Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rand Paul Is Not The Libertarian Jesus, And Other Observations

I had thought, after reading Amanda Marcotte's take on Rand Paul, that I would write a response like I usually do. Just go through her points one-by-one and explain why I disagree. But, frankly, I'm just tired of that, especially in the context of discussions of libertarianism. So I'm just going to rant for awhile instead.

Let me preface this by saying that, while I've found a lot of reasons to disagree with Amanda in the past, I still think she's one of the better bloggers out there. She has interesting things to say (one of the reasons why I read Pandagon regularly) and is obviously both smart and articulate. Which is why I find her out-of-hand rejection of libertarianism depressing.

There seems to be a certain segment of the progressive movement, of which Amanda is a representative member, that engages in a reflexive rejection of anything bearing the "libertarian" label. The problem here is that when these people say "libertarianism" they never stop to define what, exactly, they mean by the phrase. Which brings me to the title of this post.

Rand Paul is not the libertarian Jesus.

He's not even the libertarian pope. Rand Paul may be a libertarian, or even a Libertarian. He might, as some people claim, be a racist. Or he might have made the tactical error of trying to talk about an abstruse area of Constitutional doctrine during a 15-minute segment of the Rachel Maddow Show. All of which is irrelevant... Rand Paul doesn't speak for me. Nor, do I imagine, does he speak for a lot of other people who self-identify as libertarian. He's no more representative of all libertarians than... I dunno... Ward Churchill is representative of all progressives.

Have I made myself clear? If you're going to talk about libertarianism it behooves you to explain what you mean rather than just using this week's victim of foot-in-mouth disease as an exemplar. Now, since I intend to keep ranting for awhile, I'm going to define what it means to me.

Libertarianism starts from the principle of self-ownership. I alone have a natural right to decide what I will do with my life and person. If I choose to do so I can agree to give up some of this autonomy in exchange for the benefits of belonging to a group, and so on. Which is all very abstract; how does that play out in the here and now?

David Bernstein discussed the practical implications fairly well in his recent post on libertarianism and civil rights. Two important ideas which can be extracted from that discussion are:

  • One of the most important roles of government is to protect its citizens from private violence.
  • There are bounds to government power.
I would hope that the former, at least, is uncontroversial; it's hard to imagine a counter-argument. I think that most progressives would agree with the latter as well, at least as a statement of general principle; it's when we start to define those bounds that we run into disagreements. As I was chewing this post over in my head I realized that those disagreements are really just an echo of the more fundamental conflict between teleology and deontology.

I, as a libertarian, take a deontological view of ethics; the best way to preserve individual autonomy is to make the rules ahead of time and then apply them consistently. It's for this reason that, though I have a lot of quibbles with the details, I really like John Rawl's work on the concept of "justice". The progressive view seems to be more teleologically-oriented; I'll let Amanda speak her piece on the subject:

Liberals need to loudly and repeatedly lay claim to our broad, justice-oriented view of freedom. Freedom is the right to move about freely, instead of constantly run up against restrictions put upon you because of the color of your skin or the fact that you have to use a wheelchair to get around. Freedom is the right to take a job you wish without being run out of it because your coworkers will harass you to death because they don’t want to work with a woman. Freedom is being able to live where you want, instead of running against a wall of people that aren’t willing to sell or rent a home to a person like you. Freedom is something that belongs to all people, not just to those who have the money and social power to enforce their will on others. The government’s job is to protect freedom, and that means that it is the government’s job to restrict those who would use libertarianism as an excuse to deprive their neighbors of the right to live their lives freely, and to pursue happiness in a land of genuine equality.
To which I have two rejoinders:
  • Please define "justice".
  • How do you ensure all of these freedoms without trampling on other peoples' freedoms in the process?
It's not at all clear to me that the progressive view of "justice", to the extent that such a create exists at all, is internally coherent. And, while progressives clearly value some of the same freedoms as libertarians, they tend to mediate conflicting claims in an ad-hoc, intuitive fashion. Looked at in this manner its no wonder that progressives and libertarians are often at odds.

At this point I think I've described "libertarianism" well enough for the purposes of this discussion. Shall we move on to the substance of Amanda's post?

So, first, to the charge that libertarianism is "childish" or "juvenile": The Salon article to which Amanda links is guilty of the same stereotyping that I just got done talking about. Rand Paul isn't the libertarian gold standard. Most of the libertarians I know aren't particularly concerned with OSHA or getting rid of the Department of Education. There are far more important things to worry, like preventing bone-headed Senators from locking us all up. And Richard Epstein, Salon's "brilliant libertarian"? He might be support the CRA, but he wrote a book arguing that private employers should be allowed to discriminate when hiring. So, Salon, you still want his opinion?

Now, onto this lovely statement:

[T]he folks who write for Reason and work for the Cato Institute aren’t really representative of libertarianism as it actually exists in most of the U.S. Because self-identified libertarians are a tiny minority doesn’t mean that libertarian thought doesn’t enjoy widespread popularity amongst conservative Republicans. Indeed, libertarianism is the primary intellectual justification in this country for resistance to most social justice movements.
Ok... so when you're saying "libertarians" you're actively excluding Reason and Cato, two institutions which can credibly speak (to some degree) for libertarians as a whole. Rather, you're using it to refer to goobers who are picking-and-choosing libertarian ideas to provide intellectual cover for their agendas. Fine, but at least allow me the courtesy of the same: The folks who write for Pandagon aren't really representative of progressivism as it actually exists in most of the U.S. Because self-identified Pandagonians are a tiny minority doesn't mean that Pandagonian though doesn't enjoy widespread popularity among Bolivarian Socialists. Indeed, Pandagonianism is the primary intellectual justification in Venezuela for resistance to democracy.

Look, the above is incredibly silly, but it has exactly as much justification as the charge that Amanda is leveling at libertarians in general. Amanda and Salon are indulging in guilt by association; a bunch of idjits (who, according to Amanda, don't even self-identify as libertarians) citing libertarian principles to justify their base motivations in no way calls those principles themselves into question. It's the same damn line of reasoning that leads to Hitler/Atheism and Hitler/Darwin analogies; it's just dumb. Which goes back to my original observation about the need for specificity: I'd love it if Amanda (or anyone else for that matter) wrote an article titled "Republicans Are Cherry-Picking Libertarian Ideas To Provide Intellectual Cover For Their Nefarious Plots And Tarring Libertarians In The Process".

I'm mostly done here, but I wanted to hit on the Commerce Clause real quick before I got. Yeah, Amanda, some people have all of a sudden become real interested in the minutia of the Commerce Clause. Which is totally beside the fucking point... you hear about Gonzales v. Raich? You know, the one where the Commerce Clause was used to justify rules preventing someone from growing medical marijuana in their own backyard? How's that for "interstate commerce"? Some progressives might say that access to medicine is a fundamental concern of social justice, so maybe they should give a rat's ass about the commerce clause too?

In conclusion:

  • Rand Paul Is Not Libertarian Jesus.
  • Replicans Spouting Libertarian Principles Are Not Libertarians.
  • Unchecked Government Power Is Bad For Social Justice.
The End.

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