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Libertarianism in Its Destructive Phase: Or Why Responsibility for Yourself Just Isn't Enough, Part 2

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Edmund Burke 1771--Joshua Reynolds
Edmund Burke 1771--Joshua Reynolds
(Image by National Portrait Gallery London (Public Domain))
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Edmund Burke 1771--Joshua Reynolds by National Portrait Gallery London (Public Domain)

Libertarianism in Its Destructive Phase: Or Why Responsibility for Yourself Just Isn't Enough, Part 2

By Richard Girard

"All conservatives are such from personal defects. They have been effeminated by position or nature, born halt and blind, through luxury of their parents, and can only, like invalids, act on the defensive."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803--82), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher. The Conduct of Life, "Fate" (1860).

The Anarchist in All of Us

George Bernard Shaw was correct in that statement I quoted earlier: the ordinary man is at heart an anarchist. Much of Libertarianism's allure for so many Americans is the anarchist and minarchist aspects of most Libertarian philosophies. In too many cases, some of the best known and most vocal proponents of libertarianism, fit the model put forth by psychiatrist Donald Black in his book Bad Boys, Bad Men, Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopathy) , (Oxford Press, 2013), "They rebel against every type of regulation and expectation, seemingly oblivious to the value of living within societies boundaries. Despite all sanctions, parental punishment, ostracism, failure, or jail, they remain stuck in a rut of bad behavior." Except--as clinical psychologist and Harvard Professor Martha Stout pointed out in her 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door-- the sociopaths who have learned to play the game so well that they have learned to appear "normal." These individuals are often highly successful in occupations--such as Wall Street financier--where ruthlessness, and a lack of empathy for those they "step on" on their way up the corporate ladder, is at a premium.

To me, the Libertarian concept of "freedom of association" appears to be an excuse for libertarians to indulge themselves in "freedom from association." I believe it is--for many right-wing libertarians--nothing more than a smoke screen to justify the Libertarian's "right" to avoid having to deal with those against whom he is prejudiced, including those he considers his social, economic, intellectual, or racial inferior. Freedom of association also allows the libertarian to avoid those individuals and situations that might represent a serious challenge to their existing worldview. Because of this, we are left with the society described by British author and critic John Berger in "The Soul and the Operator," ( Expressen , Stockholm; March 19, 1990; reprinted in Keeping a Rendezvous , 1992), "The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied " but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing."

Right-wing Libertarians, and many modern conservatives, do not like to be reminded that there--except for a little luck and the grace of God--they might be sitting next to that homeless person, begging for change, because of a drug, alcohol, or mental health issue. Nor do they wish to consider the possibility that because of bankruptcy due to loss of a job, or some serious illness not fully covered by their health insurance, they might be the one stuck at a bus stop with a person going to work at Wal-Mart or McDonalds, hoping that the HR person at work can help them with the paperwork to get their child into their state's CHIP program. The fortunate few, whose life has never come up "boxcars," i.e., bottomed out, as one friend of mine described it, do everything they can to avoid being reminded that the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression--where at one point 23% of the American population was unemployed or underemployed--was caused by the machinations of a disjointed cabal of America's business and financial leaders, attempting to increase their already vast wealth and power. (See Matt Taibbi's superb 2011 Rolling Stone articles "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?" and "Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes," for more on the machinations that nearly destroyed the World's economy.)

An Invalid Assumption Cannot Form the Moral Basis for a Political System

Libertarianism relies on self-interest as the moral basis for their system. The inherent flaw with self-interest as the moral basis for any system is this: you cannot love my freedom and liberties as much as I do, and in a system based on self-interest, you will always place your own interest, freedom, and liberties ahead of, not equal to, my own. Because self-interest will not recognize duties to others unless they have been specifically agreed to in advance, the selfish individual doesn't believe he has a duty to protect others' freedom and liberties with the same force and diligence that he protects his own. Thus, when it is difficult, inconvenient, or not in the short-term best interest of the individual operating out of self-interest to help protect a neighbor's freedom and liberties (much less when it involves a stranger); they will stay at home, or perhaps even join in oppressing their neighbor in the name of some short-term gain for themselves.

Thomas Jefferson, in an 1814 letter to Thomas Law that I've often referred to before, stated what was wrong with a system of morality based on self-interest with an undeniable moral axiom. The opinion he expresses in this statement corresponds exactly with my own: "Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart." (The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition; Volume 14, page 140; 1904.) We can be responsible for ourselves; we cannot have a duty to ourselves; because duty involves not only our own desires, but in acquiescing to the wishes of others. This is the hypocrisy inherent in Margaret Thatcher's statement: even for the betrayal of the family, duty to the family must first exist; for treason to exist against the nation-state, duty must also exist. You cannot, per se, betray yourself, you can only violate whatever responsibility you believe you have for yourself.

G.K Chesterton was correct (in The Man Who Was Thursday, chapter 11), "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." Government means rules, in the form of laws and regulations, and the possibility of prison or other punishment. No wonder so many rich people on the far right want less government: they might actually have to pay for their immoral actions; their crimes against humanity itself.

Judith Ayers and Barbara Sostatia wrote a fascinating article titled " What Would Libertarianism Look Like, If It Wasn't Just White People , " for, which was picked up by the Associated Press. The final four paragraphs of this article, I find of special interest, because I believe it explains why libertarianism has never, and can never, be adopted as a political system for any large human socio-economic political entity; because as it is promulgated today, libertarianism offers nothing but platitudes for the poor, the working class, or minorities, and little for the middle class:

"When libertarians do reach out to minorities, they often do so with overtones of a white savior complex, claiming that minorities simply need to hear the 'saving gospel' of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, or read more Murray Rothbard in order to see the ills of their ways. This infantilizes minorities ('If they could just see that the state isn't trying to help them!'), and treats minority groups as a 'problem' that must be addressed, rather than as groups of people with agency, goals, perceptions, and purposes of their own. Minorities are not interested in hearing someone's one-size-fits-all gospel. Maybe libertarians should try talking, and listening, to the individuals that they're so intent on 'helping.'

Within today's libertarianism, topics like racism and classism often take the back burner, or are ignored entirely. Issues of inequality and poverty, solitary confinement and prison reform, women's rights, queer and trans* abuse, the dissolution and decline of the family, and drugs and crime within minority communities are often met with hostility. Because there is no conversation between most libertarians regarding these subjects, the movement effectively ignores the social issues confronting many minorities, renders those individuals voiceless, and excludes them entirely.

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Richard Girard is a polymath and autodidact whose greatest desire in life is to be his generations' Thomas Paine. He is an FDR Democrat, which probably puts him with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in the current political spectrum. His answer to (more...)

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