Monday, December 20, 2010

The Pathologies of Libertarianism and "Personal Responsibility"

The first thing you notice about the newly popular phrase “personal responsibility” is that it is spoken almost exclusively by members of the upper-middle class or above. Good judgment, these people assume, is an entirely exogenous trait, unaffected by such factors as education (lower and higher), family income, or adult example. The poor, they insist, lack inner, not outer, resources.

Every reasonably intelligent suburban teenager eventually reflects on the vast discrepancy between what she has and what others—the poor, the working class, the homeless—lack. Some respond to this moment of dissonance by rejecting their station in life entirely and immersing themselves in leftist movements. Others embrace liberalism, religious or secular, silently promising some day to give back at least part of what they and their family have taken. Still others opt for denial, ignoring those in need, avoiding them when possible, stepping around them when not.

The most disturbing response, however, comes from those who stare into the face of injustice and conclude that they are simply better people than those who suffer, serve time, or sleep on sewer grates. Life, they believe, is all about good and bad choices, and those who choose poorly, for whatever reason, are unworthy of respect, much less financial assistance. Some salve their conscience by dumping a few coins in the Salvation Army dish each December, and tell us, against centuries of evidence to the contrary, that private charity is sufficient to make the unfortunate whole.

The most political of these people become libertarians, who—and this must astound historians—have convinced themselves that the early 20th Century was America’s Golden Age, a time before FDR and LBJ made us weak and passive. Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, or perhaps Calvin Coolidge. The New Deal made us flaccid and the Great Society rendered us wards of the state. The natural flow of wealth, away from the irresponsible and toward the responsible, was reversed, and with that reversal, freedom gave way to the soft tyranny of the nanny state.

Libertarianism is, to be sure, a seductive philosophy. Not only does it endow its adherents with a sense of unearned superiority, it also lays a moral foundation for basic, childlike selfishness. It’s not that I want to see the unemployed live in refrigerator boxes; it’s that my handout will only encourage their natural laziness. It’s not that I want grandparents to subsist on Purina Cat Chow; it’s that Social Security incentivizes irresponsible financial decisions and deprives society’s producers of the opportunity to maximize their own retirement income. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. In fact, it’s not even greed.

To the libertarian, the only public goods are civil and national defense, and the only services for which he can reasonably be taxed are those provided by men (or women) in uniform. This, of course, begs numerous questions, not the least of which is how we determine the level at which minimal military and policing needs are met, since any taxpayer money spent above that amount is theft. And the problem with that calculation is that we never truly know the answer until the system fails (the country is attacked, the crime rate rises). So, already, the libertarian dream is a shambles, as defense contractors and police benevolent associations persuade the necessarily ignorant that additional dollars are all that stands between them and violent death.

But beyond that, if it is the government’s sole responsibility to protect us from external harm, then why is it OK for you to tax me to protect you against the rapacious criminal, but not OK for me to tax you to protect me from the rapacious corporation? If the criminal shoots you, you are dead. If the corporation poisons my air and water, so am I, though the link between cause and effect may not be immediate. The ability of my heirs to sue the corporation in that case will do little to compensate me for my rather total loss.

And this is where libertarianism goes off the rails entirely. Even if I—or my heirs—wanted to sue the corporation for poisoning our air and water, we lack the information to press, much less prove, our claim. Absent government mandate, the factory owner has no incentive to provide evidence of her own wrongdoing. Likewise, the coal mine operator can hardly be expected to inform his employees that little provision has been made to guard against a cave-in. Individually, we are powerless to compel information from those who would rationally conceal it. Collectively, however, we can force disclosure and regulate misbehavior. Government is the mechanism which allows us to do this, and only through compulsory taxation can we assure that everyone pays their share. In that sense, the justification for taxpayer support of health and safety regulation is exactly identical to the justification for taxpayer support of the Marine Corps.

So what about health care? Untreated disease is a far more prolific killer than Charles Manson, harvesting more lives prematurely than all the gangsters, hit men, and foreign invaders combined. On the other hand, there is no collective action problem here. Unlike the polluting factory or the terrorist, I can do things to protect my health with no help from you. I can purchase insurance, and if you fail to do so, I will live and you will die. There is, in short, an undeniable element of choice here, and those who make the right choice may find themselves unwilling to subsidize those who make bad lifestyle decisions involving cigarettes or bacon or cheap wine.

