Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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Teenage Wasteland

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Author Shirley Jackson was doing errands in her Vermont village, pushing her daughter in a baby stroller, when the germ of her alarming short story "The Lottery" (1948) came into her mind. Two hours later, it was written. Three weeks after that, it was published in The New Yorker. All that summer long she received critical letters from horrified readers. And for the past 50 years it has been anthologized and discussed as one of the most chilling and profound American short stories of the 20th century.

I mention this at the beginning of my review of The Hunger Games because there are many similarities in the two stories’ themes. Set in a seemingly ordinary rural community, "The Lottery" is about the not-so-ordinary ritual of selecting one person each year to be stoned to death as the community scapegoat. "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," one village elder remarks as the community gathers for the stoning ritual.

In Hunger Games, set in a dystopian future, one boy and one girl from each of 12 "districts" is selected, also by lottery, to be sent to the municipal capital to participate in a televised gladiator-like fight to the death. In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope. They have been convinced by government propaganda that the Games will purge them of violence, prevent the ravages of war, and increase productivity. But really the Games are designed to make everyone complacent and obedient.

The Hunger Games, based on the popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins, opened to eager crowds who couldn't wait to see it. My local theater offered the midnight screening in a whopping 18 of its 20 screens, and avid crowds were lining up at 6 pm. Many of them were mothers with children. You might wonder: Why would any parents allow their children to read a book or watch a movie in which children must kill children? For that matter, why would anyone but a pervert want to watch 24 children fight it out in a kill-or-be-killed arena? What is The Hunger Games’ appeal?

In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope.

Obviously, there is more to these books than the competition. In responding to initial criticism of "The Lottery," Jackson wrote, "I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Reading the Hunger Games trilogy, one can't help but see this same theme and message about pointless violence and general inhumanity. Collins uses violence to make a plea for nonviolence.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Everdeen), the likable 16-year-old heroine, is the virtual breadwinner for her widowed mother and 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Noble and resourceful, Katniss is accustomed to taking risks and making sacrifices for her family. She regularly slips out beyond the district perimeter to hunt for game (a capital offense), which she trades for other goods. She is a generous and honorable young woman who instinctively rebels against tyranny and injustice, but who would never hurt anyone intentionally. Nevertheless, when Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her sister's place when Primrose's name is called as a contestant, she understands that she will have to use her hunting skills to kill other children in order to survive the Games. 

Many who have not read Collins’ books have expressed shock and dismay that she would have children aged 12–18 engaged in her fictional battle. But despite the gruesome subject, there is nothing gratuitously violent or graphic in these books, or in the movie. They are tense and exciting, and they are made more so by the underlying hint of metaphorical truth. Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV? For over a decade the American government drafted 18-year-olds to fight a war far from home that had very little to do with our own security. Like the children in The Hunger Games, these teens had no voice in the matter; until 1971, they weren't allowed to vote in federal elections. Even with an "all-volunteer army," most of today's recruits are still barely out of their teens.

Similarly, in The Hunger Games wealthy families can protect their children by paying poorer families to take their spots in the drawings in exchange for money or food. As a result, Katniss' name is written on at least a dozen cards in the drawing, and her friend Gale's is written on 42. This is clearly a reminder that the children of wealthier families were able to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era by going to college, while children of poorer families could not afford that option.

Like Jackson, Collins clearly intended to demonstrate the dehumanizing effect of war. Unfortunately, the film's producers seem to have lacked the courage to make this same point on screen. Perhaps worried about the R-rating that a true adaptation would have earned, the film version softens the hunt by stereotyping the characters into two distinct types. Katniss never kills anyone except as a reflex, and always in self-defense. The people she does kill are carefully presented as nasty bullies and gang members, thereby justifying her actions, because she is ridding the world of bad guys.

Moreover, actress Jennifer Lawrence is 21, not 16, largely negating the effect of children being forced to kill children. This creation of good guys and bad guys destroys the message about the brutalizing nature of war, and blunts the powerful idea that these are children who might otherwise have played together and become friends had they not been forced into battle by their government.

Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV?

Similarly, Haymitch, the battle mentor from District 12 (Woody Harrelson) is presented as a detached, antisocial drunk. He is a former winner in the Hunger Games and thus has been assigned to help prepare Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her district, for the battle. What's missing from the movie is the reason Haymitch drinks: in order for him to win the Hunger Games, 23 children had to die, many of them at his own hand. In war, no one emerges unscathed. Not even the victor.

Just before Katniss leaves for battle, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) suggests that they sneak away into the forbidden woods to live off the land by themselves (just as Equality 7-2521 does in Ayn Rand's Anthem). “What if people stopped watching?" he adds, as another suggestion, referring to the audiences riveted to their television sets during the Games. "Wouldn't they have to stop the Games?"

Knowing that he has little chance of survival, Peeta says, "I keep wishing I could think of a way for me to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me." That spirit of individuality and self-determination is bright throughout the book, and in the movie as well. The many suggestions of resistance in these books, and in the film, make them well worth reading and viewing, even though the filmmakers have pulled much of the punch from their version of the story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Hunger Games," directed by Gary Ross. Lionsgate, 2012, 142 minutes.



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