Friday, November 16, 2012

Romney, Republicans, and Rand

Jonathan Chait riffs today on Romney, Republicans, and libertarians. His general point that every faction after a loss simply blames all the other factions is certainly correct.

But I think it’s unfair to libertarians to stick them with Ayn Rand. I agree with Chait that Rand is electoral poison, but it’s easy to be a very conservative libertarian without even a hint of Rand. As I read it, there's nothing whatsoever about libertarian idea which require the belief in an elite group of "makers." That's Rand -- but it isn't inherent in ideas about radical support of markets over government. Now, I think the libertarian vision has plenty of problems, including at least in some versions too much of a tilt to the rich (although I think the problems are elsewhere; in my view, libertarian economics just doesn't work well). But inherent elitism isn't part of it. Plenty of libertarians honestly believe that less government interference not only is good for ordinary working folks, but should be adopted specifically on that basis. They may be wrong, but they aren't Rand.

But he's right that a lot of what we heard from Republicans in this cycle was Rand-derived, and of course there's Paul Ryan, right in the middle of it. So yes, I do think Republicans have an Ayn Rand problem. But that's not necessarily a libertarian problem.


  1. I think he (and you) are conflating two separate things here. There's Randian maker-vs-taker rhetoric, which I agree is not a necessary component of libertarianism. But there's also a fanatical desire to lower taxes (especially on the wealthy) and zero interest in redistribution through the welfare state--in fact, most libertarians would want to cut Social Security, Medicare, etc as much as possible. That is a pretty universal feature common to all libertarians, and as Chait correctly points out it's a tough sell.

  2. Jonathan, thank you for pointing out that Rand and libertarians don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.

    Rand’s primary importance to libertarians is that she did more than any single person to push back against political collectivism when it was ascendant. And you don’t have to be a doctrinaire libertarian to appreciate that -- I know liberal Democrats who read her fiction (they have stronger stomachs than I!) and got something out of it.

    But not everyone who celebrates Rand’s work subscribes to the ethics of Objectivism. And as an Objectivist once reminded me, Rand herself denounced libertarians because they were happy to tolerate the hippy communes of the day. That's the problem with Rand, she was against what she perceived of as collectivism even when it was voluntary. Private charity? It's immoral to Rand's mind. Virtue came from selfishness. Self sacrifice for the sake of others is immoral. That's not exactly what libertarians preach...

    It’s worth noting the divergence of Ayn Rand with Ron Paul. Paul’s medical practice never accepted Medicare or Medicaid, but also never refused to treat patients who couldn’t afford to pay. In his farewell address to Congress, Paul urged that envy, hatred and intolerance “be replaced with a much better understanding of love, compassion, tolerance and free market economics.”

    I consider myself a libertarian, but I think it would be impossible for a free society to exist under Randian ethics. While she had as a goal the achievement of political freedom, she got there by destroying the very ethical underpinnings of freedom in the western world, and replacing them with her own warped ethics. Some liberals have been having fun pointing out how Ayn Rand basically threw out every ethical teaching of Christianity. They’re absolutely right! My personal impression is that all of mainstream western political thought, even secular thinking, owes something to its Christian heritage.* In the case of libertarians, that comes to light in how we regard our neighbor as someone inherently equal, dignified and worthy of the same freedoms we want for ourselves. Equally important are our personal ethics, which guide us to do for others what they can’t do for themselves.

    *Ok, I'm sure stoicism and other secular philosophies can claim provenance here, but the point is that Rand claimed to throw out everything but Aristotle, who wasn't much into the fellowship of man.

  3. It's true they're not necessarily Randians strictly speaking, but I'm not sure it's quite so easy for mainstream libertarians (if that's not a contradiction in terms) to avoid "even a hint" of Rand. What they have in common with her is a fetishizing of private property and so-called "individual" achievement, which they imagine happens somehow apart from the commonweal, i.e. without any help from the rest of us. Which means they may not have Rand's contempt for the masses, but they do see them as masses, i.e. at best a big bunch of nobodies, not fellow participants in a complex, highly interdependent joint venture operating under the terms of an implied social contract.

    1. I have a feeling most people respect individual achievement enough that they would find your use of scare quotes odd.

      Regarding collective action, Libertarians do see society as a “complex, highly interdependent joint venture” -- Austrian economists would describe it in almost those same terms. In the first half of the 20th century, when everyone assumed that a highly centralized technocratic state was the future, libertarian economists explained why it can’t deal with the complexity of society as well as markets can.

    2. I assume he's thinking along the lines of the "you didn't build that" argument. People achieve lots of things mainly on their own, but not literally, entirely on their own. They depend on roads and bridges, and a lawful and educated society, and the existence of competent suppliers and employees, and the people who taught them how to read long ago, etc. etc. Lots of libertarians--not saying you do--totally ignore all that and think they could gate themselves off, not bother to cultivate the greater society they live in, and still be prosperous solely through their own virtue.

    3. Chaz,

      Assuming that everyone benefits from government, how does that explain individual achievement? Since everyone gets these benefits, the ones who are successful must have achieved that success through their own effort, talent and luck.

      Of course many libertarians do feel unfairly taxed and regulated. That doesn't mean they don't want to live in a society, but just that they don't share YOUR vision of society. In fact, the few anarchists I've known are the ones who will really go on and on and on about their vision for a just and prosperous society. I’m sure there are “F_ the world” libertarians, but they're the ones who will stay away from politics.

    4. Let me stress again that while you may be talking about a type of intelligent, thinking libertarian, I am primarily focused on the arrogant fool variety, who seem to be more numerous.

      The F the world libertarians (and non-libertarian Republicans) I meant are the ones who talk about cutting non-defense domestic discretionary spending to 5% of GDP, without even knowing what that spending goes toward, who demand that any budget shortfall be solved by cutting "waste" no matter how much has already been cut, who want to privatize FEMA, abolish 3 federal departments, all of that. These are people like Rick Perry and Paul Ryan, not apolitical types.

      And I'm also on a personal kick against the gated community types in my part of CA who refuse to pay for local government services of any kind. These aren't really libertarians exactly but they follow a similar pattern.

    5. Chaz, I missed responding to this before. I don't know about the 5% of GDP thing, but I think we could certainly abolish more than just 3 federal departments. I don't know how viable the privatization of FEMA is, but given its track record, I think any serious plan should be considered.

