a communitarian or “socialist” way — but it’s a way that is in tune with the social reality of being human.

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