News & Politics

Self-Indulgent Libertarian Hypocrisy Knows No Bounds

A window into a tempting tendency in human nature.

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

I once had a conversation with a libertarian friend who insisted that freedom was the answer to everything, ironic since he was getting married the following week.

“Freedom to have sex with others while married?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said.

“Freedom for your children to do whatever they want?”

“No, that’s different,” he said.

“Freedom for everyone to have a nuclear bomb?”

“No, that wouldn’t be good.”

“Freedom for people to steal?”

“No, that has to be controlled.”

“You don’t really think that freedom is the answer to everything,” I said. “The real question is what to constrain and what to let go free. The question in social engineering is the question in all engineering. It’s a question of tolerances: What to constrain with tight tolerances and what to let run free with loose tolerances. That question is built right into the paradoxical declarations that we should all, “be intolerant of all intolerance,” or “tolerate all intolerance.”

“Sorry, that’s not my question,” he said.

“But why?” I asked.

“Because it’s hard and I don’t want to bother with it.”

I applauded his honesty. If you want to know why it’s not obvious to everyone by now that the question is what to tolerate and not tolerate, it’s simply this. The question is difficult.

It’s so much easier to be a hypocrite, to claim that total freedom or total constraint are the only possibilities and that you favor one and oppose the other. It’s easier to pretend that you’re crusading for absolute freedom against absolute control or vice versa than it is to deal with the messy complexity of trying to sort out what to free and what to constrain.

Hypocrisy is the alternative to praying for the wisdom to know the difference between what to constrain and what to let run free. Just pretend that you already have the perfect wisdom to know the obvious difference. Pretend that there’s no question, control is always bad, freedom is always good. Or vice versa.

And with hypocrisy, you can even have it both ways depending on your momentary needs and whims. You can claim that you always favor one as you can switch back and forth.

“I don’t like that this constrains me. We should all be free always.”

“Always?!”

“Yes, judgment is always bad. People should never be judgmental.”

“But isn’t “should” a judgment?”  

“No. And why do you always have to disagree with me?”

“I don’t always and anyway, didn’t you just say that people should be free always? Doesn’t that apply to me too? Shouldn’t I be free to disagree with you?”

“No. People should always do the right thing. People should always be controlled by the moral principles I know and espouse.”

“But…but…you just said…”

There’s a difference between being and feeling consistent. To be consistent you have to tame the tendency to extrapolate to universal principles from whatever you’re feeling in the moment. You have to be able to notice your inconsistencies.

Since that’s difficult and self-compromising, it’s easier to just feel consistent. For that you need only hold one idea constant. Just always chant, “I’m consistent. I have integrity. I’m not like all of the other people around me. Other people are inconsistent hypocrisy. I’m not.”

If you hold that one thought with all your heart then you don’t have to pay attention to your flip-flopping. You can have all your cakes and eat them too.

You won’t live by your inconsistent standards, but if you’re insistent enough, you’ll be able to convince yourself that you do, and maybe you’ll be able to convince others too. There are lots of hypocrisy cults you can join, mutual admiration societies that claim some absolute truth, thereby liberating themselves to follow their whims, confident that they’re consistent.

These days, libertarianism is one such cult, growing in popularity, in large part through sponsorship by the Koch brothers network of donors, spending billions through private charities to achieve a cabal of about 400 billionaires’ ultimate aim, to be unconstrained in everything they do. The cabal was inspired by a self-serving misreading of the Soviet Union. Fred Koch, the Koch brother’s father was a key provider to Stalin as he built the Soviet Union’s oil industry. When Fred saw the devastation wrought by his client Stalin he wrote that, “What I saw in Russia convinced me of the utterly evil nature of communism.… What I saw there convinced me that communism was the most evil force the world has ever seen and I must do everything in my power to fight it, which I have done since that time.”

Rather than bite Stalin’s hand that fed him he conveniently focused on the rationalization that Stalin employed to justify his dictatorship. Fred went on to say in 1938 that "Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard." He loved fascism; he hated communism.