      We obviously can't balance the budget by eliminating waste, but that doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot of waste to be found. Bureaucracies like to accumulate money, power and jobs, regardless of whether it's the best use of public resources -- bureaucratic inertia is a constant.

      I give Republicans credit for wanting to tackle entitlements, but they're clueless to think that our military spending and current global military posture is sustainable. I also think that tax increases and/or inflation is inevitable. While I understand the reasons of some Republicans for opposing any and all tax increases, I think that raising taxes is the lesser evil at this point. As the CBO has said, our federal debt looms as such a huge economic drag, that letting ourselves go over the fiscal cliff would be in our long term best interest economically.

      We should eliminate a lot of tax deductions and loopholes. We could raise the capital gains tax, but we should simultaneously expand IRA exemptions and lower the corporate tax rate. In a perfect world, we'd replace everything with the Fair Tax.

      We should pass a balanced budget amendment, end the Fed's "Full Employment" mandate and replace Bernanke with someone like John Taylor.

      Of course that's just economics -- civil liberties and transparency are even more important, particularly in choosing a President... For Congress, I've voted for Barney Frank. I would like to help more Democrats who are genuine liberals. Likewise for Republicans who are serious about controlling spending.

  4. Mine is not as intelligent or interesting as Couves' (and, well, Jeff's either), but part of the distortion of objectivism must be due to how effectively Rand's worldview indulged that universal inherent bias toward our own merit.

    An easy illustration comes from our varied journeys around the intertubes, in which we have all met several anonymous commenters (and even some public ones, e.g. Megan McArdle) that accord themselves the handle "John/Jane Galt". I'm pretty confident that none of us has ever encountered an anonymous comment saying "Wow, that other commenter on this thread is really smart. He/she must be the real Jane/John Galt!"

    So the John Galt meme feeds a universal bias that we ourselves are the cat's pajamas and the rest of y'all really suck. The unfortunate thing about all this is that it sometimes brings out the worst in would-be libertarians, those who may well have seen things as eloquently characterized by Couves above, but end up looking in the mirror and seeing John Galt instead, and have trouble getting past that.

    1. CSH, thanks for the compliment. If there are more jerk conservatives than jerk liberals in comment sections, I’d be more inclined to blame talk radio than Ayn Rand. Then there are the infamous Paulite commenters, who I think Ralph Waldo Emerson best described when trying to understand the libertarians of his own time:

      “The new race is stiff, heady, and rebellious; they are fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.”

    2. The Ron Paul people I see spend more time talking about the evils of fractional reserve banking than they do on say, median income growth, forget a more robust conception of positive liberty.

  5. "Libertarian" can mean a lot of different things, and I am willing to believe that there are non-stupid, non-selfish people who call themselves libertarians and believe in laissez-faire for rational reasons. Maybe you (JB) know lots of these people and maybe Couves is one of them.

    But all the libertarians I know and all the libertarians I see on teevee are rabid Randists and identify themselves as such. Basically there's a lot of well-off, arrogant 20-year olds who think exactly in the manner CSH described. They think they're the best, and they have or will have more than other people because they're great and they deserve it more. And everyone else should look up to them and let them keep their rewards, or better yet, give them more. And these idiot 20-year-olds come in all ages.

    Ayn Rand is very fashionable and has been for some time; in random TV shows they'll have a kid give another kid a wise philosophical book that inspired them, and it's always Rand. You get emails from spoiled CEOS (perhaps your boss' boss) ranting about politics and saying the government should reward their success rather than punish it. You don't see that kind of presence for socialism, anarchism, or any non-propertarian flavor of libertarianism.

    The current vogue for libertarianism in the Republican Party is definitely centered on the Randist parts: all about the makers ("job creators"), and how they should pay no taxes, obey no regulations, and be idolized by the masses who stand under them. The non-Rand side of libertarianism--passive foreign policy, legal drugs and prostitution, minimization of the police/intelligence apparatus, is nowhere to be found.

    1. Chaz, the “non-rand side” seems to be very much ascendant in the GOP, thanks to Ron Paul.

      I’ve been involved with the libertarian movement for about 14 years now. And just to give an idea of who I mean by movement libertarians -- Libertarian Party activists, fans of the Cato Institute/Reason Magazine, college libertarian groups, and of course the recent Ron Paul Hordes. I define movement libertarian because there are lots of people outside of this group who consider themselves libertarians and/or are fans of Ayn Rand, but aren’t necessarily representative of the movement.

      Prior to Ron Paul, the typical libertarian was meek, bookish and probably a computer geek -- with a few more colorful “characters” thrown in. With Ron Paul, the ranks of libertarians grew quite a bit, with the new ones being mostly either young or just new to politics. The new Ron Paul folks are very passionate and driven by the cause.

      I haven’t met anyone in this group that seemed like a wanna-be King of the Universe (Check out the College Republicans if you want to see that!). Which makes sense, since no big shot is going to join the team that’s almost certain to lose. For libertarian true believers, losing is acceptable because their fight is itself a moral victory. If they have any truly presumptuous conceit, it’s that the greatness of their cause will be remembered by history. And of course some Paulistas can be, in their idealistic zeal, famously obnoxious, particularly online.

      Ideological differences aside, libertarians have always reminded me most of movement lefties -- which is perhaps why conservatives often don’t trust us.

    2. As Chaz said above, I am indeed referencing the You-Built-That-ites. I see lots of them in comment sections and used to debate them in the early days of the internet, when political discussion was confined to a few sites so you were more likely to find yourself mixing it up with people of different views. These were people who were very interested in politics, but quite openly denied that there was a polity, or that their own achievements were anything but "individual" in the most extreme sense. I put that term in quotes by way of conveying how false was their understanding of it. You would point out to these people that, for instance, the software business they were busy developing depended on the existence of silicon chips developed with government R&D, and on electricity flowing to them from Hoover Dam. It is clear that no such thought had ever crossed their minds, nor did they think it had any policy implications (like, we should continue to support public works that benefit all). Government was nothing but bad, I mean NOTHING but bad -- go ahead, Google "Government can't do anything right" and see how many current comment threads you find it in -- and oh, by the way, they had never personally agreed to be governed in the first place, so any public imposition on them was illegitimate. That's what I mean about their not believing in a social contract. (I recall trying to find some source in actual history for the view I heard that this is all in the Declaration of Independence, i.e. that "consent of the governed" means every individual citizen personally signing up, as if government were a magazine subscription that you should be able to cancel at will. The closest parallel seemed to be the views of some crank antebellum secessionist whose name I forget now, but who shows up occasionally in anthologies of conservative writings. That the very same Congress that wrote the Declaration also oversaw "Committees of Safety" that persecuted loyalists and ordered private merchants around, without their consent, was of course as well-known to my interlocutors as Hoover Dam.)

