The Libertarian Cancer
For an excellent primer on and critique of libertarianism, check out Christopher Beam’s new piece in New York Magazine. Toward the end of the piece, Beam makes a point that can’t be repeated enough:
At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. “Man’s first duty is to himself,” says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. “His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.” Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise. If you don’t get your way, blow things up. And there’s the problem. If everyone refused to compromise his vision, there would be no cooperation. There would be no collective responsibility. The result wouldn’t be a city on a hill. It would be a port town in Somalia. In a world of scarce resources, everyone pursuing their own self-interest would yield not Atlas Shrugged but Lord of the Flies.
Individual liberty, while a good in itself, must be tempered by other goods (e.g. equality), or it will tend to morph into its opposite: tyranny.
Of course, the reverse is also true. As libertarians are well aware, wealth redistribution can squelch individual initiative, in effect making everyone poorer. Likewise, rigid social norms can lead to rebellion and disunity — hence, for example, the cultural revolution of the 1960s. As Beam’s piece suggests, however, the real danger right now lies in the libertarian direction; the real danger is that the so-called libertarian moment will linger on.
The real danger is that body politic will become cancerous due to the unchecked growth of the individual.