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W.E. Gutman: Libertarianism: A lofty ideal or simply artifice?

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Posted: November 28, 2009 8:41 p.m.
Updated: November 29, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
So, you call yourself a “Libertarian?” You’re not alone. But do you fully understand a term that has been sloppily coined and deceptively marketed?

Reduced to its core, Libertarianism hallows “the right of free choice.” So far, so good. But Libertarianism comes in at least two flavors, both spiced up by 17th century British philosopher John Locke.

One flavor masks the stench of “inherent rights” that ignore societal obligations and responsibilities. The other endows “individual rights” with a heady bouquet of causal assumptions about what leads to freedom and productivity.

Libertarians mix these elements, often deliberately, sometimes out of sheer ignorance. The great Locke, who inspired the anti-royalist movement in France and the U.S., advocated against despotism, not legitimate governance. Wittingly or unwittingly, so-called Libertarian “rights” work against the greater good of all.

This is the philosophical side of the argument. Reality casts an uglier light.

Libertarianism is a form of “Marxism of the Right.” Neoconservatives, with their own brand of anarchic fetishism, find an attractive political refuge in Libertarianism. It lends them a fake aura of tolerance and magnanimity. In fact, they believe that individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics, that it endows them with the clear conscience to do things democratic nations rebuke, like sedition, secessionism and the evasion of legitimate government oversight.

It pledges a formula for the application of capitalist norms to the whole of society. As such, Libertarianism is nothing more than a seductive fallacy structurally incapable of evolving a model of how to use freedom well. Its root dogma, that “all free choices are equal,” is a theory it cannot discard without admitting that there are other virtues beside freedom.

If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, Libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism.

Like Marxism, Libertarianism offers the fraudulent intellectual security of a complete a priori account of the political good without the effort of empirical investigation. Like Marxism, it aspires, overtly or covertly, to reduce social life to economics. And like Marxism, it has its historical myths and a genius for making its followers feel like a “Chosen People” unbound by the moral rules that guide the majority

Libertarians tend to speak in simplistic slogans — “We love freedom; we abhor tyranny” — not in political programs. Even when they give a direct definition of Libertarianism, it is neither accurate nor honest.

Libertarians often claim their system would produce desirable “results.” Arguing from results is not enough to justify a political philosophy.

The attitude of British and American fascists was caricatured in the quip, “Mussolini cleaned up the bordellos and made trains run on time.” Libertarians favor a drastic deregulation and full privatization of the economy, and this is typically where their instrumental claims are made.

Libertarians demand that individuals accept the outcome of market forces. They legitimize economic injustice by refusing to define it as a coercive force. Not unlike fundamentalist Christians in America, they exploit the political process to penetrate it and ram through their faith-based agendas.

Last, many Libertarians conceal dangerous attitudes and objectives: Capitalism is noble. Worker activism and unions are evil. The poor are pampered good-for-nothing freeloaders who deserve their fate.

This philosophy, if one can call it that, is largely embodied in Ayn Rand’s capitalistic tirades and Jefferson Davis’ sophist arguments. Both Rand and Davis are the darlings of neo-cons and modern anti-abolitionists.

Rand exalted selfishness; she called it a “virtue.” Davis referred to slavery as that “peculiar institution” and a “stepping stone for the Negro to become perfect.”

Libertarianism is a label adopted by a broad spectrum of rigid — not freethinking — individuals whose views are seldom in sync. The term is used, like “states’ rights,” to obscure rather than clarify true ideological leanings. People who consider themselves

Libertarian would cheerfully curtail the liberties of those who disagree with them. Industrialists who dump toxic wastes into rivers and lakes also call themselves Libertarians, as do those who would flood the country with assault weapons because they favor a “free-market” economy — but would criminalize stem-cell research, pot-smoking, abortion and same-sex marriage because of their high moral convictions.

Libertarianism is a word that invokes stirring principles. In truth, the concept has been corrupted by profiteers and political mutineers to conceal an agenda of unfettered capitalism and religious orthodoxy.

On all these counts, Libertarianism simply doesn’t stack up.

Once people are able to be rational about politics, I expect them to toss it out as a failure and a moral mess apt to pollute and disfigure American society.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist. He lives in Rosamond. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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