You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Temptations of Libertarianism

The Editorial Board
September 3, 2011

“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.