The Libertarian Dysfunction

Ron Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest the other night at the Republican Debate in South Carolina.

Every time I have any dealings with libertarians, I always wind up saying something to myself to the effect of what is wrong with this people?  Are they the products of a dysfunctional family with parents who don’t show emotion? Did they have problems bonding or with the attachment process as infants?  Libertarians seem like they were all bred in some kind of petrie dish rather than born of flesh and blood people.  They seem so oddly unaware of human nature and empathy. I’ve recently started wondering if it’s not really a symptom of some kind of autism  because there seems to be so much emphasis on a seemingly detached self-identity and a desire for a reality that seems straight of a bad science fiction novella where the main plot is alienation rather than aliens.

So, this WAPO op-ed by “conservative” Michael Gerson got me thinking about Ron Paul’s truly strange statements in that Republican Presidential-wanna be debate the other day. Gerson was using Ron Paul’s thoughts on legal heroin as the basis of the argument that the Republican Party shouldn’t treat Ron Paul seriously because he’s truly not a serious candidate. Advocating legalized heroin–instead of punishing it as bad boy behavior–evidently gives one a lack of gravitas.  I thought this strange.

I have to admit that Ron Paul says things that just makes me think he was hatched from an orphaned egg left in a cuckoo’s nest.  It frightens me that some one with such serious misunderstandings of economics heads a subcommittee over the nation’s monetary policymaker.  It’s like putting a flat earther in charge of NASA.  Paul was so surrounded by other odd birds at that Republican debate however, that he didn’t stand out more than any one else to me.  However, the legalize heroin comment stood out to many of us  including Michael Gerson.  For me however, it stood out because it’s part of the symptoms of denial of social costs and spillovers that you hear coming from libertarians.  Paul really doesn’t appear to know what it’s like to be around the chaos vortex that is an addict.  He has a really odd take on human nature.  Gerson started out with a pretty good description of that before he fell back on hellfire and brimstone.

Paul was the only candidate at the debate to make news, calling for the repeal of laws against prostitution, cocaine and heroin. The freedom to use drugs, he argued, is equivalent to the freedom of people to “practice their religion and say their prayers.” Liberty must be defended “across the board.” “It is amazing that we want freedom to pick our future in a spiritual way,” he said, “but not when it comes to our personal habits.”

Now, I’m of the personal opinion that other people’s religion and practices, can in fact, trample on other people’s rights.  I will only remind you of the time I went out on Sunday in Nebraska to buy creme de menthe to make grasshopper pie and couldn’t.  Also, you have no idea what it’s like to deal with Christmas hoopla when you’re never in the mood.  However, when you are near people, they do have a habit of getting in your way all the time.  What they do impacts you to varying degrees.  So, I didn’t think Paul could possibly have much experience with addicts because it’s hard to avoid the fallout from the disease even if you’re not all that intimately involved with them.  If you work with them or live near them, their addiction and its costs will be felt.

Or, as Gerson puts it:

This argument is strangely framed: If you tolerate Zoroastrianism, you must be able to buy heroin at the quickie mart. But it is an authentic application of libertarianism, which reduces the whole of political philosophy to a single slogan: Do what you will — pray or inject or turn a trick — as long as no one else gets hurt.

Even by this permissive standard, drug legalization fails. The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods — say, in Washington, D.C. — has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their “personal habits.”

But Paul had an answer to this criticism. “How many people here would use heroin if it were legal? I bet nobody would,” he said to applause and laughter. Paul was claiming that good people — people like the Republicans in the room — would not abuse their freedom, unlike those others who don’t deserve our sympathy.

The idea that there are actions that don’t impact people on any large scale is a weird one to me.  Gerson talks about Paul’s attitude of  “I don’t need laws against heroin because I won’t use heroin” as a form of arrogance.   What really made me think, however, was this paragraph.  This is where Gerson dove off the deep end.

The conservative alternative to libertarianism is necessarily more complex. It is the teaching of classical political philosophy and the Jewish and Christian traditions that true liberty must be appropriate to human nature. The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions — families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations — including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.

