When does liberty become license? At what point does the free exercise of my rights trample on yours? What is the real meaning of terms like private property, civil society, the commons?
These are the questions that a group of authors tackled in a new book, "Uncivil Liberties; Deconstructing Libertarianism."
The Book Club at Praxis Peace Institute tried to find a book that dealt with the myths, the seduction, and the logical outcome of libertarian ideas if they actually gained traction. Except for praises from Ayn Rand devotees, there didn't seem to be a book that took on this ideology from a progressive worldview. This surprising discovery prompted six of our book club members, including myself, to take action.
During the last election cycle, there were some strange bedfellows arguing for the same causes and supporting the same candidate, Ron Paul. He opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and supported the legalization of marijuana, so he managed to attract even some progressives who didn't care to examine his other positions -- e.g., his opposition to choice for women, his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights bill, his belief that education should be privatized, and that the climate crisis is a hoax. Stephen Colbert said recently that maybe these voters smoked so much they forgot why they shouldn't vote for him.
It is because of such political disconnects that a serious response was required. We understand that there seem to be many definitions for the term libertarian. Ron Paul's opposition to civil liberty issues puts him at odds with many other libertarians, but he is right at home with them on privatizing the commons. Shrinking government is the goal, as they believe free enterprise should be allowed free reign. In many ways, it is an elitist ideology so it's not surprising to find among their advocates many trust fund babies who have never had to work a day in their lives. It is also primarily a white male political choice.
Some libertarians, however, have earned their own wealth and have risen through the ranks from modest beginnings. But, they tend to pull up the ladder behind them and expect others to fend for themselves. The struggles of others are self-referenced, as in "if I can do it, you should be able to do it too."
If we spend our lives self-referencing the outer world, we cannot develop empathy or understand those who are not exactly like ourselves. Perhaps that is one of the ethical pitfalls of libertarianism. The lack of concern for the community and focus on individual liberty above all puts this ideology at odds with community and the commons.
At least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the celebration of the isolated individual has triumphed in American culture. We honor the hero and laud the over-achiever. We romanticize winners, celebrities, and the rich and famous. Our culture promotes the myth that we too can have it all. Consequently, many Americans grow up with aspirations of fame and fortune. The fact that it is impossible for every American to become part of the "one percent" only seems to inflate the myth. We believe in our personal exceptionalism the same way our country believes in its national exceptionalism.
The widespread belief in this myth was demonstrated in a poll conducted during the 2000 election. Nineteen percent of those polled believed they already were in the top one percent of wealth earners, but another twenty percent believed they would become part of the one percent in due time. This means that a critical mass of Americans -- 39 percent -- believe they are or will be part of the wealthy one percent.
So, maybe before we can clearly understand the appeal of libertarianism, we need to understand the American myths that aid and abet this ideology.
Our book, recently published, is "Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism."