I lived in Libertarianville
“If you want sewage treatment,
Just go to some place that has it.”
So I did
Many don’t live there long
I find discussing politics with self-professed Libertarians a vexing experience. Typically, we cannot converse for more than a few minutes before getting to some brutal logical endpoint, where I am requested to trump my heart with some rudimentary portion of a brain. To the most fanatical, there is a “let them die” conclusion, met with way-to-comfortable stoicism. To the less fanatical, it is usually some corollary of this, masquerading more humanely.
In this short poem, I take sewage treatment as an example of a common good escaping the grasp of Libertarians. And dealing with sewage and the slippery slopes of shitty logic can be perilous. I draw this example from my training and experience in public health. The control of communicable diseases is the greatest public health accomplishment in the last century of humankind. Only human unkind would create a political philosophy and practice that would wholesale-endanger such life-promoting accomplishments with a proverbial flush down the toilet of ideology. This poem mocks the ridiculous notion that complex common goods can be manufactured and marketed like widgets in some free market. After all, few can afford the free market! After the Libertarians’ wet dream, the remaining reality would not have such complex common goods even available for one to exercise their precious choice regarding. The tough choices and hard-fought gains from balancing individual liberty with the common good, in my judgment, would leave us with a world where there is much less freedom, fewer choices, and a less robust life. Choosing one particular thing over another particular thing, when done wisely, while destroying the possibility of the previous choice, thereby “limiting” our freedom, creates new realities with better choices, a more robust freedom. Libertarians sometimes strike me as emotionally stunted, almost infantile, in their inability to sacrifice a present freedom to build a greater future. Perhaps ironically, Libertarianism may actually manifest itself as some form of attachment disorder.
My typical experience of so-called Libertarianism strikes me as some dangerous addiction to some notion of absolute human freedom that routinely erodes every other value doomed to its presence, including public health. Now, I am not saying that Libertarians are necessarily stupid or do not hold values deeply. I am saying that a steely brain is no substitute for wholehearted living, and Libertarianism seems to run freely, if not roughshod, over a myriad of insights and the wisdom of the heart, as well as everyday experience (such as the benefits of public health). I am saying that Libertarians routinely hamstring all other values in favor of leaving all options open in the far-flung field of dreams called absolute human freedom.
I see the absolute part of the equation, the fundamental ideology or worldview, as corrosive, ironically, to any good fruits of good choices that freedom allows. That said, Libertarians have it right, very right, that freedom is foundational, a first-order good, the fount of will. The trouble necessarily follows when any freedom, or all freedom, must level anything built on that foundation, for lack of any ascendant, successfully competing, value. Allowing any other value to rise either above or equally with freedom is necessarily a threat to the sacrosanct value of freedom. The ultimate irony is that by not allowing any other value as great or greater than freedom, Libertarianism routinely finds itself standing dumb, unable to speak with authority, in a disabling self-censorship, for fear of undercutting its worship of freedom. I find this worship of freedom idolatrous. Libertarianism is the opposite of Authoritarianism. In this sense, Libertarianism must fight any authority, refusing to acknowledge any legitimacy, except, of course, its own. This may be the best definition of idolatry. Perhaps somewhat mysteriously, this reveals an even deeper irony: Libertarianism and Authoritarianism share this truth of refusing to acknowledge any legitimacy, except, of course, their own. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” A common sentiment among Libertarians and Anarchists is “question authority.” I find much resonance with this sentiment. Of course, this implied imperative raises the deeply ironic question, “By what authority do you question authority?” A recursive reality oft leading to cycles of swearing. Some would seemingly put this to rest by claiming “I question all authority!” Yet, in the shadow persists another question: Is questioning authority equivalent to not questioning authority? Some would answer no, resigning any discernment in a moral flatland. Still, some would retort that the discernment lies in the questioning: the important thing is to question everything, including oneself. I would agree. Nonetheless, the rabbit hole goes still deeper in at least two additional tiers. First, questioning everything implies an absolute skepticism, or, put perhaps even more provocatively, a faith in skepticism. Second, questioning everything, including oneself implies tentativeness at the heart of reality. The Buddhists would call this the doctrine of impermanence, that everything arises and falls in relationship to everything else, or “impermanence is an undeniable and inescapable fact of human existence from which nothing that belongs to this earth is ever free.” The Buddhist concept of impermanence is closely related to the concept of tentativeness or momentariness. The Buddhist worldview is anathema to rigid ideology or fundamentalism of any unkind. Amidst the flux of impermanence and the state of momentariness, arises the experience of compassion. Rather than dissolving or devolving into nihilism and inescapable confusion, Buddhists have found that the experience of compassion is at the heart of reality, knitting together lives worth living. I would love to infuse a healthy dose of Buddhism into Libertarianism. Perhaps meditating on the highest ideal of bringing compassion to all living beings would moderate the sharp edges of Libertarianism in America.
There is truth in Libertarianism, and we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. Nevertheless, Libertarianism needs to live more fully into the heart of humanity, embodying compassion. Such a maturation process is good for all of us and each of us, whatever our ideologies of the day might be. There are a host of fallacies founded on mistaking a part for the whole. The process of integrating our experiences and understanding into an ever-larger whole, strikes me as the most fundamental developmental task of humanity, a transcendent task for those who have not yet anchored their skepticism in certainty. In this journey, may we embrace one another with compassion.