This is where he lost me completely. The government doesn’t need to reinforce Judeo-Christian norms and expectations.  To me, that’s not the role of government.   The government should recognize that the behavior of individuals and businesses impact others.  Some times, the impact is quite negative.  It doesn’t need to replace some absentee parent as an angry, punishing daddy.  It needs to be more like a judge, a referee, and a prevention coach. Let me explain that.

No one in Love Canal asked to be sold a home sitting on a lot saturated with toxic chemicals.  People actively withheld information to make those business deals and a group of innocents were hurt mightily; both financially and physically. You can read studies dealing with communities that have gambling facilities to determine the social costs of those things.  You get pawn shops and paycheck advance loan shops. There are tons of predatory businesses that pop up out of no where. Communities also get crime because once gamblers run out of things to hock and ways to borrow, they will steal.  Communities will attract prostitutes with accompanying costly public health problems.  Communities eventually wind up with destitute people.  As a result, many businesses and homeowners leave and the city is left with only problems and no revenues.

Just like I can’t imagine drinking day-in-and-day-out, I can’t imagine playing any other gambling games where I don’t know the rules, the odds, and have a strategy to know when to hold them and fold them.  The deal is that I don’t have the addiction gene.  Problem is, that there are a lot of people that can’t either make good decisions or stop.  They become chaos vortexes.  They drain resources from families that eventually need public help. They emotionally and some times physically abuse people which infers the cost of  the criminal justice system.  Relatives of addicts may or may not be able to recover without public assistance or spreading issues further across society.

These behaviors are not just personally destructive, they have social costs.  We frequently have to pay to clean up these messes after these folks have spun out of control.  I also didn’t need the government enforcing ‘Judeo-Christian’ values for me to recognize destructive behaviors and many of these folks with issues had plenty of it.  That’s no solution either.  Frankly, plentiful and good information on statistics and public health should give most people knowledge to make good decisions about prostitution, substance abuse, and gambling.  Neither Gerson or Ron Paul want these provisions either.  They prefer that be left to chance, happenstance, or some imaginary Father Knows Best.

This is what bothers me about both the libertarian and the conservative narrative described above.  You can’t just say let them self destruct and not witness that the fall out from destruction frequently is spread wide and costs a lot of money to a lot of people.  You can’t just say that if some one sits in a pew and hears some kind of moral spew attached to an angry sky god that they’re going to just get in control of themselves.  There’s a genetic component to substance abuse.   Certainly, a faceless corporation that only exists for the purpose of creating profit but yet, is treated as an individual legally,  is not capable of full considering the costs of its actions on others.  Addicts definitely don’t consider the costs of their actions on any one.   Gerson and Paul’s overly simplistic view of people and reality has to come from some blocked pathway in a brain that doesn’t recognize the interconnectedness of people and their actions.

Maybe that’s why they both have fairly useless views of economics too because, at its essence, economics is about human behavior and choices.

It’s not about becoming a national mommy, or daddy, or nanny or whatever.  It’s about trying to prevent the problems, first off, by providing adequate information to people. Then, it’s about judiciously assessing the fall out and compensating society and others for the cost of the chaos. Then, something should be done to try to stop recurrence.

We keep trying permissiveness and punishment.  What we frequently get is recidivism and more spillover costs.  Somewhere in between the models of permissiveness and punishment is a more pragmatic mindset. Laws, regulations, and government are necessary because humans and their corporate counterparts don’t exist in a vacuum and all of them are not good decisionmakers.  Their actions aren’t always a reflection of either enlightened self-control or fear of retribution by an angry sky god or parent.   Of course, government can’t do everything for us.  But, it should be able to prevent the fall out from the behaviors and actions of others and the spillover costs they entail.  That’s the real purpose of regulations. Libertarians seem to disregard a bevy of actions where there are victim’s of people’s individual decisions.  Conservatives appear to think that enforcing some kind of moral code via punishment  is all that’s necessary.  Frankly, I’d rather we use less straight-jacket ideology and use our knowledge to figure out what best prevents a problem.

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46 Comments on “The Libertarian Dysfunction”

  1. Great topic and post!

    It’s not about becoming a national mommy, or daddy, or nanny or whatever.

    I was just commenting the other day to paperdoll that libertarians and rightwing more generally want a deadbeat daddy state, and frankly one that forced mommy to carry her pregnancy to term too.

