Wisdom for Our Generation, with Illustrations
Without honesty, reality withers and dies. -- Henry F. Senn
Few people talk about the communist ideal anymore. Marx’s well meaning dreams are crushed. He did not or could not foresee the likes of Lenin and even worse Stalin perverting the Russian revolution to feed their own personal greed for power, and his theories should not be equated to their regimes. Also, few would propose a Fascist form of Government as a noble ideal with the example of Hitler setting the standard. The problem with the political extremes of Communism and Fascism is that their attendant powerful central Government provides an avenue for an individual without a shred morals to grab control of that Government, e.g., a Stalin or a Hitler. Having zero morals is very helpful in this process. They would never admit it but today’s Republicans do exhibit Fascist tendencies with their tight association with and funding from large corporations.
The extreme, anti-Government views of Libertarians and Anarchists are just as unrealistic as those of big Government communists and fascists, and should be viewed with equal suspicion. Anarchists are naive but genuinely nice people who want everybody to have a fair chance. Libertarians are equally naive but self-indulgent individuals who do not want any constraints put on their behavior by a representative Government. The word “private,” and by extension the word “mine,” play prominently in Libertarian philosophy. Both Libertarians and Anarchists are afflicted with a bad case of macroarchiphobia (a pathological fear of big government) that inhibits their ability to think things through. While both groups desire a minimal government, the disparity in their viewpoints should serve as a warning that idealistic and extreme political positions could not lead to anything that is actually workable.
The big reason over-idealized social-political systems, either big government or small, do not work is simply that people have conflicting interests and rarely play fair when pursuing those interests. Part of this is people’s greed which can be practically unbounded as demonstrated by the obscene payoffs for corporate heads, and the recent scandals concerning fraud at the highest of corporate offices. The individuals involved are already wealthy and powerful and still they want more. There is a corollary to this, and that is, if everyone played fair and lived modestly, any form of government would work. There are also unpredictable and large-scale natural events and processes that effect economic and social orders and require occasional intervention by a reasonably strong government. Most of what a balanced government does is to maintain a middle ground between the conflicting interests of people through legislation and enforcement, and make economic adjustments when necessary to prevent instability or stagnation. Anarchists and libertarians both need to be asked how exactly their version of minimal government would function and at what point is such a government is achieved. I can guarantee you that as you question them about specifics their ideal, small government will grow and grow and become as complex as the one we have now.
I want to particularly dissect the libertarians because they currently seem to be gaining a good deal of unwarranted credibility. Most of what I say also applies to conservatives, except that, much to their credit, libertarians do part ways on the issue of using the Government to impose a particular kind of Christian morality on our society. For example, a Libertarian would have no problem with the right to request a doctor-assisted suicide as opposed to our former Attorney General John Ashcroft who has tried to use his own convictions and the power of the Federal Government to reverse Oregon’s law supporting such suicide. To demonstrate the Libertarian position, a headline from a January 9, 1997 Libertarian Party Press Releases posted at http://www.lp.org/press/archive.php?function=view&record=391 states, ‘The "right to die" is basic human right, Libertarian Party tells Supreme Court.’
Most of the current popularity of Libertarianism is likely do the fact that it lets one off the hook in regards to responsibility for others, the health of a community and world as a whole. To libertarians, liberty means you should be able to do anything you please and disregard the consequences for others. This in turn is supported by the mistaken belief that unconstrained capitalism (laissez-faire principles) will automatically solve any social or economic problem. Here is a definition of libertarians from one of their own websites at http://www.libertarian.org (The bolding is theirs.): “While libertarians are a diverse group of people with many philosophical starting points, they share a defining belief: that everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don't infringe upon the equal freedom of others.” Unfortunately for Libertarian believers this statement is out of touch with reality. Every action that one takes, big or small, has an impact on others, and the state of our planet. Like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond, the effects of our actions spread out over the world. If you do not believe this, think about it. It is easy to think of a train of events that derive from an action or inaction one might take. Sure, the effect may be minor, but it could also be seriously negative or positive for those around us.
