Rethinking Libertarianism – Part I

Rethinking Libertarianism

Part I

I was once exploring a forest, when I came upon an oak tree that was larger than any oak I had ever before encountered. Awed by it’s mighty limbs that seemed to defy gravity, the enormous bulk of its trunk, and even the impressive heft of its acorns, I sat down among the leaves at its base to meditate and ponder it a while.

I asked myself, “how could such a mighty tree come to grow in this place?” Was it the virtue of the tree alone that allowed it to grow to such titanic proportions? Was it the accident of a particular combination of genes in the acorn it sprouted from an age ago? Or were there other factors at work? Surely, the fact that it was, by species, an oak, gave it an advantage, but why did this one grow, where others of the same species have fallen?

I started to think about what a tree needs to grow so large. On a simple level, trees need light, water, and minerals. The obtaining of light requires access to the sky. The obtaining of water and minerals means access to deep, well-hydrated soil. I considered the landscape I was in: there were other trees in the forest, some hickory, some walnut, ash, and beech. How did this tree out-compete the others for this space? We were sitting at the bottom of a slight depression, as well, where rainwater would collect and then percolate down into the soil and groundwater. The depression would also collect the blown leaves of the many surrounding trees, and indeed, the soft ground beneath me spoke of many feet of soft leaf litter. I was guessing that this locale would have deep soil for the oak’s roots to explore and spread.

I thought about the nature of a mature, old-growth forest such as this, and I remembered my lessons in ecological succession: after a vegetation-clearing event such as a fire, grasses spring up first and can make up an immature ecosystem for a time, then shrubs find root, and then small, fast-growing softwood trees. It can take decades or even centuries for a hardwood forest of this kind to establish itself. So, then I thought about how much this tree owed to the fire, to the grasses, to the shrubs and softwoods. Surely, its roots are fed by the carbon and nitrogen that were fixed by earlier plants.

As I sat there and pondered this, a great wind gust rustled the leaves through the glade, and I thought about the storms which sometimes sweep through the region. I wondered about the mighty winds that can devastate such great trees. I realized that I barely felt that wind gust which blew through, I noticed the fallen branches of the trees around me, and realized that the oak was sheltered by numerous other trees which would catch and slow storm-winds. Those other trees might lose limbs or fall in a storm, but the oak would survive it due to the sacrifices of lesser trees.

I realized then, that as great as this one tree is, it owes its greatness, in part, to its heritage of ecological succession. It only achieved its greatness in conjunction with the forest around it, the soil beneath it, and perhaps even to a squirrel, who, in the distant past, carried an acorn to this spot to bury it one Fall, and then forgot the location the next Spring. Yes, the tree is an oak, and an ash tree would not have grown nearly as great, but the oak did not grow here by its virtue alone. The achievement of this tree does not belong to this tree alone, but to the entire forest which fed, sheltered, and nurtured it. Indeed, as I got up to depart, I bowed to the tree to honor it, and then I bowed to the Forest which produced it.

Libertarian Philosophy

The basic premise of Libertarian philosophy is the ownership of Self. It says that every human being belongs to him/herself and to no other. By extension, the labors of body and mind also belong to the one who performed those labors.

This seems a very sound philosophy. Upon it is based a concept of natural justice: every being has the right to act freely and independently within its own sphere, until it begins to impinge upon the rights of the next being to act freely and independently within theirs. To use an oft-quoted cliché, “your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose”. It is used as the basis of the claim that all taxes of labor, whether through the taxation of income, sales, corporate profits, etc…, are inherently unjust, because it is the coerced confiscation (by force of courts and police) of the labors of those who produced. No king, parliament, elected congress, or democratic majority has the moral right to levy taxes on the labors of others. Doing so is tantamount to theft. It is the schoolyard bully shaking down his peers for their lunch money, only on a much larger scale.

