It is easy to be a Libertarian when one has already achieved or can easily achieve the goals set down as necessary for being a “success” in modern society: wealth through capital acquisition, comfort in a system designed by your kind for the betterment of your kind, power over the lives of others, and the ability to spread your philosophy. That is why we see so many ambitious young white male individuals take up the mantel of Rand or one of her disciples like Ron Paul or Alan Greenspan. Many who have ever been in an academic milieu have at least one story of their Libertarian classmate, hopped up on raw and uncritical readings of basic Objectivist and laissez-faire tracts. He had an argument for everything and an explanation for nearly every seeming contradiction of his chosen philosophy. The fact that many of these arguments were self-serving and circular in nature, or un-provable writ large, did not seem to bother the Libertarian. He was drunk on his own potential read back to him admiringly by a set of philosophers who wanted nothing more than to draw ambitious and self-centered young men into their spheres of influence. Rand in particular got off on manipulating and seducing young intellectuals. There was often no point in arguing with individuals like the Libertarian Classmate. Every outcome or eventuality would confirm the underlying principles inculcated through years of uncritical reading and un-falsifiable philosophical and scientific observations.
The heady environment of college is often the boneyard of intellectual folly and experiments in foolish philosophical certainties. I know this from personal experiences as a former Communist who came to realize the futility of a system that takes for granted the perfectibility of humans and human agency. Any philosophy whose results are predicated upon human beings becoming more or less than what is essentially human (imperfectability, natural skepticism, orientation towards personal beliefs and actions incongruent with larger societal or larger human needs and concerns) is doomed to failure as an anti-human pursuit. Karl Popper, no friend of absolutist ideologies but a fair and intelligent scholar of and gadfly to the same, had this to say about absolutism and ultimate historical certainty in philosophical dogmas: “the habit of confusing trends with laws, together with the intuitive observation of trends such as technical progress, inspired the central doctrines of … historicism.”
Popper was in this case addressing the untenable repercussions of perhaps the ultimate example of unprincipled historicism and philosophical absolutism in post-Trotskyite Soviet Communism. But the central point of Popper’s statement, that the various trends and progresses and innovations of human beings and their societies are not proof of an absolutely discernible trend towards perfection in human beings, is not enlightening only in relation totalitarian ideologies. Randian Libertarianism in particular, and therefore the current strain of American economic Libertarianism by default, makes enormous assumptions about individual actions in relation to a greater truth.
Principally Libertarianism would have us conflate the instances of some individuals striving towards societal perfection and personal advancement through uninhibited individual actions with an overall and absolute ethic of selfishness as the only way that human beings and society can advance. Extraordinary individuals act the way they do towards the goals they do not because of their own personal circumstances or the influences upon them as human beings, but because they are meant to move towards creating a world where man will exist as only an animal that lives for itself. We return to the state of nature, only this time there is no kindly Rousseau-ian veneer over it all; the state of nature is the goal of the Randian Libertarian, it is the ultimate ideal, and the morality of the realm is eternal and infallible self-interest. It is through this self-interest that somehow the greater good of all humanity will be achieved. We succeed when the successful are allowed to succeed. Those who fall behind have the facts of history to answer to above all else.
Popper would have laughed at such hubris. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about Popper’s view of self-assured applied political philosophies: “[…T]he open society can be brought about only if it is possible for the individual citizen to evaluate critically the consequences of the implementation of government policies, which can then be abandoned or modified in the light of such critical scrutiny.” Neither historicist/revolutionary Communism nor self-righteously certain Libertarianism are beliefs that are tenable in a free society where the insidious inequality of circumstance is paired with the innate potential of all those born into a society governed by a Social Contract necessitated by the very fluidity of human imagination, ability, and discourse. All are equal on paper, but on occasion some who are victim to the inextricable realities of our lowly origins in the state of nature, to the inherent prejudices and self-aggrandizing impulses of the individual and the undemocratic systems that buffer inequality, must be assisted by those who have found the way easier, or at least less blocked-off to themselves personally.
Describing a State of Nature and a Social Contract society does not take into account the vagaries of our own historical and cultural situation as a nation. We are a large country with huge disparities in income between the poor and the unimaginably rich. We have a shrinking middle class and a growing over-qualified working class based around an ever expanding service and retail sector and an economic system that esteems wealth and capital acquisition over stable and healthy communities and families. There are huge inequities in opportunity and economic and social advancement for those who are not white, male, middle or upper class, straight, and traditionally Christian. There is a token philosophy in place that leads us to believe that anyone can reach the pinnacle of economic and social power and security, but this is largely an excuse to pursue unhealthy and overly-risky economic, tax, and monetary systems. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, if everyone believes he can become a millionaire, real social change is through economic justice is nearly impossible. These are the early fruits of an economic and political system that was largely converted over to a form of Objectivism.
Take for example the simplistic and over utilized political trope known as “The American Dream”. This started as a sort of dream of domesticity and relative comfort for a generation of [largely male, largely white] returning soldiers from the theaters of the Second World War and the intervention in Korea. They wanted a job, a house, a pension, insurance and an automobile, and quite a few of them achieved this arbitrary measure of success. Many, many more did not. But for the purposes of cementing in the popular conscience a mythological construct such as “The American Dream” quite a few was quite enough. Never mind that this “dream” was unavailable or unrealizable to many if not most African Americans, poor men, women, Latinos, rural workers, and homosexuals.
This was, of course, only one view of what Americans should strive for as individuals and as a society. Many saw as a true dream a better, safer, healthier and more fair nation, communities and an economic system whose chief aim was not enrichment of those who abused that system with the most cunning. This new vision began ever so slowly to emerge with the various Civil and Economic Rights movements and the laws and court rulings that came from them. These expansions of the Social Contract were opposed at every turn by white southern conservatives, Capitalists, Libertarians, and conservative religious institutions. The Libertarian threat became particularly insidious as the other threats to the Social Contract lost favor and power over time.
The attitude that any change in government policy in favor of greater economic regulation and social justice was a bridge too far, even when this government action was ostensibly undertaken in furtherance of Constitutional principles. Even the Constitution must come second to the Libertarian view that total liberty by and for those best able to exercise that liberty was the ultimate ideal. The words of Ron Paul 40 years after the fact some up this view of law and social science: The Act was “a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society…The Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty; it also failed to achieve its stated goals of promoting racial harmony and a color-blind society.” If this does not prove many Libertarians value an absolutist definition of individual liberty over democracy and a social justice and the Social Contract then I cannot conceive of a better example.
This leads me to account for another factor that motivates many into the comforting embrace of Libertariansm: fear.