    Their ideology seems to exist in a vacuum where they’ll never do XYZ so it’s okay if others have a choice to do it. So then what’s Ron Paul’s frigg’n problem with abortion? He doesn’t want any social services for the kid, but as you point out, legalize heroin… and hey put slot machines in every grocery store and let everyone, including this kid he proclaims to be protecting, choose, with no recourse in terms of social services! I’m not big on prohibitions per se either, but so much of the money from a lot of these things is blood money, born on the backs of families and individuals whose lives are destroyed.

    The stupid, it burns.

    • B Kilpatrick says:

      When’s the last time Ron Paul has spent time banging the drum about welfare? His major target is the military-industrial complex. Something which, if any of you had any strategic smarts at all, you would fully support him in attacking, rather than nitpicking about his less popular ideas that are much less likely to happen.

      The stupid certainly burns.

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        Pretend I was about 30% less cranky.

      • dakinikat says:

        You obviously have registered for the draft and can’t get pregnant.

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        I don’t think Ron Paul can make the Supreme Court magically vanish, not having been born in the pollen heart of a lotus and all. 😉

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        Besides, you might decry “states’ rights,” but if the Republicans experienced a resurgence and did things you dislike, you might have … a slightly different view on the virtue of states being able to opt out of national policy.

      • He’d fight the military-industrial complex and the oligarchy in general more effectively if he’d stop with the anti-choice rhetoric. It’s his poor strategy, not ours.

      • dakinikat says:

        I’ve said this before, but I really think it’s capricious to think your ‘rights’ depend on your geography. There’s either a compelling state interest in something or not. Saying, let the state’s decide is a cop out. Frankly, there’s a list of things I’d rather see them all out of starting with sanctioning marriage. I can understand maintaining a public record, but I have no idea what compelling interest the state has beyond that unless it’s an underage person who can’t reasonably consent or if some one has some horrible disease and the other person doesn’t konw. As it is, the Republican view of things is making me want to flee the country, not just move to a blue state because you have to fight them continually now state by state, school district by school district and parish by parish. They’re like gawd’s little awful army goosestepping to a theocracy.

      • Minority rights shouldn’t be up for debate by what the majority wants, IMHO, be it by state or by country.

      • Minkoff Minx says:

        He’d fight the military-industrial complex and the oligarchy in general more effectively if he’d stop with the anti-choice rhetoric. It’s his poor strategy, not ours.

        Thank you for saying this Wonk…

        • dakinikat says:

          Having the state control your body’s functions is about a the most basic violation of a human being that I can conceive. Once the PLUBs infiltrated the Libertarians it was pretty obvious that it was mostly about legalizing pot and letting businesses do whatever they wanted to do with no regard to the spillovers.

      • madamab says:

        Since when is the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which Ron Paul fully supports, “less likely to happen” than the disappearance of the military-industrial complex?

        And since when is defending a woman’s basic LIBERTY to control her own body “nitpicking?”

    • Seriously says:

      He’s pretty much always banging the drum on it, actually, and tying it in with militarism. You know, the welfare-warfare state? The only reason he spends more time on militarism is he’s pretty much alone there, while all of his compatriots have the shredding of the social fabric pretty well in hand.

      • Exactly.

        And, tying it together as “welfare-warfare state” just makes it to me about no solutions, nothing, no. It’s all against, not for…well I guess except pot, heroin, etc.

      • Seriously says:

        Right. It just seems sort of unlikely that we’ll somehow manage to abolish the military-industrial complex if only we make common cause with a neo-Confederate flake, but regardless, being against is the easy part.

        • It also seems unlikely that we can make common cause with said neocon flake if his supporters try to engender our support by calling us stupid wimminz.

          Oh wait, am I talking about Obama or Ron Paul?

      • Seriously says:

        Lol I respond exclusively to, “You owe us your vote, stupid wimminz!” I’ve never been busier.

    • bostonboomer says:

      This is a brilliant post. It’s inspired.

      I totally agree with Wonk’s quote:

      libertarians and rightwing more generally want a deadbeat daddy state, and frankly one that forced mommy to carry her pregnancy to term too.

      By definition, no one who is anti-choice can be a real libertarian. Unless Paul is claiming that women aren’t human or covered by the Constitution, then he’s a fraud.

