29 April 2013

Profile of a libertarian Republican

The June 2013 issue of the libertarian magazine Reason has an interview with Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the second-term Republican congressman seen as one of Ron Paul's successors in the House of Representatives. Amash hopes that he represents the GOP's future, and the GOP hopes -- well, maybe not Speaker Boehner, whom Amash tried to topple last winter -- that he embodies a reassuring diversity in Republican ranks. He's an Orthodox Christian of Arab descent, his parents being Syrian and Palestinian. Amash says his faith puts a "strong emphasis ... on free will," though he's "not sure that my political views were necessarily shaped by that." His background may explain his preference for a non-interventionist foreign policy; he's understandably skeptical about anyone in Syria being better, for Syrians or Americans, than the admittedly bad Bashar Assad. His main point, as far as the U.S. is concerned, is that "our national defense should be used for our defense here in the United States. And it's very dangerous if we get in the habit of deciding who the good guys are and who the bad guys are." Hard to argue with that. He also reject knee-jerk GOP arguments against any cuts in defense spending. Amash considers the national debt a bigger threat to the country than any foreign power, though he sounds slightly unrealistic when he talks about waiting to spend the money until we actually do have a "major threat" to the country. There is an argument to be made for preparedness just as there's an argument, admittedly more imperative for now, for retrenchment on defense and foreign commitments.

Amash realized that he was different from most Republicans while he attended law school. At least he seemed different from Republicans who attended law school. As Nick Gillespie, Reason's interviewer, put it to him, "When you talked to conservatives in a legal setting, they would always be on the side of the prosecutor and you would be on the side of the defendant." Amash has "a natural sympathy toward the defense side" and in favor of due process. But this isn't the same thing as sympathy for the underdog, unless we make a distinction between underdogs in the legal system and underdogs in the national economy.  He has succeeded in Michigan politics despite favoring free trade and opposing the sort of protectionist policies on which many workers in that state might seem to depend. In doing so, he takes the perhaps paradoxically nationalist position we've seen among many libertarians and Republicans, putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few -- the many being consumers and the few the workers in any given industry.

[P]rotectionism doesn't help people. It helps the people in those companies. And those people in those companies are a small percentage of the population. I'm concerned about the entire population in my district, the entire population in the state of Michigan, and the entire population of the United States. Everyone is a consumer. Only some people work in a particular industry. It doesn't make sense to have laws in place to protect a particular industry and then hurt 100 percent of the people.

Amash has a nationalist consciousness that would be admirable were it not linked to a pernicious and ancient tendency -- you would have heard the same lines from Democrats 100 years ago -- to put the interests of consumers before those of producers. The need for trade-offs should be obvious for anyone who believes, as I presume a libertarian Republican would, that people need to produce before they can consume. Whether he recognizes an imperative to keep as many Americans as possible at work, or whether he believes that's up to the employers and employees themselves, is unclear but probably easily guessed. For someone like Amash, competition is synonymous with the spontaneous order espoused by his idol F. A. Hayek. "[I]f you allow people to make their own decisions, you actually get good outcomes for society," he says with alarming assurance.

For a professed libertarian, Amash came to Ayn Rand relatively late in life. He's not the archetypal jerk who read Atlas Shrugged in his teens and sacrificed some part of his humanity in the process.  Instead, Rand, whom he started reading no more than five years ago -- Amash is 33 -- adds an "emotional appeal" to ideas he'd already absorbed from Hayek, despite the differences in philosophy he acknowledges between the two. About this emotional appeal, the most we get from Amash is an empathy with the "frustrations" many of Rand's characters reportedly feel.

If Amash isn't a typical libertarian in the chronology of the shaping of his ideas, does his personal background have anything to do with that? As we've seen, he's reluctant to attribute his ideology to his religion, apart from the emphasis on free will and the belief that "people can make up their own mind about how they live their lives, and they will be judged accordingly." What they'll be judged for, and by whom, make all the difference, I suspect. He may not necessarily mean God's judgment of our sins, but rather the judgment of some more immediate tribunal -- call it the market, maybe -- for choices short of sin. Beyond his vague talk about Orthodoxy, his comments about immigration and assimilation may be most revealing. In his view, as the son of immigrants, the welfare state gets in the way of a necessary assimilation into an immigrant's new home and culture.

So what's happened historically in the United States, because we haven't had as strong of a welfare system as they do in Europe, people come here and they assimilate, they adapt, they go to work, they become a part of the culture, and they become Americans, and that's what we'd like to see going forward.

If work is crucial, however, encouraging and protecting employment ought to be a priority for a politician who believes that "It's important to have a regular flow of immigrants." It's one thing to believe that welfare becomes a crutch that hobbles an assimilation that only comes through employment, another not to care whether an individual can get a job or not -- and the ideas seem to contradict each other a little.  But what else can you suspect from anyone with such a particular, exclusive notion of the good, who nevertheless believes that the good can come about spontaneously as long as no one consciously attempts to control or regulate the process? Libertarians are muddled thinkers distinguished by their stubborn insistence on the irrefutable logic of the results. From such a mind the best we can hope for, probably, is his promise "to do what the Founders intended for this country and not just play the political games," by which he means "he's willing to work with both sides."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd almost ask "aren't all libertarians republicans" based on their voting record. But then I saw a profile on MySpace: "Libertarian-Socialist". I'm not really sure what to make out of that.