      Now, it's possible that the people I'm talking about actually were Randites, although I don't recall hearing Rand cited, let alone held up as a font of wisdom on any of this. But maybe her ideas had spread in these circles by osmosis. I'm certainly aware that there are more moderate libertarians who mainly object to central banking, social safety nets and (to their credit) the warfare state, not to government as such. But since this past campaign, I'm inclined to think that the more radical orientation is more prevalent in active political circles than we had realized. I don't know how else to account for part of an entire national convention being devoted to a bogus attack on Obama's innocuous observation that it takes a village to make building a business possible. (An attack which, by the way, backfired, IMHO, since what it told voters looking for greater economic security was that the GOP values only risk.) Also I'm reminded of Romney interrupting the moderator in Debate 2 at one point to insist, "Government does not create jobs! Government does not create jobs!" (He said it twice.) Those are the words of a man who does not understand modern society at all. Maybe if he'd said "Government doesn't create wealth," he'd have had an arguable, if still wrong and oversimplistic point. But clearly some significant minority of the political class has embraced basic elements of the extreme libertarian view I've been describing.

    3. (...continued...)

      Which is why, then, we do have to qualify the "individual" in "individual achievement." Of course, I agree that individuals achieve things -- I've achieved one or two things myself, I'd like to think -- but when the right uses that phrase these days, they seem to intend a more radical denial of any meaningful inputs from anyone other than the individual. It's like a four-year-old who's asked what makes a plane fly and says "the pilot." Yeah, that's not wrong, and we're all grateful for good pilots. But it overlooks a few other significant contributions, yes? Whereas on the flip side, I don't think liberals and Democrats have anything like the same animus against individuals, even rich ones, that libertarian conservatives have against the commonweal. That's why they're liberals and Democrats, not Maoists, notwithstanding what Fox News would have you think.

      Finally, as to this: "Since everyone gets these benefits, the ones who are successful must have achieved that success through their own effort, talent and luck," I've gone on too long already, but I'll just say: everyone gets these benefits? Seriously? You're talking about a country that is, for starters, unique in the industrialized world in greatly privileging wealthy over poorer communities in the funding of primary schools. And even if the starting points were all equal, why should "luck" -- or for that matter, being born with a particular capability, which is also luck (I don't recall choosing to be shorter and less agile than Michael Jordan) -- why should that determine basic life circumstances, like access to health care? And yet, that's what libertarians seem to favor, because market outcomes are always right and fair, don'tcha know? All structural injustices have been eliminated, at least since the end of Jim Crow. Yes, no doubt I'm missing the subtleties of truly sophisticated libertarian thought. But I have an excuse! I've spent the past several months listening to Mitt Romney.

    4. Couves,
      I'm not so sure your variety of libertarianism is that healthy. It seems to me that the CATO Institute/Reason magazine has gradually been turning more and more Randite over the last half decade, to the point that its leadership and funding is now actively trying to squelch non-Randite lines of policy reasoning. Sorry for linking to a partisan source as evidence, but Chait here does link to news articles in his post:

    5. Jeff,

      It's not clear to me that any of the people you're talking about are libertarians (at least I hope you don't think Romney is a libertarian!) You're assuming, rather than proving, that everyone with a Randian attitude is a libertarian.

      I'm honestly puzzled by the "you didn't build that" thing - Obama's point seemed to be that everyone benefits from government, so the rich should pay even more taxes as a matter of social justice. I have trouble connecting those two dots because the disparity of financial success is not caused by the existence of public schooling or the highway system.

      I'm not sure why you're so offended by the fact that luck plays a role in individual success -- I was simply stating that as a fact, I wasn't saying that only the lucky should get healthcare. You seem prepared to assume a lot about what libertarians think.

      You make a good point about people not benefiting equally from government -- while that doesn't account for one person being successful and another person not (Imagine: two kids sitting next to each other all through their public schooling), it can help explain differences between groups. And as any libertarian would point out, people also share unequally the burdens of government -- many who have harmed no one have had their lives destroyed by government. The ethical arithmetic of the benefits of government can't ignore the bad, right?

      "Yes, no doubt I'm missing the subtleties of truly sophisticated libertarian thought."

      If you received a public education, then it sounds like I didn't get my money's worth! ;-)

    6. PF - I read Reason a lot -- I'd be really surprised if anyone thought it was Randian.

    7. Couves, you can of course escape any particular critique of libertarianism by declaring that the attitude critiqued isn't really libertarian. (See "No True Scotsman.") OK, then I'm not talking about libertarians, I'm talking about a widespread political orientation that apparently has no name, so just for convenience I'll call it "libershmarian." The libershmarians clearly influenced Romney and Ryan and seem to be programming the GOP pretty well at present. Libershmarians teach that government can't do anything right and plays no role in individual success. Or, they so emphasize the individual over the collective contributions that it comes to the same thing. Obama's comments were a response to this, an answer to a radical anti-government claim that he correctly saw was widespread among his opponents. Understandably, though, it puzzles you, because you're a liberTARian, not a libershmarian. OK.

      As to luck, the question isn't whether it plays a role in individual outcomes, which it obviously does, but the justice of rewarding that -- or more to the point, the injustice of punishing those who don't have luck. To me it is incoherent to say that people achieve success "through their own effort, talent and luck," if by that you mean "their own luck." The whole point of luck is that it's not "your own," it's not anything you did (or built), it's just luck. Lots of libershmarians apparently believe that if you have the bad luck to, say, have Bain Capital close your plant, and therefore you lose your health insurance, and you're 50+ at that point and basically unemployable, well, too bad for you, but a society that's going to reward the "talented" must necessarily therefore deny rewards to the untalented. Because otherwise the taxes of the talented / lucky / successful might rise three percent or something unthinkable like that.

