Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is running for president as a Republican. He’s really a Libertarian, but he needs a ticket with a legitimate chance, and, anyway, the Libertarians no longer trust him much more than the mainstream Republicans do. What he actually represents is a modern kind of Republican – reflexive right-wingers with a few quirks and an outlook quite heavily influenced by libertarian thinking.
This gives us a good opportunity to examine what that thinking is, how tempting it can be and how terribly wrong it is. Libertarians frame the political debate as a contest between freedom and equality. It’s a false choice, because freedom without a measure of equality is hollow and meaningless.
We have, in this country, a rarity of history and geography in the freedom to travel. Pretty nice. We can go unchallenged from one jurisdiction to the next for as long as we have the money to go anywhere. But that’s the catch: If I hold down two jobs at minimum wage and rely on food stamps to feed my family, that freedom to travel is purely theoretical, isn’t it?
The freedom from want is nonexistent, and freedom of speech, like every other personal liberty, is limited by one’s wallet, according to the Supreme Court. So the question naturally arises, what is freedom? It’s an odd question in a way, since the country was founded largely on the idea of personal liberty. But that idea is an abstraction, and it means, and has meant, many different things in American history. When you treat freedom as absolute, simple and always desirable, you’re a libertarian.
These people think government limits freedom, so government is, for the most part, undesirable. The idea that government can facilitate freedom, even create some kinds of freedom, seems never to have occurred to them. Yet every part of our government was established to promote some kind of freedom: usually freedom from something, like invasion or starvation.
Libertarians are always optimistic about their movement, because the movement attracts the young. Of course it does. It’s simplistic and consistent, and every college sophomore thinks he’s a superman. Thing is, it was a young people’s movement 50 years ago, and it still is. People mature out of it, usually because a few of life’s cruel turns grow their minds a bit.
There’s another thing about libertarianism, other than its adherents’ own enviable self confidence, that attracts youngsters. It is the seductive consistency of libertarian thinking. When these people talk, they sound not only reasonable, but well schooled, historically accurate and genuinely progressive on matters of civil liberties. Occasionally they are capable of forming productive partnerships with liberal Democrats on such issues.
Then they say something crazy. The trouble starts when they start talking about economics: destroying the central bank, dismantling the Internal Revenue Service, returning to the gold standard, deregulating everything in sight.
By their own (dim) lights, it all makes perfect sense. If liberty is good, then dammit, it’s good. If it’s good on questions of privacy and personal travel, that is, then it’s good for people’s financial choices. Their downfall is a belief that could be espoused only by a libertarian or an economist. They think regular people make rational decisions concerning money. They don’t. If they did, Las Vegas would be out of business this evening.
If you believe people behave rationally with money, let’s revisit what happened in 2008. A bunch of toxic assets were sold all over the world in packages so enticing as to be irresistible, sellers realizing they were at no risk and only their customers were. The assets were toxic because these same people had approved mortgage loans on a massive basis to people who could not afford the payments. The borrowers were not behaving rationally with respect to money. The lenders were just predators, not sufficiently regulated. Then when the bubble burst and the economy predictably crashed, a lot more people couldn’t pay back loans, inflating the numbers of toxic assets.
All this nearly sent us into a worldwide depression – would have, but for quick Keynesian remedies implemented by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. We still haven’t recovered, and we still haven’t addressed the root causes of the problem. But who’s worried? Nobody on Wall Street, because nobody gets prosecuted for crashing the entire economy.
So it turns out that all this freedom, in the form of a deregulated financial sector, is really just freedom for Wall Street to screw people until everybody’s broke flat as a fritter, then to receive bailouts from the taxpayers – who happen to be the same people as their unfortunate customers.
Maybe it’s time to take this Rand Paul guy seriously. Seriously enough to crush him decisively. Otherwise, maybe libertarianism won’t go away, and its disciples will dismember what’s left of a democratic society, leaving brutes to pick the bones.