01 November 2011

Are 'Bailouts' a deal-breaker for Libertarian-Occupation collaboration

In his lead article for the December issue of Reason, editor Matt Welch tries to prick the bubble of possibility for collaboration between libertarians and progressives, including those in the Occupy movement. Noting the expressions of mutual respect from Ralph Nader and Ron Paul, Welch contends that the dream died as soon as the occupiers started issuing demands. Many of those demands are predictably beneath a libertarian's notice, but Welch chooses to be especially outraged by the occupiers' protests against the crippling burden of student debt. As the title of his piece, "Bailouts for Me, but Not for Thee," indicates, Welch considers the occupiers hypocritical if they demand a bailout for themselves, in the form of forgiveness of student debt, while decrying bailouts for the banks and other industries.

Welch empathizes with the plight of anyone struggling in the current economy, and acknowledges that "higher education is experiencing a price bubble at a time when the job market for graduates is more difficult than usual," -- though in a subsequent piece he finds a way to blame that on government. Nevertheless, his ideology apparently compels Welch to adopt a principled insensitivity toward the indebted graduates.

"[W]hen unhappiness over the disappointing results of freely made choices spills into policy recommendations, the putative libertarian-progressive alliance breaks down—and the logic of the Occupy Wall Street movement eats its own tail," Welch writes. For him, anyone's demand that government "socialize their losses" is abhorrent, whether it's an investment bank or a struggling college grad. After all, Welch himself "made the conscious decision never to incur student debt," -- and so did yours truly, for that matter. But for some people, certainly, a student loan is not an option but a necessity, as much one as a college degree itself. To say that taking a loan is the sort of mistake for which one must pay the price, as if one had made a foolish investment in the stock market, confuses the perils of free enterprise with an essentially unfree condition.

Welch presses his point in that subsequent article I mentioned, posted today, in which he bristles against the suggestion that the indebted are being punished for playing by some set of rules that should have guaranteed them success and quick payment of their debts.

One of the best perks about being a grown-up is that you get to make your own choices, and to own the results, good and ill. Which is why phrases like "wage slaves," "inescapable debt," and "force" "force" "force" leave me feeling like a brother from another planet. Adult human beings have agency, the ability (even responsibility!) to run their own cost/benefit analyses and choose accordingly. You could go to a state school (or community college) instead of an over-inflated prestige mill. You could pay for a 10-year-old car in cash, instead of a new one on installments.... If we indeed live in a "candid world," let us state bluntly that offloading 100% of the blame for your own mountain of debt on a group of Greedy McBanksters who "forced" you to "play by the rules" is more than a little pathetic.

The social consequences of the debt burden mean nothing to Welch, who sneers at the idea of "debt slavery." He lives in an America where nothing and nobody (except government, presumably) forces anyone to do anything, since doing nothing and presumably dying are still options in a free country.  His libertarian idea of freedom is conditional on the understanding that you can always starve. He might actually prefer a hunger strike as a form of protest, since he'd probably admire people who die (without killing) for what they believe in more than those who dare suggest that life has some priority over liberty.

Ron Paul may think differently on the subject, but a progressive-libertarian alliance was probably never an option for Welch. When he can write, "Unintended, consumer-unfriendly consequences are the norm whenever anti–Wall Street sentiment is translated into public policy," you can tell where he stands on Wall Street. He claims to remain "generally happy" with "public displays of disaffection with a governing elite that has inflicted so much bad economic policy on the rest of us," but "will reserve [his] enthusiasm until the moment the protesters stop bashing capitalism." It may be possible to imagine a libertarianism opposed to capitalism -- Paul's opposition to "corporatism" goes part of the way there -- or a libertarianism for which life is the highest good, but Welch clearly cannot. For that reason, the occupiers can only look like the enemy to him or, worse, like fools.Other libertarians will remain free to make their own decisions and their own alliances.


Ed. said...

imo, Welch is reacting much more to "OWS inspired commentary" in the mainstream liberal Democrat blogosphere than to OWS itself. As far as I know, OWS has not actually issued any demands, as the stupid media incessantly reminded us for weeks. The specific OWS grievance he is responding to seems more to be rejection of "bailouts to me but not for thee" as a fundamental violation of the principle of fairness.

With respect to the larger issue you bring up (in the title), it may well be that OWS has not issued any demands because it does in fact contain contingents of libertarians and pro-capitalist type folks as well as socialists and anti-capitalist type folks. The reciprocal interaction of these groups in a consensus process like those used at the assemblies allows each of these groups to block one another.

Anonymous said...

I can agree, in principle, that the government should not be in the business of "debt forgiveness" of student loans or other. However, I do believe the government SHOULD be in the business of providing the best education for it's citizens in the first place, removing the need for student loans completely.

Although libertarians will never concede anything other than their "every man for himself" philosophy, that only marks them as the demi-human sludge they are, since not one of them could truly survive on his/her own in the wilderness for a protracted period of time.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ed. Welch claims to be responding to an official "Declaration" from OWS, but it's unclear how representative of all occupiers the unsourced document he quotes from actually is. If libertarians want a voice in the occupation movement they owe it to everyone else to question seriously whether capitalism is as perfectly consistent with liberty as they assume, just as leftists should question whether it's as unconditionally evil as they assume.

Crhyme, Welch seems to join some rightists in exaggerating the importance of debt forgiveness for the occupation agenda as supposed proof of the occupiers' irresponsibility, but he also seems to miss the point that the cost of college education is handicapping the country. If he wants Americans to be entrepreneurial innovators and multitasking virtuosi, shouldn't he be committed to making the intellectual tools available to them -- or do we need to have those skills already somehow in order to work our ways through college?