Speaking of Liberty

Libertarianism gone bad

Warning: Some ideologies on the Net are smaller than they appear.
—Seth Finkelstein

Wasn't Ayn Rand a pseudonym of L. Ron Hubbard?
—Mike Huben

Starship Troopers was published in 1959, seven years before the publication of The Moon is a harsh Mistress in which Robert Heinlein introduces the character of Professor Bernardo de La Paz, a self-proclaimed "Rational Anarchist" who wants no taxes, no standing armies, and a minimum of government interference in the lives of its citizens.

Starship Troopers was made into a major motion picture by Paul Verhoeven in 1997---and also in 2004 (picture above) with the direct-to-video post-911 sequel, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation. (Robert Heinlein is rolling in his grave.)

The following dialogue is from the 1997 movie feature:

RASCZAK : Here in History and Moral Philosophy we've explored the decline of Democracy when social scientists brought the world to the brink of chaos, and how the veterans took control and imposed a stability that has lasted for generations since...
When you vote, you're exercising political authority. You're using force. And force, my friends, is violence, the supreme authority from which all other authority derives.

DIZZY : My mother always says that violence never solves anything.

RASCZAK : Really? I wonder what the city fathers of Hiroshima would have to say about that. You...
[Rasczak points at Carmen.]

CARMEN : They probably wouldn't say anything. Hiroshima was destroyed.

RASCZAK : Correct. Naked force has settled more issues in history than any other factor. The contrary opinion 'violence never solves anything' is wishful thinking at its worst. People who forget that always pay... They pay with their lives and their freedom.

The original quotes from which the above scene in the film version was derived originate from the following exchanges in the novel:
"My mother said violence never solves anything." "So?" Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. "I'm sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that."
—Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois (Ret.), Chapter 2

"Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that 'violence never solves anything' I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms."
— Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois (Ret.), Chapter 2

Starship Troopers is on the reading lists of all four US military academies, as well as the official reading lists of the US Army and the US Marine Corps!!!

Rightly or wrongly so, Heinlein has been described by his detractors as an elitist, concerned with the "UberMensch,” and, rightly or wrongly so, there are those, among his admirers, who look up to him as an icon of Libertarianism (on par with Ayn Rand — philosophically speaking that is, as literately, few will disagree that he was a better writer than she was). I, for one, do find it hard to reconcile the author of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (or, even more famously, Stranger in a Strange Land), with the author of Starship Troopers, a simplistic late-juvenile coming-of-age military SF novel. But maybe the contradiction is at the heart of the incongruities inherent in Libertarianism as a Political ideology. Or maybe it is just part of the divide within the Libertarian movement itself and ultimately of its recuperation and eventual takeover by the GOP.

The Moon is a Harsch Mistress received at the time (1967) the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. There is that delightful scene, in Book 2, in which one of the characters advocates the formation of a Monarchy – out of all things – under the rulership of another character, Professor Bernardo de La Paz, a self-described "Rational-Anarchist" — out of all people — and Mannie, one of the professor’s students, as his adopted heir, on the rationale that this would be the only institution that could save the people from — I quote — "the worst of all tyrants, themselves" — LOL. Ah, the mechanics of Kings, or is it, King the mechanic 101? This is the kind of irony that, for me, sets Heinlein apart from people like Ayn Rand (or any of her Libertarian disciples) — the man never takes himself so seriously that he loses sight of the shortcomings of political ideologies — any ideology — be it anarchism, or libertarianism with a big ISM. To that regard this is one of the redeeming values that makes Heinlein a sincere anarchist to my own heart.

One of the points Heinlein argues in the novel, via the Professor, is seldom new: self-government is an illusion caused by failure to understand reality.

And what is reality?

It's a dog-eat-dog world out there (homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man). Franz de Waal, a Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist, calls this "Veneer Theory." In this view, human morality is a thin layer barely disguising less noble tendencies.

Yet, one of De Waal's points is also that there is more to the world than this; sympathy, empathy, right and wrong are feelings that are part of the common evolutionary heritage we share with other species.

