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.