Sunday, March 15, 2015

Another Would-Be Critic of Libertarianism Takes on a Straw Man -

The Fountainhead (film)
The Fountainhead (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a critique of libertarianism consists primarily of figuratively shouting "Ayn Rand!" and tossing in the Koch brothers, Nietzsche, and Gordon Gecko (a fictional character, nonetheless), you can be assured the author isn't going to address the Nobel economists or noted philosophers associated with libertarianism on the left, right, and center. Instead of discussing the major thinkers of classical liberalism, the author will attack the caricature of "Libertarians" that has little to do with scholarly reflection.
Another Would-Be Critic of Libertarianism Takes on a Straw Man -
How refreshing it would be for someone to set forth the strongest case for libertarianism before attempting to eviscerate it.
Sheldon Richman | March 15, 2015 
We must face the fact that criticism of the libertarian philosophy in the mass media will most likely misrepresent its target, making the commentary essentially worthless. That’s painfully clear from what critics publish almost weekly on self-styled left-wing and progressive websites. How refreshing it would be for someone to set forth the strongest case for libertarianism before attempting to eviscerate it. Is the failure to do so a sign of fear that the philosophy is potentially appealing to a great many people?
I could list a great many economists and philosophers the left (and right) ignore when attacking libertarians and (almost) classical liberals like myself. Instead of engaging Hayek or Mill or Adam Smith, instead of exploring deeply individualistic philosophers on the left and right (not that critics don't rush to call existentialism or utilitarianism childish), the critics attack Ayn Rand… because some mildly educated radio personalities might quote her. Yes, because modern talking heads are the intellectual giants of politics. (Or maybe they are, on all sides. That's a sad thought.)

I wrote in 2013:
In the comments to both articles, progressives resort to attacks on Ayn Rand (and Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and few other people). The general claim is that Rand glorified greed. I don't like Rand — she was a lousy human being, but so were many, many other thinkers across the political and philosophical spectrum. But, I at least recognize that Ayn Rand did not glorify greed: she celebrated being true to yourself. The hero of The Fountainhead is not the richest or most powerful character. It is Howard Roark, the architect with a vision, a truly great artist more concerned with the art than money. How can liberals and progressives miss such a clear argument? It isn't about money, it's about the freedom to be true to your desires and talents. Ayn Rand was not a master of subtle plots. 
Rand's villains in The Fountainhead? The rich and powerful. The media. The political elite. The hero? An artist willing to walk away from money and crush rocks rather than surrender his integrity. Seriously? Liberals don't agree with that ideal? And as I wrote above, the classic movie adaptation of The Fountainhead is the only Rand work I can tolerate.

For more on misrepresentations of classical liberalism and the variety of libertarianism:

Friday, March 6, 2015

Society and Success

Success: It's not about money.

One of the critiques of "libertarian" and "classical liberalism" I answer is that these philosophical lines encourage greed, especially in the democratic capitalism of the United States.

Seeking your own success does not have to correspond to the pursuit of wealth as measured by bank statements and material goods. Authentic classical liberalism allows me to pursue whatever fulfillment I seek, without a government bureaucrat deciding we have too many artists, or too many doctors. We pursue our dreams — and the market demand determines if we can earn a "good enough" living.

And yet, there are cultural pressure in our society to count and tally our success in unhealthy ways.

Since childhood I have feared being poor. My family lived in tiny apartments, mobile homes, and small houses. We had "enough" but were always closer to less than more. My wife and I have lost everything. We have been broke. I had no checking or savings. No credit card. Nothing but the generosity of others. And it was horrible. But we survived.

For me, and many other upwardly mobile individuals, that dread of failure, of having nothing, makes us vulnerable to those social pressures of counting things. Oddly enough, you don't stop counting when you move into the top quintile, either.

In 2012, the top quintile started at $104,097. The average household income of families in the top fifth was $181,905 (Brookings Institute, June 2014). The top five percent of households had an average income of $318,052… and that top five percent started at $191,156 — not exactly Carnegie or Rockefeller wealth.

If you read those numbers, as I do, and consider where your household falls, is that a healthy way to look at success? It cannot be, and it should not be how we value ourselves.

My wife and I are successful, now. And I worry about that success vanishing. For the "semi-wealthy" or whatever we might call ourselves, there's a dread that the fall down is a matter of one lost job, one major illness, or the loss of a spouse. For some reason, we cannot relax and feel secure: we've worried our way to the top.

Unfortunately, the middle class tends to compare wealth… constantly. I hear it from my neighbors and coworkers. People earning decent salaries, with homes and cars and nice vacations, worry and compare.

Over the last three years, I have become shallower. I have let myself fall into the money matters nonsense of the competitive middle class, at home and at work. This need to prove to others that we are okay is fed by the poor manners of some people around us. I end up responding to their misguided bragging when I should walk away and remain quiet.

It isn't libertarianism or neo-liberalism or any other -ism that makes people behave this way. I've talked to anthropologists and historians about other cultures (and other times) when comparisons were different, yet still existed. Comparison to others seems to be a natural motivation to do better… but we should also be wise enough to know when comparisons cross a line and become unhealthy.

Looking at data, though, doesn't ease the stress.

I'm a contract university professor. I could have my hours cut to part-time. I could lose my job. Things could happen that would, in a moment, remove us from the top quintile. It shouldn't matter so much, but it does.

On the other hand, I worry about liking and doing things that are "conspicuous" and coming across as a jerk.

My wife and I are considering a new vehicle. I caught myself thinking about what the neighbors and my coworkers might think of various choices. No, I wasn't thinking about impressing anyone. Instead, I was wondering if we shouldn't get the best rated, second-highest mileage vehicle (by 1 MPG), because it might look like we were trying to show off to someone.

This is the current state of counting and competing: we want just enough to be equal to our neighbors, but we don't want to seem better than anyone else. We want to fit in with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

When what we should be wanting is whatever "success" means to us personally.