Did we human beings invent our feeling for justice, or is it part of the package of primal emotions that we inherited from our ancestors? In other words: Did morality evolve? Dutch-born psychologist, ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal has spent his career watching the behavior of apes and monkeys, mostly captive troupes in zoos. As a young student, he sat on a wooden stool day after day for six years, observing a colony of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo. Today he watches chimpanzees from an observation post at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and at other zoos and primate centers. His work, along with primatologist Jane Goodall’s, has helped lift Darwin’s conjectures about the evolution of morality to a new level. He has documented tens of thousands of instances of chimpanzee behavior that among ourselves we would call Machiavellian and about as many moments that we would call altruistic, even noble. In his scientific papers and popular books (including Chimpanzee Politics, Our Inner Ape and Good Natured), he argues that Darwin was correct from that first glimpse of Jenny at the zoo. Sympathy, empathy, right and wrong are feelings that we share with other animals; even the best part of human nature, the part that cares about ethics and justice, is also part of nature.
—The Scientific American
And what is governance?

Governance is an attempt to solve conflicts between actors and adopt decision (legality); it is also about the proper functioning of institutions and their acceptance by the people (legitimacy).

Our fragile Republic, as well as a few other forms of governments in the world are attempt at governance through consensus by democratic means (participation).

And what is the reality of government?

Power corrupts – this is hardly an earthshaking revelation. But this is not a reality endemic to government per se, this is simply the reality of one of the manifestations of human nature.

There is no denying that at this point in time, "self-government" is an illusion (an ever elusive goal) – it has been so, for as long as the concept has been in existence.

And so is Libertarianism.
I believe in the Free Market Fairy and the Tort Sprite too. They'll keep our power cheap and our air and water clean. All you have to do is close your eyes and tap your money clip three times.
—Gen. JC Christian, Patriot
At some point in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the Professor calls Thomas Jefferson the "first of the rational anarchists."

Yet, Thomas Jefferson's views with regard to government and taxation were clear:
"... legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property... Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right."
—Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to James Madison), 1785

Amazingly, Murray N. Rothbard, the author of "For a New Liberty,” the book that helped launch the modern libertarian movement in the US, described what he presented as a "1994 revolution" in America against the Democratic party, as follows:
"...a massive and unprecedented public repudiation of President Clinton, his person, his personnel, his ideologies and programs, and all of his works; plus a repudiation of Clinton's Democrat Party; and, most fundamentally, a rejection of the designs, current and proposed, of the Leviathan he heads..."

I am not making any of this up. (Quoting quite literally, here.)

According to the author what was being rejected was – I quote – "big government in general (its taxing, mandating, regulating, gun grabbing, and even its spending) and, in particular, its arrogant ambition to control the entire society from the political center. Voters and taxpayers are no longer persuaded of a supposed rationale for American-style central planning..."

It goes on, and the following, I think, lies at the heart of Murray Rothbard's pink-colored Libertarian glasses:

"On the positive side, the public is vigorously and fervently affirming its desire to re-limit and de-centralize government; to increase individual and community liberty; to reduce taxes, mandates, and government intrusion; to return to the cultural and social mores of pre-1960s America, and perhaps much earlier than that."

First of all, and briefly stated, how much "on the positive side" of things exactly would a "return to the cultural and social mores of pre-1960s America" be, seems a highly contentious point to me, to say the least.

Second--and, here again, just stating the obvious--we have there a clear and highly misleading juxtaposition in the way the author is presenting things: "to increase individual and community liberty" (a laudable endeavor in and for itself) and "to reduce taxes, mandates, and government" (the ideology of laissez-faire advocates) are not necessarily the same thing, and the latter is by no means a guarantee of the former. Funds provided by taxes are used to carry out many functions, some of which have been instrumental in the promotion and protection of "individual and community liberty."

Don't get me wrong; I am all for a decentralization of power and individual liberties — and nobody loves a Leviathan government.

But, as a younger Rothbard — 1965 — had said himself (and I must say here, once again, that, in this instance, just as in the case of Robert Heinlein further above, it is an endless object of fascination to me how people's minds all exist on multiple levels, sometimes in parallel and contradictory consciousness):

"The doctrine of liberty contains elements corresponding with both contemporary left and right. This means in no sense that we are middle-of-the-roaders, eclectically trying to combine, or step between, both poles; but rather that a consistent view of liberty includes concepts that have also become part of the rhetoric or program of right and of left. Hence a creative approach to liberty must transcend the confines of contemporary political shibboleths."

What has happened instead in this country is that Libertarianism has been serving as the ideological basis for the marketing of the Gingrich/Bush revolution. Or as Zompist.com puts it, the GOP has taken the libertarian "Government is Bad" horse and ridden far with it:
- Dole's 1996 campaign, advancing the notion that taxes were "Your Money" being taken from you.