Thus was born the hypocritical Koch campaign, control for freedom; constrain for liberty, dictate anarchy. It was easy to get other wealthy donors enthusiastic about the movement, donors like our new education secretary Betsy Devos, a self-declared libertarian who donated over $200 million to hypocritical campaigns for state-imposed religious education in the name of libertarianism. And it’s been easy to find politicians who will mouth and defend the hypocrisy for the money.

That’s what happened to what once was the Republican party. The Republicans who embraced American traditions bent to the Koch’s will or were chased out by Koch-funded candidates from the Tea Party. If you’re wondering whatever happened to our country, what explains the weird jack-knifing lurch toward libertarianism, the Koch brothers are a good place to find answers. The Tea Party wouldn’t have lasted any longer than the Occupy movement if it weren’t orchestrated and funded by the Kochs.

Do I sound like a conspiracy theorist? If the alternative to conspiracy theory is the assumption that there are never any conspiracies, we’re in real trouble. There are conspiracies. The difference between conspiracy theorists and people who reveal real conspiracies is in whether the eagerness to find one or the evidence leads one to the conclusion that there is one. If you read the facts on the Koch brothers, I think you’ll find that the evidence stacks up pretty conclusively.

But no matter how much money you pour into selling something, it won’t sell if there’s no latent appetite. With libertarianism as a rationalization, there’s plenty of appetite, the appetite for some alternative to having to think about what’s worth and not worth constraining.

Libertarians have bought themselves the ultimate freedom, paid in full with a commitment to hypocrisy, the freedom to never have to wonder about or learn from anything ever again, the freedom to feel consistent without having to trouble themselves with the hard question that shows up everywhere since sometimes freedom turns out well and sometimes it turns out badly:

In engineering: There are bolts and there are ball bearings. We bolt some things down and we let other things run free.

Computer engineering: Algorithms are constraints that enable you to input a free range of variables and get reliably constrained results.

Social engineering: We want people to have freedom to do what they want so long as it doesn’t cause more damage than their freedom is worth. Laws, at their best, are constraints that maximize freedom.

Liberty and justice for all: Justice constrains us, liberty frees us. Justice is security. Government at its best seeks the best mix.

Freedom and responsibility: You’re free on the dance floor, but unless you’re special (P.S., you’re not) your freedom comes with responsibility for not constraining other people’s freedom. You don’t get to crowd everyone into the corner by dancing wildly with your eyes shut shouting “I believe in freedom!”

Social movements: The best and worst movements in human history have all had the same rallying cry, a proud "We demand more!" That's the cry of those crowded out but also those who already have more than their fair share. It's the cry of the women's and civil rights movement but also of the Nazi's. So what's the difference between the good and bad versions of that rallying cry? Hypocrisy, demand for more dancefloor when you're already taking up plenty of it.

Player vs. married: A player is free to date whomever but the freedom comes with a loss of security, no reliable partner to come home to.  A married person is more constrained but in the bargain gains some security.

Freelance vs. salaried: Salaried workers are more constrained than freelancers, but in exchange, they get a bit more security.

Evolution: Life is a trial and error process and we are the trials. This makes us ambivalent, rooting for ourselves as trials and rooting for the trial and error process. In our hearts, we cry “let the best man win and it damned well better be me!”

Sore losers: Sore losers smash the game board if they lose. Libertarians are like that. They think that if they don’t win, the game is rigged against them and must be destroyed so that they always win.

Free will vs. determinism: We claim that free will as better than determinism but actually we’re ambivalent. What we’d really like is the freedom to advance and the determinism that locks in the advances we’ve already made. What we really want is a ratchet, freedom to climb, constraint against falling.

We can have that ratchet if we shut our eyes, dance impulsively and shout “freedom is the only answer!” while crowding everyone else into the corners by meaning only our personal freedom, the hell with theirs.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making. Read his work at Psychology Today.

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