No, really. I mean it. I'm a liberal.
For some reason, a lot of people hear that and they feel compelled to say "Oh, you don't really mean that. If you believe in freedom then you should be a libertarian." They're wrong. I'm still a liberal.
I've occasionally touched on libertarianism during my time talking on The Non-Prophets and The Atheist Experience, but whenever this happens I feel the urge to tread lightly. These shows (especially the TV show) are targeted at a general atheist audience, and so I don't want to get into liberal/conservative issues more than necessary, because I don't necessarily want to alienate right wing and libertarian atheists. Also, I am friends with a few libertarians, though not that many.
There aren't many atheist Republicans, but there sure are a lot of atheist libertarians. I suspect that this is because libertarians share much of their economic philosophy with Republicans, and yet recognize that the Republican party is hugely dependent on the religious right. Hence, people who want to be Republicans but can't stomach the Bible thumpers wind up as libertarians.
In principle, libertarians believe that they incorporate the most "pro-freedom" elements of both parties. From liberals, they believe in social freedoms such as the right to read and watch whatever you want, and have sex with whomever you want. From conservatives, they believe in the freedom to "keep your own money" and not pay for any social programs. Libertarians believe that all taxation is theft, taken at gunpoint. I prefer to think of taxes as a cost of living in a civilized world. Since I'm a liberal, I apparently hate your freedom.
I believe that we are better off for having a government that actually does stuff. Not that I think the government is in good hands right now; I think that we are being run by a bunch of insane bunglers who are incapable of long term planning. Nevertheless, I believe that a government, run by competent and rational people, is critical for managing aspects of a decent society that the free market doesn't address. That's right, there are things that the free market does not, never has, and cannot do.
Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel written by Ayn Rand, who is in many ways a hero to libertarians and the originator of many ideas within the movement. In the story, the world is increasingly run by stupid and lazy people, and clearly going to hell in a handbasket. The stupid people believe in "altruism", which in Rand's world always means "forcing productive people to give their hard earned money to people who don't deserve it."
The productive people feel more and more powerless as time goes on, and one by one they seem to disappear off the face of the planet. Finally it is revealed that they are living in Galt's Gulch, a hidden libertarian utopia where only productive geniuses (inventors and manufacturers and such) are allowed to stay. They hide in their little corner of the world until the hero, John Galt, decides the time is right; then they break out, Galt makes a speech that lasts roughly 100 pages, and the competent people take over the world again.
There were many reasons why I liked the book. For one, I appreciate the view that smart and competent people are the ones who ought to run things, and that often doesn't happen. Overall, I agree with the message that "selfishness" is not always wrong, nor in conflict with the greater good. And I like the emphasis that Rand places on individualism and creativity.
At the same time, there were a few things that bothered me about the book, but I couldn't put my finger on them until later. One of the key "villains" was a scientist, who was doing his "altruistic" research on government money. Why, this scoundrel couldn't even prove that his work was PROFITABLE enough to deserve private money, and in the Rand universe, not being profitable is the worst sin imaginable.
Here's the problem: in a nutshell, that's my dad. My dad does fusion research, and relies on the existence of a government that values the pursuit of scientific knowledge in order to generate long term benefits. If my dad and his colleagues are successful in their work, fusion could someday provide cheap energy for everyone in the world, and drastically reduce our dependence on oil.
Fusion research requires a massive amount of research dollars, over a period of decades, with no guarantee of ever recovering enough profit to justify an individual investment. This isn't the way the business world works. Stockholders who are obsessed with a three month profit and loss sheet simply don't recognize concepts such as "decades". Furthermore, it's not necessarily clear how a private company could turn an exclusive profit even if they did unlock the gateway to easily produced fusion energy. Such a momentous scientific discovery could benefit humanity best if the knowledge were freely available to everyone, and sooner or later, it would be. The long term benefit of CHEAP energy should be obvious to everyone, but "cheap" and "profitable" don't always go together.
The other problem with Rand's universe was pointed out to me by a friend whom I met only after finishing the book. Think of any child character (let's say under the age of 12) who is portrayed in a positive light in any of Ayn Rand's books.
Go on, I'm waiting.
There aren't any. And here's my theory about why there aren't any: Children are leeches on society. They don't turn a profit for their parents. Occasionally, a child will grow up and take care of his parents when they are old and feeble, but this is the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, most parents pour a lot more time and money into a child's upbringing than they get out of it, and parenting is its own nebulous reward, with financial incentives being very hard to see.
Of course, I understand that Ayn Rand, along with many other people I know, remained childless by choice. And hey, that's okay by me. If you're deliberately child-free, then all I can say is, thank you! I'm acutely aware of overpopulation. I'm a step-dad twice and a dad once. The fewer kids other people have, the more resources will be available to my descendants.
