When Rand Paul had to confront the reality of his ideology this week on The Rachel Maddow Show, it wasn't real pretty.
Maybe we can finally have a serious discussion in this country about the lunacies of libertarianism.
I doubt it. This is, after all, America. I doubt we'd know an intelligent political discourse if it whacked us upside the haid.
But now we have Rand Paul, son of Ron, marching toward the United States Senate, with a mission to "take back our government". Oh boy.
I might be able to get a little bit excited about that if it really was his goal. The truth is that the American government exists almost entirely to serve the interests of the American plutocracy. If libertarians want to break that evil connection, well, then, definitely give me a shout. I'll be glad to pitch in.
But, of course, you pretty much never hear them talk about that part as they rant about the evils of government.
What do libertarians actually want, Herr Doktor? It's not entirely clear to me that they know themselves. They're pretty good with the shibboleths, but always seem to have trouble beyond that. That's because it is precisely on the other side of the sappy slogans where the contradictions of libertarianism come glaringly into focus. This is the place where naive but kindly people would say "Wot, I signed up for that?", and that's exactly why libertarians don't want to go there.
Such avoidance of reality is not only rarely a problem in American political discourse, it's nearly a national religion. In this sense, the discussion Rand Paul had with Rachel Maddow the other night was doubly instructive. First, because Paul the national savior on horseback du jour was reduced to repeated instances of the most basic, and base, political maneuvering in order to come to grips with the implications of his own ideology.
And, second, because Maddow gave us a partial reminder of what good journalism would actually look like in America. She didn't actually get quite all the way to where she should have gone, but her polite, thoughtful and semi-relentless questioning of her guest was as foreign to what passes for journalism in this country today as would be six-headed fourteen-dimensional gaseous creatures from a distant galaxy. Maddow is fast becoming a national treasure, which says a lot about her, but, regrettably, a lot more about her colleagues in the "news' business.
There are several key explanations for the rise of the insane right over the last three decades, but surely one of them has been the compliance of the mainstream media. Politicians have been able to make the most absurdly ridiculous and hypocritical statements without fear of being called on them. And if they ever were, they need only repeat the same line in some slightly different variation, and that's the end of the affair media lapdogs are well trained to cease and desist. One of Maddow's great virtues which ought to be a sine qua non for anyone calling themselves a journalist is her doggedness.
To see what I mean, check out this paraphrased approximation (not too far from verbatim, actually) of her conversation with Rand Paul the other night:
MADDOW: Congratulations on your big victory last night. Do you believe that private business people should be able to not serve black people or gays or any other minority group?
PAUL: I don't believe in racism. I don't think there should be any governmental or institutional racism. Now I'm going to go into a long diversionary soliloquy about William Lloyd Garrison, an early nineteenth century abolitionist, and also about when "desegregation' [actually anti-discrimination] legislation was passed into law in Boston...
MADDOW: Yes, okay, that was pretty weird. But what about private businesses who might want to not serve blacks or gays? Should they have the legal right to do so?
PAUL: We had incredible problems with racism in the 1950s concerning voting, schools and public housing. This is what civil rights addressed and what I largely agree with.
MADDOW: But what about private businesses? I don't want to be badgering you on this, but I do want an answer.
PAUL: I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form, I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. What's important here is to not get into any sort of "gotcha" on the question of race, but to ask the question, "What about freedom of speech?" Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent?
MADDOW: The Civil Rights Act was created to take away the right of individual business owners to discriminate, taking away their right to make that decision. Which side of that debate are you on?
PAUL: In the totality of it, I'm in favor of the federal government being involved in civil rights, which is mostly what the Civil Rights Act was about. I'm opposed to any form of governmental racism or discrimination or segregation.
MADDOW: The reason that this is something I'm not letting go of this is because it effects real people's lives. This question involves the matter of private discrimination in public accommodations. Should that be allowed?
