“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can't go Libertarian

We all know to get your chops as a true rugged individualist you have to hate government interference in the lives of citizens. So what is a stand-alone, bootstrap puller American to do when the only two options are tax-and-spend and bombs-for-god. Enter the sexy alternative, libertarianism: economic conservative, social liberal. A lot (though I doubt a majority) of scientists find appeal in this set of political values, perhaps because a lot of them make money on patented programs, chemicals, materials, etc.

Left or right, politicians provide endless fodder for comedians and talk show clowns practicing psuedo-journalism--O'Reilly, Beck, Blitzer--as well as the talk show clowns practicing real comedy--Stewart, Colbert. I confess, any time I see a large group of congress people on the news, I fight back a gag reflex at the uncanny resemblance to a convention for used car salesmen. It's easy to look at this shyster hoard and jump right on board with Reagan when he said government wasn't the solution but the problem.

But there's something adolescent about libertarianism: you imagine an angry kid shouting, "You can't tell me what to do!" And the perennial refrain: "As long as you live under my roof, you'll live according to my rules." But though the government doesn't always know best the matter is much more complicated than the proposed solution of shrinking it implies.

George Orwell taught us to fear government control of our personal lives. Reagan and Gingrich taught us to deride the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies. But it's institutions in the private sector that are by far the best at controlling our personal lives, right down to our thoughts. And bureaucracies aren't limited to government; they're endemic to all large institutions, as any call to your cable or phone company will prove.

Wanting to endlessly cut taxes and deregulate also shows an adolescent understanding of the limits of human independence. We question the right of all Americans to health care, but not their right to lawyers if they're arrested, or to education when they're young. We rely on police and emergency workers. We rely on roads. An advanced civilization is simply too complex for any individual to truly go it alone. Do we really want to do without the FDA? I, for one, don't have the time, expertise, or resources to test my own food and drugs for safety.

At the same time libertarianism takes a rather naive view of how the world works. It's not too difficult to see that a basic law of human nature is that the powerful will contrive whatever means necessary to remain in power. The rich get richer. By shrinking government, we are ceding control of the country to institutions with a profit motive. Trickle Down, as the economic crisis has shown, is a trick the rich played on those less fortunate. "Hey," they said, "let us do whatever we want, get as filthy rich as possible, and you all will benefit." Far too many intelligent and reasonable people fell for this.

Checking the power of moneyed interests is especially pressing right now, because two issues on the current policy table are as clear examples of rich institutions operating to the rest of our detriment as there is. Though the coal and oil industries have spent millions to make us believe otherwise, global warming is a severe threat. And the only people who could possibly benefit from a continuation of the current health care system are the top executives in the industry, who incidentally are spending around $3 million a week to lobby congress.

So I think shrinking government to enlarge individual freedom is misguided and wrongheaded. This brings up the possible objection that if we allow government to regulate business, there will be no one to regulate government. Fortunately, the Founders thought of this problem, and discovered a way to obviate it. It's called voting. Remember all that talk about how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance--well, we have to stop watching cable pseudo-news and start paying attention, real attention, to what's going on. We have to invest in education. And we have to learn ourselves, as well as teach our children how to navigate the media with critical thinking and technological savvy. Shrinking government isn't the solution. Educating the masses is the solution.

No comments: