Thursday, August 14, 2008

In Which the Libertarians Make Me Long for 'The Republic'

Libertarianism has probably never had a higher profile in U.S. politics than it has this year, thanks in large part to the flaccid and doomed "Ron Paul rEVOLution," in which literally dozens of college students donated their parents' money to an obstetrician who wanted to disband the FDA. (Actual quote: "I don't think we'd all die of unsafe food if we didn't have the FDA. Someone else would do it.") Paul technically ran on the Republican ticket, but his overwhelming support in the libertarian community and the calls for him to run in Harry Browne's place should make it clear where his loyalties really lie.

I know a little something about libertarianism, having considered myself part of the movement when I was an idiot 18-year-old with neither book nor life learnin'. I listened fanatically to Atlanta talk-show host Neal Boortz, argued for the free market at every chance I got, actually voted for Harry Browne for president, and used the phrase "You can't legislate morality" as often as I possibly could. I gave up on the philosophy after my first U.S. history course, around the time I started working and realized that minimum wage was a-okay.

I can't help but think of libertarianism as I read Laws, Plato's last and longest dialogue and something of a sequel to the The Republic. It doesn't make much sense to apply labels like "conservative" and "liberal" to Plato; he exists on a totally different spectrum, perhaps one akin to the proposed Nolan Chart, one that adds libertarianism and totalitarianism into the mix. And in fact, one thing to admire about Plato is the way he stands for everything Nolan, Boortz, Ron Paul, and those dozens of college students hate. He does so righteously, furthermore: the Republic's Guardians rule because they are best suited for the job, not because they crave power (as is unfailingly the case in modern socialist states). Plato's dictatorship has a moral purpose, and if it sounds sinister to modern ears (and does it ever), that's because he assumes an objective truth that we as secular Westerners simply do not.

Plato agrees with the libertarians that life is a zero-sum game ("everyone [is] an enemy of everyone else in the public sphere" [Laws 626D]), but--as evidenced by the socialist streak in the Republic--he'd be horrified by their social Darwinism. We don't all have equal abilities, much less the "equal opportunities" fiscal conservatives sometimes crow about, but there's a place for everyone in Plato's schema, and no one gets crushed by the cogs. (In this, his state resembles FDR's New Deal.) Libertarians--even more so than Republicans--are content to let the free market have its way, even when that way necessarily crucifies a certain percentage of the populace. There's no free market in The Republic; people are forced by their predetermined jobs to manufacture certain things, and the state gives them the rest.

Plato breaks from the libertarians again in terms of anthropology. The libs and the modern socialists have one thing in common: They assume that people are inherently good and that society in some form (government for the libertarians and capitalism for the socialists) corrupts them. Plato assumes, it's true, that what the Christian world calls sin is an unwillful intellectual error (read about that here), but both the Republic and the Laws make it clear that there are upright people and there are evil people and that the former must rule the latter:
Wherever the better people subdue their inferiors, the state may rightly be said to be "conquerer of itself," and we should be entirely justified in praising it for its victory. (Laws 627A)
Further, he suggests that "evil citizens will come together in large numbers and forcibly try to enslave the virtuous minority" (627B), so the will of the masses, loved by libertarians (Paulist "sheeple" talk aside) and liberals alike, is clearly not a concern.

And therein lies the surprising moral imperative behind the Platonic dictatorship. Plato's point behind subdoing the idiot and evil masses--the point behind his entire complicated and sinister schema--is not to violently eliminate the wicked but to make them good:
Which of these judges would be the better, the one who put all the bad brothers to death and told the better ones to run their own lives, or the one who put the virtuous brothers in command, but let the scoundrels go on living in willing obedience to them? And we can probably add a third and even better judge--the one who will take this single quarrelling family [i.e., the State] in hand and reconcile its members, without killing any of them; by laying down regulations to guide them in the future, he will be able to ensure that they remain on friendly terms with each other.
So, contrary to the libertarian mantra that "you can't legislate morality," Plato suggests that morality is in fact the only thing you can legislate. The libertarians talk out of both sides of their mouths here anyway. Their value system is based on the concept of individual rights, which for some reason they don't view as a moral structure. But why should we respect individual rights? Because it's right to do so and wrong not to, which is a moral imperative. The government must necessarily legislate morality; indeed, that's the purpose of government, to protect us from one another.

Now, all this is not to say that I am some sort of Platonist totalitarian. I am not. I'm a moderate liberal, I suppose, which is to say that I recognize that the Guardians, too, can be evil and that in fact everyone is to some extent. So the government must protect us from ourselves, and we must protect the government from itself--which is what the American system of checks and balances is all about. We must legislate morality in order to keep our citizens from engaging in self- and socially destructive behavior, but in our pluralistic society that morality must be determined by the democracy, even if the minority may disagree with it.

I've not studied political science, and so I may have some of this wrong. Oh, and also: For awhile there, Ron Paul fans had a nasty habit of seeking out blog posts like this one and spamming the comments section. Not that I think anyone other than Nathan actually reads me, but don't bother spamming me. Any RON ROOLZ comments will be deleted.


Ford said...

I hate to admit it, Michial, but I actually voted for Paul in the primaries (if for no other reason than I did not like any other candidate). Very well argued post. You have gained a new reader.
What are your thoughts on our choices for president now, and, if you don't mind, who are you voting for? I am at a loss; I feel as cynical as the new JibJab...

Michial said...


I will be voting for Obama. I recognize he's not perfect, and I don't think he's as innocent or as naive as people (pro and con) think he is. One doesn't come through Chicago politics without getting at least a little ruthless. But I don't trust McCain, and I don't like his attitude toward the war or toward sex education. There are a bunch of other reasons, too, but for me, I don't see any other option than Obama.

Glad you're reading my blog, Ford!