Harbin, China: A libertarian dream

From time to time a meme will pop up on Facebook that talks about Somalia being a libertarian utopia. There’s no regulation, everyone has to more or less go it alone, and the government is virtually non-existent. Of course, this claim falls flat when one realizes that libertarians are not anti-police or anti-military. The minimal necessary governmental organization necessary to prevent anarchy is well within the philosophy of libertarians. So, fair enough, Somalia is not a libertarian utopia. However, the regulatory conditions that have led to smog problems in Harbin, China are exactly a libertarian dream:

Choked with smog that shut down roads, schools, and its main airport, the city of Harbin (map) this week offered a striking reminder that China has a long way to go in addressing the hazards caused by its dependence on coal.

Visibility in the northeastern city of more than 10 million people reportedly was reduced in places to less than 65 feet (20 meters) as coal-fired heating systems ramped up for the winter months. Officials also pointed to farmers burning crop stubble and low winds as additional causes for the pollution crisis.

Roads have been shut down due to the intensity of the smog. People in this area of the country die much sooner than those in cleaner areas. It’s a serious problem that has been fueled, in part, by a desire to grow, grow, grow.

Now, to be fair, it was actually the government that encouraged the use of coal in the first place. That, of course, is not a libertarian dream. Libertarians would rather the magical hand of the free market guide the energy markets. But let’s be reasonable. The use of coal in China is going to be significant with or without the government. It’s a cheap, easy energy source. Moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that it is a complete lack of government regulation that has allowed carbon emissions and other pollution to get so out of hand. Forget that the government shares blame in this: This is the difference between handing a child a loaded gun with the safety off versus handing a child a loaded gun with a child safety lock in place. The kid shouldn’t have the loaded gun in the first place, but if he’s given a Glock anyway, he shouldn’t be able to so easily shoot himself in the head. But under libertarianism? Who cares if he’s dead? What’s important is that he had the FREEDOM!!! to kill himself in the first place.

Libertarianism for the mentally retarded

I have recently taken up a job where I work with the mentally retarded and mentally ill. It isn’t my goal in life to work my way through this field for any significant length of time, but I feel it will be a good experience for me as far as it goes. In fact, I’ve only just started and I’m already encountering a whole number of surprises. This is all probably especially emphasized at the house where I have been working due to the severity of the mental retardation in all the ‘clients’, but I have little doubt I would find my eyes opening a fair bit regardless of the exact situation. Specifically, two thoughts are constantly being churned in my mind:

  • How happy are any of these people?
  • Who, if not the government, would pay for their care?

I will leave the first question to the experts or mystery, but the second one is much more pragmatic. Under our current, humane form of government, the funding for much of the services these people need is obtained through the state. Some of it comes from charity and good will – I think the land on which my recent house sits was donated – and for people outside non-profit and other mental health programs, they may be fortunate enough to have private care independent of the government. In fact, one of the residents grew up a town or two over, having been taken in by a nice farm family for quite some time. I don’t know to what extent the state involved itself funding-wise, if at all, but surely there are plenty of example of people getting help from private individuals. However, those examples represent a small minority of the cases. Most people cannot afford the sort of care some of these ‘clients’ require.

So this all makes me wonder, if we had a wholly libertarian government, who would care for these people? Who would ensure that those who cannot help themselves not only are able to live, but are able to live healthy lives?

Thought of the day

I think what I find most disturbing about libertarianism is just how often its adherents lack a social conscience. We should always make our moral and societal decisions on a rational basis, but I think there’s something wrong with a person who can’t be persuaded to even think about certain issues on an emotional basis.

Rand Paul used to understand libertarianism

Last year Rand Paul made some politically stupid, but perfectly libertarian comments:

INTERVIEWER: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

Shortly after that comment, however, Teabaggers and other like-minded individuals (i.e., the Republican party…because, come on, they’re the same thing) distanced themselves from Paul. Unbeknownst to all the pseudo-libertarians out there, Paul was perfectly in line with their (espoused) ideology. He didn’t say he favored racism. He said he favored allowing it. One can maintain a position within the ethics of libertarianism whilst at the same time believing the follow-through to that position to be immoral. Not that I think allowing for racism in that context is acceptable, but I want to present a pretty straight-forward analysis of what libertarianism entails; Paul was being consistent.

Unfortunately, that consistency appears to have worn off:

I’m not for profiling people on the color of their skin, or on their religion, but I would take into account where they’ve been traveling and perhaps, you might have to indirectly take into account whether or not they’ve been going to radical political speeches by religious leaders. It wouldn’t be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that’s really an offense that we should be going after — they should be deported or put in prison.

This has zero connection with libertarianism. Free speech composes a cornerstone of not only the U.S. constitution, but also much of libertarianism (especially as the ethical theory pertains to politics). That Paul would go and say something so stupidly inconsistent makes it quite clear that he really could only ever be elected in the South.

Now just wait and see how many of his pseudo-libertarian brethren don’t distance themselves from him.