      But again, that's a libershmarian view that I therefore can't ask a libertarian like yourself to explain. A pity, because I would also like to know what the hell a guy like Romney means when he says that "Government doesn't create jobs." Again, this just sounds incoherent to me. Teachers? Cops? Firefighters? They don't have jobs? It seems the libershmarians draw some kind of quasi-theological distinction between big, incorporated public enterprises, like cities and counties and school districts and public health authorities, and big, incorporated "private" enterprises built on public infrastructure. Romney's blabbering must have some private meaning known to people on the right, but completely obscure to lots of other people, for example (a) me and (b) millions of American voters. To bad the campaign ended before he had a chance to explain it.

    8. Jeff, I was pretty specific about who I consider to be the libertarians in the GOP -- the Ron Paul supporters, who generally had nothing nice to say about Romney/Ryan. You're just identifying everything you don't like about the Republican party and calling it "libertarian" while conveniently ignoring the actual libertarians.

      I'm happy to have a conversation, but I'm not interested in playing your straw man. Sorry.

    9. Are you suggesting the Ron Paul people disagree with any of the "libershmarian" ideas advanced by Romney/Ryan? Seems to me all they do is add a few loopy ideas about the gold standard to it and critique drug policy.

    10. I'm not asking you to answer on behalf of the libershmarians, Couves, because we've already established that you're not one. But I do stoutly rise to their defense against the claim that they are straw men. Straw men are imaginary people advancing views that no one actually holds. The views I'm describing are very much held, widely and at high levels. I don't think that was a holographic projection saying "Government doesn't create jobs," for instance, I think it was the Republican presidential nominee -- although granted, with Romney it's sometimes hard to tell the difference.

    11. "The views I'm describing are very much held, widely and at high levels."

      Then you're not talking about libetarians, because very few of us are at high levels -- only Rand Paul comes to mind, but he's more of a tea party constitutionalist.

    12. Couves,

      Jeff and I are painting with a broad brush, and it's fair of you to point that out, but a lot of these people do call themselves libertarians. I don't have a full picture of your beliefs or of what you consider to be the real libertarians, so it's hard for me to draw a line between Couves-libertarians and Objectivists. I suspect Jeff has the same problem so please don't take it personally.

      I'm also really confused because you seem to be saying Ron Paul is a real libertarian and to my eyes Ron Paul is a Randist (he named his son Rand!).

    13. Indeed, the people I debated as mentioned above (clueless about Hoover Dam, thought the American Revolution was a libertarian uprising, etc.) called themselves -- no, emphatically insisted that they were libertarians. I took them at their word on this.

    14. P.S. A "Tea Party constitutionalist"? I'm pretty sure the same people would have called themselves constitutionalists. In fact, I'm pretty sure FDR would have called himself a constitutionalist. Does a term like that draw any useful distinctions, or is it just rhetorical posturing? The only significant non-constitutionalists I can think of in American history are the Antifederalists, who opposed the Constitution, and who are the actual ideological forerunners of Ron and Rand Paul.

    15. Chaz,

      Rand chose his own nickname. His mother and father named him "Randal" and called him "Randy." Rand Paul might be as close to a Randian-type libertarian as you'll find in Congress, although I don't think he fits the caricature that's being painted here. The extent to which his differences with his father are based on principle or just style is hotly debated in libertarian circles -- either way, they are strikingly different.

      The only actual Objectivist we've had in government that I can think of is Alan Greenspan. His greatest defender and protégé was reappointed by Obama.

      Frankly, I think you guys are engaging in talk radio-level generalizations. I have no problem with people who celebrate private sector achievement -- without it, there would be no taxes to pay for government. Likewise, I have no problem with people who celebrate public sector services -- without them, there would be no productive economy as we know it. They're two sides to the same coin. Yes, there are real and important differences between the left and the right, but the us vs. them invective doesn't actually benefit anyone who engages in it, just the system as it now exists.

      Jeff, would you call someone who signed the Patriot Act and the NDAA a "Constitutionalist"? Rand Paul isn't my favorite politician, but I give him a lot of credit for being serious about cutting the deficit and fighting for the Constitution when no one else will.

    16. Couves, if I said that Patriot Act supporters weren't constitutionalists, some commentator who favors the PA or NDAA would protest, just as vigorously as you're insisting on a proper definition of libertarianism. There's a time and a place when it advances the discussion to deny that people are what they claim to be, but at other times it's just playing the game of "No True Scotsman" -- or rather, letting them play that game on you. For purposes of the present discussion, we've established that no one here is interested in defending the antigovernment positions (whatever you call them) that actually matter, i.e. those that are driving the policy of the GOP and its candidates. So I don't know what else there is to talk about. How 'bout that RA Dickey, though? Hell of a knuckleballer! I'll say that much.

    17. Jeff, you accused me of using a term, "Constitutionalist," that lacks "useful distinctions." I responded by giving two specific laws that could be used to determine whether someone is a Constitutionalist. If you want to define the "antigovernment positions" that bother you in similarly concrete policy terms, that's something that would be easier for me to respond to.

    18. OK, I will state the problem as best I can. To me, a useful distinction is one we can use, i.e. one that clarifies and helps us meaningfully discuss political ideas and movements, with some understanding of who stands for what, and why. So, there are groups that call themselves constitutionalist that oppose the Patriot Act. Good to know, but it's hard to see where else that takes us. I'm guessing they like the term "constitutionalist" because they believe they're defending the Constitution? But so does virtually everyone else in US politics. So that term is too broad to bring clarity.

      "Tea Party" is better because not everyone claims it, although it has the disadvantage of not meaning anything in itself, so it leaves all the political content still to be filled in. "Libertarian" is also helpful inasmuch as not everyone claims it, plus it suggests the basis of the political orientation. (At least, it has come to do so historically; yes, everyone in US politics claims to be for "liberty," but over time some groups have chosen to identify themselves as "libertarian" while most others haven't.) But the problem now is the opposite of the "constitutionalist" problem: narrowing the term until it applies to almost no one. At the extreme, we get the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, in which the movement in question can never be criticized because any criticism is met with some variant of "but that's not what REAL libertarians believe."

