Stupid Things Libertarians Say, Part II: Simplicity Itself
So last time, I discussed some specifically stupid things that libertarians say. But it is easy to mock, easy to disprove. But to me, the harder question is asking ‘why?’ These statements are so obviously obtuse, so blatant in their disregard for reality, that there must be some compelling reason to believe them.
The glib answer is that no, they really are that stupid. All those people you see at the Tea Party rallies, at the Fair Tax rallies, calling into Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, really are dumber than a bag of hair. But I think that is too simple. Far too simple, far too glib, and far, far, too alienating. One of the main charges to be laid at their door is that their hatred of anything liberal and progressive has a nasty, personal slant to it. I’ve been told many times that “you’ll understand when I was older.” Nothing is more infuriating than to have your thoughts, your beliefs, waved aside as the folly of youth. Nothing is more condescending.
And so, because I like that Jesus guy, and we should do unto others as we would like them to do unto us, and because I like that Gandhi guy, and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and because I like that King guy…well, you get the point. So to simply go, “Ah, screw it, they’re all morons” and commence with the sarcasm and the insults, is too easy. It wouldn’t make them proud. (Having heroes is easy enough, but actually trying to listen to what they have to say makes you feel like a recalcitrant child. But, even though you don’t wanna, you gotta. )
And so I’ve thought about this. As I said in part one, I understand the appeal of Libertarianism. There is an attraction to the frontier mentality (horribly misnamed, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) But why? What is it about this mentality that makes it so much more attractive?
I think there are two things. One of them is the implied simplicity of libertarianism. And the other is the implied fairness. And although the two go hand in hand, let’s take them one at a time, shall we?
It is perhaps fatuous to point out that libertarians have a simplistic view of the world. Their insistence in processing the world in terms of the free market is obviously stupidly reductionist. But I would characterize libertarian beliefs in the purity of the free market as something more akin to faith than political belief. Indeed, this new brand of Tea Party madness goes well with certain strains of Christian Dominionism. (But that’s another blog entry.) And like religious faith, libertarianism is fueled not by the way things are, but by the way things should be. And things, they believe, should be simpler. And, like religious faith, the how of that transformation is often vague and general to the point of uselessness.
Take a moment here to reflect on the sheer complexity of our lives. On the tight, almost impenetrable web of connections that fuel our economy, our lifestyle. Our food comes from almost every point on the globe. Our toys are from China, our shirts are from Taiwan, and our apples are from Chile. It’s a big scary world out there. And what ends up happening is that talent, skill, intelligence and even hard work are removed from the equation to a certain degree. And it all starts coming down to luck.
Or so they think.
Well, let’s not be disingenuous. It always was about luck. The luck of being white, the luck of being born in the right place, to the right family. And truthfully, when you look at America today? Luck has less and less to do with the world. For example, I can remember one moment that shook me to my core. It was back in high school, in my AP US History course. And as luck would have it, we had a substitute one day. And after I finished my assigned work for the day, I was talking with her about the subject, which, as luck would have it, was civil rights. And this woman, who was perhaps in the middle of middle age, told me that she had gone to a segregated school.
I cannot easily explain what I felt. It was a sudden shock of knowing at a visceral level what I knew intellectually, that the sins of our past were not buried so very deep. That within the woman’s life, there had been segregation. That she had been one of those segregated. It was the long shadow of something evil reaching out, and it shook me to realize how near the shadow was.
I am most definitely not trying to say that racism is at an end, that we’re all perfectly equal and hunky-dory. But we don’t segregate our schools anymore, and there is something to be said for that.
But Tea Partiers (who are mostly older, richer, and white as snow) don’t see that. It is an interesting phenomenon. What it boils down to is that these people have been given privilege for so long that the removal of that privilege, or even removal of the exclusivity of that privilege, feels like disenfranchisement. And since they’ve never actually been disenfranchised, they have no idea what that word really means. This leads to people like Michelle Bachmann saying that taxation with representation is as bad as taxation without representation, without really comprehending what the word “representation” means.
I wandered a bit into “fairness” there. But its all chocolate-and-peanut-butter around this issue. And so here’s where the simplicity enters into it. They long for a perceived ‘simpler’ time. I guess one where the men were men, the women were women, and all of the children were above average, to steal a line from Garrison Keillor. But regardless of exactly what they believe this time to have been, there is no doubt they long to return to it. And there are two reasons they long for its return, if, indeed, it ever was. The first is that, for the upper-middle-class, straight, male, Christian honky, those times weren’t so bad.
And the second is that they’ve been lied to. (This will be a continuing theme throughout these blogs, by the way.)
