Archive for May 2010
Rand Paul’s implosion has made it cool to make fun of libertarianism this week, as this tone-deaf idiot decides to “champion freedom” by defending one of the most despicable companies on Earth (British Petroleum) and by attacking one of the most popular pieces of legislation ever passed (the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
Libertarianism is an easy target in today’s climate. Rand’s decline shows just how absurd it is to try and defend abstract political principles in a world that is hopelessly dependent on government and willfully ignorant about economics.
Rand Paul’s implosion, and the gleeful reaction to it, has convinced me of something I’ve known for a while but never quite put into words. The Libertarians are never going to win this argument.
We’re never going to gain a foothold in the culture, we’re never going to move the hearts of the electorate, and we’re never going to elevate the level of discourse on economic issues.
Politically and culturally we are impotent. The left dominates the hearts and minds of the young, the old, the rich, and the poor. The right appeals to a narrow band of disaffected rednecks and angry senior citizens, but these voters aren’t really doing anything but rebelling against tax increases.
Culturally, the Tea Party people are a joke. They’ve been written off as a band of angry Southern racists, and they can’t be taken seriously, even when they win elections.
There is no credible force fighting for free markets and smaller government today. The Democrats are locked in battle with the Republicans of course, but these are Republicans who bailed out the banks and created a new Medicare entitlement.
Greece is rioting. The European economies are about to collapse under their own debt. The American debt to GDP ratio is approaching critical mass. Our economic “recovery” is based on a nested series of lies and accounting tricks. And no one is really talking about it.
Certainly no politicians are running on it. No one in the mainstream media is taking this seriously. And the best the free market champions can muster is a bumbling idiot who wants to kick MLK out of his lunch counter.
I’ve had to accept that no matter how bad the economy gets, the libertarians (of whatever party) are never going to win the argument. But it doesn’t matter. Because the opposition isn’t at war with “us” the opposition is at war with reality, and reality is going to happen anyway.
Arguments, theories, philosophies, and debates are all irrelevant. We’re out of money and no amount of rhetoric can make it come back. The only question remaining is how long we can shift the bad debt around, and who is going to suffer the consequences first.
These pensions, welfare benefits and health care schemes are not sustainable. Somebody’s going to have to cut them. And most of the cutting will be done by Democrats. Republicans are assumed to be heartless bastards who want to kill off the elderly and starve the poor.
We’ll probably give them the ball first. Some hard-assed Republican will cut spending by a meager amount and take the political heat for it. The Democrats will crucify him and kick him out in one term. Then they’ll take the White House and realize the situation is even WORSE than the Republicans said it was.
The Democrats will end up cutting more programs more deeply than the Republican did, but they’re Democrats so they can hide behind the notion that however bad their cuts are, the Republican cuts would have been worse.
The cultural deck is stacked so that libertarians will never have power and the electorate won’t tolerate cuts from Republicans so the most severe cutbacks in American history will be sponsored by Democrats. Because no one else can do it.
It’s possible no one will do it, of course. We might go the way of California and just keep denying reality until the checks bounce, but that seems unlikely.
Europe will give us a crystal-clear preview of the disaster to come and the American media will demand a response. Cuts that would seem cruel coming from a Republican will be praised as “brave” when they come from a Democrat, and tons of moderate voters would cross the line to vote for a conservative Democrat.
So no, the coming crisis won’t change any fundamental assumptions in the electorate. It won’t lead to a Libertarian Renaissance. But it will set the stage for the Second Coming of Bill Clinton, a Democrat who can cut spending and make you like it.
We don’t need a libertarian messiah. We need a Democrat who can lie — a Democrat who will break every campaign promise and sell out every constituency until the job is done.
We need a new FDR. FDR ran right and governed left, and the people made him a god. What will people think of a Democrat who runs like Obama and cuts like Reagan? Angel or devil, his day is coming.
And in the meantime, we can all make fun of Rand Paul.
Paul had been on Maddow’s show before, treated with the amiable contempt that leftists reserve for right-wing types who criticize Republicans and have no real chance of getting elected. But the instant this libertarian clown became a credible candidate, Rachel took the gloves off.
The video is excruciating to watch, as Rand dodges the question over and over again. He’s articulating the standard libertarian position on such things, opposing institutionalized racism like the Jim Crow laws, insisting that the government treat everyone as equal under the law while leaving private businesses free to discriminate.
Maddow knows exactly where the weak point is and she has him dead to rights. But he won’t admit it.
And this is precisely why libertarians (under any label) will never be a credible force in American politics. Libertarianism is a collection of political principles, principles that carry the force of religious commandments in the hearts of the faithful.
But modern politics leaves no room for principle. Modern politics is a game of artifice, strategy, and power. You stick your finger in the air and say what it takes to get elected. Once you’re in office, you carefully ride the line between constituents and campaign donors and hope you survive long enough to champion something you actually believe in.