      You are, of course, welcome to define yourself and your own political alignments in any way you choose. It's just a question of what then there is left to discuss. Your ideal libertarianism apparently does not hold that "Government does not create jobs" or that "Government can't do anything right." These, however -- the antigovernment positions that "bother" me, as you put it -- are claims common in the current discourse, they've been voiced by leading candidates, and they're the claims that Obama's "You didn't build that" were responsive to. Tongue-in-cheek, I suggested calling these ideas "libershmarian" then if the term "libertarian" is somehow wrong. Anonymous, above, then asked you whether you think they're not actually held by the Ron Paul crowd. I haven't heard your answer to that. To me, it seems likely they are, because otherwise we have the odd situation of all the following being simultaneously true:

      > There are people making claims like these who call themselves libertarians.

      > There is a major political party that includes a faction (the Paulites) who, also, call themselves libertarians.

      > That party's candidates have lately been repeating the claims in question, and even showcased them at its national convention.

      > BUT, this is coincidental; those ideas are not in fact libertarian.

      I mean, that's all possible, but it suggests that the term "libertarian" is too slippery to be of any real use. It always just refers to some unstated wisdom, because any obviously stupid claim -- or any unacceptable logical implication -- can always be dismissed as not "really" libertarian.

      Just to conclude where this discussion began: JB was looking to distinguish between libertarian and "Randite" positions. Maybe his conclusion is the best: "Republicans have an Ayn Rand problem. But that's not necessarily a libertarian problem." I and others questioned this because what he's calling "Randite" ideas do sound a lot like things we've heard (self-identified) libertarians say, and/or like logical consequences of things that Paulites and other libertarians say. So, is it just coincidence that a party with a significant libertarian faction -- albeit a faction whose leader didn't get nominated -- has been taking these Randite positions? Or is it, as some of us suspect, that libertarianism pretty readily bleeds over into Randism?

    19. Jeff, I asked for actual libertarian policy positions that bother you and you come back with an offhand comment Mitt used during a debate,"Government doesn't create jobs" and "Government can't do anything right." Um, ok....

      To answer the Mitticism -- Yes, I think government does produce jobs, far too many.

      Regarding the second, rhetorically excessive statement, obviously government has accomplished a great deal. It's also made quite a few mistakes along the way.

      I'm sorry if those answers are lacking in substance, but so are the questions. If you had a serious issue that wasn't based on your cartoonish talk radio-level conception of libertarianism, that would have been more interesting.

    20. "Government doesn't create jobs" was also featured on Mitt's website -- I guess offhandedly? -- and in the rhetoric of other GOP candidates; I believe it was one of their standard talking points especially in regards to the 2009 stimulus. Here it is in a House candidate's (now House member-elect's) press release:

      and in an official statement from the Libertarian Party of California:

      and from something called "Libertarian Viewpoint" ("100% libertarian 100% of the time!"):

      and here's "The government can't do anything right" (aka "gets everything wrong") courtesy of the Manhattan Libertarians:

      So, Couves, thanks for clarifying that the libertarians who talk this way aren't real. Because for some odd reason I was really confused about that.

    21. The "Tea Party constitutionalists" Couves was referring to are a fringe conservative group who call themselves "Constitutionalists". They say that the Constitution only gives the U.S. Government those powers which are very specifically enumerated in the Constitution. So they say the FBI and Medicare are illegal because the Constitution doesn't specifically say the U.S. Gov't should have police and provide healthcare. Pretty much everyone else, including the Supreme Court, says that's a bunch of bunk.

      There are lots of other reasons people do or could call themselves "constitutionalist" but Couves was referring to this group specifically. It's probably not worth trying to establish a "correct" definition of "constitutionalist".

    22. Chaz, thanks. I figured it was something like that. I do find it highly ironic that this is, basically, the Antifederalist position, i.e. the philosophy of the one group that could legitimately qualify as non-constitutionalists if it chose to. (Then again, the Federalists were actually Nationalists and were misappropriating their name too. So I guess this is a very, very old game.)

    23. Jeff, for someone so incensed by libertarians, you have a hard time identifying an actual policy issue on which you disagree.

      Fiscal conservatives believe that, without the private sector, no jobs would exist… just as liberals believe that, without government, no private sector would exist. As I said before -- they’re both right, two sides of the same coin. If the statement “government doesn’t create jobs” is taken as literally as you read it, then it’s obviously wrong. No one would dispute that.

      What you’re doing is playing games with rhetoric that’s designed to divide us, not enlighten us. It's a problem with our system that's hard to escape, although some of us try harder than others.

    24. On Constitutionalism -- there were plenty of strict constructionists among the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians. Conversations about the Constitutionality of programs like Social Security are, at this point, kind of academic.

      The bar is so low now that I'd almost consider any Congressman who voted against warrantless searches and indefinite detention without trial to be a Constitutionalist.

    25. "So incensed"? Au contraire, I'm hoping their influence spreads, because I think it's weighing the GOP down badly, thus boosting the prospects for the policies and reforms I favor.

      The issue here, originally, was the relative importance of libertarianism and Randism in Republican politics. You say it's "obvious" that statements widely circulating among both libertarians (or so they call themselves) and GOP officials are obviously wrong. Well, I know they're wrong, and it's good that you know they're wrong. But "no one would dispute that"? OK, if you say so.

      As to actual policy issues, there's like, I don't know, forty or fifty of them. But they're all what the lawyers would call "lesser included" within the broader claims we've been discussing. That is, if government can't do anything right, then there's no point talking about public works or stimulus programs or federal entitlements to health care. So the broader claim needs to be addressed first. Except that you say it doesn't, because nobody really thinks these things they keep saying. Again: OK, if you say so!

    26. Jeff, if you want to think that your political opponents believe obviously absurd statements, there's no point in me trying to convince you otherwise.

      And if you really think that rhetoric like "government can't do anything right" is more meaningful than actual policies... Again, I really don’t know what to say, except what I have already -- Rhetoric is meant to divide us and my interaction with you seems like pretty good proof of its efficacy.

    27. OK, I said. If you say so, I said. Not clear? Here's the annotated version: "I find this hard to believe, but not completely impossible, and you seem convinced, and I can't prove otherwise, so: OK, I provisionally accept your account of what's going on." Hey man, when you win one, pocket the victory! I would go on to complain that the people who make these wild statements that they don't really believe are fooling other people who hear them, take them seriously, and then repeat such notions thinking they're true. But I will let that go because I think they're also scaring the crap out of other people, so on balance they're hurting their own cause and helping mine. In other words, they are succeeding, as you say, at dividing us -- into a minority that hates government and a majority that wants to protect it against extremists. If I were a libertarian, I think I'd see this as giving libertarians a black eye. But I'm not, so my only comment is: well played!

