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Libertarian Self-Parody

August 4, 2010

Libertarianism often teeters on the brink of self-parody. By insisting always and everywhere that individual liberty ought to trump all other concerns, libertarians end up saying some pretty bizarre things. Thus, for example, Rand Paul’s firm commitment to free speech and private property led him to express reservations about the Civil Rights Act in a recent interview with Rachel Maddow.

And then, just yesterday, Reason Magazine’s Nick Gillespie stridently criticized Jamie Oliver for crusading against obesity:

If there’s one thing more nauseating than Michelle Obama replacing candy with vegetables at the White House Easter Egg Roll, it’s celebrity chef Jamie Oliver hectoring the residents of America’s fattest city, Huntington, West Virginia, into eating better . . . Each episode is chock full, not simply of basic nutritional truisms (easy on the sweets, hurrah for fresh veggies) but the sort of Manichean bullying that attends contemporary discussions of food and fatness. “You gotta be afraid of me or come with me,” Oliver tells a recalcitrant radio host.

The show brilliantly reveals the nanny mindset as only a pro-nanny show could, ignoring the range of safe choices people can make without privileging health above pleasure always.

Who does Jamie Oliver think he is, asking a town infamous for its high rates of diabetes and heart disease to consider laying off the cheeseburgers and pizza? This is the same kind of nanny mindset that led LBJ to pass a law outlawing segregation — and look where that got us!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. catullus permalink
    August 5, 2010 9:15 am

    Actually, I don’t like nannyism by the state. It shouldn’t be the one to save us from booze, dope sex and bad food. It should save us from Klansmen, voting discrimination and the like. That said, Gillespie went off the rail here. People can always tell Jamie Oliver to piss off. And there’s plenty of discussion of dietary fat that isn’t Manichean although I wouldn’t count on Michelle Obama to foster any of it.

    Libertarians are human. This is what humans often say: “You can’t simply respect my right to choose. You have to like my choice; if you don’t, you don’t like me.” We need more people brave enough to say, “Maybe you’re right; maybe I don’t like your choice or you for that matter. But I’ll leave you to yours if you leave me to mine.” And lots of libertarians walk that that. I say this as a far-leftist.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      August 5, 2010 8:52 pm

      catullus, your comment sounds more libertarian than leftist to me. It is not the leftist, but the libertarian who says, “maybe I don’t like your company’s decision to spit carbon into the atmosphere or to make tennis shoes using sweatshop labor, but I’ll leave you to yours if you leave me to mine.”

      The intellectually consistent progressive need not deem freedom of choice a menace to society, however. Rather, we must insist that freedom has no content apart from some larger worldview; that the libertarian notion of choice is false precisely because the libertarian notion of society as a mere collection of interest-maximizing, autonomous selves is false. Ours must be a more robust notion of choice than that of the libertarian — a notion compatible with respect for the environment and a strong commitment to economic equality, among other values.

  2. Zombiehero permalink
    August 5, 2010 5:59 pm

    Liberals are just as suseptable to self parady as well. I agree with catullus, its part of being human.
    You obvious dont have the same love of liberty than Gilespie does. Thats fine with me. But if you go around telling people what you think is best for them then be prepared for someone to tell you where they think the best place for you to go is. Isnt that fair?

  3. Zombiehero permalink
    August 5, 2010 6:02 pm

    Well I criticize organic foodies all the time. Especially concidering if they got their, all food is organic, wish then millions of poeple would die of starvation.

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    August 5, 2010 9:04 pm

    Ah, but libertarians also think they know what’s best for people. What’s best for people always and everywhere, claims the libertarian, is the absence of social and legal constraints — even if that means that 40 million Americans lack health care insurance or that CEOs make more than 300 times as much as the average worker or that 50% of all marriages end in divorce.

    Should libertarians go to hell along with the rest of us?

  5. catullus permalink
    August 6, 2010 6:56 am

    I do plead guilty to a libertarian streak. Old man Marx himself wanted nothing more than for all of us to be legislators and aristocrats: work in the morning, make music in the afternoon, communicate at night.

    But what Gillespie was on about and what I commented on was that other segment of folks who know better. Neither of us were on the subject of sweatshops or pollutants emiting from factories. The subject at hand was a prig offering unsolicited advice. Legal and social restraint have their place (we’ll have to diverge here, zombiehero). Hectoring has little to no place. Take marriage, now that you’ve brought it up. Divorce is sad, but there’s a myriad of ways to make it merely sad and not harmful to those that don’t deserve harm. In light of that, state policy and the power of social opprobrium should not care how many marriages fail. Thus, whatever the state does in this regard, it should refrain from measures like covenant marriage. It’s a fool’s errand to try and save people from their credulity about marriage. Just as it is to try to save them from food they often know is bad for them but like anyway.

    If libertarians are wrong, they’ll go to hell along the rest of us. And they’ll deserve to.

  6. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    August 6, 2010 9:30 am

    I brought up sweatshops and pollution to press the issue — because I anticipated that you’d allow for state intervention in these instances. My question remains: if authentic libertarianism means the state refraining from action in all instances except when one individual directly violates the rights of another, on what grounds can a progressive justify legislation capping carbon emissions or regulating corporations?

