Liberty and Lunacy

I agree with about half of the platform of the Libertarian Party. The other half is just an amazing farrago of crap. Why should a bunch of intelligent people mix good sense with nonsense in such a lumpy souffle? Because they’re guided by a rigid, unyielding set of doctrines, that’s why.

I love their support for freedom of speech. I love their support for an end to prosecution of victimless “crimes.” Their support for abortion rights is a little mealy-mouthed, but they manage not to choke on it. They oppose the use of the United States Armed Forces to invade other countries, which is stellar. Too bad we’ll never see a major political party take that stance!

Here, on the other hand, is an example of Libertarian lunacy — their party position on health care: “We favor restoring and reviving a free market health care system. We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want, the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care….”

The problem is, freedom isn’t guaranteed to be cheap. “The freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want” is meaningless when so many people can’t afford the insurance, or can’t qualify for insurance at all. The Libertarians have no opinion on how the individual is supposed to pay for health insurance, other than, I suppose, “That’s up to each individual.” If you’re too sick to work, you’re free to be thrown out of your home by your landlord and dig for food in the nearest dumpster until you can’t manage to stand up anymore, after which you will presumably lie in the gutter until you die and rot. That’s the essence of the Libertarian agenda.

Won’t the department of public sanitation at least come along and pick up your corpse, so the rest of us don’t have to smell you and catch diseases from the rats who are feasting on your corpse? It seems unlikely, since in the Libertarian utopia there will be no taxes with which to pay sanitation workers’ wages.

The Libertarians explicitly favor an end to the income tax, and to Social Security. Here’s their position on Social Security: “Retirement planning is the responsibility of the individual, not the government. We favor replacing the current government-sponsored Social Security system with a private voluntary system. The proper source of help for the poor is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.” That’s breathtaking in its doctrinal purity — and if it were ever enacted into law (don’t worry — sanity will prevail), the result would be hundreds of thousands of sick old people thrown out into the street to die.

Their position on environmental protection: leave it up to the individual (including corporations in the definition of “individual”). Here’s a chunk from their platform: “We support a clean and healthy environment and sensible use of our natural resources.” Oh, that’s nice of them. But what does “support” mean in this context? Not a darn thing.

“Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Pollution and misuse of resources cause damage to our ecosystem. Governments, unlike private businesses, are unaccountable for such damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection.” Whereas the track record of Chevron is just pristine, right? Are you laughing yet?

The platform goes on, “Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights in resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems.”

This is the pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye theory of behavioral modification. If we just get rid of government regulation, landowners will have “a vested interest in maintaining natural resources.” Sadly, that’s not correct. Private landowners will have a vested interest, as they indisputably do at present, in exploiting and destroying natural resources.

Any sane person can see this without difficulty, but here’s an instructive example from history. The ancient Romans never had anything resembling zoning laws. Anyone who owned a plot of land could build whatever he wanted on it. Sheepherding was an important economic activity, and wool was used for making cloth. The process of turning wool into cloth is called fulling. It involved, up to the modern era, soaking the wool in urine. That’s right, urine. So if your next-door neighbor decided to set himself up in the fulling business, you’d be subjected, all day every day, in your home, to the stench of urine.

That’s the Libertarian agenda in action: the stench of urine.

I’m not going to claim that government regulation works well. It doesn’t. It’s a terrible system. But on the whole, and over the long haul, it’s better than nothing.

Unless, of course, we carefully define “individual rights in resources like land, water, air, and wildlife.” Are they suggesting that I have, personally, an individual right to clean water and pollution-free air? Are they suggesting that I have an individual right to enjoy communing with wildlife — old growth forests, lakes that are free of mine runoff, seashores that are free of oil spills?

I’d certainly like to think I have a right to those things. The vexing question is, who is going to support and enforce my rights? Who is going to work out a balance between my right to enjoy a pristine seashore and the right of Chevron to build tankers without regulatory interference?

That’s what governments do, you see. It’s a messy, error-prone process, but it’s the best we’ve got. And it costs money. Which is why we pay taxes.

Government exists, among other things, for the purpose of protecting us from one another. In order to figure out how best to balance the rights of one individual against the rights of other individuals when the two come into conflict (as, inevitably, they will), we need government. In order to protect the weak, the sick, the mentally ill — if nothing else, to give them a place to live so we aren’t constantly running over them in the parking lot of the supermarket when they’ve felt a sudden need for a lie-down — we need government.

This is not rocket science. It’s reality. But reality is a zone with which the Libertarian Party seems strangely unfamiliar.

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One Response to Liberty and Lunacy

  1. Conrad says:

    It sounds like you agree with your libertarian friends on one political axis, but not on another.

    There’s a site called the Political Compass that divides politics into Economic (left v. right) and Authoritarianism (libertarian v. authoritarian.

    I’m at -7.12 x -1.79, in the general area of Ghandi and Nader. Which is about right, as far as it goes, but the scale troubles me in that it collapses two very distinct attitudes (distinct in my mind): the government should have a relatively permissive, hands-off set of controls on private citizens, but should have a relatively intrusive, regulatory set of controls on corporations.

    Because it measures these two together, it sees me as a moderate in the social control v. freedom spectrum; but I don’t think I am, really.

    Interestingly, it places all modern politicians in the same quadrant (authoritarian & socially right-wing). But it also measures Republicans as being more authoritarian than Democrats, whereas my primary problem with the Republican party is their willingness and desire to de-regulate companies.

    (It looks to me like they’ve confounded their two scales. Maybe I’ll write them an email.)


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