Saturday, July 18, 2009

Philosophy or pragmatism: the dangers of stark dichotomies

It is a fairly common charge against Libertarians [or Greens, or even some Progressives for that matter] that we are too interested in political philosophy and thinking about the perfect society to actually work on solving real social, political, and economic problems.

It is also a really fond talking point of some of my progressive and liberal friends to suggest that fiscal conservatives and libertarians are being hypocritical if they ever avail themselves of a government service or benefit.

There is some truth to both criticisms, but far less that those who blog so smugly would like to believe. Perhaps need to believe.

Take case one: I will admit that many libertarians have a penchant for internal witch hunts and arguments about how many Ayn Rand or Murry Rothbard clones could dance on the head of a pin. That's why a Libertarian Party is almost a contradiction in terms. As my friends point out, sixty Republicans would be a cloture-proof Congress, sixty Democrats would be a nail-biter on every single bill requiring cloture, and sixty Libertarians wouldn't be able to agree to meet in the same venue and vote in the first place.

The power of Libertarianism is therefore primarily as a philosophy and a partial set of views held by almost everybody. How often have you heard a convinced Dem or GOPer say, "I tend to be Libertarian on issue X"? As much as I would like the term Libertarian--as in Libertarian Party--to equate with rational small government, non-intrusion into people's private lives [even when they are being stupid], and a non-interventionist foreign policy, it ain't gonna happen. Not Libertarian enough for too many libertarians; too radical for the others you might attract to any one of those three tenets.

Being a Libertarian is not, therefore, about successful politicking, as much as I would like it to be otherwise [and as much as, during election years, I indulge my fantasies that this or that candidate might actually break through].

So why call myself a Libertarian? Primarily, I think, because the philosophy is just as important as pragmatic problem-solving. Somebody needs to keep asking the questions about why we're doing things and raising objections regarding ethics or freedom, even at the cost of being labeled a contrarian who doesn't want to do anything.

Which is odd, because many, many Libertarians contribute every day to resolving major problems in society. Contra popular belief, the political arena is not the only or even necessarily the best place to have an impact on the society within which you live. I've negotiated labor contracts, chaired state-wide education commissions, conducted detailed, descriptive studies on gaps in Delaware health care provider expertise, and rewritten Standard Operating Procedures for emergency first-response doctrines in urban settings. None of those things were either at odds with being a Libertarian or even seriously affected by my Libertarian political beliefs--though I have consistently run into smalled minded bigots [hello, Geezer] who were obviously beaten by a copy of Atlas Shrugged as a child and never got over it.

As for that issue of Libertarians using government services, it neglects the coercive side of things. If the government takes my money for things I don't approve of (foreign wars would be my first example), and then the government exercises its power to create monopolies on all kinds of services (from postage stamps on up), then as a taxpayer (willing or not) I have already paid for those services. The fact that in many cases I cannot get them anywhere else--or that the government has exercised its ability to subsidize its products at below any value the free market could be expected to provide--is not an argument against making rational choices about how to spend the half of my money the IRS and DE Department of Revenue choose to leave me.

Look at it this way: African-Americans in the Jim Crow South continued to ride segregated trains after Plessy, even though they disagreed with American apartheid. Were they hypocrites for doing so? No. Because that's the transportation that was available to them to use to better their condition--economic, social and political. And you'll notice that when the time came to exercise enough power to get those restrictions struck down, the boycotts and civil disobedience started almost immediately.

So while I object to the idea of Sussex County owning tax ditches, I damn well expect the county authorities who can use the power of the State to place a right-of-way into my property to spray the damn ditches for mosquitoes.

Ultimately, the reason I am a Libertarian--and a public Libertarian at that--is because somebody has to think it is just as important to raise issues of personal freedom and limited government that to pretend that blogging about health care and stimulus packages and their favorite candidate for local office actually equates with helping solve problems.


Anonymous said...

You're dead-on Steve. Only a bloated big-mouthed self-important horse's ass would have the gall to dismiss questions of principle being raised over matters of such massive import. It really shows that the left, as has been charged through recent history, has no principle, just the rule of men.

Interesting that those who want everyone else (who doesn't kiss their ass while they take over the world, forcing themselves on the rest of us) to "shut up" and "fuck off" while they "fix things" are the ones who are the biggest threat to the basic liberties we want to defend against their collectivist tyranny.

Sorry, Geezer, but stick it up your fat liberal ass if you don't like hearing people who actually believe in something beyond their own certainty of brilliance.

Miko said...

A while back, Roderick Long offered the followed (paraphrased by me) guide for debating a libertarian:

1. Find out if they personally benefit from the program they're arguing against.
2. If they do, call them a hypocrite.
3. If they don't, call them selfish.

Miko said...

And, libertarianism the philosophy predates the U.S. Libertarian Party as well as the LP-equivalents of all other countries. I'd continue to call myself a libertarian if the LP went up in smoke tomorrow; indeed, I might even consider the collapse of the LP as a step forward for libertarianism. Now, I think that both halves of agitprop are necessary, and political action can be useful on the dissemination of ideas front. Plus, when the government controls nukes, you can't ignore them entirely. But, historically politics has been an abysmbal way of actually bringing about libertarian results.

Anonymous said...

Once again well said Newton. If you are going to force your damn rules/services of government on me, then by damn you better be on speed dial when I say so. That being said, I want a piece of the action of what I am being taxed heavily for, but told I earn too much to qualify for benefit. My employer doesn't provide healthcare. I don't use WIC, or Head Start. Pay all my own daycare. But one thing I need is adult health coverage. But I can't. Glad the kids can be covered, with an affordable premium. But the big incentive for the other perks? Cut back on work. Go figure. I was laid off once. Did not want to collect unemployment. I knew I would have another job in 10 minutes. But conservatives talked me into at least taking a breath and collecting to witness that cesspool. I lasted 3 weeks. My dignity cost more. So now I work again for programs I can't even have a bite at. So get sprayed for mosquitoes. Whether you need to or not. Because the help you really need isn't exactly showing up. I want my government to let me pick the package of services I need. From flood insurance to health insurance, if the feds are in that business then I have a right to it if I need it. Just my angry taxpayer thought of the menu provided, but I'm not allowed to order from. Just water please, at this point in my life.

R said...

1. Find out if they personally benefit from the program they're arguing against.
2. If they do, call them a hypocrite.

That's utterly retarded. I currently don't have health insurance, and would therefore benefit from universal coverage even as I argue against it. I'm a hypocrite?

tom said...

Way to miss the point so completely there R! That was almost worthy of an anonymous commenter. ;-)

tom said...

Could anonymous posters please start identifying their comments somehow?

I don't care if it's a real name; I don't care if it's a blogger id or a "signature" at the bottom like "anonone".

It's just really confusing trying to follow "conversations" where half the participants have the same name.