Libertarian philosophy, which grew out of the Enlightenment Era of the 17th to 18th Centuries, took root in the American Colonies, inspired the American Revolution, and is a part of the intellectual, political, and social culture in which the United States of America have developed. It also inspired the French Revolution, but in America, it took on a different tenor than it did in Europe. Here in the United States, we made the ruggedly individualistic frontiersman into an iconic image of what it meant to be a “free American”. We celebrated the courage and hard work of the man who moved his family out to the edges of “civilization”, braved the untamed wilderness, full of wild beasts and savage natives. He carved out farmland from raw forestland, cutting trees, pulling stumps, plowing sod. He was the “new aristocrat”, the homesteading owner-farmer, who succeeded in the face of adversity by the sweat of his brow, temperance of his appetites, shrewd intellect, and moral virtue. This is the mythology of “the self-made man”.

The mythology grew into the Industrial Era of the late 19th to early 20th Centuries. Inventors like Edison and Bell built their empires. Industrialists like Ford and Rockefeller built theirs. The “frontier” was no longer a stretch of wild forest, but the frontiers of science and technology. We honored (with a bit of envy) these men who achieved such success and amassed great fortunes. We enjoyed the adventures of Tarzan, because he reflected the ideal of the “self-made man”; a white male child abandoned in the jungle, who would, because of his superior nature, rise to rule that jungle as a man. A testament to the natural superiority of the white male.

Tarzan was also notably popular in Germany. For a time, the world even admired Adolf Hitler, and what he did to bring those virtuous, hard-working Germans from out of their Weimar Republic Depression back into a place of economic preeminence in Central Europe, reminded us of that Tarzan mystique, until he shocked us all with aggressive wars, and subsequent revelations of his “Final Solution”.

The Cold War reinforced our ruggedly individualistic ideals in the face of an enemy who actively repudiated those ideals. Anyone even hinting at the value of collective effort over individual achievement was accused of being a part of the great “Communist Conspiracy”, sympathizers with Stalin and Mao and Ho Chi Minh. It was considered so great a threat, we fought two hot wars against it during the 50s and 60s in Korea and then Vietnam.

During this time, funded by the GI Bill, young families were encouraged to leave their old, urban neighborhoods where they grew up surrounded by grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and families that had been friends for decades. They were invited by billboards and radio and television ads to be “kings of their own castle” in their suburban homes, building a “Leave it to Beaver” lifestyle, featuring a hard-working father, stay-at-home mother, 2.5 children, a dog and a cat, surrounded by their perfectly green lawns behind white picket fences. The “rugged individualism” of past decades was translated into the “nuclear family” ideal of suburbia, which was further fed by “white flight” in the late 60s and 70s, after integration ended the Jim Crow era in the cities.

To this day, it is white upper- and middle- class men who are the primary proponents of the rugged individualism ideal. Largely the products of suburban privilege, they read the works of Ayn Rand like scripture, complaining of “looters and moochers”, join the John Birch Society and Tea Party movement, and run for office on the Republican ticket. They absolutely believe in the righteousness of their philosophies, even mingling (or mangling?) them with Christian doctrine, such as with “prosperity theology”. (Not all manifest with exactly these symptoms. There are atheist proponents of this, for instance. But these things seem to have strong correlations).

The Fallacy

The entire history of American-style libertarianism has been underpinned by a basic assumption that is not necessarily requisite to libertarianism: the idea that success or failure of an individual to achieve greatness is— if not completely, then at least largely— dependent upon that individual’s personal virtue: their industriousness, intelligence, creativity, charisma, and/or insight. Therefore, it is reasoned, if a man achieves great wealth, power, influence, or other success, they deserve every last bit of it. It is their victory, and theirs alone, to enjoy the rewards therefrom.

This concept has created a re-framing of all of history into a “great man” paradigm. We look at all of the achievements of the past as being the work of particularly great men, who, by their abundance of virtue, have changed the world around them. To them, it was Julius Caesar who conquered Europe for Rome, and the legions of well-trained, well-armed, and well-provisioned soldiers and logistical supply train were merely footnotes to that success. To them, it was Kepler who devised the Calculus, without regard to his teachers, those who provided him with access to books, to paper and ink, and to a lifestyle where he could afford to spend his days scribbling mathematical formulas. To them, it was Edison who invented hundreds of new inventions, and not the legions of creative individuals who worked in his labs (and we have evidence that Edison actually never did invent anything, but only filed the patents in his name).

To them, the mighty oak tree that grows in the forest does so on its own virtue, owing nothing to the soil it grows in nor the forest around it.

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