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Posts Tagged ‘libertarianism

a few thoughts on libertarianism

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Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behavior which are unfortunately wrong). I don’t know who wrote this.

not quite

Aren’t libertarians a lovely lot?

I might look more closely at some libertarian philosophy later, but for now I want to critique the kind of standard libertarianism I’ve heard from politicians and bloggers.

Well, okay, I’ll start with a philosopher, Robert Nozick, whose much-vaunted/pilloried book Anarchy, State and Utopia I tried to read in the eighties. I found it pretty indigestible and essentially learned from others that his argument depended rather too much on one principle – the human right of individuals to certain positive and negative freedoms, but especially negative ones, like the right to be left largely alone, to make their own decisions for example about how to contribute to the greater good. The book ended up advocating for a minimalist state, in which everyone gets to create their own communities of kindred spirits, organically grown A cornucopia of utopias. The kind of state that, ummm, like, doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s the problem. Utopia is definable as a society that only exists in fantasy.

And then there’s the exaltation of the individual. This is the problem I’ve encountered with every libertarian I’ve read or viewed – and I’m quite glad I’ve rarely had any personal encounters with them.

If I did, here would be my response. Homo sapiens are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. Language has massively facilitated this, and in turn has become our most powerful social product. Common languages have created civilisations, and this has allowed us to dominate the planet, for better or worse. And civilisation requires, or just is, organised social structure. That’s to say, a state, that eternal bogey-man of the libertarian.

This entity, the state, has shaped humans for millennia. Today, we owe (largely) to the state the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the education we’re hopefully still having, the jobs we’ve had and lost, the houses we live in, the cars we used to drive, and the good health we increasingly enjoy. That’s why, it seems to me, we owe it to ourselves to make the state we live in as good as we can make it, in terms of health, safety, opportunity, support, pleasure and self-improvement, for all its members.

It seems to me we have to work with what exists instead of trying to invent utopias – because, obviously, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. What exists today is a variety of states, some clearly better than others. The minimalist states are among the worst, and they’re understandably called failed states. There is no effectively functioning minimalist state on the planet, a fact that many libertarians blithely ignore. Their emphasis on individual liberty seems to me the product of either beggar-thy-neighbour selfishness or starry-eyed optimism about natural affinities.

Again, I turn to the USA, my favourite whipping-state. This hotbed of libertarians has not blossomed as it could, considering its booming economy. From this distance, it seems a sad and often stomach-turning mixture of white-collar fraudsters and chronically disadvantaged, over-incarcerated victims, and good people who largely accept this as the status quo. The you-can-achieve-anything mantra of the American Dream generally sees individuals as blank slates who can best fulfil their potential when pulled from the rubble of the coercive state. Or State, as many libertarians prefer.

It didn’t take my recent reading of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a superb overview of human behaviour and its multifarious and interactive underpinnings, or Steven Pinker’s earlier The Blank Slate, to realise that this was a dangerous myth. It was always screamingly obvious to me, from my observation of the working-class milieu of my childhood, the variety of skills my classmates displayed and the problems they faced from the outset, together with my readings of more privileged worthies and their patrician connections (Bertrand Russell on the knee of William Gladstone always comes irritatingly to mind), that there has never been anything like an even playing field for exhibiting and making the most of whatever qualities we’re gifted with or are motivated to cultivate and improve.

So this is the problem: we’re not free to undo what has been ‘done to us’ – the parents we have, the country (or century) we’re born in, the traumas and joys we’ve experienced in the womb, our complex genetic inheritance and so forth. All of these things are connected to a much wider world and a past over which we have no control. They shape us (into go-getting libertarians or bleeding-heart liberals or whatever) much more than we’re generally prepared to admit. And these shaping forces, since the emergence of civilisation and that sometimes messily organised unit called the state, are profoundly social. And even if we’re not talking about western civilisation it’s the same – it takes a village to raise a child.

These shaping forces aren’t necessarily bad or good, they just are. But all in all we should be glad they are. The social brain is the brightest, most complex brain, and such brains wouldn’t have developed if the individual was sacrosanct, in receipt of the right to be ‘left alone’. Civilisation is surely the most impressive achievement of human evolution, and as Ralph Adolphs of Caltech puts it, ‘no component of our civilization would be possible without large-scale collective behavior’. 