Greed and libertarianism

Charles and David Koch are two of the wealthiest men in the world. They’ve funded a vast number of projects, especially in New York, and it would be hard to say boo to a lot of what they’ve done: they’ve restored theaters, supported museums, and even funded cancer centers. This has all been at whopping costs, ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But this is just the stuff that’s going to be mentioned in their eulogies.

The Koch brothers have also channeled millions and millions of dollars into efforts to deny reality. They’ve fought many Democratic policies tooth and nail, giving sly support (i.e., funding) to the Tea Party movement, and it’s all been done in the guise of libertarianism. The reality is much different.

In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

They have even gone so far as to fund an exhibit on evolution (good) in an effort to deny the significance of global warming (bad).

Underlying the libertarian ideology of the Koch brothers is greed. Given the massive revenues of Koch Industries ($100 billion annually), it ought to be surprising, but it really isn’t. Libertarianism has its root in the positive ideals of liberty and freedom, but it almost always is taken too far, taken to a point where it causes obvious harm. In this case, the Koch brothers are using their ideology to motivate a sizable portion of the country to do their biding, including: reducing government help for the needy, polluting the planet, and harming our infrastructure. No one wants these things. No one wants people to be needy, no one wants pollution, no one wants bad roads and bridges. The pragmatic (i.e., reasonable) position is to find a middle ground which allows us to afford all these good things while making sure we aren’t harming jobs and other necessities. Given the $100 billion in annual revenue, I would say Koch Industries doesn’t particularly need any more “liberty”; it has been thriving just fine within our current system. (And I suspect it would continue to thrive even if it didn’t skirt laws and undermine reality.) Pragmatism, in this case, tells us there is no need to further enrich the Koch brothers; if anything, they ought to be taxed more.

Of course, this all is somewhat a misrepresentation of libertarianism. The reality is that very few people actually adhere to such an abhorrent ideology because, like with all ideologies, it quickly reaches a point of ridiculousness and harm. Who can name an actual libertarian politician in America, after all? Rand Paul is the closest, but when he maintained his ideology and said people ought to be able to deny black people service, there was an uproar – even among Teabaggers. Unfortunately for all the so-called libertarians, Paul was perfectly in line with the ideology. It wasn’t that he said black people ought to be denied service. In fact, it’s unfathomable that he believes that. What he said was that people ought to have the right to deny others service. That is libertarianism. Sorry if facts rub you the wrong way, Teabaggers.

Besides that, most so-called libertarian Teabaggers are really just far right-wing conservatives who only favor economic libertarianism. Don’t believe me? Go to the nearest rally on April 15th and start asking how many Teabaggers think gay marriage ought to be legal. Or go far enough south and see how many still favor anti-sodomy laws. I doubt the spirit of libertarianism will be so buoyant at that point. And the reason is simple: libertarianism is a convenient excuse for greed. That is why it is so selectively applied to economic issues. People aren’t adhering to a bad ideology because they think it’s good. They’re adhering to a bad ideology because they think it’s good for their wallets.

There isn’t anything inherently bad about wanting personal wealth and success. You want it? You can get it? Go nuts. But if it’s done at the expense of the poor, of the middle class, even of other wealthy people (that last one is a stretch), then tough. Too bad. Back off. There is something inherently bad about wanting personal wealth and success when it makes the poor poorer, when it increases the income gap, when it makes workers weaker, when it harms the overall economy, when it’s done in an unfair way. We all want to see poor people rise up, we all want to see the middle class increase, we all want to see workers have control over their well being, we all want to see a strong economy, we all want to see a fundamental fairness in our system. Following a sloppy, or even worse, a stringent, libertarian ideology gets us further and further away from all that.

Society and the individual

I’ve pissed off feminists in my day. The reasons they give are going to revolve around me not understanding this or that, not automatically agreeing with them in the details, etc. (‘You don’t agree with me on this issue! Sexist!’ … ‘Why?’ … ‘Because!’) Basically, nothing specific.

But the problem isn’t some deep misogyny on my part. (Disagreement about what a picture of fat people means does not somehow magically equal hating women.) The problem, instead, is one of philosophical structure.

Feminism, as I’ve argued in the past, is a philosophy of consequence. It largely ignores intention, instead focusing upon the result of an action. It’s about as advanced as libertarianism. Of course, both philosophies have value, but when they’re promoted at the expense of everything else, they’re mere ideologies which inevitably lead to absurd conclusions. The same is true of all ethical and moral systems, including the ever-so-popular utilitarianism and egalitarianism (both of which I tend towards).

I got thinking about this because of a post by PZ on the lack of women in atheist and skeptic groups.

So I’m going to try something a little different. Instead of telling you my opinion, I’m going to forgo the essential principle of blogging (which is “Me! Me!”) and just ask people, especially women, to leave links to their godless/skeptical feminist blog or make suggestions or gripe or tell me what these stupid male-dominated conventions have to do to correct the imbalance…I shall be a passive receptacle for your ideas.

