Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The libertarian world of our pundit class is by definition an imaginary world, which cannot exist outside the heads of its believers. It is freedom without responsibility and without cost. Since that happy state can't exist, libertarianism is just a pleasant mental fantasy of an eternal upper-class adolescence, when they paid for everything with Dad's credit card and had nothing to do but show up at private school. Now they don't want to pay taxes and they don't want to work to make their world better, they just want to coast on someone else's dime and go out for drinks.

Nothing else is real to them because reality interferes with the happy fantasy. Megan McArdle's father had jobs in public works, privatized public works, and lobbying. He worked on government sanitation projects, so McArdle knows that the government can succeed in its endeavors. McArdle knows that money buys advantage and there is no free market. McArdle was hired by her father and his contacts and she knows that the world is not a meritocracy. McArdle knows that private companies can be corrupt and wasteful. None of this matters--it doesn't even exist for her because nothing has to be real in her world. She simply believes what she wants to believe, whatever flatters her idea of herself and helps her live with herself. It's what authoritarians do to survive. Some turn to God, some to politics, some to hate-mongering, but they all are driven by forces they don't know exist. Their advice is erratic and often wrong, their morals are flexible, and their overwhelming desire to be liked and praised regardless of merit makes them utterly unreliable.


Mr. Wonderful said...

Well said. (You might not want to say "irregardless." Cut the first two letters.)

Does anyone know of a psychological analysis of libertarianism? I'd be interested to see it.

Like anarchism, its left-wing cousin, a libertarian society by definition has never existed and can never exist. Its basis in imagination is its main appeal. Therefore it survives as a expression of some syndrome or pathology.

For "an economist" to be a libertarian is like a traffic flow manager dedicating his (or her) life to creating rights-of-way, speed limits, traffic lights, etc., around the premise that people can sprout wings and fly.

And, of course, by definition, such "economists" are to scientific study as shoppers are to farmers. Real scientists study reality and produce facts, trends, data, etc. Libertarian economists pick what they want from their grocer's data aisle to prove, or "prove," their pre-existing theories.

Another interesting question is: must all libertarians be like Megan? Does it take someone that self-absorbed, dishonest, and insecure? Or are there otherwise more admirable practitioners? If I had to bet I'd put money on the former. She's not an anomaly. She's representative of the type.

Kathy said...

Are there any poor libertarians'?

Algoian said...

By saying things like 'a libertarian society by definition has never existed and can never exist' you sound just like a 15th century monarchist, convinced that a society, such as that described in the Constitution, is doomed to failure. Their argument was that people of the common class were incapable of making proper decisions on the personal, or for that matter national, level and needed the guiding hand of the monarch to care for them and show them the right way. This line of thinking is not very unlike the benevolent technocrat government that liberal democrats long for.

Libertarians do not believe in liberty without responsibility. In fact, they believe very strongly in liberty with full responsibility. It is about like using a trapeze without a net. Fly as high as you want (liberty) but don't look to land in a net if you screw up (no social security or other 'robin hood' entitlements). They believe that one person's rights extend only as far as the next person's rights and the the government's job is to be the referee.

I don't know if there are very many poor Libertarians. Libertarians tend to be self reliant, protective of their assets and prone to blazing their own trails. These properties do tend to make one successful in anything short of a socialist system where the fruits of one's labor are redistributed for the 'common good'.

Chad said...

a libertarian society by definition has never existed and can never exist.

Well, I'd argue there was one - the Roman Republic, where the government only handled foreign affairs and public works and welfare was entirely in the hands of private individuals. But it was also a society where, for example, the closest thing to a "fire department" was run by a man who bought the burning building and surrounding properties at a discount and only then agreeing to put the fire out. I doubt if any historical episode better displays Libertarian ethics.

And thank you, Algoian, for eloquently helping prove Susan and Mr. Wonderful's points, although I'd add that the reason there are few poor Libertarians is because so many of them, like Mrs. McArdle, not only had a safety net under them but a whole bunch of nice, comfy mattresses.

Anonymous said...


The importance of the safety net is not to be underestimated. Without it, the entrepreneurial spirit would take a severe hit. If the consequence of your idea failing would result you in being the streets then the likelihood of you risking it would diminish.The risk would be too great.

In the early 20th century when some poor inventor who did come up with a brilliant idea, more often then not, they didn't get rich off of it. Edwin Armstrong, Philo Farnsworth, and Nikolai Tesla for example were usually outright robbed. Seeing as this happened to brilliant ideas, how many people forgoed their ideas because there was a lack of a social net and probability of failure was so high?


Susan of Texas said...