The state, of course, has its drawbacks, as do all large-scale multifaceted administrative entities. The ancient Greek city-states produced a host of brilliant contributors to their own esteem as well as to the world history of drama, philosophy, mathematics and history itself, in spite of being built on slavery and denying any equitable role to women, but even there the (probably few) slaves who worked in the most enlightened households would’ve benefitted from the collective, and the women, however officially treated, were surely just as involved and brainy as the men.

As society has grown increasingly complex we as individuals have grown in proportion, as have our individual delusions of grandeur. At least in some cases. What the best of us should have learned, though, is that a rich, diverse, dynamic society, which cannot but be organised, produces the best offerings to its children. Diminishing the state by refusing to contribute to it actually diminishes and impoverishes the self, diminishes connection and the recognition of collective value. This raises the rather large point that the self isn’t what most people think it is – an autonomous, self-actuated entity. Instead, it is driven by complex social inputs from the very start, indeed from long before it came into being. Just as events from long before a crow is born, or even conceived, will go a long way in determining how that adult crow behaves.

Yet the myth of the individual, autonomous self is a live one, and it’s what drives most libertarians. In so far as people see themselves as self-actualising, they will argue the same for others, and absolve themselves from responsibility for others’ failures, mistakes or incapacities. Such attitudes significantly play down disadvantages of background, and even reduce exposure to those differences. Since everyone has the choice to be as successful as me (according to my own measure of success), why should I waste time hanging out with losers? By that measure, to suggest that silver-spoon libertarians would willingly provide support to disadvantaged communities is as unrealistic as expecting Donald Trump to hang out with the construction workers on his trumpy towers.

In some respects, libertarianism represents the opposite pole to communism, on a continuum that stretches into complete delusion at both ends. There have never been any actual, functioning communist or libertarian states. Both are essentially abstract ideologies, which take little account of the science of evolved human behaviour. When we do take account of that science, we find it is fiendishly complex, with the individual as a unit being driven and shaped by social dependencies, connections and responsibilities, which are generally vital to that individual’s well-being. In western democratic societies, apart from family and workplace organisations, we have government, which includes, in Australia, councils, states and a federation of states. It all sound terribly complex and web-like, and some apparently see it as ‘the enemy of individual liberty’ but in fact it’s the web of civilised human life, which we’ve all contributed to creating, and it’s a pretty impressive web – though more impressive in some places than in others. I think the best thing we can try to do is to improve it rather than trying to extricate ourselves from it. In any case, doing so – I mean, removing ourselves from organised society – just won’t work, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our evolved humanity.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm

Lecturing the USA: less jingoistic complacency, more scrutiny of a failing system

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While convalescing from a severe viral infection, I’ve been paying almost too much attention to MSNBC and CNN as they more or less impotently report on the brutal farce that is the Trump presidency.

In the last year or so I’ve been on a steep learning curve about the workings of the US electoral system, and its politico-economic system in general. Much of what I’ve learned has frankly appalled me. And it may take a few posts to get all of this off my chest. We’ll see.

A couple of days ago, on the Rachel Maddow show, a legal pundit and former Attorney-General David Hickton, describing a matter relating to foreign interference in the US, just happened to drop the line ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, apropos of nothing much at all. It wasn’t spoken with discernible pride or even emphasis; it was a perfunctory remark. And I’ve heard this perfunctory remark, or variations of it – ‘the leader of the free world’, ‘the greatest nation on earth’, ‘the country everyone looks to as an example’, ‘the greatest beacon of freedom’ – so often, and trotted out so mindlessly, that it occurs to me that it is probably part of an educational edict or axiom in the USA, imprinted in the first school years at age 5 or 6. Any American who applies critical thinking to this axiom places herself at extreme risk, it seems to me. But it also seems obvious to me that such application, as to the axioms of Euclid or the Catechism, will yield many positive results.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this criticism. Of course I’ve already highlighted some problems in previous posts – here, here and here. Most of this criticism has been about the structure of the US system – giving their ‘commander-in-chief’ far more power than occurs in other democracies; fatally separating parliament, or congress, from the President and his personally chosen (and also overly-powerful) staff, including such vital positions as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff, Secretary of Homeland Security,  and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, among others. Congress has some oversight in the appointment to some of these positions, but astonishingly none of the people appointed to these high offices need to have had previous political experience, or to have been elected through any parliamentary process.

