Friday, May 21, 2010

Heads Ain't Ready: The Bleak Joys of Libertarianism Hitting the Mainstream

There's not ready for prime time and there's not ready for prime time. There's pulling your starting pitcher after one batter and five pitches, and then giving a quote to the media after the game describing said starting pitcher as "a habitual liar as far as his health." (Pitching coach Dan Warthen didn't mean it in a bad way, but still) For example, there's that, and that is bad. That is not ready for prime time.

And then there is the inevitable oofiness that results when libertarian adults -- the baby pigeons of political discourse -- get their turn in the public eye. What works well (?) in dorm rooms and fuming, why-can't-you-let-me-be-great high school papers doesn't necessarily work when you apply it to actual problems in the actual world where people actually live. This is not the entirety of the reason why Ayn Rand was such a miserable human, but it surely has something to do with it. Living in an abstraction, whether that abstraction is hopeful or hopelessly venal, is not a good recipe for a life that makes sense. All of which is to say: this fucking Rand Paul guy, right?

I'll admit that I'm not the hugest fan of Rachel Maddow. If Keith Olbermann = Bill O'Reilly - Everyman Posturing + X-Treme Baseball Card Knowledge, then Maddow = Olbermann - Overwhelming Sanctimony + Self-Amusement. In short, not someone I make a point to watch. It's obvious on which side my partisanship falls -- on the side of LIBERTY! -- but I hope never to get my amusement, let alone my information, from proudly partisan news from either side. (As long as baseball exists in this world, I doubt that will be an issue) That said, Maddow did a really excellent job getting on some Inspectah Deck shit in re: the Rand Paul interview. That is, she sat back and let him play himself. Omitted from Raekwon's description of Deck was that he would let you play yourself on the question of whether or not you would vote for 1964's Civil Rights Act, but honestly you just assume that's what he was talking about. It's implied. I shouldn't have to spell this out for you.

And maybe equally implicit is the giant all-caps FAIL that eventuates when doctrinaire libertarianism finds itself in the less-hospitable environs of human-world politics (or, failing that, MSNBC). It's one thing to wave some "Government = Tyranny" sign at a silly protest, but it's quite another to stand for government office on more or less the platform that you don't believe in government. What it says about America that people keep voting for that is something best left to Mark Lilla, probably. But the many ridiculous things that Rand Paul has said -- this morning, Paul termed Obama's criticism of BP's appalling non-cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon spill as "sound[ing] really un-American in his criticism of business" -- are all coming from a discoverable place. When Jim Bunning, whom Paul wants to replace, pops off and gets peevish and holds up unemployment benefits, it's happening because he's old and grumpy and hurt that no one has talked about his perfect game for an hour. When Rand Paul does all this, he's doing it with his whole heart, because he is an adult libertarian who really believes that prior to the New Deal government had nothing to do with business, and that the market is better at regulating itself than the state is, and that expressing anger at a company -- a fucking appalling company, in terms of health and environmental and labor violations -- is un-American. Successful companies, after all, being heroes, and governments tending inherently towards the tyrannical. Because the self-interest of the bureaucrat (boo!) or politician (boo-er!) is uglier than that of the bottom line-oriented businessman? Well, because. Actually, it's because.

This wish to see every businessperson as John Galt is childish enough -- pandering Republican stump-speech bullshit gone rampant and wild-eyed after decades in a deafening echo chamber. But factor in the thing that Paul got in trouble for -- a blithe, let-the-market-decide approach to legislating qua legislating -- and there is the temptation to just dismiss all this out of hand, and it's not one of those temptations that needs to be dismissed out of hand. It's one thing to believe in the dark magic of markets -- it would really be hard not to; this is the same market that created and then destroyed a market in derivatives and swaps that's many times the size of the world economy, which is admittedly more than I did last year. But it's another thing entirely to have apparently been awake and sentient for the last three years and still bang on the "markets are inherently more efficient and moral" argument, to believe that anytime something goes wrong with a market it is the result of extra-market perversion, to still believe that such a thing as "enlightened self-interest" necessarily exists.

For individuals, maybe, it does. But anyone living outside of their parents' home who insists/persists in seeing this as a world in which things happen because individuals make decisions is just being childish. Make your personal lunchtime decisions however you please, of course, but don't pretend that the systems and structures of our world are somehow artificial abstractions. They aren't. They are the world. If you're some goofus in an rEVOLution t-shirt, you can maybe afford to ignore that, I guess. If you're running for the Senate, you shouldn't act surprised when people start killing you for not believing in the legitimacy of (for starters) basic government action by the Senate. An impulse is not a philosophy, and crypto-Glenn Beck libertarianism isn't something that can win elections, let alone arguments. One hopes. Paul is obviously already trying to spin this as him being victimized by the liberal media, and a Republican can win in Kentucky saying a lot of things roughly this bad.

You know all this already, I'm sure. But one last point bears repeating -- the idea that somehow private enterprise and the public sector exist independently of one another, and in inherent conflict, is just flat false. Salon's Gabriel Winant does an economical job roasting this treasured libertarian canard:

Never, and I mean never, has there been capitalist enterprise that wasn't ultimately underwritten by the state. This is true at an obvious level that even most libertarians would concede (though maybe not some of the Austrian economists whom Rand Paul adores): for the system to work, you need some kind of bare bones apparatus for enforcing contracts and protecting property. But it's also true in a more profound, historical sense. To summarize very briefly a long and complicated process, we got capitalism in the first place through a long process of flirtation between governments on the one hand, and bankers and merchants on the other, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. What libertarians revere as an eternal, holy truth is in fact, in the grand scheme of human history, quite young. And if they'd just stop worshiping for a minute, they'd notice the parents hovering in the background.

This story is several days old and I'm not saying anything you haven't heard before. I'm just glad to be feeling a bit healthier -- allergies don't exist in Italy, apparently? But really, really exist in New York? -- and to have a moment of time in which to beat up on one of my least favorite political philosophies. And of course I'm overjoyed to somehow get Jerry Manuel and Dan Warthen in there, up top. Why don't you guys believe in a functioning state? How can you still believe that the market will correctly govern itself without at least moderate regulation and oversight? Answer the questions, Jerry!

1 comment: