Saturday, March 15, 2014

Libertarianism: Young America's Hothouse Philosophy

I once asked the students in my Cultures of China class this: Would they have willingly participated in the extremely profitable opium trade that was undermining Chinese society in the 1800s, had they been entrepreneurs in that era. I was surprised to find that a majority said they would.

They held to their profit-motivated position in spite of my having spent some time describing the destitution of Chinese families, the starvation of children, and other disasters that accompanied the importation of tons of opium into China by foreign merchants. Their basic argument was that everyone is responsible for their own fate. If people want to become drug addicts and we can make some money off them, so be it.

                        Chinese Opium Smokers

I asked one particularly adamant young man if he thought it would be morally OK to peddle heroin out of a food truck on our campus (assuming to do so was legal), even knowing that this would ultimately wreck the lives of dozens or even hundreds of his classmates. He thought for three or four seconds, and then replied, “I’d have to say ‘Yes.’”

Color me taken aback. I felt I had kicked over a campus rock only to reveal a slithering, squirming tangle of anti-social amorality.

True, I have encountered used car salesmen who clung to the idea that if they could get rich off of my misguided trust in their sales pitch, well, screw me and more power to them. But I was not reassured to see this attitude widely shared by my students. Admittedly, a large number of them were business majors, and I’m pretty sure that this partially explains their position. But still…

Naturally, I’m reluctant to point fingers over America’s current ethical collapse, but if you could see my head, you'd notice that it is gesturing meaningfully toward libertarianism. This, surely, is the beast that has raised its hoary visage over today’s hapless students. This visage, by the way, is also decidedly whorey.

In its modern, young American form, libertarianism apparently boils down to this precept: “We are masters of our own fate. We should be allowed to make any decisions we choose about our own lives as long as we aren’t physically assaulting our fellow citizens or seizing their property. If we destroy our own lives because of our decisions, and maybe the lives of our children as well, too bad. That’s nobody’s business but our own.”

This is a weirdly unrealistic philosophy, one that has no connection to scientific understandings of human nature. It reminds me of a saying I first heard years ago, supposedly Spanish or Middle Eastern in origin: “Take what you want and pay for it, says God.”

The underlying idea (again, contrary to science) is that free people shape their own lives, and nobody need be concerned about anybody else.

I’m assuming most of these young people will grow out of libertarianism as they accumulate wisdom and experience. Furthermore, as one who, in his college years, yearned to be free of parental and other authority, I totally get the appeal of a philosophy that says, “You have no responsibility for anyone or anything. Go for it!” As a young man I rebelled against school, church, and the military, and I indulged in endless political debates with my moderately conservative, Republican parents. I also confess that I broke the law without a qualm as I "experimented" with marijuana.

I did avoid heroin, though, having heard about its irresistibly addictive properties.

Economists, most of them, anyway, can provide dozens of reasons, historical and logical, as to why libertarianism makes no sense. But what strikes me as the underlying fatal flaw in libertarianism is its willful ignorance of just how utterly social human beings are. We are not individuals who just happen to live near other individuals whose influence on us can be resisted or controlled. Our brains are fundamentally designed to coordinate our thoughts and behavior in accordance with those around us. As Matthew Lieberman points out in his fascinating new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, our thoughts, even in default mode, automatically revert to making social calculations with reference to the people around us.

We do not “choose” our fates, as libertarians would have us believe. They are, for the most part, handed to us whether we want them or not. We do not, for example, “choose,” as free and independent human beings, to speak English or any other language. Our native language gets into our head whether we choose it or not. To a lesser extent, the same thing is true of religion. Which is why huge swaths of territory on a map of the world can be marked as predominantly Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever.

A child born and raised in a Bedouin family in Algeria does not say to herself, “Let me see. What shall I be – Muslim, Shinto, or agnostic? Which life-shaping path will I choose? I know – Hare Krishna!”

Most people grow up with the religions inculcated in them during their childhoods and never abandon them.

Language and religion are just two of the most obvious examples of brain control that are largely beyond individual choice. Another one is the choice of libertarianism itself. Relying, admittedly, on personal, anecdotal, observations, I am inclined to conclude that the typical libertarian is a white, middle class individual with pretty good life prospects. I doubt that the devastated streets of South L.A. or the impoverished Mexican-American villages of South Texas generate many libertarians. People from communities like these recognize that most lives are pounded into shape by forces beyond individual control.

So if you want to find the soil that best nourishes the mythology of libertarianism,  look in the hothouse of white, middle-class privilege.



  2. Thank you, Jonathan. For those disinclined to go to the publicreligion site, here are some of its key findings:

    "More than two-thirds (68 percent) of libertarians are men, while 32 percent are women. They are also racially homogeneous, with nearly all (94 percent) libertarians identifying as non-Hispanic whites. They also skew significantly younger. More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) libertarians are under the age of 50, including one-quarter (25 percent) who are under the age of 30...In the 2012 presidential election, fully 8-in-10 (80 percent) libertarian voters say they supported Mitt Romney, while only 5 percent say they supported Barack Obama."

  3. There are a number of essential differences between areas like language and religion, in which societal influences are beyond doubt major factors, and the choice of what, if any, intoxicants or mood altering chemicals one chooses to ingest. With the exception of the anarcho-libertarian fringe, libertarians do not disregard the forces and advantages of society, but merely wish to lessen the degree in which society controls essentially personal decisions.

    As to the vote tallies, one would presume that those who profess a belief in small and limited government would not vote for a candidate who believes that the best solution to most problems is a centralized government response. I am only surprised that 5% supported Obama.

    1. I guess we disagree on how pervasive societal influences are. I know it's none of my business, but I wonder if you come from a white, middle class background.

      I also disagree with the portrayal of Obama as one who sees the solution to most problems as coming from a centralized government. Even his healthcare program is based on private insurers, and does not even allow for a public option. I'm sure he would prefer to have this option, but, as part of his compromise with the right, he dropped it.

      It seems to me that denying us the right to have access to a public option is the kind of denial of freedom that libertarians should be up in arms about. After all, option is just another word for freedom of choice.

      I believe, and I suspect my views are not too different from Obama's, not that every problem needs a centralized government solution, but that the biggest ones that threaten our national well-being do. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, most Americans didn't say, "Well, we don't need the government here. We can arm ourselves and fight the Japanese on our own." No, we turned to our central government for a powerful, coordinated response to this threat.

      The same approach would seem appropriate for the really big national threats we face today. Since the rise of conservatism, ca. 1980, has resulted in a systematic movement of the nation's wealth into the hands of the super-rich, the stagnation of middle class incomes and the loss of buying power by the poorest Americans, a national response is called for, and this means a federal government-led response. Same thing is true of our deteriorating infrastructure and the increasing threat of pollution. On this last one, an internationally coordinated response is really needed. These are not the kinds of problems that have ever been solved by ordinary individuals just pursuing their own private interests, any more than the deadly conflict with the fascist powers of the 1940s was.