Monday, July 30, 2007

Am I still a libertarian, given all of the "irritating truths"?


About a year ago I got a request from a group to contribute an essay on why I became a libertarian. Charles Murray had written a book like that in the 1990s. I did, and found myself going through all of the moral “due diligence” as to whether I really believe libertarianism can address some of the staggering issues that have ganged up on us in the past few years. It is not an easy time to be a libertarian. I wrote the following piece (link), and I must say that the editor, while intrigued, as disturbed by it.

Let me back into my concerns this way, with a personal candor chain. What’s important to me is to achieve a goal (in finding and publishing come publicly relevant truth), following my own golden compass, without having to accept the goals defined by others. In the course of doing so, I hopefully will attract the people that I want in my life. In fact, when I am able to do this, at a certain personal level this works. I do not need to be jealous of anyone, and I have interaction the people that I feel attracted to. But it does shortcircuit the idea of taking responsibility for anyone else based on that person’s need.

Think again about the existential meaning behind the preferences that I sometimes express as a gay male. One paradox is that, in the upward affiliation and feeling of attraction to a male who is more “competitive,” I am in a sense reinforcing the notion that ancestry and procreation really are important functions and generate important personal values, even if I don’t participate directly myself. Instead, I seem to be “judging” whom I think is the most “suitable.” When this is just a private life matter – a private choice – it doesn’t matter, in any sense of how classical liberalism works now. But it does matter as it gets expressed and circulated publicly – in writings, movies, television icons, and anecdotes, and in the ability to make altruistic commitments to others. This is just not as private as we used to pretend. This “private judgmentalism” puts a lot of straight men on edge. It sets up a kind of "aesthetic fundamentalism," that, whatever its origins in personal freedom, can marginalize people as surely as does a lot of fundamentalist religion, and can set up existential traps questioning the motives of people in pursuing their own values and refusing to compete in more conventional ways when given the chance.

I did, in the late nineties, with the first two books, generate a lot of discussion of fundamental rights, and categories of individual rights. We talked about a “Bill of Rights 2”. But, of course, 9/11 suddenly confronted us with the reminder that we should not take our freedoms for granted. There are “big issues” involving security, the environment, energy, public health, raising the next generation and taking care of previous ones. Liberals have typically want to solve these with big government programs (and an emphasis on “solidarity”). Libertarianism, in pure form, wants an unregulated market (with just adherence to contract) to solve these problems (call it “market fundamentalism” or “extreme capitalism” or “hyper-individualism”). Social conservatism begrudgingly recognizes the importance of “sharing sacrifice” at the personal level and wants to force this through religion and “family values” and is often walking a tightrope where self-righteousness morphs quickly into corruption. The old Nolan Chart (“the World’s Smallest Political Quiz”) gives an overview.

Nevertheless, in my own circumstances, I have to deal with the painful reality that I have my own kind of payback issue, and I grasp for principals to explain this. Libertarianism, while trying to remove formal government from making personal decisions, sometimes leaves questions about the “morality” of more subtle aspects of personal responsibility up to Dr. Phil. The fact is, if we carry “hyper-individualism” and “personal responsibility” to an extreme, a lot of people can get left behind essentially to drop dead. This is particularly the case with eldercare.

My own situation, which I will discuss here only in general, reflects a dilemma. Certain parties believe that I should keep a low profile because I am “disabled” (??) myself and am only living a decent life at the indulgence of others; I never “paid my dues” like they did and particularly wasn’t man enough to have my own family. (No, I don’t need Dr. Phil’s “Man Camp”!) Yup, this gets emotional. (It's true, my "First Amendment driven" public involvement with the notorious "don't ask don't tell" policy for gays in the military makes it inappropriate for me to consider some kinds of similarly sensitive jobs myself; in a sense I take the policy as setting an example as to how civilian gays may be regarded in some circumstances.) Sometimes, others have wanted me to fight their causes and live through them and not my own ideas and “fantasies.” What do I want to see happen and help develop? Well, building on what I have written and what else is out there (wikis, search engines, Web 2.0, etc) help build a kind of media or Internet service that would encourage individuals to develop their understand of “political” causes on their own, without depending on those in authority (political, religious, or especially familial) to control what they believe. When someone wants the government to play robin hood, no matter how worthy the cause, one should understand all of the downstream consequences, in an objective way. For one good example, just look at how hard it is, even in the Internet age, to figure out why health insurance should work, and whether or not “single payer” really works in other countries without rationing and over politicization of illness and aging (and government supervision of individual lives). We can do better than this, and let ordinary people have a real handle on the truth. At the same time, I do resent attempts to get me to to participate in making something "right" emotionally when I know it is not. Is this a lack of Christian forgiveness? I think it has to do with karma and payback, and that's the inconvenient truth.

