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Stupid Things Libertarians Say, Part II: Simplicity Itself

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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.

Written by newscum

July 4, 2010 at 3:16 am

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17 Responses

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  1. The ideas of most Libertarians are more complex than they themselves accept. They believe in small government. But a big military. They believe in the right to guns to protect themselves from the government. Small governments with no militaries pose little threat, though. They believe in MYOB, but not until they run everyone else’s lives. They believe in discrimination, as long as they’re in the majority. They believe in Laissaz-faire business laws without ever having experienced them. The Libertarian ideal is, twistedly, a Fascist Anarchy.

    Paul

    July 4, 2010 at 3:54 am

  2. Thanks for this. I’m in the middle of reading Atlas Shrugged – against my better judgement, and owing to all the “going galt” foolishness after Obama was elected. The copy I borrowed may very well be a first printing; it sold for 95 cents and invites you to examine the bright new novel from the author of _The Fountainhead_. If you’re so fascinated that you want to buy a hardback copy, you can order one for $6.95.

    I’m about two thirds of the way through it now, and I can actually sort of see the appeal. Among other things, it’s quite entertaining in places. I’m perfectly appalled that anyone takes it as a serious work of political philosophy, when it’s clearly something else entirely, but that’ll be a post on my own blog once I finally finish the benighted thing.

    Honestly, though, I’m reading this, and I keep thinking: “The first freedom is the freedom to starve.” I’m not sure of the attribution. (I have this associated with Terry Pratchett in my head, if that helps. Doesn’t help me, much.) People work better in concert.

    Michael Mock

    July 4, 2010 at 6:27 am

  3. I always got a kick out of that section of Atlas Shrugged, too. I’m originally from Indiana, and I know a little something about farming. I think it’s hilarious that they had oil pipeline and rail track when there was no way there could be enough demand for either. And how did they have fertile fields without having tremendous experts in agriculture? As I recall, most of the residents were industrialists – the most useless people you could possibly have in a tiny agricultural community. There wasn’t enough specialized labor for a factory, and no-one to sell mass-produced goods to.

    Ridiculous.

    Swintah

    July 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

  4. Thanks for this. I know nothing about farming…Wait, scratch that. I know a tiny bit about *urban* farming, because I have some friends who run urban farms. But I don’t know anything about real farming. I’m a city girl.

    I also did love *Farmer Boy* when I was a kid.

    sarah

    July 4, 2010 at 6:14 pm

  5. Somebody posted this book link on Slacktivist during a similar conversation:

    I love your points here about how the way pampered Ayn Rand industrialists imagine “the simple life,” bears little resemblance to reality. These are people who are used to having things handed them on a silver platter, so they imagine a fantasy where all that affluence still occurs without the complications and stresses of actually working with underlings and managing real-life problems. Hey, don’t we all! Doesn’t make our daydreams into a viable political philosophy.

    But what I always wanted to do was write a sequel to _Atlas Shrugged_, where the first generation of kids to grow up in Galt’s Gulch turn out to be a bunch of backstabbing amoral hellions. Ayn Rand had this sort-of tacit endorsement of politeness and morality, even while her characters kept preaching that the only good was what brings you individual monetary gain. Well, raise a bunch of kids by constantly hammering the message “Selfishness is good” into their heads, and just wait and see how they treat you when they grow up. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, I should think.

    Thomas Daulton

    July 6, 2010 at 10:34 pm

  6. I’d love to see that. :P

    apocalypsereview

    July 7, 2010 at 1:02 am

  7. This is exactly right.

    Given the low opinion of government held by the Liberbarians (not a typo), once they acknowledge the need for some government, I like to say “We’ve established what you are; now we’re just haggling over the price.”

    Kubrick's Rube

    July 7, 2010 at 4:23 pm

  8. Ayn Rand never did do a day’s work in her life; amusingly enough, she spent most of her adult life in Hollywood (IIRC her first screen credit was in The Ten Commandments–nope, I was wrong, she was in King of Kings and it was uncredited, thanks IMDB). There’s a fantastic and hilarious (in a lolsob sort of way) documentary out there about her, that I saw when it came out in the theatres–must be this:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118662/

    Carolyn Dougherty

    July 7, 2010 at 9:50 pm

  9. Regarding the frontier mentality beloved of sharp-line libertarians…I think the idea is not the Midwest farmers, but rather the California and Alaska gold prospectors and their ilk. The question becomes, how much of a prospector’s necessary community contact was constant, and how much episodic (i.e. market)?

    Skyknight

    July 12, 2010 at 4:35 am

  10. The first freedom is the freedom to starve.

    Sam Clemens I think, or possibly GK Chesterton (I’ve seen attributions to both, for variations on that)

    firefall

    July 12, 2010 at 4:44 am

  11. didnt you realise? without all the leeches, the simple good earth would provide amply with a minimal effort. The stones would apparently automatically leap from fields into stone walls, the weeds would fear the Randians too much to sprout, and the insects would acknowledge the rights of fellow-parasites and not blight the crops.

    Funny, I’d never thought of Ayn Rand as a disciple of that great 18th century loony, Rousseau.

    firefall

    July 12, 2010 at 4:46 am

  12. @Skyknight

    And notice that the people who made money in the gold rushes weren’t the prospectors; they were the merchants who sold stuff to the prospectors, i.e. the middlemen the Randroids so despise and who turn out to provide a necessary function.

