Give Me Liberty — Sort Of

Except in the area of expression, libertarianism is a winner’s ideology. It springs from a simplistic (and exculpatory: I am not my brother’s keeper) view of human nature, presuming we all possess the knowledge, reason, strength of character, and mental and physical health to determine our own destinies regardless of our economic, political, and cultural circumstances.

It’s the mirror image of communism, which is equally obtuse about human nature in its presumption that we value cooperation, collectivism, and rationalism over everything else, including the basic desire to improve our material circumstances. Unlike communism, though, libertarianism complements the American Protestant ethos I described in an earlier post. If you’re doing well it’s because you’ve made virtuous choices, and you are solely responsible for your success; if you’re doing poorly it’s because you’ve made sinful choices, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

I don’t believe any of us have that much control over our lives. We are all contextual creatures. On the economic side, we can have plenty of talent and work really, really hard. But unless we also have some form of external approval — a job offer if we’re employees, desire for our product if we’re self-employed — we’re likely to fail.

To me there’s an even bigger problem with libertarianism, though: its failure to recognize that government isn’t the only threat to liberty.

Long before there were governments (or their forerunners, tribal hierarchies) there were two coercive elements that limited personal freedom: brute force and wealth. Although libertarianism pays lip service to their mitigation by making respect for the individual rights of others a pre-condition for enjoying one’s own, its obsession with limiting government thwarts effective control of force and wealth.

On the brute force side, libertarians all but universally oppose controls on gun ownership. But I can’t think of too many physical objects more coercive than a semi-automatic rifle. That nutjob firing away from the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas on October 1 permanently deprived 58 people of their individual liberties and permanently compromised the freedom of the 546 people he injured.

On the wealth side — does this really require proof? — we need look no further than the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Every day another actress discloses that the skeevy Hollywood producer made her unwanted sexual submission a condition of advancing her career. (And let’s not forget our billionaire president bragging about his entitlement to women’s crotches.) The standard libertarian response to anti-discrimination and sexual harassment law, as embodied by Rand Paul, Congress’s most overt libertarian, has been downright inhumane.

Hey, I’m all for hard work and self-reliance. But I don’t think someone’s inability — or even conscious refusal — to live by the American Protestant ethos relieves us of an obligation to provide for that person’s basic well-being.

And as someone I knew back in the Eighties memorably observed, the only tool we have to fight Big Power and Big Money is Big Government.

I hope to reflect on what I consider more mature and compassionate approaches to freedom in a couple of future posts.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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