The personal moralists are right. The problems we face are enormous and somewhat unprecedented in nature. During the past few decades, especially since the early 1990s, westerner have become accustomed to independence in life choices, and the freedom, when used properly, can lead to enormous personal accomplishments. These blogs discuss many of them. At the same time, some of the problems may extra-market modes of personal accountability (like “carbon footprints”) and force people back into the ability to function well within the family and local community – to accept the somewhat mandatory socialization of local interdependence (which could certainly be tested with a pandemic, natural catastrophe or terrorist attack).

There are some specific areas where the freedoms we have come to taken for granted can be questioned. One of them is the explosion of “amateur” user-generated content with little regard to the possible consequences of careless dissemination (along with all kinds of other capabilities, such as the now well known copyright infringement problems with P2P). A symptom is the recent skittishness of employers about individual profiles. Another is the way family responsibility will be handled in a world with fewer children and longer lives. An attempt to impose filial responsibility, especially on the childless, sounds like a real possibility.

That’s where the utilitarian arguments about gay marriage and gay adoption – as well as letting gays serve relatively openly in the military – come in. Recognize that equal responsibilities need to go with equal rights, given the problems that we’ve got. Social conservatives have come back with arguments connecting marriage, family, and sexual intercourse (a treasured and commanding deferential place for it when regulated by traditional marriage) that to a libertarian sound self-effacing. They want to keep the gender complementarity-driven emotional shell around the institution of the family, allowing those who operate within its belief system to raise kids and care for other family members without so much personal responsibility on their own to the outside, globalized world. That ties into the paradox of “upward affiliation” that I talked about earlier. I recognize that the family is important. Marriage is important. But it shouldn’t eclipse self-awareness. It shouldn’t excuse having to impose on those (sometimes nearly indenturing them) who do not want to participate in the same way (by procreating). What seems to happen here is a retreat into emotion. I see it all the time, from a distance, expressed in evangelical church services. Just surrender to Jesus. I have my own form of cultural emotion and just don’t need this.

I won’t venture far into religion here – but it’s obviously a big influence. We’ve learned since 9/11 that separating church and state is a big deal for some people. They know they have to make sacrifices, and they need to have a church-state system ratify their self-righteousness. Plenty of people on our own religious right do, too. John Edwards tried to explain all of this in the 2008 Democratic candidate debates—personal beliefs and religion-neutral official policy must co-exist. For me, the notion of karma (as interpreted in some less conventional forms of “Gnostic” Christianity) makes sense as a bridge between Grace and the human societal idea of justice. It does mean that you can’t ask someone else to make something OK for you just with emotional dedication and empathy, without dealing with real consequences. Sometimes this can get harsh.

A birds-eye view of all this shows that the notion that people need to control or affect or "feel superior to" others in order to experience their sexuality goes in both directions. The gay arguments often punt to immutability but sound evasive and downright solipsistic; while social conservatives seem to think that the family bed is really for all adults, regardless of ability and heritage; and libertarians want both sides to leave each other alone, but maybe learn a little. Still, with our freedoms, we have to figure out the concomitant social responsibilities -- how to take care of people, not institutionalize them or drop them behind.

I sound critical of our naiveté about personal freedoms, and it is well to remember that similar challenges have occurred in the past few decades. In the 1960s and 70s it became more common for individual people to buy their own condos and homes without marrying, and that was seen as a social threat by some. In the 1960s, the draft and student deferments formed the moral equivalent of the 1990s debate over gays in the military. (At the time, it sounded to me like the "government" was saying, women's lives were more valuable than men's, and some men's lives (those with good grades) were more valuable than others. Imagine the potential for moral outrage and contradiction in a society now dedicated to the intrinsic value of human life, and one that had dealt with slavery.) The Arab oil crisis was seen as a threat to personal mobility. In the 1980s, AIDS was a seen by same as threat by a subset (the may gay community) to the general health of everyone. We’ve come through these challenges much better than have earlier societies experimenting with more freedom. . It helps to have lived through all of this to see it. For comparison, just look at the 1920s and 1930s and what happened in Europe.

So where does this leave me with libertarianism? For one thing, I have a grasp for a need to see “righteousness” and while I understand the point of Vatican “openness to procreation” ideas about morality, what happens in practice is corruption and self-promotion in the name or religion or family. I think righteousness is more closely understood in terms of karma, and has to do with the relationship of the person to the outside world. All of these big problems matter, and it seems important to “pay your dues.” Family responsibility can well exist for adults even when they don’t beget their own children (we ought to admit it publicly -- and debate whether everyone ought to develop cross-generational caregiving and parenting skills regardless of individual parental status -- a development that could favor committed same-sex relationships), and the idea of payback is real, even if not quite equivalent to the idea of freedom to contract and obligations that go with it. I don’t like to see any more government regulation of the individual than necessary. But what we do need to see is more open public discussion of what individuals ought to expect, given our “inconvenient truths” (or maybe, as with The Simpsons, “irritating truths”). (People instead whisper, "we told you so, that's what public morality says, but we can't talk about it in public because of political correctness and we might offend someone who feels put out by these older ideas.") Some town halls along the idea of a “Bill of Responsibilities” to go with a “Bill of Rights 2” would be a good idea.

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