Other Presidential privileges I’ve learned about – somewhat goggle-eyed I have to say – are extensive veto and pardoning powers, power to select members of the high judiciary, and, most incredibly, the ability to turn what appears to be a Presidential whim into immediate action, as in the arbitrary imposition of tarrifs and the separation of children from parents seeking asylum on the southern border. Neither of these extraordinary and extremely problematic directives seem to have required any kind of congressional oversight whatsoever. Looking for a recipe for dictatorship anyone? Just check out the USA.

This is what the US system allows, but virtually no prominent member of the fourth estate has had anything critical to say about it. All their reporting is about the trees – their educational brainwashing from childhood apparently blinds them to a forest that was never healthy and is now dying fast.

The USA’s love of democracy means that the whole nation has significant national elections every two years, unlike in the Westminster system (approximately 3 years in Australia and New Zealand, 4 years  in Canada and 5 years in the UK). Presidential elections in particular are hyped-up affairs involving massive expenditures, and they really resemble sports tournaments, somewhat like Wimbledon, in which the contenders are eliminated one by one (often because they can’t maintain the expense of campaigning) until we have the final ding-dong battle for the top job. The two contenders get to choose their running mate – their doubles partner, so to speak – who can be as dumb and/or incompetent as you like, and who gets to be Prez if the winning contender is forced to retire or resign, or dies in office. Think of the then much-ridiculed Dan Quayle, the still-much ridiculed Sarah Palin, and the now-dreaded Mike Pence.

It’s part of the USA’s anti-collectivist, libertarian culture that they celebrate the ‘great man’ tough guy up against the forces of some evil or at least seriously flawed organisation or state (think Sylvester Stallone, Arnie Schwarzeneggear, Bruce Willis etc), and this is how they like to see their President, and seems to be why they give him such unparalleled power. It seems to me kind of juvenile, in the way of Hollywood movies. And then, having foisted so much power on him (always him, but more of that later), they then (or some of them) use this as an argument to bolster his power even further by suggesting he’s too indispensable to be charged with a crime while in office!! I’ve not yet heard from any American commentator who has recognised or highlighted the sheer absurdity of this conundrum.

Now, I recognise that the USA can compare itself favourably with other democratic nations. India and Indonesia spring to mind, as more or less fledgling democracies with massive problems of poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, as well as the ever-present lure of graft and corruption and the pressures of tribal and in-group associations. And I’m insufficiently expert in the political systems of Germany, France, Spain and most other Western European nations to make detailed comparisons, though I suspect such comparisons would be highly embarrassing to the USA. I do have a certain familiarity with the Westminster system, however, and it strikes me as superior to the US system in a number of ways. The most obvious is that there is virtually no chance that the Prime Minister can ‘go rogue’, as the swampy US President has done. The Prime Minister is primus inter pares, someone who has come up through the ranks, proven herself within the party, and sits with her party, at its head, in parliament, leading and participating with that party in debates before the House. Her principle role is to articulate the party’s agenda and policies, to deal effectively with objections and to bring those policies into law by shepherding them through the tough terrain of the House and the Senate (in the case of Australia). There’s limited opportunity for lone wolf, ‘off the cuff’ decision-making – there’s a whole crew of elected cabinet ministers tasked to deal with immigration, foreign relations, trade, education, health, infrastructure, agriculture and the like, and it would be considered scandalous if the PM made some impromptu decision over their heads (or tried to). It would be seen as arrogant and unprofessional and frankly extraordinary, not just because it breaks precedent, but more importantly, because the cult of the go-it-alone vigilante hero is not part of our society – that’s a uniquely American thing, at least in its intensity. A disciplined, collegial approach is what is expected here.