The first reason is fairly obvious. For the well off, straight, white, WASPS, the ‘50s were pretty damn good. They were in charge, America ran the world, the commies were on the run, we had all the stuff we wanted, and the cars were nice. Of course, if you were black, brown, female, gay, leftist or Hindu, it kinda sucked. And even the times before that, when it was hard for everyone, were better for WASP Men. It’s always been better to be a WASP man. So when, all of a sudden, those privileges had to be shared…well it was easier to feel that they had been getting by on hard work and skill, and all of a sudden, now that these women and blacks were looking for equality that it was all about luck.
That’s the first part, and that part is most positively, definitely, their own fault. But the simple fact is that they have also been lied to, constantly, since they were children.
The most egregious example of this comes in that pile of pap that Glenn Beck shucks like the Bible’s smarter, prettier sister: Atlas Shrugged. I have desire to go into a list of why that book is a pile of shit, at least not right now. But there is a moment in it that so completely sums up everything that is wrong with the Tea Party/Randite/Libertarian worldview that it is breathtaking in its elegant stupidity. It is when Dagny Taggart finally gets to Galt’s Gulch, and it is a breathtaking panorama of loveliness with fertile fields and little houses, and people fishing and etc. It’s para-fucking-dise. And John Galt himself leads Dagny around showing her all the wonderful things they’ve done. And there are oil pipes in the mountains, and fields full of…stuff (She’s not much for details, our Ayn.) And it’s the most hilarious moment in the book, because you realize, at that moment, that Ayn Rand has no clue how the world works.
See, I grew up on a farm. And I’m familiar with the sheer, bloody amount of work it takes to run a farm. Notice, I am not saying build a farm. Building a farm from scratch is an almost impossible undertaking. (Which is why *gasp* the pioneers did it all together in groups. No payment expected, just help out when its their turn. Buncha commies.)
Certainly, a few years after this project got started, they would still be on the frontier edge of starvation, desperately going hungry in the winter so they wouldn’t have to touch their seed corn for the next year, anxiously scanning the skies for clouds. Living in one room cabins. Of course, Rand handwaves this by essentially giving them cold fusion, but even so, it Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.
It is at that moment that you realize Rand probably never did a day of real work in her life.
And when you hear the Tea Partiers, or Glenn Beck naively parroting her back as if her words were found in the desert, cut into the living rock by the invisible hand of Adam Smith himself, it is worth remembering that a lot of them haven’t done an honest day’s work in their life either.
And I think the cure for this is simple (or I am very naïve.) The cure, as I see it, is to have them all read the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic, Farmer Boy. Any of her books would do, but the others are about the struggle of poor pioneer families. Farmer Boy, on the other hand, is about what it was like to be one of the richest families in upstate New York in the late 1800’s.
Long story short? It was hard, long, bloody, miserable, sweating work. You woke up at five, you went to bed at 9, you took a bath once a week, and you didn’t get any time off. You busted your ass every single day of the week to make a buck.
But Glenn Beck and Ayn Rand and all the others lie to people. They tell them that their complicated life is wrong. That life should be simpler. That we should go back to some unspecified “way things were” without any apparent knowledge that life wasn’t all peaches and cream. That, actually, there weren’t all that many peaches or cream at all. That the complex web that we are all tangled in has made us more free, not less. More free to learn, to love, to choose what we want to do, instead of doing what we must.
The simple fact is that when we all work together, that when we don’t subscribe to some arcane philosophy of individualism, we prosper. We spent a few million years learning how to walk, how to think, how to use tools, but of all these things the one that has served us the best is our ability for collective effort. It was collective effort that moved us out of caves into huts, turned us from a species of nomadic hunter gatherers forever on the edge of starvation to agriculturalists. We built cities together, and empires. It was our collective action that ended slavery, that got the vote for women. It was a million people in front of the Lincoln memorial that had a dream and had it together that ended an ugly and brute reality that the libertarian cannot acknowledge. It was the government that integrated Little Rock, and it was the government that put us on the moon. To deny this penchant for collectivization, to argue instead that we should go it alone, and that the motivation of mankind is only in his pocketbook, is to deny what makes us human, to deny the struggles, the victories and defeats of the millennia long struggle out of the cave. It is a struggle that is not over, that will never be over. But it is the struggle of a world infinitely larger, infinitely more painful, and yet infinitely more beautiful than the narrow world view of the Tea Party can permit.
I am a student of history, a discipline that does not lend itself to concrete analysis. But I can say with confidence that the great steps forward, the moments that should make us hold our heads high and be proud of our humanity, were not the acts of individuals. These are the beautiful moments of collective vision, when some fraction of the world raises its eyes to the horizon and, seeing the vista of what might be, agrees to walk that long path together. And there is no transaction that can contain that vision, in part or in whole. And that is to me, the ultimate and fatal failure of the Tea Party movement.