The problem with Libertarianism

Filed under: Opinion,Politics,US |

Every Presidential election cycle, the pundits and talking heads proclaim the decisive importance of the youth vote.    All too often, the much-heralded ‘youth vote’ fails to materialize as predicted.  A surge in youth organizing and civic participation in the late 1960, and the patent unfairness of asking young men –who were ineligible to vote– to fight in Vietnam eventually led to the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the legal voting age to 18.

In 2008, prognostications finally came true.  The youth vote was among the highest ever.  Most notably, the young black vote was the highest since the voting age limit was lowered in 1972, and more black youth voted (58%) than white youth (52%) or mixed-race youth (55%).   Voters aged 18-24 voted 68 % for Obama and 30% for John McCain.   The results for the 25-29 age group were almost identical.

Two years later, increasing numbers of youth appear to be leaning libertarian.   During a recent student orientation fair, a Fall ritual at the Ohio State University (one of the largest universities in the nation), I noticed an unusual number of libertarian leaning student organizations trying to lure new students to its club, like the Laissez-Faire Syndicate, the Objectivist Club, and others, with materials liberally arrayed across their tables from the Ayn Rand Institute to Ron Paul talking points.

Are young people increasingly libertarian?

A few years ago, Michael Kinsley wrote an insightful TIME op-ed, in which he opined:

The computer revolution has bred a generation of smart loners, many of them rich and some of them complacently Darwinian, convinced that they don’t need society–nor should anyone else. They are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics.

If there is a groundswell of libertarian sentiment among the youth, I think we can attribute it to at least three factors.   First, the economy.   Youth tend to have the highest rates of unemployment, the least job security, and every crop of new graduates experiences anxiety concerning potential job opportunities.    We live at a time of widespread distrust in government, exacerbated by the incompetence of the previous administration and this summer’s oil spill.   At the same time, the bank bailouts and the stimulus, which pulled us from the brink, have not generated the prosperity desired.   Distrust in government’s ability to solve our economic woes is at an all time high.

Secondly, I think Kinsley is onto something when he points to the ‘computer generation.’   Our society has become so complex, and so many of our relationships are now mediated through institutions rather than people, and our modes of exchange are depersonalized.   For example, we no longer buy our food from the farmer, but from a super market.  We don’t borrow money from a neighbor or a local bank, but from a large institution, who will quickly sell our mortgage downstream, and whose interface is morel ikely to be an ATM than live teller.  The computer has only accelerated this process.

Although social networking sites like Facebook ostensibly bring us closer together, the internet is ironically detached.   Our “friends” are now a click away, not a breath away.   It’s even possible to earn a living in a way that once suited loners and hermits like JD Salinger.   You can operate an Ebay store from your basement, transfer money from paypal to your checking account, print paid postage from your printer, while paying all of your bills and taxes online.   Basic functions that would require human interaction are now entirely automated or conducted behind a computer screen.

Given this reality, a reality that is at least partially experienced by many, if not most, of our youth, is it any wonder that more and more share the sentiment that “I don’t need society, neither do you”?    At the same time, our mobility has never been greater.   Individuals and families are far more likely to move across the country for the right job, in an environment where professionals are likely to change companies, even professions, multiple times.  Our society is increasingly atomized, and our communities increasingly temporary.  The fundamental unit for the libertarian is the individual, not the family, not the community, not the nation, and certainly not the state.

Then, add to these two factors a layer of anxiety about our national identity in a rapidly changing country.   Immigration fears are not simply economic in nature, but also about national identity, including whether we share a common culture and language.   The racial and ethnic anxiety of a soon-to-be ‘majority-minority’ nation are visible in the tea party movement.   Not only are we more atomized than ever, but regard for others in our community is potentially waning, where our neighbors are increasingly the ‘other.’

Unfortunately, the libertarian premise is fundamentally flawed.   The idea that we don’t need society – or any other people, for that matter – is simply wrong.   It downplays or misunderstands the ways in which human beings are deeply interconnected and in relationship by projecting a worldview in which we are largely autonomous, separate selves.  As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The libertarian project tries to escape society, but there is no escape.   Human beings cannot live for very long without other human beings.  We depend on others for our survival and for our perpetuation, not only for subsistence and defense, but also for reproduction.

The target of the libertarian’s wrath is the state and other institutionalized forms of legal control.  But, this argument is actually a tautology.   Law is merely the name for a form of social control that exists in more organized societies, but such controls exist no less in the absence of a state.  The libertarian error is in thinking that they can do away with or dramatically restrict the ambit of the state and have all of the freedom they desire.

The morality of the libertarian is the morality to be left alone, to do with one’s property and one’s self whatever one chooses, so long as it preserves the right of others to do the same.   It is a morality that opposes taxation and social services for the common good.   I asked one young libertarian if they opposed funding for public education, and they unapologetically said ‘yes,’ even as they conceded having been educated in public schools.

For libertarians, relationships are voluntary and contractual.  Yet, reality is not so accommodating.   Our duties to each other are not so voluntary, and certainly not a product of rational choice.   From the moment we leave the womb, we are forcibly compelled into association with other human beings through no choice of our own, upon whose love and care we depend for our survival.    In reality, we are all already in relationship with each other, whether we want to be or not.

Given all this, is it surprising that libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male?

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