  2. B Kilpatrick says:

    It’s over-simplistic… and that means what, precisely? In other words, you want to tell us that neither alternative works, but don’t seem to have a third ready to hand.
    Every action has a spill-over effect. The problem with being pragmatic is that there’s no clear way to decide which problem’s effect is severe enough. Libertarians provide a pretty clear rule that can’t be massaged during the hazy formation of some “consensus” into an excuse for the powerful to do whatever they please, which is pretty much the inevitable outcome of pragmatism. Even the Gerson standard has the admirable advantage of honestly admitting that the inevitable outcome of pragmatic decision making is the outcome for which it aims.

    It’s quite interesting that you mention Love Canal. I’ve argued with a lot of people, and they often have the entertaining example of presenting dramatic failures of government as examples of why government is necessary.

    Your mention of Love Canal is a bit like the time I was sitting in Dr. Speyrer’s class, and she told us about debating with the libertarians at Loyola. Her reason for disagreeing with them, she said, is because some govt is necessary, and then offered the absence of traffic signals after Katrina as an example – the same traffic signals that the government took FOREVER to fix!

    Now, for my more important point – in pointing out the gnat of private spill-over effects (what happens if people can get on the bus after running thirty miles and not putting on deodorant?) you TOTALLY ignore the camel, as it were, of government spill-over effects (what if the government, in an effort to win a lost war, starts bombing Cambodia and manages to help bring the Khmer Rouge to power?

    In a word, that’s why the libertarian answer is the only one that makes a tiny bit of sense – government, not asymetric information, not spill-overs, not public goods left unprovided, is the most severe threat to the life, health, welfare, and safety of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

    Would I trade getting rid of a federal government that has killed circa 3 million people in the last forty years in exchange for not having the NOAA? In a heartbeat.

    Libertarianism is the only consistent position that any advocate of peace ought to take. Pragmatism kills.

    • dakinikat says:

      I knew this was waving a red flag at you that I didn’t intend to, but the deal is with Paul’s suggestion that all drugs be legal is that instead of addicts in prison, you have them on the street.

      Addicts don’t belong in prison or on the street. It’s a public health problem and they belong in treatment.

      That’s the pragmatic, third way that you seem to avoid seeing. You can’t just legalize drugs without realizing that you’re creating a public health issue when addicts that are in prison and may get treatment are just suddenly now out there on their own. Same with gambling and prostitution. Those aren’t ‘victimless’ crimes. I don’t think they belong in the criminal justice system any more than drug users belong in the criminal justice system. But, they’ll create damage and costs and an alternative must be put into place.

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        How does legalization conflict with treatment? Having drugs exist in some legal half-light won’t do anything to defund the criminal gangs that are turning places like Mexico into war zone.

      • Addicts don’t belong in prison or on the street. It’s a public health problem and they belong in treatment.

        Hear, hear!

  3. B Kilpatrick says:

    Just read up on Love Canal. You really should have read about it before you used it to attack libertarianism – the NY state govt and army used Love Canal as a chemical dump (along with some waste from the Manhattan project), before granting a chemical company permission to dump there. About 10 years later, the local school district, with full knowledge of the soil toxicity, forced the chemical company to sell it Love Canal, and then built a school there.

    So what’s that you were saying? 😉

    • dakinikat says:

      Love Canal was a hybrid of all kinds of bad behavior on the part of all kinds of institutions. Hence, it had to be worked out in the courts. Cheaper to stop chemical dumping and find an alternative than enable the commercial ones and cover up the government ones, yes?

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        As long as we’re debating this using anything not 100% natural, chemical dumping is something that has to be accepted.

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        Having said that, no libertarian anywhere, except for a total moron, would accept the right to dump incredibly dangerous chemicals in such a way that there’s even a remote chance of them entering another person’s land.

        Taken by itself, this is a far stricter standard than anything currently in practice.

      • dakinikat says:

        I don’t consider disposing of stuff more properly to be ‘dumping’. There’s no easy place to deal with this stuff but there’s safe and less safe ways.

