Tensions in Libertarianism: Weltschmerz at a Market Paradox

This essay was originally published at Discourses on Liberty on January 18th, 2012.

Closing image of Seventh Seal

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

 – Romans 3:23, King James Bible

“O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

We humans are a silly brigade; capable of great acts of transcendence and kindness in one moment, extreme pettiness and callousness in the next. In the same lifetime, the same day, in us at both times our dispositional pendulum swings. My most recent writing has been upon the subject of empathy, personal responsibility, and how we ought to care about what we choose to support with our consumer dollars, and yet caring is the silliest part, because even I – the exhorter – am still capable of extraordinary indifference to rival those of most shallow spirit; and even if one is to care, it isn’t always clear that we can put our values into play in a meaningful sense due to the conditions of human understanding and ability. If this be our desire, is satisfaction and salvation possible?

This paradox is veiled at the heart of libertarian thought. Libertarians want free trade and decentralization, the reempowering of the individual and smaller social units to make meaningful decisions about how the world around them should look, but they are faced with the fact that people can and will choose poorly, and more importantly, the dispersion of economic knowledge means that the market system writ large is virtually the inverse of responsibility. Much celebrated among free marketeers is the concept of private vice and public virtue; by market actors pursuing their own narrow self interest, even to the exclusion of all other concerns, they are forced to serve the needs of others and thus inadvertently produce harmonious social order and cooperation. This displacing of our extra-egoistic concerns is touted as one of the best parts of the market, and indeed it produces a powerful social force, but it comes at the cost of occasionally feeling at the mercy of a world pre-defined and without moral content save our own pleasure.

Benjamin Constant noted in On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns, that in times when the social scale was much smaller, freedom was understood as participation in power and governance, as immortalized by Cicero’s maxim, but there was much less privacy in those societies. In the mass societies of the modern world, active political participation is for all intents and purposes a thing of the past, and our primary realm of freedom is that of relatively anonymous individual consumptive choice.

Many of my radically left friends are less optimistic regarding this evolution of freedom, and are also very dubious about delegating to the market the massive responsibility of consumption. They generally are willing to live up to Edward Abbey’s praiseworthy maxim, “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.”

They’re willing to stand up, work for consensus, organize horizontally, take people’s deeply held feelings and lived experiences into account, challenge privilege, and encourage a more deeply liberatory culture. I sincerely admire this impulse as among the most noble in the human canon, but my Lord is it exhausting! Not everyone wants to be a perennial pot-stirrer, stormily confronting the world and trying to shape it at tri-weekly meetings and potlucks.

The market system gives us an out from this demanding activist culture, for better or for worse. It allows for almost complete passivity in the most pejorative consumerist sense – disinterestedly shoveling shit into one’s mouth and house – and it still works. You don’t have to care how your products got there. You don’t have to know the person in town whom sells the desired ware, care about her in any meaningful way, and give her a goat when the season’s informal reciprocity arrives. The market enables our drive toward a total lack of interest in human causality.

Consider the case of I, Pencil, a classic parable of market economics which shows the incredible amount of cooperation and trade that went into the production of such a simple tool. These steps become multiplied until nearly the entire economy is represented in every pencil when we look at the machines which produced the pencil-producing machines, the tools which created those machines, the feeding, clothing, and sheltering the laborers whom worked in the production processes, and so on. The good is bundled with the bad; I can’t know all of the conditions that went into the production of my pencil, and even if I could, many have argued that boycotting or choosing alternate goods will hurt the very people at the bottom of the system whom most need my purchases to improve their living and labor conditions. Even if I want to vote with my dollar, and vote for more dignified values, I might be hurting the people I most want to help.[1] Doomed to sin, doomed to participate in that which I despise; the Christian concept of depravity belongs in this existential ambiguity.

If conscientious consumerism is doomed, then at what cost the market comes! A culture of deference (beyond ‘to bootmakers with regard to boots’, etc.) is unsuitable for preserving a libertarian society. We want people whom take responsibility for themselves and their choices as market forces very seriously if they are to be unregulated by the state. This struggle is at best a severe tension in libertarian theory.

This path I’ve proceeded down could conceivably be framed as altruistic in the Randian pejorative sense. I sometimes feel my superego glaring at my powerlessness and my inability to consistently live up to a standard and support my values; trapped by my facticity, my self-absorption, and my hedonic desire.

When I told a dear friend of mine of a leftward and ecoconscious orientation about this dilemma, she recounted some of the techniques in which she seeks to mitigate her culpability in this process, one of which was dumpster diving. I replied that I occasionally dumpster dived, but is this non-universalizable practice really our way out? This is the dignified and flourishing human being we’re supposed to strive to be? People who eat out of the garbage?

I also shared this problem with a friend of mine whom is spiritually-oriented, interested in meditation, yoga, and playing music. He shared with me the story of a yogi in India whom has had his arm lifted for several decades. I may have once thought such a person wise and intriguing, but at that moment a clarity came over me; why are these human tableaux of deliberate suffering and prostration our ideal? If this human, apologetic to be alive, is our salvation, then we must hurl ourselves at the mercy of the Universe and ask forgiveness for the conditions which we are forced by nature to exist within, as Christianity has at essence understood.

Viewed from this vista, it should be clear why egoists challenge this self-flagellating method of thinking. Friedrich Nietzsche mused, “Man is the cruelest animal. More than anything on earth he enjoys tragedies, bullfights and crucifixions; and when he invented Hell for himself, it was his heaven on earth.” Egoism means egression from our indulgent immolation and pleadings for mercy. It’s an attempt to rescue people from the suffering necessarily born out of altruism’s obsession with human limitation and depravity. Striving for altruism may very well doom us to chasing spooks while sacrificing what we can actually achieve. However, egoism comes with its own series of trade-offs; a world in which one’s own pleasure/satisfaction/virtue is one’s goal does not supply a compelling narrative, save for a few.

Perhaps our conceptualizations of ourselves have been rendered grandiose by literature and Hollywood, and while I can acknowledge the beauty and salvific appeal of the egoistic aesthetic’s self-determined being, I simultaneously feel the desire for a moral mission greater than my own happiness; to be absorbed into a collective in which there is no fundamental condition of lack or alienation, and in which my particularity has vanished. I am pulled in the direction of each poetic system which successfully demystifies a certain aspect of the human condition, but I am still uncertain as to how to understand my place in the world, and dare I strive, to understand humanity’s place in existence.

These themes are certainly not exclusive to libertarianism, but are part of the current status of the human condition. The paradoxes and contradictions of human life in the Heraclitean realm are deeply poetic, absurd, and hilarious – simultaneously touching, tragic, and alienating. The world is improving, but some members of the flock will be left behind. We will never give as much as we can, and even if we could, such an ethic demands a forever prostrate humanity, and poignant a paysage as such a philosophy is, I’m skeptical that it is worth living under. Someone across the tightrope might very well look back at my straddling and declare, “You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm,” and they would not be incorrect, but alas, my soul is partitioned!*

[1] I’m not convinced this is the case, though if my interlocutors are correct on this count, I would make the argument as laid out in this paper.

[*] I recently read F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit and something he said struck me very strongly. He hypothesizes that the extended order of the marketplace and its incredible growth of interconnection and cooperation has been hugely beneficial for humanity, but we have never lost our instinctual drive toward more solidaristic, personal, and collective ways of being. The struggle I explain in this piece seems well-explained by this insight, and if I would have read it at the time of originally writing this essay, I almost certainly would have cited it. (Dec. 6th, 2012)


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