The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism

Ted Levy makes some excellent points in “Is the Pool of Liberty Drying Up?“:

…[A] few years ago [David Boaz, executive vice president of Cato Institute] made a well received but, I think, incomplete analysis of liberty….

Boaz’s thoughts were well articulated in a 2010 piece, found here on Reason.com: Up From Slavery: There’s No Such Thing As A Golden Age of Lost Liberty.

… Boaz notes Cato pamphlets used to include as the Institute’s raison d’être, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” And then, Boaz notes, a visiting Clarence Thomas, prior to his ascension to the Supreme Court, pointed out black people didn’t look at matters quite that way.

And not only black people, of course, though the awfulness of slavery is hard to trump. But the political liberties, or lack thereof, of Jews, gays, and women were also not proud applications of individual liberty in America’s past.

Then there’s Brink Lindsey’s argument, quoted by Boaz, from Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance (2007): Looking at liberty’s gains in the last half-century, Lindsey writes: “Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. …cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.”

Lindsey’s is a hopeful message, and makes points similar to those made by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch in their 2011 book The Declaration of Independents. Gillespie and Welch note that in all areas of life not touched by the mailed fist of government, things have improved dramatically in much less than a century. Save for the areas government controls–our educational system, our health care, our retirement plans–things are quite rosy.

But of course our educational system, health care, and retirement needs are not de minimis aspects of our lives…. The financial sector has undergone massive re-regulation since Lindsey wrote, and there is a resurgence of opposition to both international free trade and simple rules to limit the political power of public-sector unions. Finally, “the pretensions of macroeconomic fine tuning” have hardly, in the days of Obama, been “abandoned,” and Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney disagree only with Obama’s choices, not the principle of fine-tuning the economy from Washington.

…Things are better for blacks, for women, for a diverse and important subset of Americans. But this captures only part of the dynamic. We now, all of us, have our rights recognized equally. And we now, all of us, equally, have less rights than some of us did before. Is this a gain from a libertarian perspective?

Liberty is like the water in a swimming pool. You can dive in, and be surrounded by freedom. In the past, the pool was large and deep. Those who could dive in were engulfed in liberty. It was everywhere. There was so much liberty you could drown in it if you were not careful, but people exposed to liberty were buoyant, and liberty lifted you.

And entry into the pool, for many, was their birthright. It could not be taken away. The lifeguard at the pool was like a night watchman, seldom needed, helpful in emergencies.

Sadly, though, and wrongly, the pool was restricted. No blacks allowed, with only token exceptions. No Jews. No gays. No women. Property owners preferred. Yet despite all this, the pool and the opportunity to dive into it attracted millions from all over the world.

Over time, two things happened, one good, one bad. Rules were changed to allow more people to enter the pool. Over time first blacks, then Asians, Jews, women–now, though not yet fully, even gays–have been allowed to join the club and enter the pool. Sadly, at the same time, the pool has been shrinking. Once the pool was gigantic in size. As James Wilson might have said, “Measure the size of the pool? I am sure, sirs, that no gentleman in the late Convention would have attempted such a thing.”…

Blacks can now enter the pool. Women can now get their toes wet. Gays are now free to wear the most outrageous swimsuits poolside. But no one–white or black; gay or straight; male or female; young or old–NO ONE can now do high dives into the deep end. It is too shallow. It would be dangerous. It is prohibited for our own safety. The waters of liberty now engulf no one, equally….

We do, clearly, today have more liberty in the sense it is available to more people. More people are allowed into the pool. But it is hard to appreciate how much the pool has shrunk. The shrinkage takes place over time, and on any given day the shrinkage may be difficult to notice….

When we watch a race where some runners are shackled, we recognize it as unfair. We see the liberty of the shackled runners restricted if they are weighted down by the force of law. When we call out for greater equality, should we be satisfied if the laws are changed so as to shackle all runners equally, or should we remain unsatisfied until shackles are removed, and no one is weighted down?

On the March 8th episode of his eponymous Fox Business Network (FBN) show, John Stossel provided the second in a series on the huge expansion of laws under which we suffer in America, “Is Everything Illegal in America Today?” He noted in the last year alone the Federal government has generated 160,000 pages of NEW laws and regulations, restrictions on freedom, excuses to imprison citizens. These are not further descriptions and elaborations of rape and murder, robbery and home invasion. Stossel tells of the man who was imprisoned for SIX YEARS because he sold seafood in the wrong containers, lobsters that, while not mislabeled to consumers, were nonetheless smaller than the legal salable size. Opening a lemonade stand in your front yard requires, in NYC, preliminary attendance at a 15 hour Food Protection class, and filling out many legal forms….

