Sunday, November 11, 2007

Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death

As Ron Paul progresses from footnote to gadfly to phenomenon, on a journey that must inevitably lead back to footnote (it's not as though the guy has any real chance of becoming president), it is worth reflecting on the libertarianism that drives his growing popularity. The political media, accustomed as they are to covering men and women who regulate for a living, are generally unschooled in libertarian longings. They have, until recently, treated Paul as the Republicans' Dennis Kucinich, the seventh man in a six-man debate, someone whose plain spoken quirkiness allows lazy pundits to whip out the usual clich├ęs about tin-foil hats and untightened screws.

But then Quirky Ron went out and raised a whole bunch of money and the Beltway pundits found themselves without a script. They quickly canvassed their sources and determined that Paul, despite his windfall, was unlikely to win any of the early primaries. So they went back to talking about Fred, Mitt, Rudy, and John.

It's not entirely their fault. A profession built on constant deadlines and fierce internecine competition is almost pre-programmed to ignore the tectonic shift in favor of the local earthquake. They did it with Howard Dean four years ago, fretting over Dean's prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire, oblivious to the transformation of progressive politics that his candidacy represented.

I sense the same thing happening today. After three decades at the margins of American political life, libertarianism has finally come of age. The ambitions of Ron Paul are secondary to the sense of empowerment felt by activists who had previously measured success as the occasional election of a member or two to the Idaho or Alaska state legislature. Paul is the libertarians' Howard Dean, their Barry Goldwater, the man whose doomed candidacy has brought them together and made them realize what they might collectively achieve.

This is, in short, a very disturbing development.

As a philosophy, libertarianism is enormously seductive. It provides fairly simple answers to the most difficult political questions. Adherents possess a nearly childlike faith in the marketplace, believing that the private not only invariably outperforms the public, but does so in a way that creates the greatest possible benefit for all concerned. The libertarian platform can be easily affixed to the bumpers of even the smallest cars: Abolish the IRS! Support School Choice! Privatize Social Security! Legalize Drugs! End the War!

There are numerous pathologies that adhere to the libertarian philosophy, but the worst is the classic bunko artist's promise of something for nothing. If we shutter the office of internal revenue, how will we fight the next influenza pandemic? When we permit the over the counter sale of methamphetamines, who will pay for treating abusers before they become predators? How will we warehouse the physically and emotionally disabled students whose school choice vouchers are rejected by profit-maximizing private academies? What will we tell the retiree who made defensible, but ultimately ruinous choices when selecting an investment portfolio?

To the extent libertarians do anything more than brush these questions aside, they generally argue that voluntary associations, churches and charities, will provide the necessary safety net. They will feed the hungry, treat the addict, and take in the homeless. Parochial schools will find room for the costliest students. Peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars, and it will all happen without the extortionist intervention of the state.

I don't know about you, but when devoted followers of Ayn Rand attempt to reassure me that we will all be saved by altruism, I start to worry. A lot.

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