This election cycle’s crop of uninspiring presidential hopefuls, now including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, must be a relief to those favoring mass disillusionment with electoral politics. No candidate, Rand Paul included, represents a convincing alternative to the status quo. Contrast this with the current president, whose appeals to “hope” and “change” convinced many Americans of his sincerity in 2008 – appeals that largely proved to be a rhetorical device.
While Obama did little to end the unpopular Bush era policies that he campaigned against, and actually expanded some, important lessons can still be learned from his successful manipulation of popular frustrations.
Obama ran against an establishment Republican at a time of soaring deficits, prolonged expensive wars, an increasingly intrusive national security state and a recently failed economy. While the US economy may have slowly improved, many of the frustrations that Obama exploited to get elected are still present.
The threat of warfare in the Middle East still looms over the horizon; the security state has been caught spying on innocent civilians; the administration’s drone program is killing large numbers of people, mostly civilians; the militarized police still harass and kill unarmed minorities; an entire generation is burdened with debt; and Americans are still overworked and underpaid. Unsurprisingly, the notion of “business as usual” has taken on an extremely negative connotation for many Americans.
A little change would be nice right now. This is why it is disappointing to see how status quo-oriented and conservative so many libertarians have become. Recently, numerous articles from libertarian outlets have defended existing economic inequality and the current distribution of wealth. Not only does such rhetoric miss the opportunity to point out the numerous ways government intervenes to shift wealth upwards, it is completely tone deaf to those Americans who spent the last several years dealing with job loss, insecurity and runaway debt. That is to say: anyone outside the choir of rich white guys the libertarian mainstream so often preaches to.
This, along with the practice of holding up individuals who’ve made fortunes exploiting the government’s patent system, or shipping infrastructure as products of the “free market,” shows a libertarianism neutered of its radicalism. While such libertarians will happily discuss the evils of the minimum wage or the welfare state, government interventions that benefit the rich and are integral to the status quo get a pass. Suggestions that we should more aggressively oppose eminent domain, or oppose the various liability caps given to big business are completely outside consideration. Apparently, state intervention is fine if helps profits, as long as poor people aren’t given handouts.
I have been explicitly told that much of what I advocate would alienate most libertarians today, and that such high standards of philosophical consistency are counter-productive. The notion that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” seems to have been largely thrown out the window. This is the reaction I received after suggesting that David and Charles Koch’s alleged libertarianism ends where their business interests begin. The possibility that the Kochs’ influence has made the libertarian movement more conservative, elitist, status quo friendly and uninspiring, is also beyond consideration.
The potential of free markets for radical change appears to frighten the libertarian mainstream. The notion that firms like Walmart would have to radically change their business models in a free market, or that wealth would be more evenly distributed in a world without government-granted monopolies or barriers to entry, is threatening to those in love with the current distribution of wealth. Apparently, so is the idea that a free market would empower organized labor, or that in a free society we could likely abolish the need to work all together.
While such ideas may alienate the wealthy businessmen who fund think tanks, they have great potential to inspire the overworked, underpaid, job-insecure Americans who thirst for real change. It is hard to see why anyone would be enthused with a political philosophy that promises to make things only slightly better or one that says the status quo is just fine, except for the welfare state. This is not a just a matter of framing. Government-granted monopolies and entry barriers harm millions of people, as does war and imperialism. A world without these things would be so incalculably different from today’s world that opposing them implies radicalism and positive change. Libertarianism taken to its logical conclusion is not a conservative or moderate position. It is not a position that is friendly to elites. Let’s bring a little radicalism back to a philosophy that should be radical by its very nature.