I was a Libertarian in college. I even volunteered for the 1980 Ed Clark/David Koch (yes, that David Koch) Libertarian party presidential campaign. As promised, the following is the story of how I outgrew Libertarianism. There were three factors:
I became increasingly aware that many Libertarians arguing stridently against governmental regulation had business interests which would benefit directly. And while, as a Libertarian at the time, I saw nothing inherently wrong with greed, it bothered me that they claimed their political philosophy to be idealistic and sincere. Greed may be fine, but hypocrisy is not.
Furthermore, real Libertarianism isn't socio-economic Darwinism. It's not "fuck the poor". It doesn't blithely shrug at poverty and distress. The idea is for an unfettered free market to float everyone higher, and for vigorous private philanthropy to arise to patch up any social damage (to his credit, David Koch actually is one of the nation's top philanthropists). I was prepared to do my conscientious best to help. But few of my fellow idealists seemed as committed to the "patching up" part as they were to the "greed is good" part.
"Let the most ruthless grab all the gold, and hope someone patches up the wounded later" didn't strike me as a cause I could get behind.
2. Wariness of Egghead Utopias
As I studied political philosophy in college, I came to realize that there's no lastingly viable political system. In the long run, nothing works. Nothing has ever worked. Nothing ever will work. Every system is corruptible, and in the end all but a tiny minority gets screwed. Fortunately, things inevitably churn. Discontentment peaks, corrupt, unviable systems are overturned, and a fresh new corrupt, unviable system replaces it. The ending of Animal Farm is not a tale of failure. On contrary, it's humanity's sole saving grace that the pigs in charge are periodically replaced by slightly less entrenched pigs. That's really the best we can hope for. Blame Eve for eating that apple.
But every century or so eggheads proclaim some smug new utopian plan (which always sounds great on paper) destined to create a permanent steady state of prosperity and happiness. Communism was one. Libertarianism is another. But pure intellectual concepts always lack real world pragmatism. You can announce your brilliant pure plan but I don't believe it, I don't trust it, and I know it's bullshit before you even explain it to me.
3. Meeting Real Live Poor People
The idea made sense at first: level the competitive playing field, remove restrictions, and let the best and brightest superheat a blazing economy for the betterment of all. Sort of like America, but without the sludgey inefficiency. It also made sense that those who'd fall behind would have only themselves to blame. Hey, they had an equal shot, right?
I envisioned myself in such a scenario, making decisions, expending energy, and using my resourcefulness to compete. Yeah, it'd work! And I imagined some lazy dude (currently on, like, welfare or something), opting to hang out smoking Pall Malls in front of the 7-11. Fine, to each his own. We make our choices. It seemed equitable as I thought it all through.
Here's the problem with "thinking it all through":
You may have been following my series, "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", the story of how I sold Chowhound to CNET (now CBS). Here's a flash-ahead. There were times when my boss needed to make deep decisions about the site's future. I'd watch him close his eyes and envision how things would unfold, how it would impact users, etc.. But it was ludicrous because the guy knew nothing about food and had nothing in common with Chowhound's users. His taste, his vision, his ideas were from a different planet. Yet the vein on his forehead would pulse as he'd boldly envision it all. Very smart, very savvy...and invariably very wrong.
It can be useful to try to envision scenarios, but only if you have deep knowledge of the various factors. And my caricature of poor people hanging out in front of 7-11s wasn't exactly deep knowledge! As I'd envisioned it, libertarian societies made visceral good sense - but only because I was naive from my sheltered upbringing (show me a Libertarian, and I'll show you someone with a sheltered upbringing).
After graduation, I found myself living in a terrible shared apartment in a terrible neighborhood making $15,000/year as a jazz trombonist. I survived okay because I was smart, resourceful, and had middle class parents in the suburbs where I could, say, drive out and sleep in air conditioned comfort on hot August nights. I was educated. I had lots of smart, capable friends. I was articulate, young, intelligent, and healthy. I made a good impression. If trombone didn't work out, I had a world of possibilities open to me.
None of those things were true of the people around me. One fateful night, I had a beer with a grimly untalented middle-aged musician. He was neither a druggie nor an alcoholic, but he was only barely functional. He walked with a limp and didn't think too clearly. I looked into his eyes, and realized, with overwhelming empathy, that this guy, who'd worked hard all his life, and who was a really good, conscientious fellow, was hanging by a frigging thread, and had lived his entire life with one foot in the abyss. No resourcefulness, no connections, no education. Crappy genes, crappy family. And none of it was his fault. He was truly doing his very best with what he had. By just plain being there, reasonably healthy and well-fed, he'd overachieved more than I ever could hope to.
The scales fell from my eyes and for the first time I saw all my unearned advantages. And I fell into a reverie, envisioning myself with a never-ending lifelong case of flu, with fever impeding my intelligence, judgement and energy. My parents and friends were gone. I was on the verge of eviction from my apartment, and had no savings or education. I'd dropped out of high school to support myself, and had nobody smart to call for help or advice. No lifelines, no backup plans, no connections. Dizzy, feverish, and disheveled, I could hardly think straight. Let's add a couple of children to the picture, as well. Ok, hotshot: what's your move? How would you make out in a society with no safety net? What would be your odds? "My God," I thought to myself, shuddering with terror, "what on Earth would I do?"
After that night, I've had no interest at all in Libertarianism.
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