    The fact that you make a distinction between environmental/economic issues and marriage tells me that you are selectively libertarian, and sound the bells of liberty only with respect to choices that you do not consider “truly” harmful. This is typical of both progressives (who deploy the rhetoric of radical individualism on issues like abortion and free speech) and conservatives (who do the same on economic issues).

    I disagree with Zombiehero on just about everything, but where we do agree (I think) is that libertarianism is, by its very nature, all or nothing: it sets itself up as an absolute commitment to the individual and his (or her) rights, before which all other ideals — whether progressive or conservative — must bow.

    Zombiehero worships at the altar of this idol; I do not. I’m still not clear which camp you are in: if social and legal restraint have their place, what is it and how is it justifiable on libertarian grounds?

  7. catullus permalink
    August 6, 2010 11:38 am

    If I had thought of “radical individualist”, I’d have used that and not “libertarian.” Or perhaps “selectively libertarian”; that fits my description, it seems.

  8. August 15, 2010 3:12 am

    I’ve been meaning to give a proper response to this but I’m afraid I just don’t have enough time. (I’m moving to Syracuse.)

    For now, all I can say is that:

    -Your line about “all or nothing” is just plain wrong. Libertarians are NOT all or nothing. It might help your argument to say that, but that just shows the shaky ground your argument rests on.

    -When you take out the strawman of what you think Libertarians think and what you think I am thinking, again your arguments fail to impress. For one most Libertarians do believe in the social contract and a role for government. But like everything there is a limit. Your limit is radically different from my limit but essentially we both rest on the same idea, that government has it’s place. When you get that then your question; “f social and legal restraint have their place, what is it and how is it justifiable on libertarian grounds?” really isn’t much of a question at all…it’s a matter of degree.

  9. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    August 15, 2010 10:53 am

    I hope your move goes well, Zombiehero!

    Yes, of course I do not mean to conflate libertarianism with anarchism. I think our disagreement about whether it is an “all or nothing” philosophy probably boils down to semantics.

    So let me put the point another way. I begin with the premise that there is such a thing as the common good. For that reason, I am in some, but certainly not most instances comfortable with having the state restrict individual choice. I do not think company XYZ has a “right” to dump sludge into a nearby river or pay slave wages to Asian peasants; I do not think animal crush porn should be legal; and I do not believe that business owners should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. In each of these instances, I would contend that the common good trumps individual liberty. Furthermore, I would contend that when left unchecked, liberty undercuts itself. (The tendency of capitalism toward monopoly is one obvious example.)

    When I say that libertarianism is “all or nothing,” what I mean is that it liberty is the only value it acknowledges — or, at least, the only value that it would have the state acknowledge. Everything else is left up to individuals and the contracts they form.


    • August 15, 2010 8:06 pm

      “(The tendency of capitalism toward monopoly is one obvious example.)”

      Is a fallacy, monopolies are caused because of State interference. Go ahead and try to start up a ratings agency…you won’t be able to because of existing and the new Fin Regs. Do you think you can start up an investment bank now that GS has full government backing and support? Go ahead try to start a car company, the red tape is staggering. These are all entry barriers that are erected by the State. These are the barriers that keep the oligopolies up. As far as I know there has never ever been a true monopoly, just govt backed cartels and oligopolies.(Read up on the New Deal NRA and the SCOTUS case that invalidated it; Schecter v. U.S.) So if that’s part of your justification then your argument fails from the start, ie non sequitur fallacy.

      I don’t think liberty is the only value it acknowledges. Again I think that’s a strawman. Classical Liberal, Libertarians, Minarchists, Anarchists all have a great degree of variation on what they think are the core values. This is the problem I think the Left get’s itself into, they try to label everything. You see it all the time. I mean to Democrats like to acknowledge the great degree of (for lack of a better term) value variation within their own party? Hell no, they are constantly trying to separate the “true liberals” from the DINOs. Look at the blow back from Gibbs’ “Professional Liberal” comment and the comment itself, which I think is surprisingly accurate, especially coming from Gibbs.

      You bring up externalities, and it’s not like libertarians think that externalities are no big deal. They are. The problem is that libertarians don’t think Govt is the BEST solution to solve those kinds of problems. Take Krugman for example. (Yes I love to pick on him.) He came out and acknowledged that he has hasn’t read anything on Public Choice economics, the side of econ that deals with Govt action and Regulation. Yet he constantly says that govt interventions will do a “heckuva job.” The truth of the matter is that regulations get written by the companies that they are going to regulate. Do you think they are going to do anything hurt their business? Look at the latest Fin Regs, GS came out clean as a whistle and now has access to the Treasury at the discretion of the Tres. Sec and POTUS. Talk about a sweet deal. Did that Fin Reg do anything about Fannie and Freddie? Even the most ardent Liberals admit, grudgingly that F&F had a part to play. Yet they don’t get any new rules, infact they keep getting more and more money instead of going out of business. (All examples of govt creating oligopolies BTW.)

      And don’t get me started on the regulators themselves….the short is, than when you concentrate power in the hands of a few regulators instead of spread out, you get the problem of regulators surfing porn instead of protecting the public. The better approach would be to make the public aware of the problem and give them as much info as they can get, but let the public decide what they want to do. It might surprise you but the public isn’t as stupid as most academics, elitist think they are. Of course voting for Bush twice and then Obama doesn’t do much in support of that assertion but I digress.

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