Jacob Weisberg surveys our financial collapse and declares libertarianism dead. (Hat tip.) Alas, I wish I could feel as secure as he does on this front, but I’m afraid I don’t, because while it’s true that we can blame deregulation frenzy for our current economic situation—and that people trying to say otherwise sound like the ripe fools they are—I fear that the premise of his article is a bit off. Libertarianism may be extremely unpopular right now, but it’s always been unpopular and that hasn’t stopped it. In fact, your average pedantic libertarian gets off on the fact that most people wisely hate libertarians, because it confirms to the libertarian that he is a unique snowflake that the rest of the world is too stupid to get.* Libertarianism isn’t popular, but it will always be well-funded because the class warfare at the heart of it appeals to embittered, willfully ignorant rich people who give money to think tanks.
The problem with libertarianism is similar to the problem with social conservatism, which is that it’s largely based on fantasies that appeal to people who feel thwarted entitlement. Economic crisis will put most Americans into a reality-based way of thinking, and Obama’s surge in the polls reflects this. But the more that reality-based liberalism gains ground, the angrier and more bitter you’ll see conservatives of both stripes get, and the more they’ll retreat into their fantasy lives. Weisberg praises libertarians for having ideological consistency, but I see that rigidity being based in a fundamentally immature, inflexible worldview that Weisberg describes:
The worst thing you can say about libertarians is that they are intellectually immature, frozen in the worldview many of them absorbed from reading Ayn Rand novels in high school. Like other ideologues, libertarians react to the world’s failing to conform to their model by asking where the world went wrong. Their heroic view of capitalism makes it difficult for them to accept that markets can be irrational, misunderstand risk, and misallocate resources or that financial systems without vigorous government oversight and the capacity for pragmatic intervention constitute a recipe for disaster.
Anti-troll disclaimer: I’m not saying that liberals can’t be equally rigid. Believe you and me, I deal with them all the time, and it’s exhausting. But rigidity is built into the principles of libertarianism in a way that’s not true of liberalism or even into most forms of conservatism.
The appeal of libertarianism is the same hidden appeal of the call for “states rights”, which is that it’s a way for conservative types to be both pro-freedom and pro-oppression by redefining federal protection of its citizens as somehow anti-freedom, even though most federal protections are established with the belief that all people deserve freedom and equal access to opportunity. When you get away from the class warriors in high places like the ones that Weisberg excoriates and look at the workaday support for libertarianism, you’re looking at a bizarre phenomenon that doesn’t initially seem that political, in all honesty. I was reminded (by reader Anne) of one of the touchstone moments of online libertarianism recently, which is the famous hoax where a libertarian blogger pretended to be a woman to see if he’d gain readers and did. His conclusion was the exact same one that an immature man reaches after being sexually rejected, which is that a) women suck, especially pretty young women (others don’t exactly exist) and b) they have it so easy because they get to reject people all the time.
As a hoax, it was interesting, because the hoaxer didn’t seem aware of why his hoax was so interesting. His hoax did not in fact reveal anything about the relative ease at which pretty women get through life. What it did reveal was that a whole lot of online libertarians who have very weird fantasies about women. After all, the hoaxer didn’t make his female character a middle-aged female libertarian, nor did he try to emulate the writing style and quirks of real female libertarians. His concoction was Buffy the Libertarian, a pure sexual fantasy of a young woman who spends her time flitting about being a shallow, pointless female who just happened to write about libertarianism. It said nothing about women as they are in real life, but did inadvertently expose a lot of men who were just a tad too hungry to believe their fantasies were real.
To make this all the worst, the reason it came up was Michael Duff at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal wrote a piece about the hoax where he continued to stroke the egos of libertarians in lieu of making political observations. Note the blatant sexism:
I believe libertarianism appeals to men, particularly to male geeks, because it rewards quirkiness, independence and an obsession with economics.
I was unaware that quirkiness, independence, and an “obsession” with economics (that doesn’t translate, in libertarians, to an understanding of economics) were masculine traits.
I propose an alternative explanation for why men dominate the ranks of self-declared libertarians. The fantasy of libertarianism is a masculine fantasy of a return to a prior time when it was easier to dominate women because the veneer of civilization that makes us equal despite the difference in physical power is stripped away. The mixed economies and regulated markets that define modern civilization give women a great deal of access to the world, creating many opportunities for embittered men to deal with women who aren’t immediately compliant or subservient, which in turn creates many opportunities for such men to retreat to a libertarian fantasy where it’s every man for himself, and women have to accept a lesser station in life in exchange for male protection. Of course, in any chaotic situation, a handful of women are able to find their own ways to equal the playing field, and female libertarians like to imagine they’d be those exceptional women. (I’m skeptical myself that either gender of libertarians are generally as tough on the inside as they think they are.)
At the end of the day, libertarian ideology is about making sure that huge parts of our society are put out of the reach of the democratic system, meaning that oppressed people can’t use their power to vote to relieve their oppression. It’s about declaring that the only legitimate powers are the ones that can be used to keep wealth in the hands of white people and power in the hands of men. It tends to function that way over and over, and that’s why I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. Because there’s always going to be people who would rather flush our entire society down the drain than accept equality in it.
*All libertarians are fun to watch when they get into a pity party about how no one likes them, but Megan McArdle whining about the meanie feminists trying to kick her out of feminism is definitely the most fun. I guess she’s just too smart/beautiful/good-souled/practically perfect in every way for the likes of us.