The libertarian view of seat belt laws, or laws forcing motorcyclists to wear helmets are examples of the above thinking. Libertarians hate these laws and believe that sensible actions to protect ones self should be an individual’s choice and not the business of the Government. Turning a minor accident into a serious one, however, is not without its consequences for others. If there is another party to the accident, they may feel at least partly responsible for a fatality rather than a minor accident. If the helmetless Libertarian has a family, certainly they would care about whether it was a minor or serious accident. Possibly, they would be burdened by a permanently comatose relative. I would guess, emergency responders would rather set a broken limb than sweep someone’s brains off the street. I could think of other examples of how a lack of motorcycle helmet might affect others but the big point is that these laws are not put in place for the amusement of Government officials, but because irresponsible behavior does affect others. Of course, libertarians have no room for others in their hearts and pursuing their own self-interest in the name of liberty is their only concern. I think their statement above should be amended to say, “…everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don't infringe upon the equal freedom of others too much.”
Let us examine a couple of sample Libertarian views. Libertarians hate zoning. In an article By Peter Orvetti, titled, “Libertarian Solutions: Zoning alternatives give power to people, not to bureaucrats,” and posted at http://archive.lp.org/lpn/200003-zoning.html, I thought I was going to see some explicit Libertarian alternatives to zoning: Instead, it was an article filled with quotes from other Libertarians (duh!), and some supposedly nightmare stories about zoning. Although they are not referenced as is typical in Libertarian writing, these stories may well be true. Zoning will definitely get in the way of some individuals (mostly those with libertarian tendencies) and it is definitely not a perfect system. THERE IS NO PERFECT SYSTEM, nor is there any perfect libertarian solution just over the horizon!! Almost exactly 20% of the words in this article are devoted to possible alternatives to zoning and here they are (the italics are mine):
Voluntary agreements entered into by people choosing to live in particular types of communities. So, whom do you go to if someone reneges, probably a lawyer who in turn relies on the state to enforce court decisions?
Empower neighborhood associations. Neighborhood associations are already common and empowered by contract. They are far more restrictive than government based zoning and they can take your house away if you do not comply with their restrictions. Forget living within a neighborhood association if you are an independent thinker or have a creative flair in regards to your home.
Deed restrictions. Deed restrictions are one tool of a neighborhood association and are used by sellers in a more general way to preserve some quality of the property. But beware. Here is a quote from http://www.sonoran.org/resources/terms/si_glossary_deed.html: “Enforcing deed restrictions can be difficult over the long term, as they are only enforceable by the prior owner or a third party to the original transaction, such as the owner of abutting property.”
No zoning (Houston is used as an example of a city that works with little zoning, but apparently it is not free of zoning.). I do not know a great deal about living in Houston but I know it never shows up on a list of best places to live.
There is nothing new offered here and no one in this country is prevented from entering into the above types of personal agreements. There is only some unwarranted fear of local government, and its employees who are disparaged by being called bureaucrats. I think zoning through Government enforcement is fine and the most democratic. It is in fact, largely the citizens of a community who desire zoning, and when zoning restrictions are about to be put in place, there are avenues for public review. There are also public processes for amending restrictions or requesting variances. Zoning is also often used as a tool for community planning and I see nothing wrong with a community trying to set up zones where businesses can thrive apart from the quiet neighborhoods where children can play safely. There is no way that contracts between individuals such as the libertarians promote can address these larger, community-scale issues, but then libertarians do not care about community and only freedom to pursue their own self-interest is a concern.
Another tradition on the libertarian hit list is public lands, including the National Parks. Libertarians hate National Parks and believe they should be privatized. Take for example the article by Dr. Mary Ruwart posted at http://www.gsu.edu/~wwwlib/issues-environment.htm and titled, “The Pollution Solution: Stopping the environment's worst enemy.” The environment's worst enemy in this case is your local and U.S. governments. The article starts out with a litany of examples where the government has supposedly caused environmental damage by its actions or lack of action. As is usually the case with libertarian rhetoric, no references are given. Here is a statement from the article:
“Hooker Chemical begged the Niagara Falls School Board not to excavate the land where Hooker had safely stored toxic chemical waste. The school board ignored these warnings and taxpayers had to foot a $30 million relocation bill when health problems arose. The EPA filed suit, not against the reckless school board, but against Hooker Chemical! Government officials have sovereign immunity.”
