Atlas Shirked, or, the Problem with Relying upon Libertarians

Following his surprising primary win in Kentucky, Rand Paul has become only the most recent public figure to reveal libertarianism as the sadly-deficient political ideology that it is; the hobgoblin of small-minded people.  Like his namesake, Ayn Rand, Paul has risen to prominence by touting a philosophy that appeals to the ignorantly-selfish, blindly-privileged masses lacking in the sort of rational perspective it takes to see the uneven playing field upon which we all find ourselves, those unwilling to see their own privilege when it becomes inconvenient.

All things being equal, libertarianism might be an appealing philosophy.  Call me when all things are equal.

If you’ve missed the entertaining display of political expediency and public ignorance recently emerging out of Kentucky’s Republican primary race, here’s Paul on the the Rachel Maddow Show, flailing to defend his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and institutional racism, in general):

Paul has been busy spinning his increasingly-contradictory views ever since, trying to make it look like he has some reasonable arguments underlying his objectionable viewpoints; and he’s been excoriated in the press and the blogosphere – mostly because he doesn’t.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his post, “The Proud Ignorance of Rand Paul,” these sorts of views seem to make sense in an inverse proportion to the amount of knowledge actually involved.

And this is where the problem comes closest to home – Cannabis activists have been overly-dependent upon libertarians for support for some time now, and that dependence might just become a problem as the realities of legalization set in.    After all, at some point, practical rules will be implemented to manage the coming out party for this billion dollar industry, and if there’s one thing Libertarians are bad at it’s the implementation of practical rules.

Bill Maher may be a useful spokesperson for the movement, but he’s no politician and politicians bring their own set of problems.  First of all, there’s the problem of consistency.  As Rand Paul’s own candidacy reveals, libertarians can be as changeable with respect to their deeply-held convictions as any other pol, and sometimes the appealing face of libertarian purity is simply a mask for the more typical biases of conservative populism.   Paul is running for office in Kentucky, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but even though he seems perfectly fine opposing the Civil Rights Act on ideological grounds, he doesn’t seem as consistently committed on all issues.   As Time Magazine reports,

Paul has lately said he would not leave abortion to the states, he doesn’t believe in legalizing drugs like marijuana and cocaine, he’d support federal drug laws, he’d vote to support Kentucky’s coal interests and he’d be tough on national security.

So watch out for those political winds, because the support you count on may blow away when elections hang in the balance.

But there’s another, even more significant problem lurking behind the appealing face of libertarian support for legalization, and that is that libertarianism seems appealing in inverse proportion to the practicality of its tenants.   Those paranoid fears of big business taking over the industry?  That’s exactly what a libertarian regime would bring about (if any such thing could exist).  Not because libertarians favor big business, but because libertarians turn a blind eye towards the routine exercise of practical power.   They choose not to acknowledge the realities that exist, because doing so would undermine their ideological positions, but that willful ignorance is the same as tacit acceptance of the status quo.  Just because you believe in a level playing field doesn’t mean it exists, and businesses have perfected the art of unleveling playing fields in the U.S.  for good reason – because it profits them to do so.  Turning a blind eye to that practice only makes their jobs a little easier.

I’ve been railing against the Tea Party movement lately, and not just because it so clearly basks in the racist, nativist, xenophobic climate of the aging conservative movement, but because it celebrates a platform of non-governance.  Non-governance in the abstract might sound appealing, especially given the problems that governance has presented us with for much of the 21st century, but given the practical power exercised in our society by business forces, retreat is surrender, and I’m not in favor of turning over the levers of power to the business interests who already have their greedy hands on too many of those levers.  Flawed though it may be, government is all that stands between the unimpowered citizenry and the evil that men do.  Attacking the sole force capable of representing our collective interests against those forces seeking to exploit our weakness is simply insane.  And if you had to come up with a philosophy that enshrines that sort of insanity, you’d call it libertarianism.

All things being equal, we wouldn’t have to rely upon government to protect our interests.  Call me when all things are equal.


6 Responses to “Atlas Shirked, or, the Problem with Relying upon Libertarians”

  1. May 22, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Good subject, and well-written.

    You clearly state your position on libertarians (which I agree with)and score points for your observations. In particular, I thought it was interesting how you tied in the cannabis connection. Thought provoking.

  2. 2 Kym
    May 22, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Well said!!! I have my own Libertarian streak but, when butted up against the practical world I often find it dosen’t pan out.

  3. May 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks. I too have had my libertarian moments, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone the same; in fact, I’d argue that the tension between the practical application of federalism and the warnings about the same are both necessary to our system of government and historically encouraged. It’s the notion of a “libertarian movement” that gives me pause, especially given its modern track record (from Barry Goldwater to Ron/Rand Paul). It’s an attractive philosophy in quiet moments, but when the power goes out or the banks lead us to ruin or the oil starts to spill, its flaws become so apparent that I worry about those who refuse to see them. Ideological blindness is no virtue, regardless of ideology, but this one so privileges the haves over the have-nots that this particular blind devotion, at this particular moment, looks particularly unappealing. In the past, cannabis activists have had to cling to whatever friends they could find, but now that the mainstream has embraced the cause (to the extent that it has), it’s high time to reassess past political and ideological coalitions. In my not-so-humble opinion.