But that's not the issue. The issue is that there are billions of kids in the world, and kids aren't self-sufficient. It's not because they're lazy, it's not because they're leeches, it's because they are physically and mentally incapable of taking care of themselves. As a parent, my job is to provide the kids' physical needs to the extent that they can't provide for themselves, and supply sufficient mental and philosophical guidance so that they hopefully become the kinds of functioning adult that a Randist utopia would require.
There's more to it than that. Rand libertarians naively imagine that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" fairly and equitably distributes money purely on the basis of merit. If you're poor, it's because you're lazy and stupid and you deserve to be poor. If you're rich, it's because you are hard working and smart.
Right. And I have some beachfront property to sell you in Las Vegas.
Of course innate smarts and diligence matter, but what also matters is being in the right place at the right time. I am a moderately successful guy, and I like to think of myself as pretty smart and at least occasionally hard working. I support a family as the sole income earner, and I expect to make more after I get my Master's Degree in two years. It would be easy for me to arrogantly assume that I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and accomplished everything on my own.
But I didn't. I am lucky to have been born to a middle class family in twentieth century America. Had I been born in Rwanda, all the smarts and dedication in the world wouldn't have brought me the amount of food, shelter and comfort that I enjoy today. Had I been born in medieval Europe, it's overwhelmingly likely that my parents would have been peasants, which doesn't afford a kid much social mobility.
Furthermore, I had the benefit of two remarkably smart and dedicated parents, who valued education and pushed me to go farther than I could have without their help. I've lived in good neighborhoods. I went to some good schools, both public and private. I commuted to one of the best public high school districts for miles around. And I got to earn my Bachelor's degree without having to pay for college myself. I had inspiring teachers, and my dad used some pull help me get my first job, though I was only in it for about a year before moving on to better things.
I'd have to be one smug, pompous son of a bitch to sit here and say that "I made it on my own, with no help from anyone." I made it to where I am partly by being smart. But it only mattered because I was working within a remarkably effective system where people thrive. Hardly anybody really "makes it on their own."
But that's what I get from libertarians. They dismiss the carefully crafted government system we have, with its public works like schools and roads and zoning laws, with its cleverly constructed system of checks and balances. All this they call the tools of a tyrannical society that wants to rob you of your hard earned money. The assumption is that if you have money and success, then it's because you earned it.
Clearly this is not the case. Just look at Paris Hilton. Is there any reason in the world why she should be famous, other than her daddy's money? She's not especially talented, her looks are mostly the result of surgery and expensive makeup, and she has one of the most abrasive personalities I've ever seen. Yet people can't seem to stop being fascinated with her life. Clearly she has top-notch PR people. But PR people cost money.
This isn't an anti-rich people rant, by any means. But the economic system we have is known as "capitalism", which means that what you get rewarded for is HAVING capital. We don't live under a strict meritocracy. Often, happily, the two systems coincide with each other, so that the brightest and most deserving are rewarded with great wealth. I'm all for that, which is why I am basically a fan of capitalism over most of the alternatives.
But there's a dark side to capitalism: capital amplifies itself. The more you have, the more you are likely to get. There's an old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the stock market? Start with a large fortune. That's funny but true, and not just true of stocks. If you start with a huge pile of money, your successes amplify that money while your mistakes don't wipe you out. If you start out with nothing, a few people will be good enough to scrabble their way to the top, but most also end up with nothing. This is a simple fact of life, which any effective system of government has to take into account and deal with.
For example, what is one of the best predictors of how well a student will do in school? How well their parents did, according to a study done by the Educational Research Service. Which makes sense, of course. If your parents are smart and educated, as mine were, they'll drill into you the importance of getting your own education, and this in turn will affect the way you approach your studies. If your parents are dropouts, often they'll convey the message, whether intentionally or subliminally, that school isn't worthwhile.
One key cause célèbre for Libertarians is their opposition to public schools. This is a point where I happen to fundamentally disagree with Libertarianism, and it serves to illustrate why I disagree with the whole concept.
As everyone knows, our public primary and secondary school system is not the envy of the world. We routinely see studies lamenting how far American kids are behind kids in other countries, when it comes to subjects like math and science. Libertarians use this common knowledge as a talking point to promote their desire to ultimately eliminate the public school system altogether, replacing it with a school voucher system. The new system would give everyone a certain amount of money in vouchers, which they could then spend at the private school of their choice. Vouchers, they argue, would spur schools on to ever more excellent performance. The laws of natural selection would weed out the underperforming schools, and the great schools would thrive.
In a sense, they're probably right. Given extra funding from the government, a lot of really good private schools WOULD thrive and improve. Then they'd become more competitive, and the best and richest students would have a top notch education.
But wait a minute. The best and richest students can ALREADY get a top notch education at private schools. It's just that they don't get extra government funding on top of the money they already have. The point of funding public education is not to give an extra edge to the rich kids; it's to make sure that the poor kids also have access to a decent education, thus leveling the playing field.
