Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who's Crazy Now?

This week has seen some interesting praise for Libertarianism from some strange sources (here and here). Reading these was very interesting, though the motive for them seems quite clear, that the Republican party needs to embrace those with Libertarian leanings to expand and ensure a governing majority. While the articles were good, what was really telling were the comments by the readers. What was interesting was the hardcore conservative reactions, which attempted to lambaste Libertarianism as a philosophy, and ill-suited to be part of their coalition. You see similar things (albeit on the other side of the ideological spectrum) from Liberal pundits and commentators when they talk about Libertarians. It is always fascinating to see how Libertarians are not allowed to have a “tent” like the predominate political parties and philosophies. “Libertarian” almost always gets boiled down into a fringe idea not to be taken seriously, an academic exercise without real world applicability. When you synthesize the criticism from both sides you have painted a picture in which all Libertarians are atheist, anarchist, isolationist, selfishly wishing to abolish the local fire department and set destitute granny out on a glacier to die, all while preaching from their well worn copy of The Fountainhead. Libertarians are not allowed to have a diversity of thought, and more importantly not allowed a place at the table. Somehow the Liberals and Conservatives are able to paint Libertarians as the ones who are too ideologically rigid to compromise, to be part of the discussion and have input on the future direction of the country. Given what we are all seeing with the debt limit debate this seems beyond laughable. When most Americans actually examine their beliefs (take the test here and see where you fall) they see that these two labels and those that define them do not really speak for the country as a whole. Libertarians can find common ground on many issues within both groups, yet disagreeing over centrally held tenants of either somehow makes alliances and compromise impossible. Who is being to rigid and ill-suited to governance at that point though?

