24 June 2011

A Funtabulous Libertarian 'Declaration of Independents'

In May 2011, Reason magazine reports, the Pew Research Center officially discovered the existence of libertarians. For the first time ever, the pollsters identified 9% of the population as a distinct "typology" within the general population. For Pew's purposes, libertarians are defined as "Highly critical of government. Disapprove of social welfare programs, Pro-business and strongly opposed to regulation. Accepting of homosexuality. Moderate views about immigrants compared with other Republican-oriented groups." For Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, editors of Reason, this 9% is the foundation of "the future of American politics." Their article in the August/September issue (not yet available online) is a summary and advertisement for their new book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, which both chronicles and encourages rebellions against the American Bipolarchy. Welch and Gillespie describe this rebellion as an intervention into politics by people who had previously hoped to live apolitically, but whose apolitical approach to life allegedly offers a remedy to partisan gridlock and insolvent government. "We didn't want to get into politics," they write, "but politics got into us."

As their punning title hints, Welch and Gillespie base their arguments on a sort of misreading of Thomas Jefferson. They refer to the famous declaration of self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, with a special focus on the right to "the pursuit of happiness." The present authors have a clear, if perhaps also ahistorical idea of what Jefferson and his colleagues meant when they used the phrase as a substitute for a right to property.

They did not write, 'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of politics.' No: The men chewing and gnawing at the crown's leash elevated above all other pursuits the quest for happiness, as defined by each individual, by his own lights. It was a declaration within the Declaration, an announcement that existential meaning derives neither from the whims of a sovereign nor from enlistment in some grand national project but from the most atomized level of being: the personal, private, idiosyncratic human heart.

Once they throw in "existential meaning" you can tell that the authors are actually somewhere distant from Jefferson's notion of happiness, whatever that might actually have been. Had a 21st century libertarian visited Philadelphia in 1776 to explain that people create meaning for themselves by buying things, and especially by buying brand-name things (a favorite theme of Reason), the signers of the Declaration, believers in virtuous republican frugality as a rule (or in theory), would most likely have thought the man mad. But it has been acknowledged that the affirmation of "the pursuit of happiness" as a self-evident right does empower individual pursuits otherwise discouraged by church and/or state. Admitting that, it's questionable to make as stark a distinction between politics and happiness as Welch and Gillespie do. But it's their premise that the pursuit of happiness rather than politics as usually understood is what makes a nation prosperous. "People acting peacefully, mostly left to their own devices and not empowered by the state to force others into servitude, will create riches far more meaningful and vast than the cramped business of tax-collecting, regulation-spewing, do-as-I-say-or-else governments," they write -- as long as "the destructive force of politics" doesn't interfere.

Noting that technological innovation and increased consumer choices have broken down many duopolies in the business world, Welch and Gillespie suggest that a similar approach might break down America's political duopoly.

What if the private pursuit of happiness is the way to address the public problems that it has become necessary to solve? What if we were to foist the lessons, creativity, openness, and fun of our funtabulous non-governmental modern world onto the unwilling and unaffordable bureaucracies keeping us down? What if we were to declare independence, not from a country or government but from the two political parties that have been dividing up the spoils for far too long? Indeed, what if we declared not only our independence in politics but our independence from politics?

For the authors, avowing independence from the Bipolarchy is the first step in the process, even if it creates only swing voters rather than new parties. While not approving of the entire Tea Party program ("We get the vapors when the phrase all-of-the-above is mentioned anywhere near policy," they protest), Welch and Gillespie treat the TPs as a model for future "decentralized network[s] of alienated citizens using technology to overturn the applecart of American politics." They imagine similar movements forming to end the "War on Drugs," or to fight free trade on populist grounds, etc. Whether they agree with every movement that might form or not, they welcome each new one if it undermines the two-party system.

As libertarians, Welch and Gillespie clearly hope that more political independence will result in a more libertarian polity. A poll commissioned by Reason appears to confirm their hopes. Based on a random sample of 1,200 respondents (approximately 60% contacted by landline phones, 40% by cellphones), the Reason-Rupe poll also gives heart to the Republicans currently holding out against any "tax increase" in the debate on raising the national debt ceiling. The poll shows a strong plurality (45% of respondents) favoring reduced spending without tax increases as the best way to reduce the national debt. Interestingly, the poll didn't seem to offer cutting taxes further as an option, which would seem to leave many Republicans and libertarians out in the cold. In any event, the poll seems to confirm a desire for reduced government, or at least reduced debt, across all demographic lines. But does this augur a coming libertarian consensus? I have my doubts. The poll itself shows only 5% of respondents identifying themselves as "libertarian," but the movement may face a more severe handicap.