The thing about free markets is that they're very efficient at giving people exactly what they can pay for. If you're rich and hungry, you can go get a steak prepared by a world class chef and served by a polite and attentive waiter. If you're not rich but still hungry, you can get a Big Mac served by a surly teenager. If you're barely scraping by, you can eat Ramen every day until the all-carb diet eventually leads you to an early death. There's simply no profit in serving you decent food.
The question that we need to face is whether we want poor people to get the educational equivalent of Ramen at every meal. That's what we'll ultimately get with the voucher system. Those who can afford to pay for great private schools, will do so and use their vouchers to pay a bit less. Those who have nothing but the vouchers, will be paying the bare minimum and going to whatever schools they can get into. Chances are very good that the best publicly supported schools will be better than they are now, and the worst schools will be much worse once their funding is yanked and only the poorest people go there.
So what do I care? you might ask. If I'm a reasonably affluent parent, then MY kid is going to get a good education, using MY money. I don't want to pay extra for some poor kid's education; that's theft. Worse yet, I might be one of those childless-by-choice adults, in which case I'm paying for other kids' education but getting nothing out of it. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!
Here's where that logic goes wrong. You do get something out of funding education for the kids of other people. You get to buy the privilege of living in a society where people are not completely uneducated morons. And in that society, other people's kids grow up to be more intelligent and productive, which benefits everybody. The educated kids are also, statistically, much less likely to commit crimes, and that also benefits you.
And this is what really gets to the heart of where I disagree with libertarianism. None of us live in a vacuum. We have to deal with other people on a daily basis, whether we like it or not. Unless you're planning to become one of those society hating hermits who lives out in the mountains with a personal arsenal of assault weapons, the things you do affect me. If you don't get a decent education and that turns you into a violent thug, that affects me. If you dump crap in the water I'm trying to drink out of, that affects me.
And as for taxes? I pay for the things that make up the societal infrastructure that makes me comfortable, thanks very much. Schools that educate kids. Roads that allow me to go from place to place. A post office that delivers EVERYWHERE, even those middle of nowhere places that wouldn't turn a profit if they were privatized. Law enforcement for everyone, not just those who can afford to hire private guards and live in gated communities.
Me paying for those things is not theft. On the other hand, if you decide to be one of those "protestors" who refuse to pay their taxes, while you still enjoy the benefits of the roads and low crime that I'm paying for? That's theft.
America is not a pure libertarian society and never has been. Yet people who live here generally believe that they are living in the greatest country on earth. We didn't get to be a great country without taxes and government work. In fact, many of the things we take for granted today, we have BECAUSE of the system of government and regulated economics that are in place.
Getting back to school vouchers, libertarians argue that we should do away with our public school system because it's broken. But what are they comparing it to? Which are the countries that outperform us in math and science? Countries like Japan, Canada, and Germany. Do these countries model the libertarian ideal? Of course not. Like us, they have public schools with national standards. They do the same thing we do, but better. Are there ANY examples around the world of the voucher program being successful?
Like so many features of libertarianism, the answer is no. So many of the concepts in a libertarian utopia have never been pulled off in any successful country. Thus, it is simply a matter of faith that creating a true libertarian society would actually work. There's no evidence to measure against. Of course, they say "If only somebody would TRY creating a society based on Libertarian ideals, it would quickly be clear how successful the theory is." Sure. That's what Communists say about their system, which has never been tried either. It's easy to make such claims when there's no evidence either way.
A story appeared in the news a few weeks ago about some libertarians who want to take over Loving County, Texas. Why Loving County? Because it's one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country, boasting a population of 71. The highest concentration of people in the county live in the "big city" of Mentone; 16 people live there. Their plan is to move en masse into Loving County so that they can set up a libertarian utopia -- a mini version of Galt's Gulch, if you will. According to the article:
The goal, said an e-mail message attributed to a group member, was to move in enough Libertarians "to control the local government and remove oppressive regulations (such as planning and zoning, and building code requirements) and stop enforcement of laws prohibiting victimless acts among consenting adults such as dueling, gambling, incest, price-gouging, cannibalism and drug handling."
Yeah, that's right: cannibalism! Because if there's one thing that's a threat to my personal liberty, it's the damn government sticking its intrusive laws in the way of my right to eat people!
But seriously. Why do the libertarians feel the need to take over a county of 71 people? If their ideas are so great, why don't they just do a PR campaign in a normal sized town, saying "Let's repeal all these laws! Why just imagine our town in ten years. You can duel me for insulting your honor, and if I lose, you can eat me!"
I'll tell you why they don't do it that way: because they'd lose. Badly. Know why? Because people LIKE having laws against cannibalism. And dueling. And price-gouging. And so on. Those laws, along with the many other laws we have, are there to maintain a stable, sane community. The things that these libertarians want... they AREN'T POPULAR.
And in a way, that's the paradox of libertarianism. If people are free to do what they want, the people will speak and they'll vote themselves laws that regulate what their fellow citizens can and can't do.
And that's a good thing.