There are two problems here, only one of which can be dismissed simply by resorting to vicious Social Darwinism. True, we can close the public hospitals and allow the uninsured—and their children—to die on the street. (Yes, they could seek out charity hospitals, but in a libertarian world without Medicare or public subsidy, those charity hospitals would be few and far between, financially bereft, understaffed, and inadequate. Think homeless shelters during blizzards.) But we must also turn our backs on the working poor whose lives combine copious levels of both personal responsibility and bad luck. I’ve got mine, Jack. Sorry that neither of your two low-wage jobs provides medical coverage. Next time around, make sure you select parents who will send you to college. (Much of textbook libertarianism brings to mind Jim Hightower's defining crack about the first President Bush, that he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.)

This is where we separate the true libertarians from the wannabes, those who memorized John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged from those who read the Cliff Notes version. It takes a special kind of person to experience no tug at the thought of sick, homeless children wasting away in an unforgiving winter. Fortunately, few of our fellow citizens are quite that special. So our taxes just went up again and the nanny state has seeped in through the tears in our conscience.

But even for those individuals who truly divide the world between producers and parasites, a new collective action problem presents itself. Communicable diseases enjoy upward class mobility even when their initial carriers do not. Untreated cases of tuberculosis, whooping cough, or even exotic strains of the flu pass unmolested into both trailer parks and gated communities. If you catch the wrong bug, all of your personally responsible preparations may be inadequate. This, as much as human decency, is why hospital emergency rooms are made available to those who cannot pay, even though that fact raises both taxes and health care costs (and thus insurance premiums).

In the end, of course, nearly all libertarians are hypocrites of a sort. Few turn down Medicare, either for themselves or their parents. Many went to public schools or state universities. All of them drive the interstates, though one could, I suppose, make a rational argument that if they're forced to pay for something, they might as well use it. Instead, the deeper hypocrisy involves the notion that they somehow get to decide which public services are vital and are thus subject to taxation, and which are not. Why, for example, should the working class single mother be required to help subsidize an airport security system that she will rarely, if ever, use? Why am I not free to determine that, say, we don't need a Border Patrol? (And don't get me started on the Tea Party libertarians who wail incessantly about immigration. The difference between legal and illegal immigrants, after all, is simply the will of one group of people enforced against another by the power of the state. By what definition of universal human freedom does a government prevent, at gunpoint, the movement of labor between Tijuana and San Diego? Your home is your personal property; California is not.)

There are, to be sure, hardcore adherents to the philosophy who argue for a fully stateless society. Their nirvana is a system in which all power relationships are voluntary and we hire our own private security and enforce tort judgments through voluntary private organizations such as insurance companies. Nobody lives like this, of course, or they would likely find that their Randian paradise mostly resembles the Hobbesian state of nature in which "life is nasty, brutish, and short". What would our John Galts do, for example, when I direct my private agents to evict them from their property, especially if my army is larger than theirs?

In the end, of course, libertarians are not exactly wrong about embracing the notion of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is a good thing, and more people ought to try it. What they are wrong about is the possibility of having a successful, livable society in which all irresponsibilities are punished mercilessly. We can generally assume that the very first collective experiments formed because people realized it was impossible to live a purely libertarian lifestyle and maintain a safe, civilized society. This is what Churchill meant when he said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

Libertarianism is doomed to failure because libertarians are simply wrong about humanity. We are a flawed, impulsive, not-fully-rational race that makes errors in abundance. Their ability to escape unscathed from their own missteps is nearly always a function of their class status and societal connections. They are swaddled in privilege and mistake that protective coating for layers of character.

Reasonable people can certainly argue about just how much taxation should be imposed, and what degree of irresponsible behavior we should choose to subsidize. But anyone who simply passes off every incorrect decision as a character flaw, and every flawed character as a parasite, is fooling himself every morning that he looks in the mirror. And until he stops doing so, he should not be entrusted with any position of public responsibility.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lost in Space

A movie review? Sure, a movie review. It's my blog, and I hardly ever use it anymore, so what the hell.

The following is a review of the latest Star Trek movie. If you haven't seen the movie, STOP READING NOW.


