Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rand Paul’s immature libertarianism

Rand Paul is already crashing and burning. Did you notice? Here's how it went down: first, he unmistakably suggested that he opposed Title II of the Civil Rights Act. Then he tried unsuccessfully to weasel his way out, under near-implacable questioning. This was when people got really worked up. So Paul put out a press release, the strategy of which was more or less to deny that the previous 24 hours had happened.

But there are people, including FOX news commentators, who are lined up to defend him. The basic claim is that, while Paul was of course wrong to oppose civil rights legislation, it was an honest and “respectable” mistake. As Dave Weigel said, "Rand doesn't mean harm; he is suffering as the libertarian debate moves into prime time." Various Republicans have made arguments similar to Weigel's. It was a mere “theoretical” idea, they say, and nothing should be made of it. A staffer for Senator Jim DeMint, R-SC, calls the whole thing "a non-issue." Only old white guys would declare the whole civil rights thing as not important – Republican old white guys!

Now, fresh off his 24-hour news cycle disaster in which he questioned the basis for the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Paul is taking his fringe libertarianism even further. Paul rejects the notion that the President of the United States should hold private corporations accountable for the havoc they wreck on our country, such as BP Oil and Massey Energy!

In Paul’s libertarian world, private companies and private property owners should be able to do as they please without federal interference. Apparently the concept of civil and criminal negligence is beyond Paul, because his response to the Gulf oil spill and the Massey Energy mining disaster was “sometimes accidents happen.”

Rand Paul is not ready for prime time. The far right-wing libertarian, tea party candidate for the U.S. Senate from Kentucky has immature, not-very-well-thought-out views. It's not just that he is saying stupid things because he is so committed to a purist stance. No, it's worse. Libertarianism itself is what is naïve here, not just Rand Paul. We should stop tip-toeing around this belief system as if its adherents are ancient revered nobles clinging to their proud ways. These are immature people hankering for the old Wild West where there were no rules.

It's time to stop taking libertarianism seriously. Ironically, the best way into this point comes from another brilliant libertarian, legal scholar Richard Epstein: "To be against Title II in 1964 would be to be brain-dead to the underlying realities of how this world works."

That’s the key: "the underlying realities of how the world works." Rand Paul’s views are not based in reality.

Most capitalist enterprise in this country has been ultimately underwritten by the government. This is true at an obvious level that even most libertarians would concede: for the system to work, you need some kind of bare bones apparatus for enforcing contracts and protecting property. Businesses are also often given tax breaks, city-built infrastructure, and other sweetheart deals just to locate in certain places. We could fill a library with the details of the underwriting from the states and the federal government enjoyed by American business.

Libertarians like Paul are walking around with the fanciful idea in their heads that the world could just snap back to a “natural” benign order if the government stopped interfering. For example, Paul thinks that we do not need Title II of the Civil Rights Acts because “good” people wouldn't shop at the racist stores, therefore there wouldn't be any racist stores. Yeah, right. He is living in never-never land with Peter Pan.

This is the belief system of people who have been the recipients of massive government backing for their entire lives. Although libertarians will never admit it, without the New Deal reforms of the 1930s, there might not be private property or private businesses left for them to complain about the government infringing on. Not many capitalist democracies could survive 20 to 25 percent unemployment like the United States did during the Great Depression without government help. It doesn't just happen by good luck. We have seen whole countries crumble when their government cannot or will not help.

Take a couple more recent examples:

Savvy health insurance executives were quite aware that if reform had failed, skyrocketing prices were likely to doom the whole system of private insurance and bring on single-payer.

Imagine the moment in, say, twenty years, when the evidence of climate change has become undeniable, and there’s an urgent crackdown on carbon-intensive industries. Then coal companies and agribusiness will be wishing they’d gotten on board with the mild, slow-moving reform that is cap-and-trade.

Do you get it? The government helped to make the "free market." It's also constantly trimming around the edges to keep it healthy. The state can think ahead and balance competing interests in a way that no single company can or cares to.

The libertarian who insists that the state has no place beyond basic night-watchman duties is like a teenager who, having been given a car, promptly thinks no rules should apply to him and starts demanding the right to stay out all night. Sometimes, someone else really is looking out for your best interests by saying no. (This isn't to say the state is looking out for the best interests of everybody, or even most people.)

The point is just that however much Glenn Beck might hyperventilate, the government does NOT want to destroy the free market. It wants to preserve it – and government does this job better than the market can on its own. That is why the best complaint about libertarians isn't that they are racist or selfish, although a good many of them are those things and their beliefs encourage both of these bad behaviors. It is that they are completely out of touch with reality.

Libertarianism is a worldview that prospers only as long as nobody actually tries it in government. But the adherents to libertarianism are too unreflective, self-absorbed, and immature to realize this. Maybe that is why so many of Ron and Rand Paul’s followers are the very right-leaning college students who don’t like it when their parents give advice or set rules.

Taken from: The lesson of Rand Paul: libertarianism is juvenile
By Gabriel Winant