07 December 2013
Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism
For years my operative definition of 'libertarian' was 'someone with all of the vices of a Republican, and none of the virtues'. That is, I regarded them as people who not only wanted to let the beast of the free market run riot over people and the environment, but who at the same time denied the wisdom of government maintaining systems too important to turn on profit - like education and healthcare. The appeal of libertarianism, I thought, must be limited to big business and psychopaths.
I eventually learned the difference between libertarianism, which had 'good' (read 'left') roots, but had been hijacked by the right, and Objectivism, which was what I took the former to mean. For most of my life, I regarded socialism and communism as functions of a coercive, oppressive State: those words were synonymous to me with Stalin and Mao. Thus, while the idea of equality and such was very nice, it wasn't workable because that kind of power cannot be trusted to human hands. If growing up under an authoritarian god and religion, and later revolting from it, had instilled in me anything, it was a contempt for force and coercion. Emile Carles' A Life of Her Own introduced me to leftists who believed in peaceful, democratic communism -- a government in which the ideals of communists were realized through democratic, not autocratic, means. They saw communism not as an ideal that had to be enforced from the top down, but which was a perfectly logical application and extension of democracy: self-rule. How could any one be at liberty when they did not have economic self-command?
This, for me, was the most valuable idea in Marxist thought. The labor theory of value was fine, the historical dialectic made sense enough, and class struggle was simply the human way of the Darwinian struggle for existence. But economic independence? It was an idea that took on momentous importance. At this time same, I was studying the life of Gandhi, whose commitment to nonviolence was seductive -- but his thinking was not limited to that. He stressed the importance of economic self-reliance for India and for Indians in general: they should not be swallowed up by the state economy or the world economy, but function as as people living in thousands of largely self-sufficient communities. For him, this was of spiritual importance -- and for me, a new student of Stoicism who now put great stock in self-command and independence, it was part of the allure. The essential reason for economic self-reliance, however, was practical: if you can fend for yourself, you won't depend on the Leader, or his Army, or the government. This I thought key to keeping endeavors at equality from being the victims of power. Keep the power distributed among the people, and you can have your revolution without simply replacing one tyrant with another.
All of these ideas -- Marxism, Stoicism, Gandhigiri -- mixed together in my mind, and I emerged from my university studies someone who thought of himself as a left-libertarian. I made no association with the so-called libertarians of the right, the Americans who were simply dressing up free market profiteering with the principle of liberty, but I shared with them a sharp disdain for authority and force. This was where the libertarian label came from in the first place: I didn't think I or anyone else had the right to order anyone about. Although I shared the ideals of communism in part, in truth my ideal community was a bit more old-fashioned. While thousands of communes in a world republic was fine, I'd be happy if the people in a given town owned the businesses in that town, and they bought their food from people who grew it just outside of town, and the people growing that food likewise lived just outside of town. The idea, for me, was that each community was independent and nominally self-sufficient. Though connected to a world economy that it purchased goods from, it was largely self-contained: people who know one another and be responsible on that basis. This is an old-fashioned notion, of course, but it was mine and it remains mine.
I've been mourning the loss of small-town communities, the kind described above, virtually all of my thinking life without knowing it. Early on I developed an obsession with cities of the early 20th century. At first I thought this owed to my wanting to live in a big city, but eventually I realized it was because I saw in these cities of the past a shadow of what I wanted in the present: to live in a town of healthy buildings filled with people whose lives connected to one in a myriad of ways every day. I realized this after I moved to my university town of Montevallo, whose setting evoked that feeling quite strongly. But before I realized that, I was obsessed with cities in general, and this has lead to odd interests in the details of transportation, energy, planning, infrastructure, and the various systems and technologies and practices that keep cities alive. Since graduating from the university, I've been engaged in private study of the holy trinity of urban civilization: food, energy, and infrastructure, which includes transportation. This is how I became slightly evil.
Without realizing it, studying the history of these subjects lured me into the dark side: the Other Libertarianism. The American libertarianism. The market-obsessed libertarianism. When I studied urban planning, I came to realize how the government promotes city-destroying urban sprawl through zoning codes and highway and housing subsidies. When studying food, I grew disgruntled after realizing how successful regulations and subsidies are to letting corporate giants monopolize farming and make it an industrial enterprise, reliant on disaster-inviting monocultures and cheap oil that destroys the land. Every field I studied attentively, I found regulation in the way. I was a big fan of regulation: I viewed big business with fear and wanted a government that would keep a pistol pointed in its face all the time. I wanted the lion of the market to be chained and caged. But now I was seeing instances of it hurting people -- and not just getting in the way of productive endeavors, but promoting power accretion. At first, I merely winced -- oh, here's bad regulation, we should remove it and make new regulation, regulation that will be good -- but as I continue to run into those bits of bad regulation, I realized they were popping up with unfortunate regularity. They weren't exceptions to the rule; they were the rule, an example of what happens when we ignore the limits of our knowledge and assume we can make things so by legislative fiat. I believe these community-destroying forces of sprawl and big business would hoist themselves on their own petards were they not on the life-support of public funding.
Though I've begun to appreciate the market as a means of sorting things out, I'm only slightly evil. I do not believe the chief end of man is self-satisfaction, or that money is the measure of a good life. My roots remain in simple living and the cultivation in myself the best fruits of the human condition. However much I might admire Emma Goldman's individualist stance, I don't know if it is one I share, for we cannot escape our biological status as social creatures, and more importantly as mortal creatures -- creatures for whom a connection to the group, to a community, to a folk of our own is our hope of living beyond the grave. If we live, it is because we are remembered. The philosophical mind may know there is no sting in death, but the animal flees from it as the instincts of million years triumphant urge it to. Not for me is the atomization of humanity into billions of self-absorbed creatures, who sit in a puddle of time and space and think themselves masters of the cosmic ocean. The older I get the more I recognize the importance of our connections to one another, connections perhaps more important than an idealized notion of liberty.