PAUL: The debate involves a lot of court cases with regard to the commerce clause. Many states are now saying that they have a right to force restaurant owners to allow people to enter with guns even if the owners don't want them to. So you see how this issue can cut both ways, against liberals too.
MADDOW: What if the owner of a restaurant or a swimming pool or a bowling alley wanted to segregate their facility? Should they be allowed to do so under your world view?
PAUL: We did some very important things in the 1960s that I'm all in favor of. That was desegregating schools, public transportation, water fountains.
MADDOW: How about lunch counters?
PAUL: Well, if you do that, then can the owner of the restaurant keep out guns? Does the owner of a restaurant own his restaurant or does the government own his restaurant?
MADDOW: Should Woolworths lunch counters have been left to be segregated? Sir, just yes or no?
PAUL: I don't believe in any discrimination. If you believe in regulating private ownership, you have to decide on whether you also want to force guns in restaurants when the owner doesn't want them. This is a red herring being used by my political opponents. It's an abstract, obscure conversation from 1964 that you want to bring up. Every fiber of my being doesn't believe in discrimination, doesn't believe that we should have that in our society, and to imply otherwise is just dishonest.
MADDOW: I couldn't disagree with you more on this issue, but I thank you for coming on the show and having this civilized discussion about it...
So, by my count, Maddow asks Paul the core question here no fewer than eight times in a row. This is precisely what she should have been doing, and in doing so she provides a huge service to American society. If I were to fault her anywhere, it would be only for not identifying Paul's diversionary tactics for what they were, calling them out, and thereby pushing them off the table. I would have liked to have seen her say, "With respect, sir, we're not talking about that. Or that, or that, or that. We're talking about this."
And she would have needed to do that several times over, because Paul's game here is to shift the discussion to domains where he is more comfortable, and where the problems with his ideology don't show up so readily. Maddow says let's talk about discrimination in privately-held public accommodations, and he says let's talk about my lack of prejudice. She tries again and he wants to discuss governmental discrimination. She repeats the question and he says let's talk about nineteenth century history. She asks once more and he starts talking about censorship and the First Amendment. She tries yet again and he changes the topic to guns, which involves legislating behavior, rather than race, which concerns who you are. She asks still another time and he cries foul, claiming that this is some obscure red herring being used by his opponents for purposes of political assassination.
All of these are diversionary lies, meant to avoid the unpleasant realities of what libertarianism would actually look like in action. But the last lie is the most egregious. The entire reason for Rand Paul's existence right now which is also almost literally true, given that he has the unfortunate burden of being named for Ayn Rand, a twisted soul if ever there was is his premise of reclaiming American government in the name of liberty for the American people. That's who he is. That's what he represents himself to be. That's his political shtick, his raison d'être. What the Maddow interview reveals, however, is that he's really just another politician trying to win office, not a crusader at all. And what it also reveals is just how bankrupt are those libertarian notions if you look at them at all closely.
The ideology has some nice bumper-sticker like appeal, especially for the more simplistic among us. I mean, who, after all, could be against more freedom? And, indeed, when it comes to social issues, the libertarians have it exactly right. The government shouldn't be in the business of controlling women's bodies, or telling people what substances they can imbibe, or who they can sleep with or marry, or whether they can end their own lives should they choose to. But you don't need to be a libertarian to get to those places. These are also progressive ideas as well.
Where libertarianism breaks down is in assuming that we can all just do what we want and it will work out great. And in assuming that all private actors are essentially well intentioned. Neither of these is true, and a libertarian society would leave each of us at the mercy of these twin fallacies. And that's an ugly place to be, let me tell you.
Suppose you bought a house and had a fat mortgage outstanding on it. Now the guy who owns the plot next door decides to build an abattoir on his land. You can't live in your house anymore because of the nauseating, permeating, stink. You also can't sell it, because no one else wants to live there either. And you're still stuck paying the mortgage, probably plunging you into bankruptcy since you're now also paying rent to live somewhere else. Why did all this happen? Because you voted for that libertarian city council, and they threw out all the zoning laws on the books, preferring maximum freedom for use of private property instead. Aren't you thrilled about how that worked out?