    28. Jeff, in trying to follow what you’re saying in your concession speech, I had to read back several comments. Maybe I wasn't clear enough in the point I was trying to make. If so, I apologize for making you reconsider it.

      My point was that YOUR interpretation of the phrase, not its most plausible meaning, was obviously wrong. I think the generally intended meaning of "government doesn't produce jobs" is that, without the private sector, there would be no jobs. Of course the government itself produces jobs (Too many!), but only after extracting money from the private sector through taxation. Therefore, the government didn't produce those jobs, since they wouldn't exist without the private sector to tax. As I said above, liberals have a perfectly reasonable response to this, which is that the private sector wouldn't exist without basic government services. It's a chicken-and-egg thing that quickly becomes way more theoretical and complicated than either side means it to be. Both sides make solid points, as far as they go.

      As for "government can't do anything right" -- well, if you're going to stake the triumph of economic liberalism on the scary extremism of that one statement, then I'd say you're being wildly optimistic. But I'm not worried, I'm sure you have reloads ;-)

    29. Thanks, Couves. I appreciate your patience with this. Your description of the dynamic makes it all sound nice and symmetrical, and maybe at the level of theory it is (chicken and egg, as you say), but in terms of political argument, we've got one side claiming that "Government doesn't do anything right," and no counterpart on the left -- nobody saying "Government does everything right" or "The private sector can't do anything right." Same with "Government doesn't create jobs"; there's no "Government creates all jobs" the "The private sector creates no jobs" or "There is no such thing as individual achievement." (Which is why, I think, the GOP had to try to manufacture that last point by misquoting Obama.)

      This is why I use the word "extremist" -- there's no equivalence in terms of how far the two sides take their rhetoric or how absolutist they try to sound. However, do not fear that I am staking the triumph of liberalism on that fact. I would stake that triumph on the fact that modern societies are complex public-private partnerships that only work with vigorous support from and for both sectors. Eventually, this fact discredits those who try to discredit one sector. What I think about the rhetoric is just that it is having the unintended consequence of helping the liberal cause. If it's not the handiwork of people who really believe that government is worthless, but who are just rhetorically trying to convince others of this (to preserve high-end tax cuts or whatever), it is backfiring, as we've just seen, because "government" has constituents who still vote. So, upon discovering this, the right grumps that they support government only because it gives them "gifts" of "free stuff," not because they recognize as citizens the essential role of the public sector.

      I don't know..... is that also disingenuous? Do the people saying that, including Romney now, "really" think that government has an essential role in a modern economy, and it's fine to support this and to fear any further unleashing of private entities that aren't democratically accountable? Do they see that as a plausible position with which they happen to disagree, and which they then try to discredit by making it sound like some kind of mindless bribery? Or do they actually believe what they're saying and find it incomprehensible that anyone would support the liberal position if not bribed to? Is "free gifts" just the logical post-election sequel to "...doesn't do anything right"? Because if it's what they really believe, I think they've got a lot more election losses ahead. In fact, I think they've got that ahead regardless. :-)

  6. Is it the Libertarians who turned people off or is it the perception that the GOP is basically an AARP, MIC and plutocrat interest group? Maybe I am giving the average voter too much credit on this one.

    Personally, it seems that Libertarians might be naive to the point of unthinking cruelty, but they aren't mean-spirited in the way the average GOP voter is. Don't confuse mean-spirited with unpleasant, I've read Dubya and Gingrich are quite personable, and many a god, guns and anger voter is quite a jolly old fellow. I grew up around, and worked for years with those sorts from the southeast to the Far West. And yes that stereotype of GOP voters motivated by greed and fear, like all stereotypes, contains a strong element of truth.

    Unlike GOP voters, Libertarians want to cut benefits for everyone, including themselves. The GOP types want to let uninsured 30 year old's die, or languish in student debt, but ain't nobody allowed to demand that the amount of cash spent on them is cut a cent. They "earned" that Medicare and SS. They also, apparently, have no real problems with monopolies like Merck, at least the average GOP & Tea Party types don't seem to be bothered by it, provided they get their meds.

    Furthermore, the libertarian brand or Ayn Rand did not hurt the GOP as much as the Bush legacy. How many people know who Ayn Rand was? Perhaps more people know Paul Ryan wanted to screw over everybody under 55, but keep the AARP crowd in high cotton.

    People associate Republicans with reduced library hours and crappy schools, cranks who think rape babies are part of God's plan, and lot's of spending in foreign dirt-holes and on domestic prisons and cops. The GOP obviously is not gonna look at that aspect of their defeat. They never even say the B. word, Dubya didn't even speak at the conventions. The B. word is never mentioned unless cautiously reminding us George P. is half-Hispanic, hint, hint. And, assuming the world hasn't collapsed or WW3 hasn't started on the Turko-Syrian border, when they run that nice boy Marc R. in 2016 they'll be just as clueless as to why they lost.

    1. If the Republican you're talking to foams at the mouth at the mere mention of George W Bush, he might be a libertarian.

    2. Where were those guys during the Bush Administration is what I want to know.

    3. Anon, working, raising families, playing world of warcraft? The Ron Paul people are new to politics.

    4. Couves, agree with the first statement, am confused by your second statement. They are young, many of them, and kind of come off as dominated by earnest young men with Aspergers. But need I remind you, "real world" folks, with mortgages and kids, were lemming-like a o.k. with the crap that brought us to this sorry pass. I know too many guys with houses, jobs and kids to buy that they are somehow more savvy and world-wise. Many of them were shocked by the housing crisis, which anybody with a lick of sense could see coming. Kind of like many of 'em thought Iraq was a good idea, until it wasn't. You don't need Ludwig Von Mises to know that a deindustrialized nation dominated by white color and pink color jobs can not sustain the degree of building and inflation that was going on.

      Other anon, the libertarian-Ron Paul constitutionalists were scorned if not outright ignored by the GOP base and their minders circa 2000-2008. They were there, but strangely enough, the core of ideological libertarians and antiwar types got a lot of fellow travelers after 2008. Lots of astro-turfed, overweight, if not wrinkled, fellow travelers whose primary concern was the Mau-Mau anti-white socialist was going to turn them over to death panels consisting of atheist snot-nosed kids and elitists who needed to cut Medicare to pay for more abortions and bling for Black Panthers.

