Friday, August 03, 2012

Intellectual Comforts and Ethical Cop-Outs: The Libertarian Mindset

If Only!

It's Hip! It's Cool! It's Libertarianism! By Connor Kilpatrick at Exiled is dead on target and vital in this climate; the US Right has been pushing libertarianism not just as a political philosophy but as an entire lifestyle choice complete with an intellectual smugness that says "you see, liberals mistake politics for a binary issue, of Left versus Right, but in fact libertarianism is the only consistent program for real freedom, and cuts across that tired old dichotomy" with added pseud-points for the words 'binary' and 'dichotomy'. It appeals particularly to net-savvy male college graduates who have been raised in a socially liberal environment, being pro choice, down with human rights, cool on sexual equality etc - basically all the things most people now believe anyway- but don't want to have to contribute economically to society in any way. Like Kilpatrick says, when people start bandying around the word 'freedom', we need to ask "freedom for whom to do what?".

Isaiah Berlin made a crucial distinction between negative and positive freedom; respectively, freedom from constraint, and freedom to flourish and realise your potential. Libertarians believe governments should only protect the former, and that any attempts by governments to promote the latter always results in totalitarianism, like here in Britain, and in America, which Kilpatrick notes, suffers the tyrannies of child labor laws, the Civil Rights act, federal income tax, minimum wage laws, Social Security, Medicare, and food safety. Given that we can point out such instances of government intervention successfully expanding people's positive freedom, the onus is on libertarians to show how it results in tyranny, when all around us we can see that manifestly not happening.

The recent rise of libertarianism has seen young high achievers picking a political tribe that reflects their social values but hawkishly protects their economic interests, and, crucially, allows them the luxury of a consistent theoretical superstructure that can defend these values and interests and provide simple answers to social problems. It appeals to smart successful people because they do think things through, and so are liable to be plagued by the dilemmas that the world's problems throw up. Unlike traditional conservatives, they can't just ignore them or believe God moves in mysterious ways; they need some way of settling these nagging issues - and libertarianism does the job wonderfully; it answers all the questions systematically by reference to a simple and consistent theoretical framework. You pop the problem question in one end and the machine relates the problem to the value system and provides an answer -an answer guaranteed to come with no price tag. And all of a sudden it's a very easy world to navigate, because you simply wipe away any questions of social justice, inequality, class, social mobility, social closure, ingrained poverty; anything that requires any kind of government intervention. Any such questions are null and void because government intervention is Wrong In Itself, because it contravenes their one-dimensional conception of freedom. Libertarianism permits black and white thinking, and is very satisfying to someone who would rather get on with being successful and not have to feel bad about inequality. I myself have tasted the allure of the libertarian mindset, and it sure is tasty. Libertarianism is basically consistent; starting from such simple principles it's not difficult to be, and that consistency is very appealing. But just because something is consistent doesn't make it true, helpful, useful, practical or ethical. And a purely negative conception of freedom is none of those things. It's a cop-out.

Robert Nozick, who held a God-like status amongst libertarians, having written the fearsome tome 'Anarchy, State and Utopia', the libertarian bible with its declaration that taxation is akin to slavery, in the last decade of his life pretty much reneged on it, basically saying it was all horseshit and John Rawls was right.

For more on the ethical poverty of libertarianism, read this

Thanks to Brother Sean and Alex B.P. for their input on this piece.

For some light relief: this fun, informative and surprisingly plausible Dubstep Family Tree from Mixmag!

Update: I've finally updated the blogroll on the right; if you think you should be up there and you're not, or you've moved your site or something, let me know and i'll add it or update it. If you have an interesting blog or site and think you should be up there, get in  touch. It's a bit random; for instance there are loads of good political blogs but listing all of them would take ages, and many of them are well known, so I just include ones I've had some kind of connection with. All the blogs on the right are interesting and well-written.