We are now, in the words of Proudhon, watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded. We are all in the pool now. And our feet are all equally barely wet. And while there was no Golden Age of Liberty, Americans today seem oblivious to a real and tragic loss, seem unaware they can no longer immerse themselves in liberty, can no longer swim unimpeded. Can no longer be everywhere surrounded by freedom.

Contrast Levy’s analysis with that of Jim Peron, writing in “The Disaster of Me Libertarianism.” Peron begins by repeating some “critiques of libertarianism”:

Libertarians are just conservatives who like drugs!

Libertarians are only concerned about themselves!

Libertarians don’t care what happens to other people?

Libertarians are selfish!

He then piles on:

I just spent a couple days at a libertarian conference. It was an experience that I find increasingly dismaying and disappointing because there has been a clear rightward shift in the libertarian movement….

But, what is interesting is listening to libertarians dismiss issues that are important to people who aren’t like them. Let us be truthful: the typical libertarian, and certainly the typical attendee at this conference, is a middle-aged, white, straight male. And, they seem utterly incapable of seeing freedom through the eyes of anyone who isn’t the same.

Mention equal marriage rights for gay people and they simply dismiss it as unimportant. If they aren’t actively opposed—and some were—they see it as inconsequential. If you talk about guns they often are interested since so many of them own firearms. If you talk about pornography they are interested. But when it comes to the barriers to immigration they don’t give a damn since they aren’t immigrants. They hate tax laws, but then they pay taxes. [Ed. note: The last is a fatuous observation. Of course they pay taxes, given the alternative of imprisonment and/or hefty fines.]

They really are libertarians who only see liberty as an issue as it applies to white, middle-aged, straight men (WMASM).

David Boaz wrote about the same thing by implication….

The piece by Boaz is the one mentioned by Levy. But Peron, unlike Levy, seems unaware that the pool of liberty is drying up, so focused is Peron on those “libertarians” who (according to him) do not share his (verbal) compassion for all creatures great and small. He recites some examples of un-libertarian attitudes, and summarizes them in this way:

All of this is what I call “me” libertarianism. That is the tendency of individual libertarians to interpret political trends only through their own experiences, without caring what the broader reality happens to be.

What is that “broader reality”?

We have millions of our fellow citizens who are freer today than they would have been had they lived in the golden age of liberty—whenever you think that might be. We have to be aware of their concerns as well. “Me” libertarianism references liberty only as it effects [sic] the speaker, without consideration of the freedom of others. It does send the message that libertarianism is selfish and about protecting privilege for white males only.

Others, who were not so privileged in the past, have trouble seeing how liberty will help them because so many advocates of liberty simply don’t care about how others are oppressed today. These libertarians do care about the issues that impact their own lives, but everyone else is inconsequential. Is it any wonder that so many African-Americans don’t see libertarians as interested in them? Is it really a surprise that libertarian meetings are so overwhelmingly male? Why is anyone surprised when the LBGT community ignores libertarianism, after libertarians have spent decades ignoring them?

The “libertarians” to whom Peron refers bear no resemblance to the libertarians who dominate the blogosphere. The latter are — almost to a white, middle-aged, straight man — very much pro-black, pro-illegal immigration, pro-LBGT (especially pro-homosexual “marriage”), pro “choice,” and so on.

But that contradiction is not the most serious flaw in Peron’s rant. This is:

[W]e should … fight for issues like marriage equality, the rights of immigrants, and reproductive rights for women…. We need to listen to people who are not like us.

In other words, Peron believes that liberty can be attained by destroying marriage (the bulwark of civil society); allowing illegal immigrants to pick the pockets of working Americans and vote for Democrats (world-class pickpockets themselves); and enabling state-sponsored murder, which encourages other eugenic practices.

Peron seems not to have noticed that the gains made by blacks, by women (in the workplace), by immigrants, and by homosexuals often have been proximate causes of the shrinkage of the pool of liberty. Those gains have been made by mainly through the agency of the state, by such techniques as restricting freedom of speech, punishing “incorrect” thoughts, redistributing income,, denying property rights, suppressing freedom of conscience, forbidding freedom of association, and granting admissions, jobs, and promotions to favored groups. (I must note that Levy slides by these specifics when he gives his reasons for the shrinkage of the pool of liberty.)

Finally, Peron wants us to believe that “freedom is indivisible.” Actually, it is divisible, as a mere glance at the outside world would tell hm. Some enjoy a lot of freedom; others enjoy less, very little, or none. But it is not libertarian to take freedom away from those who enjoy it, for the sake of “liberating” others — especially when those acts of “liberation” cause the pool of liberty to shrink.

I am all for the expansion of freedom, but not if it comes at the expense of my freedom. If that is “me” libertarianism, so be it.

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