The first book I read on politics and economics was Free to Choose by the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and conservative intellectual heavyweight. This book fundamentally shaped my understanding of how states, individuals, and markets interact and marked the birth of my libertarian journey. From there I read Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Adam Smith, and other leading free-market thinkers. In time, I found myself regurgitating the tired pillars of free-market conservatism:
• Individual liberty is the primary organizing principle of life and politics
• Government is always inefficient and intrusive
• We must decentralize government and deregulate markets
• Markets work better than bureaucracies
• Socialism is inherently evil
• Individuals always act in their best interest
Being a Libertarian allowed me to be different, independent, and maintain an aura of intellectualism. However, I always felt I was trying to support an ideology instead of honestly pursue a coherent political framework. Over the course of a three-year libertarian journey, I slowly (and humbly) came to the conclusion that the central theses of the Libertarian project diverged from my worldview, and my story, at the very beginning.
In my private life, I espoused a philosophy informed by faith and centered on love, service, and responsibility to the other. However, my politics were centered on the primacy of self-interest, markets, and individualism. This dissonance between my personal convictions and my politics was not only unrealistic, but unsustainable. At the bottom of the libertarian project I found an unimaginative, selfish, and empty political worldview.
Libertarianism fails because it is premised on 1) a misguided and wholehearted belief in markets and 2) the centrality of self-interest. On markets, Senator Obama once commented that conservatives have an unhealthy “market fetish,” I agree. Markets are not particularly good at empowering the disenfranchised, equalizing opportunity, protecting the earth, or fairly distributing resources. Markets have no moral compass; they are nothing more than amoral systems of exchange. While markets are great at aggregating information and facilitating the flow of capital, I fail to see how they can form the basis of a politics that aims toward social inclusion, cohesion, and justice.
Second, the libertarian project is based on an ardent individualism and explicit praise of selfishness. Libertarians place autonomy of the self at the center of their philosophy; fairness depends on how free the self is to pursue his or her own self-interest. The libertarian paradigm fundamentally puts the freedom of the ego prior to justice and fairness. All great religions and moral perspectives are founded on an ethic of compassion, of selfless love and service to others. Why then would we develop a political system (libertarianism) that puts the individual before the whole, the self before the other, that sees us as only responsible to pursuing our own interests? The libertarian agenda is void of serious moral consideration or substance; it is selfishness praised.
Libertarianism is an empty, and potentially dangerous, ideology that manages to thrive because it:
1) Convinces people that their selfishness is actually a good thing
2) Has the backing of well-accomplished intellectuals (mostly economists)
3) Appeals to principles of reason
4) Offers a safe alternative for conservatives that don’t like being called Republican
In short, I am thankful for my journey to and from libertarianism; I worry for those who never make it back.