OK, you've been warned. Here goes:

There are two ways to assess this latest contribution to the enduring uber-geek franchise known as Star Trek. First, we can ask whether it succeeds as pure cinema. The answer to that question, sadly, is an unqualified "no". Change the names, alter the uniforms and insignia, remove all references to the iconic 1960s original, and what would you have? You'd have a weak plot, garden-variety special effects, limited character development, and enough contrivances to embarrass George Lucas. The result would be, at best, a second-tier outer space Die Hard sequel, and, at worst, some interstellar Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. Indeed, so much time gets spent Trekking up the newcomers, that even the action sequences seem rushed and unsatisfying.

The second question, then, assumes greater significance. Does this newest take on the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and crew work as Star Trek? Well, it certainly tries. Lord, does it try. The writers manage to wedge in every character, catch phrase, and in-joke from the original, to the point that when Bones McCoy gripes that "I'm a doctor, not a physicist", you wonder why nobody printed a check-off list so viewers could record each Old Trek cliché as it's delivered.

And speaking of check off, or in this case, Chekov, what the hell is he doing on the bridge? The seventeen-year old Rooskie navigator bounds annoyingly through the corridors, sounding as though he is still navigating, among other things, puberty. His presence is distracting and gratuitous, a gawky Wesley Crusher on steroids. Surely, Chekov's arrival could have awaited his high school graduation, even if that meant that there would be nobody on board to mangle a Russian accent until Episode 2 or 3.

In fact, the inexplicably burning need to gather the entire gang together results in one of the film's more irritating contrivances. Kirk, it seems, has snuck onto the Enterprise without permission, and the Human/Vulcan bromance around which the original series pivots gets off to a decidedly shaky start. Rather than throwing the annoying stowaway in the brig, as any logical commander would have done, Acting Captain Spock pops Jimbo into a shuttle craft and exiles him to the nearest Class M snow planet.

Let the staggering coincidences commence! Not only does this frigid world turn out to be the temporary home of Old Spock from the Future, it also features a neglected Star Base where Scotty just happens to be unhappily marking time, alone save for some mini-me pet Wookie. Sure, none of this offends on the scale of entire alien cultures organizing themselves as Nazi Germany or Gangland Chicago, but shouldn't we expect more from a 21st Century feaure film than we did from a bargain rack 1960s space opera?

(And while we're on the subject of contrivances, no, I haven't forgotten the unlikely, if convenient, placement of a Star Fleet base in Dogpatch, Iowa, just minutes from the farm where the Widow Kirk is struggling to raise troubled, young James Tiberius.)

But none of that, obnoxious though it may be, fully defines the failure of this movie to capture the zeitgeist of the original Star Trek. Instead, defeat, as it so often does, results from indecisiveness. The writers clearly want to retain the essence of the characters even as they update them for a younger and more demanding audience. The problem, however, is that Original Trek was, for better or worse, a non-transferable relic of its era. Regardless of their 23rd Century conceits, the men and women of Star Trek remained, even after a half dozen or so increasingly embarrassing sequels, unmistakable products of the 1960s. The flavor of that era, all the ambivalence about sex and race and militarism, the competing worlds of Cape Canaveral and Haight-Ashbury, the fundamental debates about freedom and justice, informed and indelibly shaped the series and its characters.

Take, for example, James T. Kirk. As portrayed (too often broadly) by William Shatner, Old Kirk offered a simmering stew of contradictions, on the one hand romantic peacemaker, on the other horn-dog cowboy, part MLK and part LBJ. New Kirk, however, perhaps because of his fatherless background, but more likely because of his Gen Y orientation, is all horn-dog cowboy. Old Kirk would never have opened fire on a helpless spacecraft, no matter how much he loathed its occupants. Old Kirk had moments of crippling self doubt, even if he rarely expressed them on the bridge. New Kirk, by contrast, never budges from his one-note cockiness and a level of self-assurance that would have daunted even George W. Bush in his frat-boy-in-full "Mission Accomplished" phase.

The duality of Spock, of course, is written into his DNA, though the mixed race metaphor obviously meant something a bit more profound in the age of Selma and Birmingham than it does in the era of Barack Obama. The idea that a younger Spock would find it periodically difficult to harness his emotions seems in keeping with the character. That he would be knocking boots with Lt. Uhura does not. Even a 20-something Spock would have understood that it's illogical to cavort with a subordinate.