The difference is exemplified by the fact that Trump was a ‘Democrat’ a few years back and now he’s a ‘Republican’, but it should be clear to any reasoning observer that he’s neither. His interest in politics, such as it is, is only for the power, attention and money it provides him. And the US system enables this in that their President virtually never passes through the doors of their parliament, let alone works there. The ‘White House’ represents an entirely separate institution, and the importance of the more or less daily White House briefings highlights this disastrous separation and the over-emphasis placed on the heroic ‘commander-in-chief’.

Time and again I hear US pundits lauding the checks and balances which prevent their swampy president from going ‘full dictator’, but any comparison with the Westminster system will show that no leader in that system could have survived this long while attacking the law enforcement and justice systems, ridiculing basic science, supporting and praising foreign enemy states, and refusing to act on well-attested interference in the political system by those states. It’s also important to note that dumping a toxic or under-performing or unpopular leader under the Westminster system is much more easily done and far less traumatic. In fact it happens quite often between elections.

There is no such thing as impeachment in the Westminster system. It seems obvious to me that if a national leader, or any other senior cabinet minister, is charged with a crime, they should step down until a judicial decision is reached, though this may depend on the severity of the alleged crime. Impeachment, as I understand it, is a purely congressional process, and should have no place in deciding on criminal behaviour – as should be obvious. The whole business of impeachment has a political odour to it, and the Westminster system is far better without it.

There are no doubt many other problems with the US system as such, including the vetting of candidates for high office (you shouldn’t let just anyone run for President) and the rules regarding making money from the Presidency, but I want now to turn to other reasons why the US may be more likely to turn dictatorship than other western democracies.

These reasons, to some degree, go back to Plato and Aristotle, unabashed elitists who warned of demagogues and their appeal to the ‘mob’. Trump’s base consists largely of the USA’s ‘left behind’, people without tertiary education qualifications, people who are largely under-employed and underpaid, people who feel trapped and angry, people who hate the political and business elites, people with grievances they can’t readily articulate. True, there are other supporters, elitist libertarians who want more freedom from taxation, the crooked rich people who flock to Mar-a-lago and Trump Towers, etc, but they are small in number if large in ego and influence. It’s worth noting here the remarks by Tony Schwarz, author of the ‘Trump’ book The Art of the Deal, to the effect that Trump actually despises his base, whom he sees as losers. What he delights in, of course, is their fawning allegiance to him, and the way he can whip them into a fervour over practically nothing. Trump, of course, spends no time in the company of steel workers or farmers or war veterans, he far prefers the exclusive company of crooked rich people.

In most democracies the ‘working-class’, among whom I grew up, are somewhat divided in their political allegiance, torn between the promise of support for social services, infrastructure and jobs from the left and the promise from the right of crack-downs on immigration and crime, and generally macho law-and-order and nation-building issues or rhetoric. In the US we might embody these promises in people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the one hand, or Trump or one of his many imitators on the other. But what’s interesting is that, among the elite, and the fourth estate in particular, there’s a clear bias against the kind of interventionist policies and social services that place Australia, for example, way ahead of the USA on the OECD list of best countries to live in. Too often I hear journos in the US interviewing candidates like Ocasio-Cartez and questioning them skeptically on their ‘socialist’ policies. ‘Socialism’ is quite possibly the dirtiest word in the American language, but what Americans call ‘socialist government’ is essentially what western Europeans and Australians and others call ‘government’.

It’s this bias, of course, that will forever prevent the USA from climbing further up on the OECD list. The libertarian fantasy, it needs to be asserted, is just as corrosive as the socialist fantasy. In the USA it means that the ‘left behind’, in their millions, are much more primed to look to a super-hero anti-state saviour with a slogan to make them all great, than to look to stronger regulatory models such as exist in western countries that are mere names to them. That’s why you have, at one end of the spectrum, angry, unhealthy, insular people with insufficient education  and too few prospects while at the other end you have under-regulated parasitic capitalists, investment bankers, speculators and fraudsters  – people like Manafort and Gates, the Koch brothers, Roger Stone and of course Trump himself, who happily enrich themselves while contributing zero to the common good.

In short, the problems the USA faces, post-Trump, are many-faceted and unfortunately well-entrenched. And to end on a purely selfish note, I’m just frankly glad their not my problems.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2018 at 2:14 pm