  4. B Kilpatrick says:

    The most telling part of that crappy opinion piece, IMO, was when Gerson contrasted the wicked Paul with the saintly Bush, who, because he once visited a drug treatment center is surely not responsible for the millions of people “humanely” arrested and sentenced to a life of prison, followed by probation, probably followed by more prison if they miss a call to the PO, followed by a life of vanished opportunities and low-income jobs.

    To paraphrase Proudhon, that is his justice, that is his morality.

    • B Kilpatrick says:

      That should read, “‘humanely’ arrested and sentenced during his presidency” etc.

    • dakinikat says:

      Gerson’s piece was more based on saving people from themselves than stuff I’ve read coming from conservatives who accuse liberals of doing that. I don’t think you can save any one from themselves. What you have to do is stop them from hurting others in the process. I don’t think prison is the proper blank check for this. I also believe in a big spoonful of prevention. I don’t disagree with Paul that most “illegal” drugs should be legal actually. What I disagree with him is just living it at that because then you create a public health problem and drive abusers to crime. That has incredible social costs. There’s got to be a middle path, ya know?

      • B Kilpatrick says:

        At the same time, the golden mean consists of doing things to the proper degree. So the right number of times to punch someone in the face without provocation is zero, as it were, in the same way that the proper degree of generosity lies somewhere between stinginess and blowing your inheritance. 😉

  5. Saudyssey says:

    Well, I can’t find the right thread for this now, but it goes with the newspaper that photoshopped Hillary out of the WH photo. Here is the photo *they* don’t want you to see.
    http://twitpic.com/4vmn71

  6. Rick Reynolds (Rickpa) says:

    Can legalizing, or at least counting drugs as a medical rather than criminal problem be any more harmful that our Insane War On Drugs which has made neighborhoods in our major cities less safe than Kandahar? Will more lives be destroyed than under our current system which imprisons more citizens than any other nation on the planet?

    Anyone with a knowledge of our history of alcohol prohibition can see the parallels. From the political corruption, gang warfare, unsafe product, and widespread availability, despite all of the danger.

    Gary Johnson has given good rationale for legalization. Especially strong is the economic argument. He also has a much better position on abortion than Ron Paul. 😉

    • dakinikat says:

      I agree that it’s more of a public health issue than a criminal one, but my point is that you can’t legalize it without having the people that profit from that paying taxes to take care of the spillover social costs. There has to be adequate treatment centers as well as ways to take care of any children of addicts. That’s one of the reasons that communities that allow gambling force casinos to pay for certain things. Gambling creates revenues but it also creates incredibly high social costs. These things have to be accompanied by sin taxes at the very least to clean up the issues they create. Right now we dump these people in prison which is very expensive. We can’t just dump them on the street.

    • I’m not opposed to legalization….I just don’t particularly sympathize with the limited government rationale for it.

      If we legalize, we need to come up with a better, more comprehensive approach to treating addicts and providing resources to their families imho.

      • dakinikat says:

        exactly … addicts don’t really belong in jail but right now there are more addicts than affordable treatment programs. Also, many mentally ill people are in jail for the same reason … they get into criminal trouble and that’s where they wind up. Most of this came from the Reagan program of dumping them all in the streets and jails. It’s more expensive to put them in prison and it gives us an extraordinarily high rate of imprisonment. Now, even that is being privatized.

        Something like 80 odd percent of old people in rest homes are there because of medicare. They’ll be in prison eventually too under the Republican rationale.

  7. Rick Reynolds says:

    When it comes to drugs, abortion, prostitution, or any social issue, I am not thinking of it in terms of “limiting government.” The correct rationale, in my view, is that we own ourselves.

    • dakinikat says:

      We may own ourselves but our bad decisions and actions are like a contagious disease that family and neighbors have to deal with. Same with corporations… their actions impact innocents too. Unless you want to shoot them all you have to continually deal with the compounding costs of their irresponsible decisions and sick people rarely stop by themselves.

  8. Rick Reynolds (Rickpa) says:

    “sick people rarely stop by themselves.”

    They are not stopped by laws, and even manage to continue their self-destruction in prison.

    Many people who have done drugs, even hard drugs, have gone on the live productive lives. Some have even been elected President of the USA, if popular belief has basis. Then again, there’s yours truly. 😉

    I don’t believe that if I had gone through the criminal justice system, that my life would have been enriched, and I did quit on my own by age 22.