In the end, Paramount's latest milking of their venerable cash cow fails its own test of duality. The writers want it both ways. They intend to erase the entire history of the original five-year voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which they do, thanks to time travel, a crazy Romulan, and the galaxy's most astonishingly equipped mining vessel. But they also wish to recapture the core relationships and tensions that characterized the old show. They seem, from beginning to end, unaware that they cannot do both. And, as any fan of the 1960s Star Trek could have told them, unresolved duality rarely leads to anything good.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Six Waterboardings a Day Keep bin Laden Away

I know it's been a while, and I obviously don't have the time to keep up a decent blog anymore, but occasionally something needs to be said.

We have now learned that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times during just one month in 2003. Since that month was March, that works out to just under six administrations of torture each and every day, assuming the barbarians didn't tempt both irony and fate by taking Sundays off. You wonder if they had a schedule posted somewhere, maybe in the breakroom. "Hey, guys, gotta run, or I'll be late for the 6 o'clock waterboarding,"

Anyway, here's my point. A decade or two may have passed since I took freshman logic, but I don't think you can absorb this news without determining that one of the following three statements must be true. Either:

1) torture works, but only on the 183rd try (not only does this seem unlikely, but it would also negate any further talk of a so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario); or

2) torture doesn't work, and after 183 waterboardings, they finally gave up; or

3) torture works within the first three or four times it is administered, and the remaining 180 or so waterboardings were simply proof that Bush, Cheney, Rice, and the rest are unambiguously depraved brutes who gratuitously tortured a man nearly two hundred times because they derived some sort of twisted sense of empowerment from the practice.

If #1 is true, waterboarding should be abandoned as a hopelessly inefficient methodology, particularly if information is needed immediately. If #2 is true, waterboarding should be abandoned because it is futile as well as barbaric. If #3 is true, we are dealing with some world class war criminals who need to answer for their deeds in a court of law.

So which is it?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The End of Libertarianism

OK, I get it. We have to bail out Wall Street or face the wrath of Herbert Hoover. Ultimately, a trillion dollars will change hands and sleazebags everywhere will sleep easier.

At the moment, Congress is debating the conditions under which they will entrust the failed Bush administration with the money to undo its third greatest failure (after Iraq and Katrina).

So here's my condition. If we do this--and you know we're going to--I want Congress to pass a law enjoining libertarians from ever again showing their faces in polite society. Shutter the Cato Institute. Ship the collected works of Ayn Rand over to the comedy section at Barnes and Noble. Treat Phil Gramm with the same contempt reserved for the Marxist college professor who still defends Joe Stalin and the USSR.

My libertarian friends, we have tried it your way and your way is a failure. Your invisible hand mocks us with its large middle finger. The Reagan Revolution has ended, utterly discredited and beyond redemption. Time to re-re-name National Airport. Time for Grover Norquist and all the other proponents of radical deregulation to book their rooms in history's dustbin.

The era of small government is over.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How Not to Act Like a Real University

This morning I was looking for the latest polling data on But I accidentally typed When I did so, I was directed to the website of the University of Phoenix. I know it's common practice for some people and groups to buy up various url's and use them to direct unwitting web surfers to a specific (usually for-profit) site. But it never occurred to me that an institution claiming to be in the higher education business would consider it appropriate to do so.

I could add a comment here, but some things just speak for themselves.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

No Idea is Ever Original

Just found this from the front page of Daily Kos:

"The Obama campaign responds to Tracy Flick's speech:"

And as always, it is impossible to mention Kos without thanking him and his followers for helping to create the monster that Joe Lieberman has become. Their efforts in support of the Dukakis-like Ned Lamont, along with their pitiful ignorance of Connecticut election law, have combined to make the embittered Lieberman the most effective pitchman the Republicans have.

Don't get me wrong: I consider Lieberman to be a sanctimonious jackass, but at least he was our sanctimonious jackass. Now he's Exhibit A in the McCain effort to affect bipartisanship and to separate himself from Bush. Good job, guys.

Now I Know Who She Is...

I watched Sarah Palin tonight, and she reminded me of someone. But I couldn't place it. Then it suddenly struck me. She's Tracy Flick, the Reese Witherspoon character from "Election".