  4. 4 Mr. Nice
    May 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Liberal democrats pushed federal illegalization of marijuana through in the 1937. Now we are supposed to believe they are the only trustworthy allies against it? Right.

    Save the mainstream media bullshit. The Tea Party is not out to lynch black people, it is out to limit government meddling. Big government types have had their chance to resolve this and reached a nice 1 trillion dollar federal deficit. Now it’s time to stop thinking our nation’s financial future like a college student thinks of their Visa balance.

    Paleolibertarian thinkers will remain unmoved by privileged white liberals telling them their philosophy is for the exclusive benefit of privileged whites. I am personally gratified that ivory tower white liberals are running scared. Shit like Kentucky elections doesn’t even have an effect on y’all, yet the media is treating this like it is a big deal. Fucking great.

  5. May 25, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I don’t think the Tea Party is out to lynch black people – the racism seems more kneejerk than thoughtful – but I get the feeling that they don’t really know what they’re out to do, other than to complain about what they think they don’t like and insist they get what they think they want. So, in other words, they’re republicans, but without the organized business-capitalist types around to clean up their incoherent rage-speak to make it sound less inconsistent and incoherent. The only reason they’ve had to “re-brand” themselves as “Tea Partiers” is because they fucked-up the original brand during the eight years when they actually tried to implement their incoherent beliefs into policies.

    So, about that trillion dollar deficit that you’re blaming on liberal democrats and privileged white liberals – you do realize that it was the Republican party overseeing most of that, right? And, not surprisingly, it was those same Tea Partiers who were responsible for not just enthusiastically supporting the Reagan/Bush/Bush presidents who had their hands on the economy for most of that run-up, but also for staying quiet as church mice on the issue that whole time. And while they rage about big government, they’re also pretty insistent that government keep its hands off of their medicare and social security. Forgive me if I’m skeptical about their ability to reduce the deficit when they can’t even figure out that the thing they want the most is the thing that produces most of the deficit they’re so unhappy about.

    Again, I’m not a democrat, and I’m not suggesting that democrats are pure on the issues that libertarians are claiming as their own. I have eyes, though. I can read. Eight years of a nasty republican administration led to increasing numbers of cannabis activists in jail, and a constant enlargement of the War on Drugs. One full year into a democratic administration, and the situation looks better than it has since use of the weed was criminalized. As Kym Kemp pointed out in her blog, the Obama Admin. hasn’t really been as benevolent as they suggested they would be, so there’s plenty of room for improvement, but the difference is still night and day. Based on what has actually happened over the past few years, I’m willing to concede that the democratic party may have shifted a few degrees since that 1937 decision that you’re still holding against them.

    And, as I pointed out in my comment above, when it comes to putting philosophy into practice, Rand Paul’s libertarianism sounds about the same as George W. Bush’s. He’s a libertarian sometimes, but not when it comes to letting adults choose to use cannabis, and not when it comes to adjusting the amount of money the government provides to doctors. In other words, he’s a republican, but without the paid staff around to clean up his incoherent rage-speak.

    Like you, though, I’m happy that the media is covering it and I’m even happier that it’s getting so much attention. Maybe for a different reason, but I’m still with you on this. Fucking great, indeed.

  6. 6 Mr. Nice
    May 25, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Like you, though, I’m happy that the media is covering it and I’m even happier that it’s getting so much attention. Maybe for a different reason, but I’m still with you on this. Fucking great, indeed.

    These issues need to be talked about. Small vs. big government issues receiving any news time is good even if it is mostly negative.

    Obama hasn’t done that much for the whole weed situation. More people are getting arrested. If having Obama around took the stats from 700,000 down to even 500,000, I would concede that he has done something. Shit hasn’t happened. Anything he has done is easily undone.

    In ’92 when Clinton took over, everybody thought now we can openly smoke. Now that Bush is out we can talk about “bush” again said George Clinton. That shit didn’t pan out, more and more people got arrested.

    People won’t accept weed legalization until it has some federal backup. Libertarians and liberals can still agree on this issue for the same basic reason. Although libertarians generally support a free market for all drugs, you’d be hard pressed to find one stupid enough to think weed itself frequently ruined people’s education or induced jungle fever or schizophrenia or whatever it is supposed to do.

    I didn’t vote for George W. Bush or defend his politics. Reagan was a so-so president who presided over hard times much like what Obama is facing. He let his personal beliefs influence him… but he was a fucking actor turned career politician, what do we expect? Reason magazine did an interview on him back in the day that shows the difference between his type of small government and true hands-off libertarian ideas. There is intersection but it ain’t all in agreement.

    Rand is clever. On drugs, he favors it being up to states. Up to states as in end to federal prohibition and let states make their own laws. This is good for California. If California didn’t have DEA intervention, there would be strip malls built just to open mega weed dispensaries and hydro stores.

    I appreciate that Rand Paul is more clever than Ron Paul. Part of Ron Paul’s charisma (for people like me) is how ludicrously blunt the man is. He will say shit like it is the U.S.’s fault N. Korea is fucked up which offends anyone who doesn’t see it or want it to be that way (most everybody). Rand would say something different like he doesn’t approve of spending tax dollars interfering in foreign affairs and that will prolly win him the election in Kentucky.

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