Monday, October 1, 2012

The Paradox of Libertarianism

On the one hand, there is The Market--"natural," implacable, with its own ebbs and flows, and thus possessing the force and necessity of a physical law.  Understood this way, The Market cannot be obstructed, defied, or censured in any way.  We can complain about it, yes, in the same way that we complain about the weather, but in the end such complaints go unheard.  The Market, like the weather, is an objective and impersonal force; it has no ears.  Complaining about our diminished portfolios won't offset our losses, just like complaining about the rain won't dry the dampness of our clothes.  And should a recession cost us our homes and jobs, there's nothing to rail against.  After all, wouldn't it be absurd to blame a hurricane for the devastation it causes?  The dynamic of the offending storm is agentless, and hence blameless.  So it is for The Market, too.  We all live under it, just as we live under the skies that are mysteriously and alternately benevolent and destructive.  It is up there somewhere, impervious to our wishes, desires, resentments, and rants.  The Market speaks, in its own inscrutable way, and we are all subject to its inexplicable and unaccountable dictates.  If it bestows riches on us, we should treat these riches as the blessing of the sunny day we hoped for; if it lays ruin to our lives, we should bemoan this disaster as a result of the great storm we had always feared.  But in either case, The Market is blameless.  It has spoken, and there is nothing more to say about its seemingly arbitrary whims.

On the other hand, there are the libertarians, who worship at the feet of The Market in the same way that the ancients groveled before their nature gods.  Here we glimpse the leading edge of the paradox.  If The Market is an impersonal and "natural" force, like the law of gravity, how can it possibly be subject to placation?  Upon stepping off a precipice, we wouldn't then pray to gravity to save ourselves.  Again--absurd.  So why this constant singing of The Market's praises?  On the libertarian's account, they are just describing the way The Market works, in the same way that physicists show us how the physical world works.  But you never hear a physicist praising or condemning the second law of thermodynamics; this wouldn't make any sense.  Facts such as these are morally neutral.  Laws of nature simply are what they are.  They are deaf to our opinions.  That libertarians feel the need to constantly praise the "facts" of "economic reality" should give us pause.

The only way to make sense of the libertarians' instinct for genuflection is that despite their claims to the contrary, they know at some level that The Market is nothing at all like a law of nature--though they wish it to be regarded as such.  This suggests that when the libertarians proclaim The Market to be an objective and impersonal force, this is a statement of belief, not a statement of fact.  And this, in turn, makes the libertarians not scientists describing an objective reality, but rather more like priests, prophets, seers, and prosthelytizers propagating a creed.

What scientists and prosthelytizers have in common is a claim to insight.  But whereas scientists claim insight into the natural world, prosthelytizers claim insight into a supernatural world.  While the former can lend weight to their insights through empirical observation and the scientific method, the latter depend on subtle and far more elusive theological distinctions.  It is precisely for this reason that economics, alone among the human sciences, is labeled not just "soft" but downright dismal.  Though all the evidence suggests that belief in a mysterious, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving supreme being is infinitely more rational than faith in a beneficent invisible hand, in most American universities you will meet, with very few exceptions, economists as dogmatic as any pope.  It's important to note, however, that these high priests of The Sacred Market rarely venture beyond the safe bosom of tenure and their generous, guaranteed stipends to preach and actually practice the creed in the larger world.  That dangerous job is left to others.

This is where the libertarians come in--the true believers, the real propagators of the faith, most of them as mad as prophets.  We're not talking about people like the brothers Koch; they're not true libertarians.  The brothers Koch, and people like them, understand that to the extent that the purchase of a stable of senators is a sound investment to insure the profit of their bottom line, government is good, insofar as it provides a veneer of legality to to protect their economic activities.  No, the Kochs are more akin to cardinals of the church, sheltered high up in the far reaches of the hierarchy, far away from the members of the missionary orders.

These missionaries are the small businessmen who imagine themselves completely self-made, the self-styled entrepreneurs--the libertarians.  And with them, the paradox emerges full-blown.  For while the creed teaches them that The Market never errs, that its laws are ironclad, that these laws play no favorites, and that whatever The Market dictates must be borne as we bear the weather, they nevertheless believe that they themselves are immune to this dynamic. They truly believe, as truly as any believer has ever believed in his god, that their devotion and insight into The Market will spare them from its harshest judgments.  They believe that they alone are smart enough or industrious enough or prudent enough or bold enough that The Market will inevitably smile on them.  Never mind that The Market has for countless decades consumed as human sacrifices legions of the most wise, the most industrious, the most judicious, and the most boldly innovative of their number; the libertarians will just claim that these were not members of the Chosen.  Those who incur the wrath of The Market are rightfully fallen, hubristic, false prophets, justly punished.  They, on the other hand, truly know the mind of their god, and will rise with its blessings to stand at its right hand.

Do you see the slippage, and the naked whole of the paradox?  The Market has morphed from an impersonal force effecting all without favor into a judgmental and unforgiving god that can nevertheless be placated by the devotion of those who claim the purest of faith.  And so the libertarians look out onto a ferocious sea whipped into a frenzy by The Market, and cleanse their minds of all the knowledge they should know as economic scientists--things such as the centralization of capital, the asymmetrical distribution of resources, economies of scale, etc.  As scientists, they would have been able to see quite clearly that while the behemoth vessels of the Kochs and their ilk would be able to weather this storm with ease, their own small boats would quickly founder and be swallowed up.  But, scientists no more, they stand on the shore, wave their staffs in grand gestures, and before them they imagine the sea parting.  Chanting their devotional incantations, they wade further and further into the tempest, their bodies battered by the ever rising waves, the water filling their open mouths, the fierce undertow pulling them rapidly out to sea, and then down, and deep.

And during the occasional calm, the officers of the most mammoth and seaworthy ships take their exercise on deck.  They gather on the bows of their magnificent vessels, masters of all before them. Sometimes they cock their ears toward the water, and joke to one another, "Do you hear, can you still hear them?"  After laughing quietly among themselves, they eventually return to their posts.

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