The Cato Institute is perfectly named – being named[Perhaps Poetically] for a Roman politician whose stubborn insistence on principle over practically prevented more flexible and able men, such as Cicero, from taking the sort of measures that might have actually saved the Republic. Cato would not compromise and the result is that Cato died by stabbing himself and then, after initially being stitched up, tearing out his stitches and then ripping his own guts out. Like many libertarians today, he stands up as a shining example of the courage of futility – rather than compromise any of his precious principles he helped to lead the Republic to an avoidable disaster. He could have had 75% but he would tolerate only one hundred so he got zero.
These libertarians don’t seem to really care about winning. Indeed, most of them don’t appear to really want to. They, like Cato, merely want to feel themselves to be morally superior to everyone around them.
A second, and much more alarming, trend – once predominant mostly among Randroids and their related fellows but lately becoming pronounced among the supporters of Ron Paul and others like him – is what I like to call “Libertarian Bolshevism.” These fellows are to regular supporters of liberty what Communists are to Social Democrats – extreme in method, rhetoric, and ideal and, ultimately, harmful to the overall cause.
That brings me back to my first question – how do libertarians propose building their society? The first group, as I’ve said, doesn’t bother much with the question because they’re more interested in preserving their own moral integrity than anything else. The answer is the second case is more interesting.
Let’s look at the most revered text of more-extreme libertarians, Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged. How, in Rand’s world, is liberty ultimately fostered? Not through debate, not through elections – not even through any traditional means of a change of government (a coup or something like that). No. In Rand’s book a libertarian society is created when all of the great minds of the world voluntarily withdraw their services and then, following the inevitable collapse of civilization that follows, take over to run things. The society envisioned by Rand in the final pages of Atlas Shrugged could only be a dictatorship and, given the descriiptions of all that preceded it, probably a brutally oppressive one at that. The kind of massive transition from our current society to a libertarian/objectivist one could only, after all, be accomplished by one – since it would require massive and wrenching changes that no present-day population would ever vote for and which no government that attempted to implement could ever survive.
Indeed, one is struck by the similarities between the implied goals of the Paulites and of the Bolsheviks. Both groups are utopians at heart – imagining that the full implementation of their ideas will bring paradise on Earth. Both are, despite their small size, very good at political infighting and the use of clever tactics to make up for small numbers. And, most of all, both are wholly committed to an impractical vision that is entirely at odds with human nature. To the absurd communist ideal of forced communitarianism, the Paulite and the Randite respond with a hilarious vision of compelled liberty.
I ask my Randite and Paulite friends – by what means, short of some dictatorship of the libertariat, do you ever suppose that your ideas might be enacted? And, even if they were enacted, how do your ideas of absolute individual liberty align with your own experience of humanity? Are you not entranced, just as the Bolsheviks of a century ago were, with a false notion of man as a perfectible creature?
This is not to say that I believe that we have sufficient freedom today or that we ought not have more of it. It is to say that I believe that, if too many people follow the prescriiptions of those who shout “liberty” the loudest we will have less of it, both because those fanatics will harm advocates of a liberty with a more reasonable chance of success and because their own vision of liberty requires such a wrenching change – a jump from Tuesday to Friday – that it could never be achieved by any means compatible with freedom.
Posted by Adam T. Yoshida on July 6, 2008 in International Politics