Arthur Silber is a ibertarian who lives according to his beliefs. He is the clearest, most rigorous thinker that I know of. His ideas could save the world. And he is very ill, alone and absolutely broke. He might be the only real libertarian in the world, and the basis of his wisdom is his readings of Alice Miller, not political philosophers.

Algoian, your trapese artist would still have an ambulence waiting for him under that net, that other people paid for. If you're still a libertarian after you fall, let me know. McArdle failed in her goal to be a Wall Street babe and Daddy picked her up and gave her a job. Try getting rich with no money, no contacts, no favors, no grants, no loans, nothing but your brains. There are lots of smart people in the world, and the smart rich ones make sure that their money gets them what they want.

If your theory were right Silber would be rich and successful and all those people who were born on third base and thought they hit a home run would be running McDonald's franchises.

clever pseudonym said...

The 15th century monarchist was right at the time. Common people had no access to education, hygiene, culture, or any means of self-improvement. Upward mobility through the classes was unheard of. And the monarchists fought hard to keep it that way in order to protect their privilege and status. The commoners were incapable of making proper decisions because the means to do so was deliberately kept from them.

Can we, just once, have a libertarian explain their beliefs without resorting to absurd generalities about self-reliance and personal responsibility? Seriously, apply this philosophy to actual situations in the real world and tell me how it presents any sort of solution. Don't just spout Friday night bong-hits-in-the-dorm-room rubbish.

Euripides said...

One of the best analysis' of Libertarianism (certainly from an anarchist perspective) is Bob Black's The Libertarian As Conservative

Quote "To demonise state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst. And yet (to quote the most vociferous of radical libertarians, Professor Murray Rothbard) there is nothing un-libertarian about “organization, hierarchy, wage-work, granting of funds by libertarian millionaires, and a libertarian party.” Indeed. That is why libertarianism is just conservatism with a rationalist/positivist veneer." Endquote.

Quote "To my mind a right-wing anarchist is just a minarchist who’d abolish the state to his own satisfaction by calling it something else. But this incestuous family squabble is no affair of mine. Both camps call for partial or complete privatisation of state functions but neither questions the functions themselves. They don’t denounce what the state does, they just object to who’s doing it. This is why the people most victimized by the state display the least interest in libertarianism. Those on the receiving end of coercion don’t quibble over their coercers’ credentials. If you can’t pay or don’t want to, you don’t much care if your deprivation is called larceny or taxation or restitution or rent. If you like to control your own time, you distinguish employment from enslavement only in degree and duration. Endquote

I recommend this piece, not because I agree with everything he says, but because it explains so perfectly the likes of MEgan. It's only short but I would urge everyone to read it, if only because it's a thought provoking piece.

One of the fundamental views of libertarians before the American Right got hold of it, was that Hierarchy was to be treated with great suspicion in ALL forms, not just in the case of the State.

Anyway, thanks to Susan for this blog, I can't read MEgan for too long without getting angry, and I second her recommendation of Arthur Silber. In a just world,(or even a meritocracy) he and Megan would be in the opposite position they find themselves in.

satch said...

I'm sure Megan sees no problem at all with her beliefs, despite the advantages her birth has given her. After all, the very idea of cream rising to the top depends upon The Right Sort of people giving a leg up to their fellows from time to time.

Mr. Wonderful said...

"Libertarians tend to be self reliant, protective of their assets and prone to blazing their own trails. These properties do tend to make one successful in anything short of a socialist system where the fruits of one's labor are redistributed for the 'common good'."

The usual Fantasyland boilerplate. Really, one day all these libertarians are going to meet Ayn Rand in hell and wonder what went wrong.

"Blazing their own trails" in a society that already exists and has provided them, not only with parental support and underwriting, but with public amenities, government-funded scientific and medical research, buildings constructed by union labor, etc., etc., including agencies that require trapeze manufacturers to adhere to safety standards, lest some free-wheeling, self-reliant libertarian step off the platform with one his hands and find himself plummeting toward the absence-of-a-net because the trapeze company saved a few cents on inferior hardware.

Libertarianism--the ability of all to pursue their talents, interests, etc., unfettered by outward social and legal constraints, to be rewarded and/or punished accordingly--only makes sense if there is no such thing as history, and society all begins at the same starting line at the same time. Otherwise it's a fantasy locatable somewhere on the spectrum between childlike ignorance and outright psychosis.

Megan McArdle's rich-girl-as- libertarian is only the most extreme parody example of how libertarian "independence" is the most dependent kind of all.

Algoian said...

With my trapeze analogy I may have gone too far toward anarchy in my attempt to put distance between Libertarianism and socialist tenets.

