Libertarians believe themselves controversial and cool. They're desperate to package themselves as dangerous rebels, but in reality they are champions of conformity. Their irreverence and their opposition to “political correctness” is little more than a fashion accessory, disguising their subservience to—for all their protests against the “political elite”—the real elite.
Ayn Rand is the rebel queen of their icy kingdom, villifying empathy and solidarity. Christopher Hitchens, in typical blunt force fashion, undressed Rand and her libertarian followers, exposing their obsequiousness toward the operational standards of a selfish society: “I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
Libertarians believe they are real rebels, because they’ve politicized the protest of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.” The rejection of all rules and regulations, and the belief that everyone should have the ability to do whatever they want, is not rebellion or dissent. It is infantile naïveté.
As much as libertarians boast of having a “political movement” gaining in popularity, “you’re not the boss of me” does not even rise to the most elementary level of politics. Aristotle translated “politics” into meaning “the things concerning the polis,” referring to the city, or in other words, the community. Confucius connected politics with ethics, and his ethics are attached to communal service with a moral system based on empathy. A political program, like that from the right, that eliminates empathy, and denies the collective, is anti-political.
Opposition to any conception of the public interest and common good, and the consistent rejection of any opportunity to organize communities in the interest of solidarity, is not only a vicious form of anti-politics, it is affirmation of America’s most dominant and harmful dogmas. In America, selfishness, like blue jeans or a black dress, never goes out of style. It is the style. The founding fathers, for all the hagiographic praise and worship they receive as ritual in America, had no significant interest in freedom beyond their own social station, regardless of the poetry they put on paper. Native Americans, women, black Americans, and anyone who did not own property could not vote, but “taxation without representation” was the rallying cry of the revolution. The founders reacted with righteous rage to an injustice to their class, but demonstrated no passion or prioritization of expanding their victory for liberty to anyone who did not look, think, or spend money like them.
Many years after the nation’s establishment as an independent republic, President Calvin Coolidge quipped, “The chief business of the American people is business.” It is easy to extrapolate from that unintentional indictment how, in a rejection of alternative conceptions of philosophy and morality, America continually reinforced Alexis De Tocqueville’s prescient 1831 observation, “As one digs deeper into the national character of Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: How much money will it bring in?”
The disasters of reducing life, the governance of affairs, and the distribution of resources to such a shallow standard leaves wreckage where among the debris one can find human bodies. Studies indicate that nearly 18,000 Americans die every year because they lack comprehensive health insurance. Designing a healthcare system with the question, “How much money will it bring in?” at the center, kills instead of cures.
The denial of the collective interest and communal bond, as much as libertarians like to pose as trailblazers, is not the road less traveled, but the highway in gridlock. Competitive individualism, and the perversion of personal responsibility to mean social irresponsibility, is what allows for America to limp behind the rest of the developed world in providing for the poor and creating social services for the general population.
It also leads to the elevation of crude utility as a measurement of anything’s purpose or value. Richard Hofstadter, observed in his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, that many Americans are highly intelligent, but their intelligence is functional, not intellectual. They excel at their occupational tasks, but do not invest the intellect or imagination in abstract, critical, or philosophical inquiries and ideas. If society is reducible to the individual, and the individual is reducible to consumer capacity, the duties of democracy and the pleasures of creativity stand little chance of competing with the call of the cash register.
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently stepped on a landmine when he suggested that the Wisconsin university system remove from its mission statement any language having to do with public service or meaning of life. Education should only train people to work. Walker might have faced mockery and scorn for his proposal, but any college instructor can verify my experience of struggling to convince even a handful of students to consider the importance of ideas not directly related to their career choices.
Meanwhile pop culture, still having not recovered from mistaking the Oliver Stone villain Gordon Gekko and his “greed is good” philosophy as heroic, bombards Americans with reality television programs about shallow and self-destructive rich people whose mansions, jewelry, vehicles, and fashion choices are treated with a religious reverence. Their lives are in despair and disarray, but they find redemption through consumption.
Who then are the libertarians rebelling against? The most powerful sector of the society is corporate America, and it profits and benefits most from the deregulatory and anti-tax measures libertarians champion. That sector of society also happens to own the federal government. Through large campaign donations and aggressive lobbying – the very corruption that libertarians help enable by defending Citizens United and opposing campaign finance reform – they have institutionalized bribery, transforming the legislative process into an auction. Libertarians proclaim an anti-government position, but they are only opposing the last measures of protection that remain in place to prevent the government from full mutation into an aristocracy. By advocating for the removal of all social programs, libertarians are not rebelling, as much as they are reinforcing the prevailing ethos of “bootstrap” capitalism. The poor are responsible for their plight, and therefore deserve no sympathy or assistance.
When children yell “you’re not the boss of me” they believe they are launching a rebellion against the household establishment, but they are conforming to the codes of behavior visible among all children. Libertarians are attempting to practice the same political voodoo – transforming conformity into rebellion – without realizing that their cries for freedom coalesce with their childlike culture.
The philosopher Charles Taylor explains in his book, The Ethics of Authenticity, that the search for self-actualization is a noble and important enterprise in life. Authenticity is important, and people should not compromise their principles or passions to placate expectations of society. Taylor complicates the picture by adding the elemental truth of individuality and community that personal freedom is empty and meaningless without connections to “horizons of significance.” That beautiful phrase captures the essentiality of developing bonds of empathy and ties of solidarity with people outside of one’s own individual pursuits, and within a larger social context. Neighborhoods, religious institutions, political parties, advocacy organizations, charities, and social justice groups all qualify as “horizons of significance”, and the connections that arise out of those horizons inevitably producs politics of communal ethics and public responsibility, in addition to private liberty.
Encouraging and facilitating connections of love that revolutionize individual freedom into motivation for social justice, and reform politics to adhere to the truth of Cornel West’s insight that “justice is what love looks like in public” represents real rebellion in America. Defending and championing selfish indifference to collective interest and need conforms not only to the mainstream American practice of social neglect, but also to the most basic and brutish impulse of humanity’s mammalian origins. The rebel searches for higher ground. The conformist crawls through the shallow end of the swamp.