So you pack all your belongings in your car and decide to drive away. But you turn around after going just a couple of miles, because everybody drives on any side of the road they want to, whenever they want to, and it's scary dangerous out there. Why? Because the libertarian state government you elected true to its principles eliminated all such driving laws as the restrictions on personal freedom they truly are.
So maybe you'll fly instead, eh? Oops. Sorry. That's just as frightening. The new libertarian federal government eliminated the FAA and all its restrictions on private carriers as an invasion of their corporate liberties. No red tape here anymore! No onerous regulations! Now each carrier can hire whomever it wants, at whatever salary, to do whatever amount of safety inspection it deems appropriate. Or none at all. No reason to worry, though. I'm sure a corporation would never cut corners in order to maximize profits, right?
Well, actually, never mind the flying off to a better place idea is moot anyhow. You see, there's no airport in your town. No private actors had either the resources or the motivation to build one. And since government is evil, they never did the job either. Which is also why you're about to lose you job, as well. With no ports, trains, highways, internet or other mass infrastructure, the US is about to become an economic actor more or less on the scale of Togo. Congratulations on that bright move, my libertarian friend! How does the freedom of chronic unemployment taste? Yummy, eh?
But, really, what do you care, anyhow? Your water is polluted because anyone can dump anything into it they want. Ditto with your filthy air. And global warming is about to take out all the living things on the planet, anyhow. We will be quite free to die, thanks to libertarianism.
Well, all is not lost. At least you can walk down to your local dining establishment and have a nice meal without having to fear the presence of darkies or queers in the same room with you. That pretty much makes it all worth it, no?
We could go on and on from here, but why bother? The point is made. The problem with libertarianism is that it is a child's candy store fantasy. Lots of sugar, no nutritional value. It's the Mel Gibson ("Freeeee-dom!!") of political ideologies. The ugly truth is that we hominids are social animals, not atomistic asteroids, each flying through space in our own little orbit. At the end of the day, the simultaneous great delight and awful curse of our humanness is, ultimately, each other.
That is not to say that individual liberty is not important. It is, and I no more favor libertarianism's opposite number, totalitarianism, than I do the lunacy of Ayn Rand, who spent her life (vastly over-)reacting to the Stalinism of her youth. I don't want to live in either of those worlds. It's just that it's naive and juvenile to believe that what is required here is anything other than some sort of difficult balance between the needs of the individual and those of society. That's the only solution that works.
One would think we might have learned this lesson of late. We've just come through an era of wholesale foolish deregulation in the name of setting free Americans and their productive capacities. The whole of our ethos of political economy these last three decades could easily be boiled down to a single bumper-sticker: "Government Bad, Industry Good". So now we might wanna ask ourselves, as Sarah Palin would put it (assuming she had a brain larger than a centipede's), "How's that whole deregulatey depressiony thing working out for you?"
Sorry, Mr. Paul. Just when we've seen precisely what happens when greedy individuals with all the morality of mafia hit men are allowed to do whatever they want by a government that is completely coopted by them on a good day, and utterly AWOL the rest of the time, you come talking to me about more "freedom' from government intrusion?!?! Are you joking?
Government, as imperfect and downright lethal as it can be when in the hands of those who use it for the wrong purposes, is the instrument and expression of the public will. It is the tool through which society conveys its values and seeks to achieve our mutual goals. And it is meant to be triumphant over private actors because societal needs (which, by the way, can, should and often do include government protecting individual liberties see, for example, "Rights, Bill of") are broadly more important than those of the individual.
It would be a mark of our (return to) political maturity if we could acknowledge that.
If that's too much to ask, though, I wonder if my libertarian friends would at least be willing to take ownership of the real implications of their own ideology.
I mean, if you guys are just going to practice deceit and hypocrisy, why bother taking over the Republican Party?
Those guys are already experts.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org
), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is www.regressiveantidote.net