Thoughts on Anti-Political Libertarianism

When I was growing up, in the 1990s, there was a commonly held view that people were becoming anti-political, and that a rejection of politics meant a more libertarian world. If politics became irrelevant, then government would become irrelevant. Technology would leave it behind. Silicon Valley was to be the anti-Washington, center of the anti-political America. The more sophisticated you were, the idea went, the more you rejected politics. All this contrasts with the idea of self-government, that people hold government in check and make sure it represents them.

If we reject politics, we have no ability to resist any group (a technocratic elite, for instance) that gains control of government and declares itself “beyond politics.” In fact, distaste for politics may lead people to embrace such a group. Techno-utopian anti-political sentiment can easily become: “get politics out of the way, so that technical experts can run government pragmatically.”

At TED talks, where futurists and thought leaders get together and figure out how to make the world a better place, this “post-political” ideology is prevalent. I recall seeing an Al Gore TED in which a questioner told Gore it was sad he failed to become President simply because of a “design flaw” in the Constitution, presumably meaning the Electoral College. Using such technological language to frame an understanding of the political world leaves no place for competing goals or ideas, only unintentional glitches in a program whose goals we all agree on.

So a distaste for vulgar, petty politics is, by itself, not much of a grounding for libertarianism. Barack Obama’s “get politics out of the way, so I can implement my grand vision” is not at bottom so different from libertarian Nick Gillespie’s “get politics out of the way, so I can express my individuality by smoking pot, listening to Nirvana, and choosing a highly personalized eggplant or ice cream flavor.” (Gillespie: “There is no mainstream…There are only alternative lifestyles now, so in a real sense I think we’re living in a semi-libertarian world.”) And it is perfectly possible to have a state that is free of political constraints and an economy that delivers more and more ice cream flavors every year, as China has shown.

Liberaltarians are usually people who think the culture they are most comfortable with, blue state culture, is more receptive to libertarian thinking than red state culture.  This is because they think we are still living in the 1990s, when there was no ideological left.  But the zeitgeist has shifted greatly, and really, the liberaltarians drifted with it. For all their supposed independence, the Bush years and cultural polarization combined to make a certain kind of libertarian more inclined to identify with the blue state camp, and more hostile to things like religion, patriotism and natural law, that can ground opposition to that camp’s enthusiasms. Relatedly, this year’s Libertarian Presidential candidate is of course the most reasonable, centrist, mainstream, serious Libertarian of all time, Gary Johnson. He favors forcing bakers to bake at gay weddings; there must be no dissent against the reasonable, centrist state religion. (So much for “there is no mainstream”! But Johnson’s for unlimited choices in ice cream flavor.)

***

As an illustration of the libertarian anti-political ideal, consider Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He’s a Reason magazine reader, a sophisticated amoralist, anti-war and anti-patriotism. He is certainly not a rebel, however. The political commitments involved in becoming a rebel would be inconceivable for him. The rebel is Hotspur, who has the fighting spirit that Falstaff thoroughly rejects. As Harold Bloom writes, “Going to the battle, Hotspur cries out, ‘Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily,’ while Falstaff, on the battlefield, says, ‘Give me life.’”

In fact, Falstaff is a friend of the state, and deploys his wit against rebellion. The rebel Earl of Worcester comes to negotiate; King Henry IV asks why he has taken up arms against the King. The Earl responds that he didn’t want war. Henry asks “You have not sought it! How comes it, then?” Falstaff says “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.” Clearly, he instinctively sides with the crown and his dear friend Prince Hal. In his rationalism, he gently pokes fun at reverence for the throne, but the throne can do without reverence and be justified instead on the grounds of Hobbesian rationalism.

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