The view from down here

Political Atheism

June 26, 2010

Melissa is at a CFI training retreat in New York. CFI is Center For Inquiry, which promotes reason and logic in the face of, well, so much of the opposite in the world today.

For some reason, the word for the people on the other side of reason in this group has become "Libertarian", as in: .. then there are people who reject science and reason and the accepted truth of global warming, you know, the Libertarians.

Now, I'm sort of a Jane Goodall of Libertarians. I lived and ate and did fund-raising among them for several years, and actually I'm still one of them. But I'm not anti-reason, anti-science, and I'm not selfish. Nor are any of the Libertarians that I know.

So what's up?

There are a couple of factors at work here, I think.

The first is that when Libertarians try to express their ideas it is not always easy to see that they are speaking of a world very different from the one we live in today. This gap leads to a great deal of misunderstanding. More on that in a moment.

The second thing that's going on is that some people who no longer look for answers in God have done a sort of transference, where the ideas of goodness, compassion, justice, and security are now attached to government - or perhaps an idealized image of government, not unlike the idealized image of God that most people still have.

When Government is God, political atheists, which Libertarians often are, can be stereotyped as wrong, evil, backward, and close-minded. You know, the way religious people often think of atheists.

The irony is that the people specifically gathered to rally for understanding, reason, and truth against a barrage of ignorance seem to be subject to the same sort of zealotry and intolerance against which they are fighting so diligently.

The Libertarians bear much responsibility for failing to get their message out and properly understood. Often the things that they say, which make perfect sense to them and are grounded in a perspective that seeks to honor the greatest good in all of us, just sound bad.

For example, Libertarians often say that all taxes are theft. They are in favor of legalizing every drug, removing restrictions to gun-ownership, and eliminating the vast majority of federal programs.

These things sound horrid in the world of today, but are perfectly appropriate in a world filled with honorable adults who work together with reason, compassion, and responsibility. You don't need to restrict things when people use them responsibly. It may not be the reality today, but it is a reasonable goal. Libertarians tend to believe that we are a lot closer to that than we think, and it is only the agenda of powerful forces that convince us we are incapable of living in an adult, responsible world and all it implies, and that we are somehow bad people to even consider it.

What gets lost in the Libertarian message is the belief that we should seek a world where you don't have to manage or support people as though they were children and make up for their lack of ability to be a contributing member of society.

When I say "Taxation is theft" I'm not saying that I believe that police departments or schools are unimportant and should be left to rot as long as you keep your hands off my money. Yes, that would be bad.

What I'm saying is particularly two things. First, I'm saying that I believe there are actually better, more honest, more efficient, more innovative ways of meeting these social needs than what we have today. Second, I'm saying that I recognize the fact that government, as the agent of law, is in a position to hide behind the premise of social good while actually using money and influence to serve hidden interests.

Libertarians are not anarchists, but pragmatists. For example, if a restaurant is found to be unhealthy the government can revoke the license of that poorly run business. However, if a public school is found to be poorly run, the government can not simply shut it down and grant a license to another business. Rather, the people who are responsible for the mismanagement, the school board and principals, are the same people who make all the decisions.

So, when a Libertarian says something like, "shut down the public schools," he is not advocating the absence of education, but the betterment of education by placing government as the monitor, but not direct provider, of that most critical service. Also, Libertarians believe that schools provided by the free market would innovate more, become more efficient, and provide a better product to more people at a better price.

Discussing whether those conclusions are right or wrong is a worthy exercise. Dismissing the debate altogether as selfish and ignorant is not.

The old saying goes: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In other words, there is genuine value in being capable, and willing to take care of your own life and your family. So you learn how to fish and another man doesn't. Then a third man takes your fish, gives it to the man who doesn't want to bother learning how to fish, then they both tell you that they are wise and you are selfish.

This is why Libertarians say that wealth redistribution is theft. Because if you're the one fishing, it can sometimes feel like theft.

If you feel that the people who benefit from social programs are really trying hard, deserve a helping hand, and that we're all better off for helping them, then certainly someone standing against that will seem wrong and selfish. If you see people as capable but unwilling to fish, working the system, then you will see those social programs as a type of theft to benefit the lazy.

There's a fair amount of truth on both sides of that debate, and your political beliefs will grow from where you place the fulcrum on the lever of that issue: lazy versus deserving.

I dislike government's handling of these sorts of social issues because it ends the debate. I am actually quite compassionate and giving. I am willing to find deserving people and help them, and I would give even more if my conscience wasn't being forced by people who place themselves above me, call me selfish, then take thirty percent of my money to give to foreign wars, bank bailouts, and thousands of people who never caught a fish in their lives and don't ever want to. Why would they when they have my money and your sticky fingers?

Again, I know that there are truly deserving people, and there are many government run social programs that change people's lives for the better. But as with the schools, that's not good enough for me. I believe that we can do better, that we can help more people in more ways than we are doing now.

It is the empty sanctimony of shallow social arrogance that allows government at all levels to pretend greatness while delivering good enough as it squanders money on wars and special interests that do much more harm than the good they actually manage to provide.

Do not give up one false god for another. Do not take the road of the zealot with your revealed truth about the ignorance and selfishness of people that you don't know.

As with all things, drive with reason and understanding. Learn to fish in the lake of ideas, and don't take the welfare of easy answers.

Copyright 2010 Daniel LaFavers