In practice we usually see Libertarian leaning politicians form alliances and find a home in the Republican Party, yet there is a gulf between them and conflict usually arises over the issues of moralizing and the national security state. The Burkean conservatives within the Republican Party and their desire to protect “traditional” values usually leads to problems with Libertarians. Christian nationalists hold a large influence over the Republicans, and everyone who wants to run for the Republican presidential nomination must address this issue, make proclamations of faith and discuss how important religion is in their life and how it will influence their political decisions. You here the phrase “Christian Nation” and our “Judeo-Christian legal system” based on traditional morality. On a personal note I have never understood the latter notion. Once you get past “don’t kill people or steal their shit” I don’t see any real “Christian” design to our legal system, and it has never been explained how those are fundamentally “Judeo-Christian” concepts and values, they are pretty much universal concepts of man. This moralizing leads to conflict in areas of abortion, the drug war and free-speech and many other policy areas. Libertarians have a desire for the maximum freedom and limited government, allowing people to make their own decisions when it come to what they watch, read, practice and ingest. For those in the Republican Party who believe that the Bible rightly prohibits certain behavior, and that government should take it’s cue from those mores, there is going to be serious conflict with Libertarians. In terms of the national security state, the “neo-cons” have grand issue with Libertarians. National Defense is an important core constitutional duty of government, but shouting down questions about what, where and how we are doing things in this area does not make you naïve to the ways of the world or an isolationists. Libertarians, generally, want a strong national defense capability, but they want to see it properly maintained and deployed. Spending large amounts of money does not automatically make you safer. This country spends a ridiculous amount on defense, more than most of our possible threats combined in real dollars and as a percentage of GDP. Is that money being spent wisely? That is a fair question. We have bases and troops all around the world in order to project power and defend allies against non-existent threats. You saw the conservative hawks and their peculiar notion of American National Security interest on full display during the “Arab- Spring”. For decades the U.S. has propped up dictators all over the world, initially in our global Cold War chess game with the Soviets, and more recently in our “War on Terror”. When the people of Egypt rose up to depose one of these brutal autocrats, attempting to secure for themselves what we in this country have always claimed is one of the most important and cherished principles of humanity, self-determination in their lives and government, what did the pundits and politicians on the Conservative hawk side say? That we were making our country less safe, that we should be supporting Mubarek in his attempt to violently quash his people’s desire to be free from his evil and corrupt regime. If provided the opportunity to choose their own government, Egyptians might choose wrong, and destabilize the region. We see the same thing at home when questioning the PATRIOT ACT and the notion of keeping us “safe” from all the evils of the world. Once again, from a personal level, if you are going to tell me we can’t survive without warrentless wire-tapping, government access to all phone, internet and business records, paid informants and FBI agents entrapping every feckless 19 year old malcontent who posts the wrong thing on Facebook, extraordinary rendition and water-boarding my response is always going to be the same: Let the Republic fall then, because this is not what we are supposed to be about as a nation or a people. Granting governments the power and access they claim is needed to make us safe does not sit well with Libertarians. When you make the leap that it is ok in this situation, when dealing with those scary foreign types, you set the foundation for future abuse. Conservative TV pundits will rail on and on how the government can’t be trusted with your money, your business practices or a host of other issues. Yet in the very next breath they will gladly allow the CIA, of any government entity you could pick, the power to decide who is guilty and has relevant information to be water-boarded out of them. No over-sight, no indictment, just get it done for the good of the whole. Who exactly is the crazy one in this conversation?
The Liberal Democrats don’t often form alliances with Libertarians even though there is so much common ground in terms of civil liberties and other areas. Like Conservatives, Liberals can often see the Constitution as an impediment to implementing their “moral” agenda. Libertarians usually view the constitution through the same prism regardless of the issue. Free speech is the most important tenant of our society, and it must be protected at all times, regardless of the speaker. When the Citizens United decision came down Liberals lambasted it as an end to our system, with the corporation now able to buy the whole thing, and the evil Conservative Supreme Court handed us all over to their greedy hands. They never seem to mention that the ACLU was involved in this case from the beginning, that they and others can’t couch to the notion that government should dictate how and when speech should be allowed. You see the other rifts develop over the welfare state and a desire to let capitalism and markets enrich the lives of people. We live in a time where the welfare state is driving every industrialized country into debt, and all are reexamining the scope and utility of the programs. In this country it is sacrilege for Liberals to speak of reforming the system, it must be maintained (if not expanded) now and always, and for any group to mention reform means they want to send seniors and the poor into a spiral of deeper poverty and early death. Libertarians selfishly lack compassion for those less fortunate amongst us, and Granny needs to be protected from these evils. This plays nice in fund raising letters and commercials, but it does not solve any problems, and problems are what we face right now. I have heard pundits talk about fulfilling promises and the social contract we have created. Problem is that the promises are going to drive us into unsustainable levels of spending, and if we do not reign it in then there will be no society to speak of. There are some that talk about ending the system completely, that is true, the same as there are Liberals who talk of expanding and increasing the welfare state to match European models and levels, and that is not going to happen either. There needs to be a discussion and an eventual compromise about a sustainable future model and what it will look like. This often leads to the discussion of markets and capitalism and the other large point of contention. Libertarians, according to the Liberals, would turn America over to the ravages of capitalism bringing back 20 hour work days for 8 year olds and allowing the corporations to pour toxic waste into your bathtub. Again, the most extreme and unlikely outcome is used to short circuit debate and compromise. Yes, Libertarians usually place trust in capitalism and markets, because this will usually bring about the best outcomes for people. Problems? Of course, the market has no conscience, it does not care about you. Governments have attempted to blunt and control these outcomes, but this has not always led to the intended goals. We often see the crash of 2008 used as a repudiation of capitalism and deregulation, that there needs to be tighter controls of the system. How anyone can use 2008 as an example of this is somewhat ridiculous. Democrats and Republicans have spent decades gaming the system for their constituents, using the tools of government to cover all the bases, and ending up covering none. Rent-seeking banks and corporations that have regulations written in their favor so they face no consequences for their stupid decisions is not capitalism. When the bail-out bills were being debated both parties were almost universal in their calls for the absolute paramount need for government intervention. What did the Libertarians, the Austrian Economists, the people with the faith in the markets have to say about it? F*#K ‘EM! They made these decisions, let them reap what they have sown. They were of course called the naïve ones, that the impending disaster was so cataclysmic that inaction was not an option. This of course examines the issue in a vacuum in which the banks had exhausted all possible avenues, there was no hope but government intervention, and we all dangled on the precipice with the only options being bail-out or Armageddon. The reality of course is that the banks had the regulating agencies captured, the lobbyist working full time and their pundits talking up the cable air waves. The result? Hundreds of billions of dollars was handed out to “save” the economy, but without any proviso that the banks had to lend the money. The only control the government ever tried to exert was over CEO salaries, at which point the banks paid back the money on the spot. Any of this seem like capitalism? It is exceptionally difficult to do business in this country because of government. Libertarians call for deregulation where it stifles competition and enriches rent-seekers. They call for choice and true competition. If you want to be a bank, be a bank, if you are going to be a casino, then you need to say that up front, and not be allowed to flip-flop when the tab comes due so you can collect a government check. Certain regulations (air and water pollution etc.) are acceptable to Libertarians, the problems usually occur in how governments enact regulations, and the unintended consequences they create. Having the discussion about the proper scope and reach of the government into the economy does not make you a corporate shill, it makes you concerned about how this country is going to compete in a world where capital is more fluid then ever, and the future of what we are going to have as an economy is on the line.
The title of the blog asks “crazy, naïve or just like you?” because that is at the heart of what is going on here. Don’t look for a badge to wear, an organization to belong to. Do the Liberals or the Conservatives encompass all you beliefs? Is there no area in which you might disagree? To be a Republican in New Hampshire is usually a very different thing then being one in South Carolina, the same way that being a Democrat in Massachusetts is different form one in Arkansas. Your support and your vote for a candidate should not be based solely on the letter after their name. Saying you are a Libertarian or have a Libertarian leaning in some regards should not automatically exclude you from the conversation. Doggedly holding to a single issue and disqualifying all who will not vehemently support that particular cause should be viewed as the crazy ones, shouldn’t they? This is a big country with a lot of different types of people and problems. We will never advance under one sole banner and philosophy, but only through debating and examining the issues at hand and all the possible solutions.


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