Diddling While Rome Burns

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Your humble social media correspondent is troubled. For some time now, discord among warring libertarians has raged on Facebook, my own battlefield of choice. In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

One friend — whom I also know personally — has gone on an unholy tear about the injustices of life as a tenant. “Rent is theft!” his posts repeatedly scream. I’ve always considered him a levelheaded person. I have no idea what’s happened to him. A lot of people are quitting him because he’s gone to a place so dark they don’t want to follow.

In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

I know he leans far left. Like a lot of former statist progressives, he’s outraged about something practically all the time. He sees it as his personal mission to convert as many as possible of his comrades to left-libertarianism. I suppose you could say that he’s the Apostle Paul of that faction. But if all he has to give these hungry souls is more outrage and aggrievement, I think he’s offering pretty thin gruel.

In my previous essay in Liberty I alluded to the compulsion I see in so many people to dress up in fancy and heroic costumes. As this turbulence on Facebook was something I was already facing daily, I had it at least partially in mind. Almost everybody involved is between 19 and 25, looking for a girlfriend (or in some cases, a boyfriend) and hoping to appear edgy and revolutionary. I know I must be getting old, because the whole production is making me tired and cranky.

These people need to take a good, hard look around them. I can’t imagine where they’re getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom. Their mothers might have cared, in a worried, “Do you have a tummyache, dear?” sort of way, and their buds at the dorm probably found it mildly engrossing over pizza and beer. But they’re supposed to be adults now, and they’re merely diddling while Rome burns.

We’ve all got a lot of heavy lifting to do if we are even going to budge this society in a libertarian direction. The blessed time when we might profitably haggle about what type of libertarian society we’re going to have — just exactly, and to a precise ideological point — is one that neither I, nor anyone reading this essay, will ever live to see. It may be as distant in the future as the American Revolution is in the past. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are standing for what is right and that each of us is doing our personal utmost to work toward that worthy goal. Ordering fries with that is simply not an option.

Where are they getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom?

I’m glad to see so many new converts to the liberty movement, especially among the young, but I fear that few of them will persevere long enough to see their commitment through. I think it’s very likely that they’ll get discouraged by the tough slog, and end up returning to statism — a hefty part of the appeal of which is the promise of an order of fries with that. To switch metaphors yet again, we now find ourselves stuck in Siberia, but hope to row, in our huge fleet of leaky rowboats, clear to Honolulu. As we navigate the stormy waters between us and our destination, will they turn aside and end up shipwrecked on Alcatraz?

We’ll all just have to stay tuned. I know that I’ll continue to follow the soap opera. And I fully intend to persevere on our journey. I don’t needa side of fries — though there are some days when I yearn for an aspirin, the size of a hockey puck.




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Imagined Community

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Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho




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Face Time

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I was not an early adopter of Facebook. And I joined for commercial reasons. For a short time a few years ago, all the smart people in book publishing were saying that social media was the future of book promotion. Of course, at that point, the smart people in every industry were saying that social media was the future of promoting any product or service. Some of those smart people may have been in the employ of Zuckerberg & Co.

That conventional wisdom, like most such, turned out to be an exaggeration of a minor observation. My firm’s efforts at promotion through Facebook have yielded modest results. (The well-worn triad of direct mail, author spots on local talk radio, and carefully-chosen display ads remains the most effective way to promote books.)

Despite this, I still use Facebook. And may use it more than ever. It’s a pleasant diversion, a low-maintenance way to stay in touch with family, friends and a group of “Facebook friends” — acquaintances from high school, college and other points in my life. It offers the interactivity of a chat room with the promise of enough vetting to keep out the most egregious cretins and child-molesters.

It’s also an interesting laboratory for measuring people’s attitudes about sports, politics, pop culture and the news.

One thing that I’ve learned is how presumptuous — and erroneously presumptuous — people are about the means and motives of online entertainment. Many of my acquaintances presume that there’s some system of consumer-protection law that applies to their dealings on Facebook. This applies especially to matters of “privacy.”

Facebook is, like Google, an advertising company at heart. The business model is to create an online space that people will visit regularly — and then to sell access to those people. Many of the activities on Facebook are designed to capture information about users likes and dislikes, so that Facebook can create detailed consumer profiles and sell precisely-calibrated access to advertisers.Yet multitudes of Facebook users rage childishly when this or that detail comes to light about how the site collects information.

Another lesson (and the real reason for this Reflection): the politics and beliefs of most Americans are so ill-formed and erratic that it’s difficult to engage them in a meaningful way.

Recently, several of my Facebook friends posted approving comments about Warren Buffett’s “integrity” and “bravery” in calling for higher taxes on the wealthy. I pointed out — as I have in this space — that there’s no integrity or bravery in Buffett. At least on this issue. He’s acting in self-interest, and being cagey about it. His company’s holdings include several life insurance companies that sell annuities and other tax-avoidance mechanisms. The higher the federal tax rates, the more his products sell. He’s like an arsonist who owns the fire-extinguisher shop across the street from a theater that he sets afire during a sold-out performance of La Boheme.

Despite the ugly truth, some of my Facebook friends insisted that Buffett looks out for the working man. So, I pointed out that he is also a large shareholder in the Washington Post Company — whose highly-profitable Kaplan Education unit destroys the lives of working-class idiots by selling them worthless degrees financed by costly student loans that aren’t dischargable in bankruptcy.

At this point, a friend of one of my Facebook friends — who could read the comment thread through his connection to my friend (such is the nature of a social network) — commented that my use of the term “working-class idiots” was offensive. And that he knew better than I how predatory Kaplan Education is because he had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to get a useless certificate in 3D animation from that very company. And that, several years later, he remains unemployed. But he wasn’t as angry at Kaplan or Buffett as he was at me for describing his ilk unkindly.

The What’s the Matter with Kansas wing of the American Left argues that presumedly right-leaning corporate interests brainwash the middle class into voting against its own interests. But that brainwashing isn’t a Right/Left phenomenon. The same argument could be made of the presumedly left-leaning Warren Buffett and the unemployed friend of my Facebook friend.

We who value liberty have a long way to go in explaining our case to the American masses. We have to assume our fellow citizens know nothing. Or, worse, we have to assume that most of what they know is affirmatively false. And we have to do it nicely.

I use Facebook as a tool to sharpen my skills in this effort.




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