Progressive Pessimist Fantasy

Over at The New York Times, on its The Opinion Pages, is an op-ed titled “The Downside of Liberty”. The op-ed is written by Kurt Andersen, who apparently ran something called Spy magazine, hosts PRI radio program Studio 360, and wrote a couple of books. In other words, he is smart enough that he should know better.

Why do I say he should know better? Because in the op-ed he said this:

What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.

Extreme individualism triumphant? What? Where? Well first you have to understand his notion of individualism is a little weird.

From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell.

[…]

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.

Never wearing a necktie? What?

Anyway, Mr. Andersen claims that “From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal.” Ugh. Saying every human has rights including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness is not an extreme individualism manifesto. Protecting the rights of individuals is serving the commonweal (the public good). Why do people not get this? Why do people talk as if protecting individuals is somehow outside the realm of helping society? It is not! Protecting the rights of individuals is exactly what government is supposed to do for the public good. Thomas Jefferson got this. Kurt Andersen, apparently, does not.

But seriously, he is really trying to say never wearing a necktie is some sort of sign of vulgar selfishness? I half expect him to complain about guys wearing their hair too long.

In any case, nothing he describes in his op-ed is actually extreme individualism. Or extreme anything. What he seems to be lamenting is that many people in our society are not buying into the notion that accepting the existence of social responsibility means automatically obligated to bow to government control. He complains about fewer and fewer regulations, despite the fact that we have more regulations now than ever before. He complains about people “refusing modest gun regulation” despite the fact that violent crimes are at their lowest point in almost 40 years. He complains about businesses moving factories overseas, but apparently neglects to consider that labor costs were lower before his so-called “‘Me’ Half-Century.”

If he wants to complain about selfishness, he should consider the damage done to state governments by wholly unrealistic pension plans insisted upon by public sector labor unions, and the selfishness of those wealthy people who refuse to voluntarily contribute more of their money to the government (including the President) while at the same time they say the government must raise taxes on the wealthy. Or any number of other liberal/progressive programs that are promoted on the questionable grounds that some people have a “right” to the money of other people.

And I would say “do your own thing” is actually significantly different than “every man for himself.” It is different in the same manner that “be yourself” is different than “always look out for number one.” The underlying, and here unspoken, assumption of Mr. Andersen’s comment is that individualism is the same as individual isolationism. Why some people make this assumption, I have no idea. Do they think things like reason magazine or the Cato Institute, where libertarian minded folks work together come from some alternate dimension? Maybe.

People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.

Here is a clue: we are not all shamelessly selfish. Here is another clue: libertarianism is not about selfishness. Libertarianism is about protecting the rights of individuals for the good of society. Libertarianism is about protecting the power of people to make their own choices about working together for various ends. Yes, libertarianism generally opposes feel good legislation like gun control laws or instituting massive government control over health care. It does so not because there is some selfish desire to make people live in isolation, but rather because such measures do more harm to people, to society, to the commonweal, than good.

Okay, enough. I could rant on for a long time, and that would only bore everyone. Enough politics for today.

3 Responses to “Progressive Pessimist Fantasy”

  1. thedreamingsub Says:

    “Yes, libertarianism generally opposes feel good legislation like gun control laws or instituting massive government control over health care. It does so not because there is some selfish desire to make people live in isolation, but rather because such measures do more harm to people, to society, to the commonweal, than good.”

    Well said, Sir.

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