After hearing about Love Canal, does anyone believe that Hooker Chemical can safely store toxic chemical waste in the ground as is implied by the first sentence? Should we feel sorry for Hooker Chemical rather than the unsuspecting families that live near by and a school board likely consisting of local citizens? Does this case sound familiar? This little, distorted homily is indeed the Love Canal incident, which Ruwart fails to mention. Anyone can find more details about this premier example of private owners despoiling the land by plugging "love canal" "hooker chemical" "School Board" into your favorite search engine. Below is additional information from a site at http://home.att.net/~Resurgence/Lovecanal.htm. Contrast this with Ruwart's statement
“In 1952, Hooker was approached by the School Board which wanted to buy a part of the Love Canal property (the Central Section where no dumping had occurred, as yet) in order to build a new grade school. At first Hooker declined, because it was concerned about liability for the wastes, but within a month it reconsidered and agreed to donate the property, for $1. The conditions on the donation were that the School Board take the entire property, indemnify Hooker for any claims, and continue to allow dumping until the school was built. Hooker advised the School Board that Love Canal was used "for plant refuse containing some chemicals," that the Central Section of the property was appropriate for a school, and that the rest of the property was appropriate for playgrounds. Actually, Hooker knew that approximately 22,000 tons of toxic chemical wastes were dumped at Love Canal. Hooker never warned the School Board of the dangers from subsidence of the ground.”
Note the date of the above event. Ruwart claims to have a Ph.D in Biophysics from Michigan State University. Assuming this is true, it is amazing that a school like Michigan State would graduate someone who does not know enough to provide references, and would attempt to disguise the well-worn Love Canal story as a case of mishandling by a small local Government. In truth, it is one of the worst examples of environmental abuse by a private landowner. Laughingly, Ruwart attempts to paint Hooker Chemical as a victim. What ever happened to intellectual honesty?
Based on Ruwart’s distortion of the Love Canal story, it is difficult to trust any of the other examples she gives, but if you do read them, you will find that the local and US governments are always depicted as evil entities onto themselves. At one point, Ruwart refers to the Government as the fox in the henhouse in regards to ownership of public land. This is typical in libertarian writing (It’s that macroarchiphobia acting up.). The reality is that our representative government does not stand in isolation from us. It is a reflection of who we are and not a fox. We listen to various candidates’ campaigns, and elect the ones that appear to match the majority’s opinion. We then prod them to vote one way or another on various issues. Most representatives genuinely vote the way they think the majority of their constituency wants them to. In regards to public lands, if we vote for people who favor shortsighted exploitation over multiple use and preservation of resources, exploitation is what we will get. So, what our government does, good or bad, echoes what we are, and this would be no different in any form of libertarian society.
Later in the article, Ruwart goes on to suggest that the Government should sell its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage to ranchers with arguments so lame that its hard to summarize them. The basic argument is that ranchers who lease BLM land have no incentive to take care of it, but if they owned the land, they would suddenly become responsible. To support this, she first cites (no reference given), “studies as early as 1925 indicated that cattle were twice as likely to die on public ranges and had half as many calves as animals grazing on private lands.” She then leaps to the statement, “Obviously, owners make better environmental guardians than renters. If the government sold its acreage to private ranchers, the new owners would make sure that they grazed the land sustainably to maximize profit and yield.” None of this is at all a given, at least from the evidence provided. First, ranchers do have a stake in the land that they lease from the BLM because they lease the same land year after year, and if they overgraze the land, their herds will suffer every bit as much as if they owned the land. Second, when cattle are grazed on large open ranges in the West, either public or private, they are essentially living as wild animals, and this is always risky for stock. For all we know, the studies as early as 1925 included many, modest-sized, Eastern and mid-Western ranches where the grass is rich and the cattle are always within sight. And, it is not a given that private owners take care of their land. Anyone that travels in rural areas in either the East or the West will see extensive private lands that have been monstrously over grazed, stripped of trees and topsoil, and littered with farming or industrial junk and chemicals. Third, selling public land for a specific purpose such as ranching precludes availability of the lands for public uses such as hunting, recreation, lumbering, mining. etc. that can exist alongside cattle ranching. I can assure you that a rancher will optimize his land for growing cattle fodder and will not have a great interest in supporting biodiversity or opening his land to public access purposes such as hunting. The basic mission of the BLM is to administer public lands for multiple-uses. To me, this seems like a good thing. If we do have a problem with the way government manages public lands, it is our responsibility to ensure that our representatives fund the BLM at a level that is required for proper planning, monitoring, and enforcement. Again, our government is a reflection of us and we bear responsibility for the public lands, that is, if we want public lands.