Modern Libertarians, who can be somewhat defined as socially liberal Republicans, do not advocate 'no government' as an anarchist (or Roman) would, but rather see government in a supporting role, not a major role (15% of GDP not 30% of GDP). Government has a place, but just as there can be too much government (see communism) there can also be too little. Disaffected-Republican-Libertarians (such as myself) see the removal of responsibility for one's actions as a very dangerous (and costly) shift in societal motivation.

I am not sure what everyone's fixation about rich Libertarians is. I have attended a few Libertarian meetings and I can tell you they really looked no richer nor poorer than any other group. Success in life is measured many ways and to many Libertarians, being 'independent' is worth more than money.

Most of the conversations had nothing to do with getting rich, it mostly centered around topics of self reliance. How to build a windmill generator, where to get health insurance for the self employed, that sort of thing. When topics did turn to politics they tended to be about taxation without representation (yes, since Libertarians are a minority party and seldom get elected to office, they do feel under-represented... big shock), or how their town was starting to feel like a giant home owners association where your neighbors could vote to have all male dogs neutered or the owners fined (yes, that is a real proposal).

"One of the fundamental views of libertarians ...was that Hierarchy was to be treated with great suspicion in ALL forms, not just in the case of the State"

Very true. As a practical matter, the Libertarian view is that the further removed the consequences are from the action, the less impact the consequences have on the suppression or reinforcement of the action. Obviously that is not a new concept. A great example of this would be credit cards. Using a credit card allows you stall the consequences of overspending until later. It should be obvious how large portions of the population behave when the painful consequences of budget busting shopping are separated by at least 30 days. If the consequences of overspending were immediate, say because a debit card is all that is available, budget busting would be a lot less likely to occur. Looking back over decades of big government is is obvious that the federal government is no better with its credit cards than the individuals... again, because the consequences of overspending are not visited upon the over spenders, rather upon the poor saps that elected next.

Bringing this back to my point, the larger the hierarchy (state or non-state), the greater the separation between consequences and action.

Susan of Texas said...

Modern libertarians are for government when it can help them and against it when it can help someone else.

Mr. Wonderful said...

"When topics did turn to politics they tended to be about taxation without representation (yes, since Libertarians are a minority party and seldom get elected to office, they do feel under-represented... big shock)"

Poor babies. Someone should tell them that "representation" doesn't refer to the representation of political parties. It refers to states.

Mind you, it might be better if we had a more parliamentary system in which coalitions *did* end up providing libertarians with some small bit of representation. Certainly the Coke/Pepsi false choice of Democrat/Republican is no bargain.

Algoian said...

"Modern libertarians are for government when it can help them and against it when it can help someone else."

Susan, you might be right on that one. Except for the part about them being for government when it helps them.

Libertarians are not much in favor of the government helping individuals, themselves or others. Modern Libertarians do agree with government involvement in defense, border security, infrastructure like roads and flood control. Even universal health care to a degree. Things that pretty much benefit everyone equally. They become downright irritated when the help reaches the personal level.

Take the popular CARS program (cash for clunkers). As a Libertarian, I don't see any justice in taking tax dollars from some and giving them to others to buy a car. I bought a high mileage car years ago (2001 40mpg diesel bug). Even tho I started doing the 'right thing' years before 'everyone' else, I don't get $3500 off my car. In fact, my tax dollars are used to, in some way, reward those who, for many reasons, didn't economize sooner. It is Robin Hood again, take from some to give to others. (Again, we really have very little problem with take from all to give to all).

In a Libertarian world, roads would be paid for with fuel tax. The more you drive, the more you use the roads, the more you buy gas and the more tax you pay for the road you drive on. The bigger your vehicle, the more wear/tear you cause (think tractor trailers),the more fuel it uses and the more you pay in road tax. The less fuel efficient your car, the more carbon you emit, the more fuel you burn and the higher the amount you pay in road tax. The individual has a lot of control over what they get charged. There is also a direct instant consequence for your decisions concerning what you drive and where you live and your driving habits. If consumers had been demanding higher mileage cars from Detroit (so they can reduce their fuel tax) you can bet the Volt would have been ready years ago. No government incentives needed.

Another example, in a Libertarian world, there would be higher alcohol, tobacco and 'fat' taxes. These taxes would pay for a bare minimum 'medicaid for all' system. This one may surprise you, but many Libertarians know that a modern society can't have people dieing on the sidewalks of cancer. While we don't think that health care is a right, we do realize that hordes of uncared-for sick people WILL wind up impacting the individual in time. And when it does, it will cost more. Given that some sort of universal baseline coverage is as necessary to the Constitutional 'common welfare' as defense or establishing justice, the so called 'sin taxes' would make Libertarians happy because it places the burden upon those that engage in the most risky behaviors. If all you eat is wheat grass and vegetables from your own garden (assuming that is actually healthy behavior), you would be taking action to reduce your probable cost to the health care system and so you pay less for it. If you eat at Taco Bell at every meal, you are taking action to increase your probable cost to the system and you are paying more for that.