- Gingrich's Contract with America (welfare cuts, tax cuts, limitations on corporations' responsibility and on the government's ability to regulate them)

- Dick Armey's comment that Medicare (medical aid for the elderly) is "a program I would have no part of in a free world"

- Bush's tax cuts, intended not only to reward the rich but to "starve the beast", in Grover Norquist's words: to create a permanent deficit as a dangerous ploy to reduce social spending

- Jeb Bush's hope that the Florida state government buildings would one day be empty

- Intellectual support for attacks on the quality of working life in this county and for undoing the New Deal
And now, Blackwater...

In all fairness, now, maybe this use of their ideas is appalling to "Real Libertarians"... well, as Zompist.com put it on their side of the Metaverse, "hold your nose then," but it is no longer possible for Libertarians to pretend to innocence when the political bond of citizens with their governments is undermined while the country is handed over to unaccountable corporate thugs:

I quote:

Despite the intelligence of many of its supporters, libertarianism is an instance of the simplest (and therefore silliest) type of politics: the single-villain ideology. Everything is blamed on the government.

Not being a libertarian doesn't mean loving the state; it means accepting complexity. The real world is a monstrously complicated place; there's not just one thing wrong with it, nor just one thing that can be changed to fix it. Things like prosperity and freedom don't have one cause; they're a balancing act.

Here's an alternative theory for you: original sin. People will mess things up, whether by stupidity or by active malice. There is no magical class of people (e.g. "government") who can be removed to produce utopia. Any institution is liable to failure, or active criminality. Put anyone in power-- whether it's communists or engineers or businessmen-- and they will abuse it.

Does this mean things are hopeless? Of course not; it just means that we have to let all institutions balance each other. Government, opposition parties, business, the media, unions, churches, universities, non-government organizations, all watch over each other. Power is distributed as widely as possible to prevent any one institution from monopolizing and abusing it. It's not always a pretty solution, and it can be frustratingly slow and inefficient, but it works better than any alternative I know of.

Markets are very good at some things, like deciding what to produce and distributing it. But unrestricted markets don't produce general prosperity, and lawless business can and will abuse its power.

- Since natural resources are accounted as free gains and pollution isn't counted against the bottom line, business on its own will grab resources and pollute till an environment is destroyed.

- The food business, on its own, will put filth in our food and lie about what it's made of. The few industries which are exceptions to food and drug laws (e.g. providers of alcohol and supplements) fight hard to stay that way. The food industry resists even providing information to consumers.

- Business will lock minorities out of jobs and refuse to serve them, or serve them only in degrading ways.

- Business will create unsafe goods, endanger workers, profiteer in times of crisis, use violence to prevent unionization-- and spend millions on politicians who will remove the people's right to limit these abuses.

- Businesses create monopolies and cartels when they can manage it; and the first thing monopolies do is raise prices.

- Businesses can create bureaucracies as impenetrable and money-wasting as any government. (The worst I've ever had to deal with are health insurers. And no, it's not "government regulation" that makes them that way; insurers have an interest in making the claims process as difficult as possible.)

- State-controlled media are vile; but business-controlled media are hardly better, especially given the consolidation of major media. Democracy needs a diversity of voices, and we're moving instead toward domination of the airwaves by a few conglomerates.


Maggie Bremmer said...

Aren't Bugs the perfect Enemy?

Robert Heinlein might be "rolling in his grave," indeed, and probably with good reasons. While "Starship Troopers" was an attempt, acknowledgedly on the part of Heinlein, at both clarifying and defending his military and political views of the time [Heinlein. Expanded Universe. Baen Books, 468–69, 481–82], director Paul Verhoeven's controversial interpretation, on the other hand, is unapologetically satirical (the film includes among other things visual allusions to propaganda films, such as Triumph of the Will and wartime news broadcasts.) While some wonder whether the satire went unnoticed at the original reception of the movie, the director commentary on the DVD edition of the film leaves no doubt:

Verhoeven states unambiguously that one of the movie's message is that "War makes fascists of us all", and that he sees the movie as a satire of American militarism. On the same commentary, screenwriter Ed Neumeier (who had previously worked with Verhoeven on RoboCop) broadly concurs, although he sees the satire as applying to the whole of human history, rather than solely to the U.S.