Ruwart goes on (and on) to accuse the government of abusing the National Parks and suggests, “Wouldn't we be better served if naturalist organizations, such as the Audubon Society or Nature Conservancy, took over the management of our precious parks?” From what she says elsewhere in the article, I am pretty sure that Ruwart’s phrase, “took over the management of our precious parks” should be taken to mean privatization. Well the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society are fine organizations and they have done a great deal for the preservation of natural places, but if we transferred a National Park to them, it would no longer be our precious National Park, it would be private property. Libertarians seem to miss the point that the National Parks are not just managed for preservation, but are also there to provide all of the public with access to rare, natural wonders. Suppose the Grand Canyon was sold or just turned over to the Audubon Society. It is unlikely that an organization such as Audubon, which is funded by donations, would even have the resources to manage a large park for both preservation and public access. While Audubon operated preserves are normally open to the public, this is not a given. In the name of natural preservation, the Audubon Society may well opt to severely restrict access to the canyon and may even limit access to members. The only people who would have say in this are highly active members and large donors. I do not know about you but I do not need to personally control even a piece of a National Park, but I do want the ability to visit a public park and enjoy the natural wonders that may be found there. I am perfectly willing to pay taxes for this.
Now suppose the Federal Government did open the public lands for sale and privatization, who would actually buy the land? For practical reasons it would probably be auctioned off in large parcels and the only entities that would have the resources to compete would be large commercial enterprises such as timber companies or real estate developers, or special interest groups such as hunting clubs or environmental groups. Now it is possible that the average Joe or Jane could purchase a five or ten acre plot at a much increased price from one of the developers, and build a cabin on it, but what would they have really? It would not be big enough to hike or to hunt on. There would be neighbors close by, with perhaps different ideas about what to do on their ten-acre parcel. One of the reasons people buy country properties is to have recreational access to nearby public lands, but this would no longer be possible if the Libertarians had their way. All those lands would be private property with no trespassers allowed.
To press this point further, I want to tell a story of my own. I lived in Salt lake City, Utah for nearly 20 years. As most people know and many ignoramuses complain about, the U.S. Government owns huge tracks of land in the Western States, including Utah. Most of this land is managed for multiple-use and is open to the public. For me, this was one of the great features of living in the West. I liked to explore, photograph, hike, camp, xc-ski, etc. and I was not limited to a few small, over-civilized state parks. I had thousands of square miles of wilderness that included deserts, forests, high peaks, and everything in between to explore, and I could do this without ever seeing another soul. I am not a hunter but hunters and other so-called sportsmen enjoyed equal access and solitude. I now live in New York State, which actually is better endowed with outdoor attractions than most States, but still as I drive down any country road I see endless no-trespassing signs marking the edges of the woods and fields, and trespassing is taken seriously. New York State does have public state parks and state forests, but the state parks are highly managed and very tame, and except for Adirondack State Park, the state forests are found in relatively small patches here and there. Even the Adirondack Park, has large tracks of private property within its boundaries. The thing I miss most about the West is access to those expansive public National Forests and Parks, and the vast BLM desert valleys.