I do have to make one suggestion (the testosterone compels me) for something I’d really like to see happen…

Don’t mind his suggestion here (but at his site, he says a female-run conference on atheism/skepticism would be good). Take a look at the emphasis I’ve added. He says he is compelled, inherently, by the fact of being male. This is in line with a good bit of feminism, including the caricatures that haunt the Internet, but it’s a load of bull.

This idea that someone is compelled to do this or that may have a basis in sex, but philosophy is not the way to determine that. I want hard evidence. And, depending on just what is being discussed, there is plenty of evidence that men and women will tend towards certain behaviors because of their sex. Of course, that data often comes with the compounding factor of just what influence nurture has had, and the sociologists have a say there. But philosophy is not data. Logic can tell us nothing new; logic can only interpret the data we have.

What PZ does when he says it’s his maleness that makes him act one way or another is he devalues himself. (Hell, he even goes counter to all the feminist arguments that say the individual is responsible for rape/sexual abuse and ought not blame society – something with which I agree.) It’s a devaluing of the individual to place blame on some external source – especially without evidence. We may be able to blame an act of violence by a mentally ill person on his mental illness, but that principle does not extend to most people and most actions. It isn’t some external source that is to blame for individual actions among competent people 95% of the time. It’s the individual.

That said, there certainly is value to the arguments that say society is dominated by men and that that is an impediment to true equality between the sexes. Again, that doesn’t somehow magically mean a picture of two fat women is sexual objectification, but there are plenty of incidents where that domination is a serious problem, ones we gloss over on a daily basis. Watch just about any TV show. Women will be objectified and our culture allows it. That’s not a problem with the individual, but society. But it’s ridiculous, devaluing, and plainly wrong to claim that society is the whole problem.

The individual bears responsibility.

American libertarianism

Libertarianism is an ethical theory which has value. Most of us want and enjoy our personal liberty; it sounds appealing to declare that the good is maximized liberty. And, in fact, the constitution has a strong libertarian basis, as was common with the founding fathers, especially Jefferson. The only point where libertarians draw the line is when harm is done to others. Sometimes this gets tricky – defining “harm” is very value-laden thing, one that tries to make the world a bit black and white. But it’s easy to at least identify the extreme situations which constitute harm – murder, theft, rape, etc.

And this is where libertarianism can take on a distinctively American flavor.

When applied to not getting physically injured, sure, that’s harm and a violation of maximized liberty. Or when applied to economic well-being, theft is another violation. But many libertarians are unwilling to go beyond this point. Take what happened to Rand Paul last month.

INTERVIEWER: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

This is entirely consistent with libertarianism. Again, it is an ethical theory – it is not a moral one. It is possible to favor something out of principle because it maximizes liberty while at the same time finding it immoral. Paul does precisely that. It’s immature – there’s no need to force one’s self to be so ideological (both consequences and intentions matter, contrary to the one-or-the-other principles of most ethical theories) – but it’s still in line with libertarianism. Soon after this, the Libertarian party in Kentucky distanced itself from Paul. More recently, Paul has returned the favor.

The original reason for the distancing was specifically Paul’s philosophical stance on private ownership.

Party Vice Chairman Joshua Koch said Wednesday that Paul has been a black eye for Libertarians because of stands he’s taken on issues, including his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

This was an unofficial position, but it’s the basic reason for the distancing.

Paul’s other positions fall from necessarily being libertarian-derived, but they should still be labeled libertarian – with the qualifier American. It isn’t that the good is maximized liberty, it’s that the good is my maximized liberty.

The Teabagging Party is the epitome of American Libertarianism. The physical liberty of people remains universal – no one should be harmed – but it becomes a my liberty mentality when it comes to economic and social circumstances. Businesses not allowing blacks? Sure, because it’s forcing someone to help someone else. That isn’t complete liberty for the person being forced to do the helping – and just screw the liberty of those darkies. Same-sex marriage? Philosophical consistent libertarian parties favor it, but American Libertarianism is against it. How does that help my liberty, after all?

Give it some thought. Stop a business from having no restrictions, that might help me get something cheaper, help me get paid slightly more, or help me pay my workers (or taxes) less if I open my own place. But allow two consenting adults to have insurance and easy joint custody of their children? How does that help me?

The funny thing about it all is that rights are rights are rights. Currently, marriage is not a right. It’s an arbitrary privilege which can be taken away from any group at any time, should we apply socially conservative ‘principles’ to it all the way to the end. The reason so many are blind to this has a number of reasons: majorities are almost always privileged and that isn’t always easy to see, people are ignorant and thus plainly homophobic, religion is a virus of the mind.

And this applies beyond same-sex marriage. Thirty states allow for faith healing, something which minimizes the liberty of children. American Libertarianism favors this; philosophical libertarianism does not. Or the war on drugs. Again, American Libertarianism, for. Philosophical libertarianism, against. Or restricting abortion. Or the death penalty. Or the immigration law in Arizona.

The list goes on and on.