While the 'medicaid for all' would provide a certain minimal level of services, the insurance companies would be competing to provide health care 'extras'. For instance; if the universal plan allowed for only 1 low-rez mamogram every 5 years, a commercial plan would act as add-on pack and allow for a hi-rez every year. It could provide private rooms rather than a ward. In-home PT instead or driving to a clinic for PT.

There would be odd side effects as well. For instance, Taco Bell would be free to sell alcohol and allow indoor smoking if they choose to. If they find that customers stop coming in because of either one, they can choose to disallow either activity.

Susan of Texas said...

We think differently. You think of everything in terms of how much it costs. We think of things in terms of cause and effect. What do we need to do, what is the best way to do it, what will be the consequences. The money is a factor, not the only factor. That is why we are so concerned with facts--you can't make an argument without them.

Algoian said...

Yes, we do think of everything in terms of cost. In today's world people trade their time, talent and effort for money. When you spend tax money (cost) you are spending the juice squeezed from people's lives. They have traded some of their irreplaceable lifetime to contribute that tax money. We just think that the individual contributing the tax should have maximum control over where it goes and how much of it goes.

When the action/consequence loop gets too large, as we think it is now, it is too easy for the spending to get out of hand. When we see the government running a debt of any size, we view that as the government spending 'the juice squeezed from life' that hasn't even been lived yet. They are spending a slice of my effort/labor that I haven't even lived yet.

Some of that is OK. I do that with my own credit cards... I spend some now that I will labor for in the future. But I choose when and how much. When the government spends a share of my future efforts by running a deficit I do not feel that I have a choice in the matter. I would wager that a huge portion of people in the US (of all parties) feel the same way. They individually don't like the government running deficits and they feel just as powerless to do anything about it.

When you see cost as the output from someone's life and struggle, you give it a lot of weight.

Susan of Texas said...

Meanwhile the rest of us know that the more you give away, the more you receive.

Algoian said...

"Meanwhile the rest of us know that the more you give away, the more you receive."

Pardon? That doesn't really sound like a fact. In light of: "That is why we are so concerned with facts--you can't make an argument without them.", could I ask you to substantiate that? Because if that is true, I will write a check today to give everything away. Actually, I think everyone would.

And do you make a distinction between giving things away and having them taxed away?

I ask because you might be surprised by a perfectly Libertarian way to do foreign aid. Have you ever heard of If not, I invite you to investigate. NPR recommends it. You like NPR right? In short, it allows people to loan money to people in 3rd world countries via the micro-finance market. I choose how much, I choose when, I choose the reason for the loan. And it is a loan, the borrower uses it, and pays it back with interest. I don't get the interest, the interest goes to pay for the micro-finance system that is actually doing all the work. I am just making no-interest loans. See, the people using the system are paying for the system. It is not charity, it is a hand up. AN opportunity to not only inject capital at the very bottom of the economy (where it does the most good) but to teach good business practices like managing of cash flow via the loan repayment process. Very Libertarian.

I have made many loans thru Kiva (again, never making a dime), but the same dollars I put in years ago have not disappeared into some 3rd world bureaucrat's pocket and are still there and are still creating more wealth in Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Senegal (where I have loans out right now). I tend to make loans to farmers and ranchers, believing that you can't do much until you get proper amounts of food into the system.

Maybe things like Kiva are what you meant by "the more you give away, the more you receive". If so, I would point out that your 'the rest of us' do not have a corner on that market. There are very Libertarian ways to give that are very person-to-person and don't involve national governments and the waste/graft that always seems to happen with foreign aid.

In a Libertarian World, all foreign aid would be Kiva-style.

Susan of Texas said...

Your noble and manly ideas of self-sufficency depend on the money and work of others. Many, many other people make your world safe and functional, which we could not do on an individual basis. Even our manly pioneers had the army clear out the West of native people before they individually settled it.

Your theories can only work in a fantasy world. Nearly every time libertarians discuss their thoughts they say at some point, "Now imagine...." They have to imagine, because reality doesn't work their way.

It's wonderful that you donate but that's not the point. There is a world beyond your nose.

Algoian said...

Wow... now who is using boilerplate...

Susan of Texas said...

Yeah, facts are so yesterday.