Above, I have examined two Libertarian Web sites, both of which are arguments related mostly to their views on private property. To find these, I did not search the Web for especially weak articles. I just knew that zoning and public lands were big libertarian issues and I plugged those terms into a popular search engine. The above articles happened to show up high in the list of search results. There are many more libertarian sites dealing with many different kinds issues. I am sure that if you take time to examine their views you will find as I did that their positions are poorly supported and fundamentally based on a deep seated annoyance that the rules of a community would put a few limits on their behavior. It turns out that Dr. Mary Ruwalt (You can find her at http://www.ruwart.com/Pages/Home/ ) is a prominent libertarian spokesperson; yet, she had to resort to disguising the Love Canal story in her attempt discredit the concept of public lands. Could it be there is no convincing argument for libertarianism, or are the people who are taken up by the libertarian ideal operate at such a low intellectual level that they cannot see that problems in society and economics have more to do with the desires and bad behavior of people than it does with a particular form of government? Indeed, I would contend as indicated earlier, that the biggest reason governments exist is to assert a standard of behavior so a society can function as a whole.
Before I end, I want to reemphasize that there are two big flaws in libertarian thinking. The first is that we can do what we want without affecting other people. Just the opposite is true. Every action we take does affect others in some small or large way. The second big flaw, shared by both libertarian and anarchist thinkers, is the assumption that under a regime of extremely limited government people will play fairly, and not use their freedom to take advantage of each other. The reality is that just the opposite will happen. People have moral weaknesses and some will and do use relaxed laws and regulations to take advantage of others and savage our natural resources. My admittedly limited survey of Libertarian Web sites also turned up very little in the way of mechanics; that is, explanations of what form a libertarian government would actually take. For example, what personal actions might I take that do not infringe on the rights of others in a libertarian society, and what actions would I take that do infringe on the rights of others? This is where the law books get really big.
There is no perfect system of government and the libertarian dream world would be no different. The libertarian dream world is, in fact, just a mental construction by people who are so self-absorbed that they feel set upon when asked to contribute to society as a whole and follow a few simple rules that are for the benefit of all. This may be somewhat pessimistic, but the US system of local and federal governments, as they stand right now are pretty close to best one can expect. Sure there is lots of room for improvement but there always will be as long as any government entity is set up by people and run by people. I personally do not feel seriously oppressed by our current local, state, and federal governments. I know that I can solicit my local government for services and justice if the need arises, and that they will be responsive if I have a good case and play by the rules. On a national level, it is much harder, but that is only because there are so many voices. Even with all those voices, I can still vote and solicit my representatives. As to personal achievement, I know I am far more limited by own frailties than from any legalities or taxes currently imposed by our governments. If I were to become even moderately financially successful, I know that I will have no problem both paying my taxes and acquiring personal comforts.
There is one final point. The libertarians and their conservative collaborators are intent on disabling all standing government social program. Their main tool for this is tax cuts and their main reasoning is that no one should not have to give any of their hard earned cash to others through government social supports. Now tax rates and social programs are really methods for redistributing wealth, more bluntly, a form of robbing from the rich to give to the poor (This is the Robin Hood approach, which in some quarters is considered quite noble). This is a legitimate government function because in a completely laissez-fair system, the rich do get richer and the poor do get poorer, eventually resulting in a two-class system with no opportunity at all for the less than wealthy. The reason for this is that wealth buys influence as well as consumer goods, and this allows the wealthy to strengthen their already powerful political and financial positions, and make their families into dynasties. In boorish people, the potential for greed is infinite.
A good example of a government program to balance wealth is government financing for education. If you end up making higher education unaffordable except for the rich, you have also closed people off from the knowledge required to be self-sufficient. Now when I say education, I am not talking about the skills required to be a clerk at Walmart. I am talking about thinking skills required to communicate at a high level, analyze the writings and statements of others, understand history and its implications, be mathematically functional, and be generally astute as to the way the world works. Opportunity for a thorough education is fundamental to the existence of a free and opportunity-rich society. Note that if you take the Robin Hood approach to the absolute extreme you get communism, but I am not talking about the extreme. I am talking about little fine-tuning of our economic system to be sure the middle class is strong and that everyone has at least a small chance to compete. Any society or economic system is a continuum with infinite possibilities for in-between and optimum positions, and that is precisely why one should stay away from the extremes that end up being a grab bag or only for a few.
The endpoint of
privatization is feudalism.
-- Henry F. Senn