American democracy is bleeding away. Most of us still hold the basic view that the authority of a government should depend on the consent of the people, as expressed by votes in elections. We assume that representatives are elected within the scope of our political parties to serve the best interests of the public common. One person, one vote.
But this belief is being readily tested today and is under what could be considered an unyielding stealth attack by money-powered, libertarian ideologues. These people, in varying degrees, see the rule of the majority as an existential threat to individual freedom and personal property ownership. They are a sophisticated cadre of true believers apparently led by the brothers Charles and David Koch and other powerful billionaires.
Their goals and activities have been well documented in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer and Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy Maclean. These two works diligently examine the well-funded and elaborately coordinated movement to transform American democracy from a New Deal to a libertarian system of government.
If one truly chooses to examine the movement’s history, its stealth design, the exorbitant wealth invested into it by the multi-millionaire and billionaire class, the elaborate network of its propaganda channels, and the magnitude of its influence upon political candidates and elected officials in both local and national arenas, one may be excused for feeling a sense of powerlessness and resignation to what’s coming. (As soon as I wrote this, a little voice could be heard inside my head, You dumb shit, it’s already here.) These fuckers know how to take over a country, one little cut at a time, till the blood blinds the eye. Out of my own bedazzlement and wonderment, an attempt is made to gain a little better understanding of this new world that is encompassing our country.
Quick Gander at the Libertarian Concept
The libertarian concept of liberty seems to emphasize the right of the individual over the collective, that is, over society as a whole, over the community, over the nation. Any attempt by an entity to fetter the individual’s ability to do as he or she wishes is viewed as oppression. Apparently, the true libertarian would, with good conscience, apply limitations to this perspective, such as the individual in pursuit of personal liberty should not do harm to others.
For example, under the libertarian concept of rule of law, it stresses that individuals are free to pursue their own lives so long as they respect the equal rights of others. Additionally, there is still a role for government, albeit a very limited one that provides for the national defense, ensures the rule of law, and maintains social order.
A response to the “do no harm” principle might be simply stated: Of course, we should respect the individual’s pursuit of liberty. In fact, in the Declaration of Independence it’s written: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
In this regard, don’t we currently have a foundation of legal rules stemming from our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence that strives to respect the right of the individual in relation to the equal rights of all others?
What becomes most obvious is that the libertarian view of oppression focuses, to a great extent, on taxation and regulations. Taxation is viewed by one who embraces libertarianism as coercion and theft by the state. Government regulations of business and industry are perceived as fetters upon free will and determination. So, in a great sense, what appears to vex the libertarian is the state’s power to tax and regulate. The libertarian is, above all, concerned about economic liberty as opposed to the well being of the public commons.
There’s something appealing to the grand emphasis on liberty, albeit economic liberty, and individualism. Who doesn’t feel a little extra pump of the heart when the word freedom is uttered. But then confusion comes into play as I process these concepts within the domain of libertarian philosophy. Primarily, my confusion arises from what appears to be the almost absolute negation of humankind’s interdependence. And the shucking away of any belief in democratic government as an organization instilled by the will of we, the people, and the principle of one person, one vote.
Rather, government is viewed in the libertarian domain as a coercive and oppressive entity by means of its power to tax and regulate. In fact, the words “freedom” and “liberty” present as anti-government buzzwords when bandied about by libertarians, but it’s important to note that a subtext is involved. As previously illustrated, the libertarian’s concept of being free means freedom from government taxes, regulations and mandates. Although, these are necessary tools for a government to function effectively, the libertarian sees them as shackles.
Repeat the assertion that government is oppressive often enough and associative learning takes place. That is, simply say the word government and one automatically thinks the word evil without subjecting such an assertion to analysis and reason.
From within the libertarian philosophical framework, the subliminal argument is that everything a government might do is a subtraction from our liberty. The rhetoric has become so loud, intense and pervasive through right-leaning media channels that a resonance has occurred. Repeat the assertion that government is oppressive often enough and associative learning takes place. That is, simply say the word government and one automatically thinks the word evil without subjecting such an assertion to analysis and reason. Like Pavlov’s dog who had learned to associate the sound of a bell with the presentation of food and thus salivate profusely when a bell rang, so goes the individual who experiences feelings of antipathy at the mention of government.
