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On The Impractical

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In the wake of the Rand Paul self-immolation, I’ve had several conversations lately about libertarianism with folks whose opinions I value highly. While I think that some of my friends are absolutely correct that the modern iteration of libertarianism suffers from some definitional slippage, I’ve been arguing consistently for a while now that libertarianism (and especially those free market people) is a completely impractical thing. I hesitate to call it an ideology, because it seems to be nothing more than a utopian idea that’s been masquerading as a coherent ideology—when people talk to me about free markets and freedom, I always have to bite my tongue to keep from saying something like “That is no different that saying ‘Puppies are good!'”

It was nice, then, to read Julian Sanchez in Newsweek:

In a free society, Americans have long believed, even people with repulsive views have a right to express them, and to join with like-minded bigots in private clubs and informal gatherings. It is not crazy to imagine that in a more just world, an ideally just world, respect for that freedom would lead us to countenance—legally, if not personally—the few cranks who sought to congregate in their monochrome cafés and diners.

Yet that’s precisely why Paul’s 1.0 argument breaks down on its own terms: at the scene of a four-century crime against humanity—the kidnap, torture, enslavement, and legal oppression of African-Americans—ideal theory fails. We libertarians, never burdened with an excess of governing power, have always had a utopian streak, a penchant for imagining what rich organic order would bubble up from the choices of free and equal citizens governed by a lean state enforcing a few simple rules. We tend to envision societies that, if not perfect, are at least consistently libertarian.

Unfortunately, history happened. Rules for utopia can deal with individual crimes—the mugger and the killer and the vandal—but they stumble in the face of societywide injustice. They tell us the state shouldn’t sanction the brutal enslavement or humiliating legal subordination of a people; they have less to say about what to do once we have. They tell us to respect the sanctity of the property rights that would arise as free people tamed the wilderness in John Locke’s state of nature. They have less to say about the sanctity of property built on generations of slave sweat and blood.

Nice to see this finally being admitted.

Last semester, I had a student who is a staunch libertarian. He goes on rants about freedom (always friendly), and we exchange jabs back and forth in a fun way. One day, last term, the snow had covered the lines in the parking lot, and he came in complaining that he was the only person who had parked in an actual parking spot instead of just finding a place and making do. I said “That, right there, is why your political philosophy doesn’t work.”


Written by srogers

May 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. The Economist mag had an article recently about why net neutrality is the right thing to do. They based their argument on the Common Law tradition of “carriage somethingorother” (I can’t remember): if you open an inn, you’d better let all travelers in / if you are a carter, cart all stuff at fair rates, etc. Also, too: what dickheads like Paul fail to realize (I’m being generous in assuming that they fail to realize this) is that just because a bar isn’t allowed to post “no whatevers allowed” doesn’t mean that all bars must be filled with whatevers. As a white boy, I’ve got more access than most to the insides of the worlds’ buildings and yet I find myself uninterested in risking entry to some. Fuck libertarians, in short, but not really. Shun them. Too.


    May 24, 2010 at 8:50 pm

  2. And yes, I meant MORE THAN ONE WORLD.


    May 24, 2010 at 8:50 pm

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