Great Idea, Wrong Species
The best pithy response about Marxism comes from E. O. Wilson, the entomologist, who responded to a question about that system with “great idea, wrong species”. I would say that Libertarianism, certainly in its current American manifestation, also falls into that category. Wilson’s point is that to a more eusocial animal, say ants, Marxism would be workable and would make great sense but not for us. Libertarianism, in a primate less social than we like, say, orangutans, would make perfect sense and likely be a very workable system.
We are simply too interdependent, particularly living in highly technological societies, for that kind of hyper-individualism to work out. Both systems are Utopian and both ask humans to be something we are not. We are not completely selfless members of communities but neither are we monads. <
I decided to do a post on this because of a conversation I had recently with a man who is a Libertarian but believes that abortion should be made not just illegal but perfectly so in that he has the courage of his convictions and would like a woman who gets an abortion to go to prison. It struck me that for some subset of Libertarians, there seems to be an element of ‘for me but not for thee’ going on. In other words, these are folks who would actually like to engage in this or that socially proscribed behavior and ‘liberty’, in this construction, comes down to being able to drive a gas guzzling Corvette or own a .50 caliber sniper rifle.
Back in 2010, Rand Paul, precious issue of that Libertarian icon Ron Paul, commented to Rachel Maddow that he opposed the portions of the Civil Rights Act that prohibited businesses from discrimination. In his (and many others, it seems) view liberty includes the freedom to exclude whole classes of people based upon race even if that exclusion happens on a very widespread basis such that it is de facto law even though it may not be codified as such. The liberty of the people so targeted seems not to enter into this calculation which betrays a certain kind of blindness.
I’m old enough to be in that position of black Americans who were born just as the changes were really starting to pick up steam. I missed being consciously aware of most aspects of segregation by less than a decade. Yet, my childhood was profoundly impacted by it.
Every year, when my parents had finished grading papers, they would pack my sister and I in the car and drive us from Sacramento to Louisiana, Alabama, and parts east to visit the home folks. We would usually make the trip in four days with my parents driving in shifts until they got too tired and then we would sleep at a rest-stop for a few hours. Rest stop? Why not a motel? Because my parents had done enough road trips across segregated America that they knew it was a crap shoot whether there would be a vacancy. My father, an intensely proud man, had been humiliated enough times stopping at a motel only to find out that, the sparse parking lot notwithstanding, there were no vacancies. What was meant, of course, was that there were no vacancies for the likes of him and his family. According to Rand Paul the very essence of liberty lies in the ability to turn away a patron because of the color of their skin.
The other incident that illustrates the kind of bad behavior that Libertarianism has no answer for is what happened when my parents attempted to buy a house in one of the tony neighborhoods in Sacramento. My parents, as people would do pre-Internet, would get Sacramento papers and eventually found themselves a realtor. They had decided on a neighborhood north of the one we actually grew up in. When the real estate agent got a look at them, the cost of the house jumped $15,000 in 1968 dollars. That was real money at the time. Now, true enough, my parents ended up buying another house in Sacramento but that kind of discrimination was just the way things were in 1968. My parents were both tenure-track professors at local universities by this point and were well able to pay the price that the real estate agent quoted them. But they didn’t want to live in the neighborhood that much. Again, Libertarians have no answer for this. How was this supposed to change since, even though my parents didn’t buy that house someone more racially ‘acceptable’ did? The market cannot be expected to handle these situations and to expect it to do so is Utopianism of the most idealistic sort.
This, ultimately, is why Libertarianism as a political philosophy looks much better on paper and sounds much better from the hustings than it actually works. It, like Marxism, is Utopian. If people were actually rational actors and if prejudice or socially-sanctioned bigotry were not part of the human behavioral repertoire and if free riding weren’t a viable strategy then perhaps it could work. But that’s just not who we are. For most social interaction we can trust on an internal sense of something just not being done to get us through. Free riders and bad actors can’t just be hand-waved away and to pretend that somehow we’ve made some kind of ontological leap wherein we need no longer worry ourselves about bigotry in our society is to ignore not just history but the living memory of millions of Americans.
We aren’t ants, we aren’t orangutans and we’re not amnesiacs. The idea that you have no more laws than is needed to protect property and life is a wonderful idea but we are the wrong species to implement it.