John Muir (john kemmeth muir's reflections on film/tv) sees the movie as "a stunningly prescient warning against blossoming totalitarianism":

"Let's re-count some of the plot details here. In a not-too-distant future where "[military] service guarantees citizenship," a totalitarian government rules what seems a prosperous, globally-connected Earth. In propaganda films such as the aptly titled "Why We Fight," the government informs the people who their enemies are, in this instance giant arachnid "bugs" from the distant planet Klendathu. The planet is termed "a bug planet," an "ugly planet," (not unlike the Middle East, perhaps?) And the bugs are successfully demonized in every school system and class room, even Biology (where dissections of this enemy occur regularly...). Young students are informed that the bugs have "no intelligence" and that they are evil. This is convenient, isn't it? I mean, you can't engage in "negotiations" or diplomacy with a giant bug, right? You just bomb 'em out of existence..."

Ironically, perhaps the less well received "Starship Troopers 2" sequel (directed by Phil Tippett), which (unlike the first Starship Troopers movie) has almost no relationship to the original novel by Robert Heinlein, but also conveys no satire (the movie takes itself very seriously) of militarism or of the "Total State," might have been closer to the novel, in its intent, if not entirely in its spirit (Instead of being portrayed as a cohesive force motivated by civic virtues alone, the army operates in a politically motivated environment where officers send soldiers to their death for their own advancement.)

Nausicaa said...

The Philip Morris & Co., Ltd.'s famous "Call for Philip Morris" advertising campaign - a drawing of a bellboy carrying a tray with a box of cigarettes - dates to World War one. On April 2, 2007, the LA Times reported that "calling for Philip Morris" is exactly what the Los Angeles Police Department ended up doing when it eventually found itself having to ask Philip Morris for a $50,000 donation to help fund its investigation into counterfeit cigarettes.

In the same newspaper, Ezra Klein referring to that report, asked pointedly in an op-ed:

"why shouldn't…police… have corporate sponsors… (you know, aside from the obvious reasons of favoritism, bias and perverse incentives)?"

And, for that matter:

"What's wrong with … families … [forced to hold] constant fundraisers to pay for the unfunded needs of their local public schools — drama societies and marching bands and that sort of thing? Or with parents having to go out and purchase body armor on their own so that their sons are protected in Iraq? What's so odd about the crown jewel of the University of California graduate system, Boalt Hall Law School, having to move toward "privatization" so that it can raise more money and better compete with its private counterparts in an era when state funding has dried up?"

In other words:

"What's so wrong, with hollowing out the public sector and replacing it with a pay-as-you-go society? It is the natural endpoint, after all, of the privatization craze, of the gospel of tax cuts and of the smaller-government-is-better-government mentality that has been on the ascendancy in the U.S. for nearly 25 years."

Well, isn’t that what people have always wanted in this country?

And by all accounts, shouldn’t we now be living in a Libertarian Paradise?

Like it or not, this is as close to it as we have ever been. And while some would argue that Bush’s America has more in common with Crony Capitalism than it does with Libertarianism (whose ideology, arguably, has been hijacked by the GOP – let’s not forget however that a majority of the Libertarian vote, 72% in 2000, and amazingly, still, more than one year after the invasion of Iraq, again a whopping 59% in 2004, went to George W. Bush), when it comes down to it, the difference between what Crony Capitalism is under this administration and what it would be under a Libertarian system is not, for all practical purposes, all that different in the end-result.

Crony Capitalism is as Crony Capitalism does, and depending on the playing field, it can take the form of close relationships between businessmen and government officials, or, for “the Grover Norquists among us who like their government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” it can - and will - also take, lest we forget, the form of a collusion among market players, ideally, with no “legal” barrier to crack and therefore no government officials to sway (or bribe) one way or another – i.e. a Libertarian paradise, but Crony Capitalism nonetheless.

We are living interesting times, and maybe Ezra Klein has got a point here:

"As the old adage goes, when the gods want to punish you, they give you what you want. Conservatives talk a lot about government failure, but over the last few years, it's really we who have failed government, depriving it of the revenue, the conscientious management and the attention needed for it to succeed. Undercapitalize a pizza joint and your customers will taste the poor ingredients, become frustrated by the long waits and grow repulsed by the grimy environs. Staff it with your unmotivated drinking buddies and the service will falter, as will the quality of the product. It's no way to run a pizza place, and it's certainly no way to run a government."

Yet, that's exactly what we've done, Ezra Klein argues:

”With Proposition 13 and the famous California tax revolt, and with presidents whose entire domestic programs amounted to mindless tax-cutting, and with Congresses that have been happy to pass cuts and stack deficits, we have systematically deprived the government of the revenues it needs to provide basic services, even as we've come to need it to do so much more.”