    Inquisitive Raven

    July 18, 2010 at 2:35 pm

  13. “(…)what I always wanted to do was write a sequel to _Atlas Shrugged_, where the first generation of kids to grow up in Galt’s Gulch turn out to be a bunch of backstabbing amoral hellions.

    (…)

    “Well, raise a bunch of kids by constantly hammering the message ‘Selfishness is good’ into their heads, and just wait and see how they treat you when they grow up.”

    I think someone did already. It’s called “Lord of the Flies”…

    reynard61

    July 21, 2010 at 5:24 am

  14. I do wonder what they detest about purveyors and messengers (this is certainly the first I’ve heard of such…).

    Several years ago on Slacktivist, Doctor Science said that she suspected the corepoint of sharp-line libertarianism was the belief that humans are not social creatures. I suppose we could adjust that to “humans should not be social creatures, even though they normally are”? It REALLY doesn’t help that there’s apparently several passages in Atlas Shrugged that suggest that love ought not be unconditional, but be a thing granted in exchange for something of equal value (q.v. Hank Rearden with his grandmother, Galt explaining the nature of his affection for Dagny). {sigh} So much for love asking nothing in return…I know Ruby suggested that libertarianism was about having all the benefits of citizenship without the responsibilities, but I think we’re looking at something a bit different here. If granting love is seen as a debit (since it’s being regarded as something you’re supposed to get something in return for…not exactly a shining endorsement of agape. Storge isn’t looking too good, either.), then we’re looking at a kind of fearfulness. I know the sharp-line like to say that taking risks is a GOOD thing, but with the heavy emphasis on perfect knowledge of needs and contingencies, we’re definitely not talking high NET risk here. Still, that is rational, to want to minimize the chance of failure, but combining that element with this part about love-in-exchange, and the apparent scorn of middlemen? I have a feeling they’re fearful of ever falling behind. Combine that with Rand’s materialist-monism, and you could probably conclude that they’re fearful of losing elements of themselves in any way.

    Now add in the whole conceit of wealth creation, usually in terms that make it sound like creatio ex nihilo at times. Given that you can’t have EVERYONE be an industrialist, and how wealth creation is usually in terms of invention and job generation (as far as I’ve personally seen, anyway…), that wealth creation will necessarily be constricted to a select few. The allegation is that the wealth will trickle down, but that’s going to be difficult with the whole obsession of quid pro quo. Unless you consider the wealth being traded for gratitude and loyalty…

    I think we’re looking at a fearfulness for personal security. ATOMISTIC personal security. Unconditional love, I suspect, is seen as amorphous and undependable, unlike transactional love, where the OTHER party is also thought to be aware that if they fail to deliver on their end, they’re not going to receive either, and are thus bound by their own interests (and not other-interest…Never mind that sharp-line insistence that nothing is capable of even non-Comtean altruism, only selfishness. Verging on motive solipsism, anyone?). They think the uncontrolled-by-contract-or-anything-else MUST be a beast of chaos and ruin, and so armor themselves silly with contract. They’re not so interested in freedom to as freedom FROM. Specifically, freedom from the unexpected. Freedom to is valuable to this, but primarily as “freedom to move to the predictable”.

    ({scowls} Am I the only one who thinks this is more than a little rambling?)

    I wonder if the sharp-line are aware of how this might constrict spontaneity…

    Skyknight

    July 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  15. I enjoy reading your site – many of the insights are interesting. However, I was struck by a line from the above post – Rand never did a day of work in her life.

    As a would-be writer myself, I quibble with that quite badly.

    Writing is not easy. Producing a novel like Atlas Shrugged (as imperfect as it is) is a massive undertaking. Even if one disagrees completely with Rand, one has to respect her achievement – done in the years before computers and spellcheckers and all the other devices that help the modern writer.

    Rand achieved something that very few people, relative to the total population, manage – she wrote and published a novel. That is no small achievement.

    Chris

    Chris

    March 31, 2011 at 12:29 pm

  16. 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.

    From a WMEC (white, mixed-European, Catholic) man:

    1) I am an aficionado of the “Nifty Fifties”, and just old enough to remember the Nifty Fifties, the First 1960s. It was NOT the Godly Golden Age you hear from so many Christian Culture War pulpits. Like Dickens’ prologue to Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… In short, it was a time like any other.”

    The Fifties were a time of forced decompression from twenty years of Hell — the Great Depression followed by World War Two. A full generation of Grimdark. Afterwards, the USA — only First World country to come through the war with its infrastructure not only undamaged but expanded — helped rebuild much of the world that had been damaged by the war, resulting in an unprecedented prosperity that trickled down into a large middle class. A time of “can-do” optimism that we have lost since. Even the conformity of the Fifties was a result of this — the side effects hadn’t built up and you could own your own house, drive your own car, and generally kick back after twenty years of Grimdark. It’s Miller Time.

    2) What you describe is the first of three axioms defining a Grievance Culture, i.e. a culture who defines itself solely by and for revenge against the Other. The three axioms are:

    Axiom 1: Once WE were Lords of All Creation, and Everything Was Perfect in Every Way. Even if only in our mythology.
    Axiom 2: Then THEY came and took it all away from us.
    Axiom 3: IT’S PAYBACK TIME!

    You see this Grievance Culture dynamic throughout history in Blood Feuds, the KKK, the Nazis, extreme Zionism, the Palestinians, extreme Islam, Afrocentrism, Raza Boys, you name it. (Not demonizing the Tea Party, but the pull and danger is there.)

    Headless Unicorn Guy

    July 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm

  17. Clueless twit.

    R Bytes

    December 17, 2012 at 10:48 pm


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