Some Murky Shit Going On
Along with this notion of libertarianism comes the obligatory yet murky idealism. Charles Koch is generally regarded as the heart and mind and primary financial sugar daddy of the libertarian movement. In a 2016 op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Koch stated: “Like Alexis de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago, I believe American society thrives when people act out of an enlightened regard for themselves that constantly prompts them to assist each other. I remain optimistic that our nation can unify around policies that promote a system of mutual benefit for people from all walks of life.”
Here I go again with the “of course” reply. Who wouldn’t agree with those two, well-engineered sentences? But what the hell is he really talking about? The two sentences sound very nice on the surface but are best described as waxy and empty of specifics.
For example, what exactly does having an “enlightened regard for oneself” mean? Is it being selfish, proud, absolutely convinced that your opinion is the right (enlightened) one? How might an enlightened regard for yourself constantly prompt you to assist others? What are to be the forms and mechanisms of assistance? Good old fashioned charity? Educational seminars on how to pull yourself up by your boot straps?
In the second sentence, he notes optimism that “our nation can unify around policies that promote a system of mutual benefit for people from all walks of life”. What are these policies? Beyond emphasizing “the need to remove unnecessary regulations that undermine innovation, competition and opportunities for those who need them most”, there is little emphasis on delineating specifics. Are such policies to be based simply on the principle of living your life as you see fit as long as you don’t infringe on the ability of others to do the same? Does this mean that libertarian mine and factory owners will voluntarily prevent business operations from emptying waste and toxins into the air and water supplies because it might harm others? No regulations (protections) needed whatsoever. Just trust me.
Who can not help but like the flavor of such a live and let live principle? Do your thing and I’ll do mine and happiness will ensue. But who will be defining what an infringement might be on my ability to do my thing? And who will be enforcing these principles?
Weighing the Consequences
With the advent of a libertarian society becoming reality, the potential consequences should at least be weighed. To review, in its most cogent form, libertarianism strokes the belief that each individual should be left to his or her own means to achieve success. The libertarian belief holds that without interference by governmental powers, the individual will have the best opportunity to thrive. Regulations imposed by governmental bodies are viewed as chains to individual liberty and cripple the individual’s pursuits. Liberty must be preserved by the total absence of government coercion in any form. Unfettered by regulations, mandates and taxes, the individual, in pursuit of self-interest will thrive, and society, as a whole, will benefit.
Okay. Okay. Time for a little digestion. Does all this mean that the eventual culmination of the libertarian dream will entail the death throe to governmental programs whose foundations rest upon principles of taxation and regulation? The answer is probably. But worry not, the natural energy of the free market will arise and bring prosperity to all those able souls willing to pull themselves up by their boot straps. Though there might be a kink in the works if one happens to be absent of boots, much less the straps. Cynicism, be cursed.
There will be enlightenment at some point in the not too distant future about this transformation in American democracy. But toward that end, it will unfold gradually in shades of gray (stealth-like) before the bright beam of light shines through and reveals the reality of it all.
The thud of awareness you hear might come from the sound of your fist against the side of your head. But, if you’re a true believer, exhilaration will be yours as you realize your libertarian dreams coming true. No longer will you be taxed to sustain current institutions and services within our public commons, our United States of America. Those democratic-collectivist restraints upon your individualism will be untethered.
The oppressions of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, affordable health care, public education, street repair, clean public water, clean air, food inspections, public libraries, public safety (police, fire departments, animal control), public parks, national parks, unemployment insurance, federal emergency disaster relief, the National Weather Service, sewage treatment, the Veterans Administration, insuring safety of medications, the U.S. Postal Service, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, protections from unsafe and unhealthy work conditions, safety from workplace discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin or disability will be no more or mere flotsam afloat in the drowning tub.
You, my dear true believer, will have won. Liberty is yours.
Mack Green is a retired neuropsychologist and current activist for progressive causes. He is a member of Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado. As a young man he served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Marines and received two purple hearts. He is a member of Veterans for Peace and lives in Colorado.