Did you get the impression from some of the quotes above that Welch and Gillespie are having more fun than many Americans these days? You probably can't blame them for feeling that way; they get to run a magazine that's consistently interesting if also almost as consistently biased, and they no doubt feel cool about sticking it to the Bipolarchy. But if theirs is the rhetoric with which they hope to sell libertarianism to the wider public, they're going to have some problems. How "funtabulous" is the modern world for most of us, after all? It's a word very few Americans would use to describe their country in 2011, and the authors themselves make clear that this funtabulousness is under siege from "the destructive force of politics," even if funtabulousness is somehow also its own best defense. But what makes their world funtabulous, anyway? In its best dress, it's "a world where mutual gains from trade have lifted half a billion people out of poverty in just the last five years." But Matt Welch describes it in somewhat different terms in his monthly editorial, even if he remains as gleeful about it all.

"The business of America isn't necessarily business," Welch writes, "It's change. Constant, creative, destructive, entertaining change." The emphasis, as in all quotes above, is his. But how entertaining has it been for the rest of us? Many of us, I suspect, come closer to Welch's pejorative description of jihadists and fundamentalists who "seek to forcibly create an atavistic, unchanging idyll," with less emphasis on the force. Something is wrong with our wiring, with obvious exceptions. Apparently an exception himself, Welch speculates, "Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, our brains don't seem equipped to process the catastrophic, liberating change happening all around us." Indeed. We're hardly equipped to process the juxtaposition of "catastrophic" and "liberating" without finding it slightly oxymoronic. That must be because we "still can't seem to imagine a world doing what it always does: changing, convulsively, almost always for the better." This is explicitly labelled a "failure to compute [or] draw a direct mental line between America's dynamic openness and its phenomenal strength," so that "every new crisis becomes a threat to that sense of open-source resilience." Too many atavistic Americans crave some sort of security or stability in their lives; they're repelled, not stimulated, by the constant challenge to adapt to catastrophically liberating, convulsively positive change. That's too damn bad for us, I guess, but who are libertarians to deny that for many people, the desire for security and stability, or to not have to adapt to every convulsion, is a desire for a kind of freedom, and that achieving that condition, however it may cramp some people's style or kill their buzz, is a pursuit of happiness? Of all people, they should realize that not everyone wants to live like them, but their own doctrine of freedom seems to dictate paradoxically that everyone must. In their idealized apolitical world, people might not have a choice, but politics gives us a choice. Aren't more choices a good thing? Not if they limit other people's choices, a libertarian might say -- but every choice does that, most obviously including theirs. As long as they fail to see that in their blithe celebration of chaos, all their declarations of independents will amount for little in the struggle against the common enemy, the American Bipolarchy.


Anonymous said...

I wonder, if the same people were polled again, with the questions "Do you know anything about national or macro economics, how a government runs (economically speaking) or what a recession is and how it may be ended? Could answer as positively.

It's easy to say "cut spending", or "lower taxes" when you know nothing except taxes are paid out of your paycheck.

I also have many problems with Jefferson and his intro to the Declaration of Independence from a logical point of view, but that will have to wait for another time.

Anonymous said...

Kind of odd to say that America is about "Constant, creative, destructive, entertaining change". Considering how often conservatives fight against change and are anything buy creative. Constant? More or less. Destructive? Yes. Entertaining? Debatable. But creative? Unless you're talking about creatively exploiting everything around them for personal gain, I'd have to say definitively not.

Samuel Wilson said...

Regarding your second comment, remember that we're talking about libertarians, not conservatives. However, libertarians are talking about the culture that most self-styled American conservatives endorse, so there does seem to be a contradiction. It's resolved by a resolution to conserve capitalism or "free enterprise" itself, and by defining it as a fundamental American value.

Regarding your first comment. if the respondents regard themselves as conservatives or libertarians, they'd probably answer that, yes, they do know plenty about macro-economics -- but that wouldn't prove anything about their knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to doubt their knowledge, when most of them talk about "cutting government spending", what they really mean is cut out social programs. Without giving any clue as to how they would deal with the horde of undereducated people on those programs who lack the basic skills to find jobs that pay a living wage.

I also have a high mistrust of anyone who supports the idea of an unregulated free market or unregulated big business in general, considering that the economic meltdown on Wall Street was created, in part, by a lack of regulatory enforcement.

There is a large part of human nature that is driven by greed and self-interest. We read all the time for the past 3 or 4 decades about products that have to be recalled because they endanger the lives of the consumers who buy them. This is caused by cost-cutting measures designed to increase the profit margin of manufacturers who really don't care about the consumers, just their spending habits.