No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
–John Donne, 17th Century English Poet
I have a good friend whom I admire, who is a conservative Republican, and a libertarian. His primary view is that government bureaucracy and its attendant regulations should be eliminated to free the entrepreneurial spirit and to expand human liberty and freedom. Taxes are seen as theft of property by government. It is well we be wary of them as Thomas Jefferson wrote “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” But the remedy is not to keep them extraordinarily low or non-existent. It is an informed citizenry that watches its government and involves itself in the decision making process. Jefferson also noted that democracy was problematic if citizens were not properly educated or engaged.
Far more a threat to democracy itself is an electorate where a majority of us do not vote at all, and featuring a large mass who say they are uninterested in politics and government as they have other things to do, and do not wish to engage themselves in what their government does in their name. And the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case where money as speech is now enshrined as a worthy thing in itself in our Constitution is contrary to full self government. We all know that money as speech means most of us will immediately have far less impact than those who are wealthy. The fact we do not control money in politics at all has made government far less responsive to America’s dying middle class. It breeds cynicism and even less participation in our government in turn. And the open assaults upon a free, universal and public education system do nothing to further educate the people who are to be in control of what is their own government.
In more modern times, Republican tax guru Grover Norquist has argued that we ought to shrink the size of government so that we may be able to strangle it in some metaphorical bathtub somewhere. This itself is at heart a libertarian value. Libertarians see government as divorced from the populace and alienated from us. In large measure it presently is. But that need not be.
The libertarian has an open hostility to “bureaucrats.” Honestly, those bureaucrats are a highly professionalized and devoted set of public servants, who love their country as much as anyone, and who outside the realm of their expertise are just friendly and warm ordinary people. In the 19th Century it was wisely decided to have a professional civil service via the always boring subject of civil service reform. The pattern earlier had always been the spoils system, where the winners got to put their people in place up and down the government with often little thought to their qualifications to do what needed to be done to ‘faithfully execute the laws of the United States.” Government jobs were a reward for political support in the previous election campaign. An EPA water quality expert, a dying breed in the age of Trump, approaches their work to evaluate the quality of water we drink and to warn and to help ameliorate pollution of the water. They do not spend all their time thinking up schemes to make it impossible to make money in our economy. They serve under presidents of all political stripes faithfully.
As to regulations themselves, they are most often in response to the failures of the market, and the blind ambition of wealth over human safety and folly.
Ayn Rand has become one of the chief thinkers for libertarians. The writer of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead celebrates the strong individual over any collective sort of human action. This is an atomized society of winners and losers, and I have the regret to inform you that you are most likely one of the mass of losers. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mieses and the American Milton Friedman are a part of a foundation of economic thinking.
But what really knaws at me is with libertarians it is a game of everyone out for themselves. It is economic and human selfishness that ultimately reign here. When we have a natural disaster, we don’t just sit and watch people become victims and see the survivors as the strong individuals in Paul Ryan’s fevered sleep, seeing himself as the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s novels. People draw together in community to help one another. A quintessential value and support for our humanity is the ability to empathize and to feel compassion for others. While many private organizations of human beings do great work, and are essential to “living in community” with one another, they are not adequate.
We don’t launch a “Go Fund Me” page for our national defense and military. That in itself is a separate issue. Perhaps for peace it might be a grand idea. Government is the most effective vehicle for drawing together common resources in order for communities of people to accomplish things they could not do even with the private sector alone. Capitalism with its foundational economic law of the profit motive thrusts to the side any thought of altruism. Altruism itself is under attack in our culture wars. Even the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ to Christian believers the world over, do not comport with the dictates of capitalism and the market. I recall that Jesus overturned the money changers tables at the temple in Jerusalem shortly before his death and resurrection. He also taught Nicodemus, an early disciple to his work on Earth, that it would be hard for the wealthy to enter heaven with him as it would be to thread the eye of a needle with a camel.
Shortly after our nation’s founding, John Adams wrote that he worried that Americans were in danger of “prostituting themselves” to wealth and material things, instead of guarding our great experiment in self government.
Frankly, the free market worshipped by libertarians is anything but. It is not how all of us relate to one another in full community, and what they used to call “comity” with one another. Cooperation, with altruism as the motive, and improving the quality of life; enlivening our ability to govern ourselves must in large part be through a government itself “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Lincoln did not say “of the wealthy by the wealthy and for the wealthy.” Libertarian thought tends in that direction far too much. Nor did he say it was “of the selfish, by the selfish, and for the selfish.” We must also meet our obligations to each other to share for common ends what we have, not all that we have. We frankly need a report card that says “plays well together, and shares with others.”
There is no attack here on the market itself. Government is just plain lousy at innovation and entrepreneurial activity. Libertarians are dead on about that. Yet, our founders did not envision either government unaccountable to the people, nor did they plan for some sort of top down socialist or communist form of governance, or that of Fascist Italy or Germany. Democratic Socialism is a different animal to all the rest of those ideologies we rightly opposed in World War II and the Cold War Era, and best dealt with in another column. Libertarians also do us great service in being watchful of government invasions of our privacy, and our ability to act for ourselves. It’s just that front and center in our time is the role of government itself. Ronald Reagan, a good President, probably launched far more than he bargained for when he said in his inaugural address that “government is the problem.”
My politics are governed primarily by altruism, social justice, and my Christianity. I’m far less interested in party politics. Political parties to me are only vehicles to help elect those with whom we agree on the issues of the day, and how to deal with them in our laws and the goals we set together as a people. Far more dangerous is the yawning gap in wealth equality that is starving our people of their ability to launch that pursuit of happiness Jefferson spoke of in the old Declaration so prized in our philosophy of self government. We don’t get there by being selfish, and pursuing wealth as an end in itself.
In the end John Donne was right. No man is an island. We ourselves are diminished when another man suffers or dies. We all need others to help some of the time. Government is simply to be the popular expression of that need for community. We don’t live in an Atlas Shrugged World, or we ought not to. I envision a world ruled by kindness, cooperation in community for each other, with a deep moral sense of doing what is right. The fatal flaw of the libertarian movement is it is, at its core, a selfish means of engaging one another that is too destructive of community, that city shining on a hill spoken of by so many in our history.