      What I love are all the "Independents" we got running around now. The fiscally conservative, socially liberal type of Independent, who shows they aren't fiscally conservative or particularly "maverik-y" when pressed on specific issues, usually barking out the expected wingnut as a considered response. They are slightly less obvious than the "I'm not a GOP, I'm a Tea Partier" curmudgeons. If people are ashamed of being a GOP or Center-Right because of Bush have the decency to admit it. Although Dems were cool with a lot of his crap too. Centrists are the bane of this country.

      And my beef with the Pauls is, and I understand why they have to do it, is to pander to these people and pretend the average Tea Partier wasn't cool with Dubya's Compassionate Conservatism and bellicosity.

  7. To the extent that most political commentary and messaging is developed and debated between competing small groups of privileged political and cultural elites, I think it's definitely clear that radically moralizing, Randian forms of pro-capitalism have gained a greater foothold among Republican-affiliated elite commentators. As I recall, back in the 1980s and 1990s, and even early 2000s, they were much more likely to go to a vocabulary and set of ideas inherited from people like Friedman, Burke, Hayek, and public-choice theory. Nowadays, there's a Nietzschean viciousness that only really recalls Rand; that is, when they're not openly stating their inspiration from Rand.

    1. Yes, that's well said. It's a drift toward Nietzscheanism or Social Darwinism -- not quite to the full, classic extent ("letting the weak die strengthens the race," etc.), but enough to be, I think, newly alarming to voters, most of whom do not welcome a vision of society as an unending struggle for existence, especially when preached at them by people who themselves had a lot of unacknowledged advantages. (My heart still bleeds at the image of poor young Mitt and Ann having to sell off bits of the stock that daddy gave them just to make ends meet.)

  8. I have to say, I think Jonathan is flat wrong when he assumes that elitism isn't inherent in libertarianism. If you follow the libertarian economic model to its logical conclusion, you end up with a feudalistic quasi-capitalism dominated by a small uberclass of the super-wealthy who control the key areas of production and finance. They will, of course, seek to entrench themselves and their families in their position of superiority - and voila an elite, which has naturally arisen from libertarian economics operating as it is supposed to.

    1. Nick, if you haven't read much from the whole Ron Paul movement, you might be surprised by how incensed they are by the bankers and corporations that have been colluding with government to fleece the American people every chance they get. Sometimes, it doesn't really deviate much from what I read on the Daily Kos, except for some of the solutions of course.

    2. I have read far more from the Ron Paul movement than I ever wanted to. As far as I can see, it's economic crankery plus old-fashioned and unrealistic extreme isolationism. In my opinion, Ron Paul is the most talented of the GOP grifters, but not to be taken seriously beyond that. If people want to ignore Ron Paul's distinctly unsavory past, they are welcome to fool themselves, but I decline to join them.

    3. NickT, thanks to bipartisan spoils system politics, the the current system is unsustainable. Unless you are a member of a group the gov decides to subsidize: fed gov workers, vets, the elderly, rich and upper middle class minorities, minority entrepreneurs (not all of them descendants of slaves- Hispanics, South Asians, East Asians, and East Africans benefit from gov laws regarding rewarding gov contracts, SBA loans) and the very poor (who tend to get a pittance) you are kinda screwed. But what about cops, roads and schools? Well, Uncle Sam ain't doing so hot with that stuff these days.

      The neoliberals who run the Democratic party ain't your friend, recall Larry Summers? Outside of campaign rhetoric, they'll support off-shoring as much as the GOPers.

      Granted the GOP ain't your friend either, the issue of Medical care being a prime example. The GOP, the ostensible party of small gov and freedom, is firmly cool with monopolies, including insane patent laws, and the protectionist policies of the trade guild that is the American Medical association. For years, that free spirit John McCain was trying to get over the counter meds and supplements restricted to prescriptions from your doctor. For our own protection, of course. I've lived abroad, and it's way better, cheaper and easier to get access to medical care if you aren't insured, heck it's still cheaper to get care even if you are insured. Even in socialist h%llholes like Western Europe. Crazy, right?

      And you and your doctor decide on what you get done. No insurance bureaucracies to deal with- and for a party that hates, I say hates, bureaucracies, the GOP voters don't seem to have a problem with insurance bureaucracies. Talk about death panels.

      Obamacare aside, do you think the Dems are going single-payer? No way, so we'll continue to have the worst of both worlds- worse than laissez faire or socialism, unless Uncle Sugar is picking up the tab for one's second hip replacement, which many an elderly GOP voter believes they "earned."

      Raise taxes? When both parties go after that problem in bipartisan fashion, I'll believe the Dems are serious about what they say. But even that isn't the problem. The deficit is caused by a lack of tax-revenue generating jobs at home, and since both parties are primarily concerned with protecting the interests of the investing community, and are accordingly not "unrealistic" isolationists or protectionists, I see nothing better on that front. Those with cash no longer really need the US except to fund international security. I can make money marketing Asian products to non-American consumers, and if those suckers in Des Moines want to subsidize my business model with their M.I.C. more's the better.

    4. Forgot to mention immigration, a successful bipartisan attempt to keep wages down. Because the only reasons anyone would oppose continued immigration are crankery and xenophobia. Bigots should learn from the example of those enlightened souls at the Chamber of Commerce, who only have the greater good in mind. The C of C and their gov employees and pundits tend to avoid nasty stats on unemployment or other negative outcomes for communities swamped, sticking to moralizing vague statements.

    5. Anonymous, I have no idea what you are attempting to say here. Rants about the broken system are a dime a dozen these days. What's your point?

    6. Nick, we already have what you described in the post I responded to. There is a somewhat porous elite, served by a meritocratic top 20%. All the talk of the super rich ignores the vital role that top professional 20% play in maintaining the status quo.

      The diversity and somewhat limited social advancement granted by our meritocratic system serves to mask its elitist, indeed quasi-feudal, nature. Who is to say laissez faire might not be better for those not so favored? Who benefits is the question. Some would certainly suffer under a libertarian regime, others, and not all of them rich, would perhaps do better. Of course, we are already in the realm of counter-factuals.