There is no room for sentiment in this process. Principled convictions are weak spots to be exploited by the opposition. Any firmly stated principle is going to alienate 43% of the country, so the most successful politicians in modern history have believed in nothing at all.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may hold authentic leftist convictions in their hearts. Their staffers certainly do. But their first priority is to keep power. And they never take their eyes off that ball.
They say whatever it takes to get elected and they avoid arbitrary statements of principle, knowing that any absolute declaration can be used against them in a campaign.
Libertarians don’t think like this. They’ve been out of power so long, they don’t know how to think like politicians. The idea of compromising principles to gain power is repulsive to them.
“And that,” says Karl Rove Yoda, “is why you fail.”
This is not an Internet forum thread. This is not a dorm room bull session. This is not an afternoon debate at The Federalist Society. This is American political theater. It’s a dirty, despicable game that plays to the worst instincts of the electorate, and Rachel Maddow is on the front line.
There is no room for nuance, hypothetical situations, or historical fantasy here. This is war. A brutal war for the soul of the country, with a trillion-dollar prize at the end. Pandering to the electorate is the only way to win.
I understand the philosophical foundation of Rand’s position and I know what he was trying to say. He believes discrimination is morally wrong. Believes it more deeply than your average Southern Democrat. But he’s morally opposed to the use of force. He understands the overwhelming power of government and thinks it should only be used when it is absolutely necessary.
He knows that every use of government power comes with a laundry list of unintended consequences, and that many of those consequences will hurt the people he’s trying to help.
He is horrified by the idea of government-sanctioned discrimination and would fight like hell to make sure everyone was treated fairly under the law.
But fundamentally, libertarians think people have the right to be stupid. You have the right to destroy your life with drugs. You have the right to smoke until your lungs fall out. You have the right to allow smoking or ban it in your place of business. And you have the right to decide who you sell your goods and services to, as long as you don’t threaten people with violence or try to impose your views on the business next door.
I expect Rand believes, like I do, that a country that allowed businesses to discriminate would end up looking a lot like our world today. Business owners would learn that discrimination is bad for business. Open-minded people would boycott racist business owners and shame them into opening their doors.
And when that society had driven out all but the most backwards and intransigent holdouts, it would be healthier and more benevolent towards minorities, precisely because that change was voluntary.
Can I prove this? Not really. There are so many variables here I’d have to invent a time machine to test it properly. I was going to try and use discrimination against the Irish as an example of prejudice that had been overcome naturally, but it’s not a perfect fit.
Like most libertarians, I base my position on some fundamental observations of human nature. When people are forced to do the right thing by government, they resent it, and the pressure builds. But when they are shamed into doing the right thing by their friends, their neighbors, and the general climate of their culture, it feels natural and it tends to stick.
There is less resentment, and ultimately less violence when people have the freedom to be stupid and the choice to be virtuous.
A complicated, nuanced position with tremendous room for disagreement and debate. I’m disgusted by the idea of discrimination and would certainly be tempted to use government power as a shortcut, but I think it would be better for society as a whole, and better for the people we’re trying to protect, if we let people grow into the idea.
You think I could fit that statement into a sound bite on Maddow? You think it would convince Democrats in her audience? You think it would garner support from Republicans who are fighting tooth and nail against the agenda of our first black president? You think the mass of Tea Party people, who are already assumed to be racist until proven innocent would rally behind me for saying it?
The narrative on Civil Rights is firmly established in the popular imagination. Discrimination was evil and the power of the federal government stopped it. The end.
There is no room for nuance in this opinion. The overwhelming majority of Americans are happy with the results of this legislation and the few that aren’t think it didn’t go far enough.
Rand Paul has thrown his career away in support of a position that absolutely does not matter. This battle is over and the government side has already won. It’s never going to come up in the Senate. He’s never going to vote on it. It would cost him nothing to lie about this issue and keep his mouth shut. But he’s a libertarian, and libertarians stick to their principles, no matter what it costs. (Or at least until their campaign managers sit them down with a pair of dolls and a stack of poll numbers and explain the Facts of Life.)
If Rand had misrepresented his opinion and expressed enthusiastic support for the Civil Rights Act, what would have happened? Eighty libertarians on a mailing list would call him a hypocrite, and then it would be over.
He could have ridden the Tea Party momentum into office and opposed government spending for the next 20 years. He could have advocated free market solutions to health care and pension problems at a crucial moment in American history. He could have voted against corporate welfare and taken a stand against government bailouts at a time when greed and cronyism are tearing this country apart.
But now he’ll be forgotten until he comes back to endorse his own son in 2054.
We’d like to believe in a world where voters reward consistency and admire people who stick up for what they believe in, but that only works in the movies. In the real world, you have to measure what the majority believes and position yourself precisely between left and right.
Modern politics is a street fight. These guys are walking around with pistols and switchblades, sneaking around in the dark and performing rhetorical drive-bys.
Rand Paul showed up in full SCA gear and started swatting people with a cardboard tube. Nice tabard, Rand, but you’re in the real world now.
You can try to backpedal, but once you let the racist cat out of the rhetorical bag, it’s over.