There’s a scene in the video game Jade Empire when the character Sagacious Zu is warning the protagonist about the ruthless tactics of the evil Lotus Assassins, and after he’s done describing them, he concludes, in shame and anguish: “I should know. I… I was one”. I have always loved the way Robin Atkin Downes says that line, and it’s been running through my head as I’ve been thinking about libertarians lately. I don’t mean to imply that libertarians are evil. They have a lot of good ideas. But they aren’t as brilliant as they think.
What set me thinking about this was reading this article at Fox News by Wayne Allyn Root about the “Ron Paul phenomenon”. It’s a rather weird article, but Root is pretty much right when he describes what the young people like about Congressman Paul, writing: “Like Ron Paul, young people want government out of their bedroom and wallet. They crave economic and personal freedom.”
True, but it deserves a little elaboration. Having been one, I am pretty sure I know what’s going through the minds of those young people who are supporting Ron Paul. It’s something like this:
Well, the Democrats and Republicans are both corrupt. I’m not gullible, so I’m not going to buy into either side of this false dichotomy. I am more sophisticated than that. I am going to choose a different way, a way that is like neither of the parties, but new and different. I am a rebel!
Yes, I remember it well. I thought I was a genius for figuring out that the Democrats and Republicans were not perfect, and that blind allegiance to either would not do.
Of course, it doesn’t do have blind allegiance to the trendy thing that everyone who’s too cool for the two party system is doing, either. It took me only four or five years to figure out that it was suspicious how mainstream we supposedly radical libertarians were. And also how little impact we had.
My first thought on considering this was a predictable conspiracy theory about the libertarians being used on an ad hoc basis to give whichever party was out of power a credible group to ally with, without actually giving that group anything in the way of a share of power.
I think many a cynical libertarian would agree with me wholeheartedly about this. And I still believe it to be true. However, my real break with the libertarians came next, when it occurred to me that the reason this happened was not because we libertarians were pure martyrs, cruelly tricked by the denizens of a fallen world, but rather because we really were just a bunch of people who thought we were much cleverer than we actually were for combining the Republican economic policy with the Democratic social policy, and worrying about the government’s power all the time.
I admit it took me awhile to get here. Like most libertarians, I read Ayn Rand early on in my college career. Unlike most libertarians, who are usually quite impressed with her at first, and only later qualify their admiration, I knew from the beginning something was amiss with her philosophy. Lest I sound like I’m bragging, I don’t think it was because I was smarter than anybody else; I think it was more that I have an instinctive rebelliousness that tells me to say “not X” to anyone who forcefully tells me “X”. And what Ayn Rand forcefully told me was “$”.
But, that was just the beginning. Not all libertarians believed in the “almighty dollar”. Most of them did not, actually, and were much more reasonable and accommodating than the strident Rand.
Unfortunately, it gradually became apparent to me that, in their present form, most libertarian policies did lead to the tyranny of the almighty dollar, even if they didn’t quite see it that way, or even mean for it to happen. Or as Oscar Wilde said:
“For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.”
A beautiful sentiment–ultimately wrong, of course, but beautiful. Wilde misdiagnosed the problem in his society almost as badly as we libertarians did in ours, but in completely the opposite way. Private property is not the problem, as Wilde thought. And it’s not the solution, as libertarians think.
This is the heart of the matter. The libertarian policy is implicitly that private property–particularly money belonging to corporations–is the most important thing there is. However, experience will show that while it is an important thing, it is possible to construct a scenario in which private property rights are never violated and yet have a dysfunctional society. Which suggests that there are other things that are also important. (A good example of this is the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)
Of course, the reason we all got into this private property craze was that if private property rights could be violated by the government, it gave the government a lot of power. And the government, we reasoned, could abuse that power. Well, well, it’s been known to happen, so it’s not a bad thing to fear.
Unfortunately, the libertarian policies seemed to me to lead into situations where private-property is overvalued. (This phenomenon is closely related to the way the “neoliberal project has embraced the commodification of literally all human interaction”, as Freddie DeBoer so brilliantly put it.)
It is true that, if I were forced to choose a President from the current GOP field, I’d still probably vote for Ron Paul, even though I think those newsletters released under his name are quite disgraceful and his economic policy is insane. This tells you something about my opinion of the rest of the field. But the fact is, I’m not forced to choose from among the GOP field, and thus there’s not much reason to consider it further.