      If I had a point, which I did not make, the opponents of libertarianism don't realize that we are not on the road to a European social security state. Spoils system politics, our international policy and encouragement of cheap labor from abroad ensures that. Centrists criticize libertarianism's Randian cruelty often without acknowledging the cruelty of the current system. Centrists complain about complaints of the current system, but propose no radical solutions to change. There is an assumption that things will somehow get better incrementally- traditional, progressive, technocratic dangerously optimistic thinking. The attitude is the system is bad, but at least it sort of works. That's just lazy, complacent thinking. Tell me, outside of the Far Left and Far Right, have you seen a worthwhile critique of the system?

      To the original question, libertarianism is unthinking cruelty, perhaps, not the active, self-interested, selfish, cynical, and hypocritical world-view one sees on the traditional right, which has incorporated certain elements of Keynesian thinking, and is not so far removed from the solutions offered by the Center-Left neoliberals who control the Democrats.

      How is Larry Summers or his ilk any less cruel than a libertarian?

  9. Another interesting Plain Blog thread. Wanted to quickly insert myself in the Jeff/Couves debate and note that Jeff's use of libertarians being opposed to govt building bridges and roads is, indeed, a straw man: seems like Jeff is thinking of the anarchists here.

    I've made this point here previously, but Rand Paul famously followed up a deficit question in a 2010 debate by noting that he believed in the Federal Government, just a $2.4 T Federal Government (as opposed to the going spending of $3.5 T). I suspect we could build quite a few roads and bridges with $2.4 T.

    I'm not an expert in libertarian thought, but I think their issue with Big Govt primarily arises from the Great Society ending up having agency/priorities of its own, in the process picking winners and losers along the way. Great Society advocates have a sepia-toned faith that government is automagically a reflection of the popular will; a libertarian probably notes that view is never fleshed out by the Great Society liberal, probably because the conceit would rapidly disintegrate if a liberal ever tried.

    Finally, it seems to me a bit unfair to hold Couves (or anyone, really) to the various weirdnesses that parade as the true faith. I note that Jeff has taken pains to clarify 'what it means to be liberal', which among other things includes opposition to stuff like the soulless, faceless views of something like totalitarian Marxism. Those folks are in the tent, though, no? What gives you the right to wall off your ideology vs. your weirdos but Couves not? Is it because there are proportionally more weirdos posing as libertarians? Why would threshhold matter here?

    1. CSH, on the meta-issue of how to define whom, see my last post above. (@ 3:11 a.m., which by the way is 10:11 a.m. where I am, in that socialist hellhole we call Europe. But that aside.) If it were up to me to name all these groups, I would agree that the extreme anti-government-ites could be called "anarchists." But it's not up to me. They don't call themselves anarchists; some that I've encountered call themselves "libertarians," and others, including Mitt Romney, call themselves "Republicans." (And still others, like Paul Ryan, perhaps do or did call themselves "Randites," although our Paulie has laid that one to rest now that he's seen how well it plays nationally.) It's not hard to imagine that the Republican Party has been influenced by libertarians, but it would be strange to imagine that it's currently under the sway of anarchists, don't you think?

      As to whether I myself play "No True Scotsman" with liberalism, I don't think so, but since your raise the point I will think further about this and redouble efforts not to do so going forward. It's not hard for me to think of people and ideas that are clearly in the liberal "tent" but that I nonetheless think are wrong: a lot of "neoliberalism" and its advocates, for instance; Erskine Bowles, Tim Geithner, other liberal friends of big money (including Obama, some of the time); and the "liberal hawks" who supported the Iraq war. The case would be even clearer if we talked about the left, since I've spent a significant fraction of my academic career arguing (from a liberal perspective) against the more extreme left you find in humanities departments. I wouldn't deny, though, that these weirdos, uh, I mean these people are on the left, or that they and I in some loose way have at least that in common. And incidentally, some of them luuuuv playing a version of "No True Scotsman," making outrageous claims to get attention -- like, "all reality is socially constructed" -- and then when they're called on this, denying that they meant that all reality is socially constructed, they were just making the reasonable point that there are different views of reality, etc. Those people irritate me no end, but I wouldn't say they're outside the tent. I would say, though, that totalitarian Marxists aren't "liberals," or at least that we lose a very helpful distinction if we start stretching the terms that far.

      Good enough?

    2. Also, CSH, I cannot stress enough that what I'm talking about are not "straw men." Again, straw men are imaginary people who hold positions that no one takes. They are the "those" in politicians' statements like "There are those who say we shouldn't invest in the future" or "There are those who say we should let the terrorists win." Those "those" are straw men, i.e. purely rhetorical constructions with no representation in the actual political discourse. But you simply cannot say that positions like "Government doesn't create jobs" don't really exist in the discourse, or that "those" who hold them are mere straw men, when they include a major-party nominee for President of the United States. Unless you're saying that that particular nominee was made of straw. To which I would also object, because it seems clear he was actually made of plastic.

    3. Jeff, I apologize, I don't think I was clear: in the confines of these hallowed halls, I fully endorse your, and Couves' - and really everyone's - right to play No True Scotsman with your ideology. If there are weirdos in your tent who do not reflect your ideology as you prefer it, by all means call them out! The alternative is to become Conor Friersdorf and leave it all behind, which may be emotionally satisfying but is not particularly useful.

      At the risk of hyperbole, the opportunity to engage the No True Scotsman concept is one of the best things about this communities. To the extent that all of us are stuck in tents with fellow travellers that make us uncomfortable, where better than here to point our fingers at those folks and say "No, no, that's not right, that's not what we should be about". And the rest of us should certainly not hold the finger-pointer accountable to the stuff that troubles them (that's Jonathan's point in the open, no?) It's the divergence from dopey conventional wisdom what makes these discussions educational, it seems to me.

      By the way, Mitt Romney is made of plastic? By plastic, are you referring to credit cards? And by credit cards, are you thinking of debt? And by debt, are you referring to gullible lending institutions that cough up the purported equity of Bain Capital acquisitions, which loans make it into the pockets of Bain partners while the hapless acquiree withers on the vine?

      In that case, Romney sure is made of plastic, to a level probably unprecedented in modern days.

    4. Hah! That's a lot more profound than my thought; I had in mind whatever kind of polystyrene they use in making Ken dolls. Though come to think of it, ideologically Romney was more like Gumby. No wait, I've got it: Clutch Cargo! How did I get through the whole campaign without noticing the resemblance? There's an especially obvious parallel with the classic episode in which Clutch fires Swampy and Spinner, then lambastes Paddlefoot for paying no income taxes.

      I'm going to miss this guy.


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