Wednesday, November 12

The problem with us

Tonight I read an article by a great friend of Kirk's on his blog at The article, entitled "In Praise of Selfishness," reminds us Americans of the powerful case for capitalism and a limited government. As a citizen with strongly conservative economic views, I really appreciated his voice and wisdom behind his article.

His article got my own ideas stirred up on the topic, so I'm going to try to make some sense of them here (as I partially did in my lengthy comment on his blog which is currently awaiting moderation).

On my trip to New York City with Mindy and Bonnie back and April, we were discussing politics and we had come to talk about Libertarianism and it's most visible proponent, John Stossel. I remember saying that the problem with Libertarians is that we are all giant assholes. I'm not quite sure what it is, but this particular belief set attracts a certain personality of individuals who tend to be very self-assured. Not only do we almost always know what is unequivocally true, we have no qualms in sharing it with you. We also usually can be seen by some as heartless because we often have a quite matter-of-fact attitude towards the hardships, losses, and failures of others.

Now I by no means was apologizing for who I am, but I was acknowledging that our cause is difficult to evangelize because while many (usually most) Americans agree with our points on a cognitive level, and will say so, they are easily turned-off by our delivery of that message as they are likely to see us as arrogant, selfish, bossy, and unfriendly. This is a horrible shame, and a terrible detriment getting any of the policies that I believe will maximize our quality of life. So, in keeping with the personality traits that I addressed above, I wanted to enumerate the biggest issues that we must avoid to further our cause.
  • The single biggest problem crime (which I am ironically committing with this sentence) is our use of untamed generalities. One thing that contributes to our perception of being heartless, is that we often pretend that more homogeneous than it really is. We might say, for example, that welfare programs create a culture of dependency and cripples our society. Of course, we are discussing principle and will usually not defend our stance when applied to every case - unemployment insurance, pre-natal care for underprivileged women, and medicare come immediately to mind. The problem is that this gives us an air of insensitivity and makes it seem like the policies we espouse aren't useful in the real world because we discuss a weird, general imaginary world.
  • A related sin, which is shared by many groups, especially fundamentalists is the tendency to pretend that the world is black and white. We pose questions and answers in a binary format. Either it is on or it's off. It is or it isn't. It's right or it's wrong. For some reason, fundamentalists feel very comfortable in such a framework and actually seek it for it's seeming simplicity. For example, one might say or imply that freedom should not be traded for security. We say freedoms should not be traded, but what we mean is much more delicate. We are sharing our bias as if it were a commandment. This can really distract people because it can set us up to seem hypocritical. We say that we support deregulation but maybe I support trade embargos and my friend supports minimum wage. Most of us are real people who understand that problems are not cookie cutter so neither can the solutions be, but we tend not to project this.
  • The last issue I will cover here is that we frequently downplay the pain and hurt that is a necessary byproduct of our views. We would love to talk about the efficiency provided by an unencumbered job market, but we would rather ignore the pool of unemployment that drives it. We would love to talk about allowing a monster car industry giant to fail as just wages for its own sin, without talking about the enormous price paid by the individuals who have no culpability in that failure but depend on that giant all the same. It is not fair to talk about the benefits of freedom without realistically and honestly addressing the pain that it invariably causes. Full transparency of both benefits and costs is the only way that we can differentiate ourselves from the herd.


  1. Interesting introspection. I agree that libertarians do a terrible job of selling their viewpoint. Of course I also fundamentally disagree with the ideology but that might be better left as a post on my own blog.

    The thing is, the majority of Libertarians (capital-L party members or supporters) will honestly tell you that we shouldn't have medicare or public schools or whatever. And this is simply a non-starter with 90% of the public, no matter how you market it.

    Related to that and your second point (black vs white), Libs seem to basically BE an ideology. Quick, what's the Dems' or Repubs' (or even Greens') ideology? If you're looking for political success or more mainstream acceptance, then you have to be willing to moderate your stance and compromise with reality and with other viewpoints, which Libs pretty much never do. Obviously you are to some extent, I feel to your credit, but for the hardcore Libs ideological purity is more important than incremental success. Cue eternal existence as minor branch of the right-of-center party.

  2. In my opinion, the libertarian point of view gets a bum rap because people read into it conclusions that are not necessarily libertarian.

    For example, you allege libertarians are viewed as heartless for disapproving of welfare. Well, I consider myself a libertarian, but I don't oppose welfare. In fact, I think welfare is very important and necessary in many instances. What I do oppose, however, is GOVERNMENT welfare. I believe the private sector can provide welfare much more effectively and efficiently than government can. And, the private sector can provide welfare without taking away the freedom of choice of those contributing to welfare.

    Let's face it, humans are complicated, social beings. We form complex societies and are very inter-dependent upon each other. We need systems in place to provide support for those who may need it from time to time. So, yes, we need welfare.

    The problem I have with proponents of welfare, or a host of other socially provided benefits, is the skillful way in which many will equate those benefits with mandatory, government-provided programs, as if that is the only possible way of delivering those benefits.

    So, the argument goes, if you don't support government programs that are designed to provide social benefits, you are heartless - you are advocating that those benefits will not be available to anyone in society. That argument is irrational. Libertarians disagree with the delivery system - not with the goal.

    I believe I am being more compassionate than the advocate for government programs, because I believe greater benefits will accrue to everyone in a FREE society. Coercion is not a necessary ingredient of compassion.