”Is it any surprise that law enforcement is extending a beggar's cup to Philip Morris”

Why, did Philip Morris even need subsidize the Los Angeles Police Department to that regard, wasn’t Blackwater available? Ah, yes, well maybe not for a mere $50,000. Who knows?

It has been said of Libertarian Utopia (as it has been said of Marxism – there is a bit of an interesting parallel, here) that Libertarianism has never been tried before – which, by the way, is only a half-truth (but this is another topic) – but what we are experiencing today in Bush’s America comes pretty close to it. And the promised picture of exalted libertarian freedom and triumphant individualism is not by far all what it’s cracked up to be in SF novels, except as usual for those who happen to be at the top of the economic pyramid, and who got there, no doubt, on their own strength, and because… they believed in themselves – unlike, I presume, the poor “undeserving” sots at the bottom.

What Libertarians mean by Liberty is ambiguous, at best. And not all Libertarians agree (maybe, as it should be) or as Libertarian David Friedman put it "There may be two libertarians who agree somewhere, but I am not one of them."

The truth is that Libertarianism doesn’t have a monopoly on "Liberty," of course --- I think I would become rapidly distrustful of any party, institution, or ideology, which would claim it does.

And, who doesn’t want Liberty?

Liberty for one’s own self, assuredly.

Things only start getting a bit more confused, when it comes to "liberty" with regard to other. And even more so when it comes to the notion of “liberty for all.” Externalities, you know.

Much of the problem with the concept of freedom revolves around cases where externalities exist. If one of the lessons of the past millennium (compliment of totalitarian regimes) was that externalities created by government could end-up being far worse than the occasional externality produced by the free market, interestingly, one of the first lessons of this new millennium (compliment of Bush and Co) is the exact opposite: externalities created by “free market” can end-up being far worse than the externality produced by government.

Is our children learning?

UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong once wrote that “sometimes government failures are greater than the market failures for which they purport to compensate. Sometimes they are not.

The trick, Ezra Klein points out, is "knowing which is which"…

"…But if, like the Bush administration, you are blithely unconcerned with running an efficient, effective government, funding its necessary elements, presenting honest choices to the American people between tax cuts and social investment and staffing the whole enterprise with skilled professionals, you never need make those judgments as you have neither the resources nor the personnel to effectively deploy the central organizing structure of modern societies. And that's a shame.

Libertarian humorist P.J. O'Rourke likes to say that "Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." Over the last few years, that's been true. But government can work, and increasingly, Americans appear to be anticipating its return. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that public support for a societal safety net and for government protections is at its highest levels in more than a decade — which suggests that Americans don't think bake sales are the way to fund their schools or that Philip Morris is really who they want subsidizing law enforcement. And in recent elections, the once popular "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" amendments that seemed so unstoppable a decade ago are being rejected and, in Colorado, repealed, as voters finally tire of paying the costs in broken infrastructure and insufficient public services.

When asked what type of political system Americans would have, Ben Franklin famously responded, "A republic, if you can keep it." Well, he also bequeathed us a government, if we can run it. And somehow, I don't think the Philip Morris police department is quite what he had in mind."

(Ezra Klein, EZRA KLEIN is a staff writer at the American Prospect. His blog is at www.EzraKlein.com)

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Ayn Rand a pseudonym of L. Ron Hubbard?
—Mike Huben

Things that make you go "Hum"... Mike Huben meant it in jest, but he just might be onto something there.

For all of the so-called "rugged individualism" that has come to be associated with libertarianism, it is an interesting fact that it is also among libertarians that regimented organization and "elite" paramilitary guilds (in the vein of Heinlein's Starship Troopers) exert the most appeal. Scientology is actually a good example. The Sea Org Staff in downtown LA was quite a sight with all the impeccably white uniforms and plastic construction helmets (Sea Org emblem decals displayed on the front), daggers, blue ascots and white jack boots. And, well, the concept of "OT" has clear and obvious similarities in many ways to that of the "Ubermensch."

Nausicaa said...

There is an Eastern tale that speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where the sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines and so on, and above all, they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and their skins, and this they did not like.

At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them, first of all, that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned; that on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place, he suggested that if anything at all were going to happen to them, it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further, the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to some that they were eagles, to some that they were men, to others that they were magicians.

After this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again, but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.

This tale is a very good illustration of man’s position.

Nausicaa said...

Particularly if "man" here stands for the disciples of the magician who told this tale, namely, Gurdjieff.


Is our children learning, yet?