Periscope Depth

teach your children well

I don’t know that I’m a very good libertarian.

Sure, I talk a good game about free market economics fixing everything, order arising from chaos, and middle class uprising. I read the best libertarian weblogs – Unqualified Offerings, Julian Sanchez, Will Wilkinson, Reason’s Hit and Run, Radley Balko, and I’m sure there are others. I make sneering references to what, in my eyes, are gross and obvious similarities between the two major American political parties. If anyone can lay a claim to being libertarian, I can.

But I have this tiny problem: I cannot stand weird people.

Liberty, in any meaningful sense, requires a healthy tolerance for different people so long as they’re not hurting or threatening you. If I advocate freedom of speech “except for, y’know, racists and fundamentalists and obvious wackos,” I’m not really advocating freedom of speech. I’m advocating for protecting the speaking rights of People I Like. Defending freedom of speech means defending the right for people to blare the most illiterate hate. Even if you disagree with it. Hell, especially if you disagree with it.

Now expand the principle outward from just speech into all aspects of life. Freedom means gambling. Freedom means drug use. Freedom means buggery. Freedom means fundamentalists homeschooling their children about how God created the universe in six days. Freedom means filthy, offensive, hateful music. Freedom means fat SUVs with window-shaking stereos. Freedom means trans fats.

Pick something you absolutely hate, so long as it doesn’t entail a gun pointed at your face. Concentrate on it for a minute; hold it in your mind until you start to feel repelled by your own brain. In a free society, someone, somewhere, is doing that hateful thing and getting off on it.

I went off on this rant because of a line I read in an Eliezer Yudkowsky post the other day (it’s an excellent post in its own right; go read it):

And there are islands of genuine tolerance in the world, such as science fiction conventions.

This stopped me dead in my tracks, because a sci-fi convention remains my personal vision of Hell. Fat bearded men in stormtrooper costumes. Pasty girls with too much eye makeup speaking in Olde Englishe. Yaoi. Yiffies. Monty Python quotes. Vampire LARPs. Body odor.

I’m supposed to be cool with that. And I am, I think. So long as it happens in the cloisters of a Holiday Inn convention room far, far away from me. I don’t believe that, given the power, I would use some form of physical or social coercion to lock those type of people in a cage. At least I hope I wouldn’t. Let’s all pray I’m never put in that position.

Then again, I don’t think I’m alone. The human species isn’t programmed for universal tolerance. It’s programmed for an us-vs-them mentality. Identify and bond with the hundred or so members of your Monkeysphere; don’t trust anyone else. Tolerating harmless differences may make for a better society, but it doesn’t come naturally. Nobody loves everybody.

I hesitated to call myself “libertarian” for years because of that term’s conflation with the Libertarian Party. I don’t think libertarians have any future as a Party. I realized this paradox about five or six years ago: if the American people naturally prefer freedom, then why have they been voting the opposite way for two and a quarter centuries? and if the American people do not naturally prefer freedom, what the hell chance does the LP have?

The answer, pretty clearly, is that no American – or really, no human being – wants freedom in the absolute sense. Sure, we talk about it in glowing terms, but nobody really wants to see Klansmen, Flat Earthers and fecal fetishists on the street while walking to the store. What we want is a certain package of rights and privileges for ourselves, our friends and family, and the social class with which we identify. The rich want lower capital gains taxes; the middle class want to deduct mortgage interest; the poor want income tax credit.

That’s why I don’t vote Libertarian – and of course, absenting them, why I don’t vote at all. If we define economics as the science of allocating scarce resources to unlimited wants, we might define politics as the science of allocating the tools for power to the unlimited desire for power. If you approach this game as a libertarian – someone who does not believe that human society should be shaped by a minority with power – then who do you side with? The folks who want to take away your freedom (to get breast implants, smoke cigarettes and eat greasy food), or the folks who want to take away your freedom (to have pre-marital sex, smoke marijuana and harvest stem cells)?

Nobody will ever campaign on the platform of Having Less Power. Theoretically, we can figure this one out from our armchairs: if someone genuinely didn’t want power, they wouldn’t be running for office. Empirically, we only need to take a look at all of recorded human history, from Enkidu vs Gilgamesh to the 2006 Congressional elections. The Opposition Party might want power for ends that you consider benevolent; these are the Good Guys. The Ruling Party might use its power for ends that you consider malevolent; that makes them the Bad Guys. But nobody ever conquered a tribe, started a coup or ran for office because they didn’t want power at all.

That includes John McCain. That includes Barack Obama. That includes included Ron Paul.

So maybe I’m not a very good libertarian. Maybe I still daydream about what I’d do if I became Dictator Of The World. Maybe I want my enemies punished and my friends rewarded with the force of law. Maybe I want power. But I can’t fault myself for being a bad libertarian if the fault comes from just being human. As Schopenhauer (supposedly) put it: a man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills.

I haven’t figured out what to do yet. But at least I know what not to do, and voting’s still on that list.

P.S. You see that? You see how I started out with “here’s what’s wrong with me” and slowly morphed it into a “here’s what’s wrong with all of you people” by the end? that’s some 70th-level blogging right there.

P.P.S. I did warn you.

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