Friday, November 04, 2005

Propertarians and Alito

In blogistan especially, those who self-identify as libertarians do it, often, as a means of deception: "libertarianism" as a figleaf to cover their sincere wingnuttery. Essentially, they are Republicans. Glenn Reynolds is probably the most infamous example.

This matters more than perhaps it should (given the small number of genuine libertarians in the electorate) because true libertarianism is distinct from garden-variety wingnuttery in one important regard: real libertarians give a very healthy shit about civil liberties. This means that they are diehard First and Fourth Amendment advocates, a noble calling for sure. Which, in turn, makes them palatable as a political species; their civil libertarianism somewhat balancing their "principled" rotten qualities -- like, say, unhinged hatred of government social programs which alleviate, with varying degrees of success, the suffering of the poor.

In other words, real libertarians have some positive qualities. Or, maybe it's better to say that they had them. There are left libertarians -- heirs of Jefferson -- and there are right libertarians, heirs of Milton Friedman. (I am excluding such freaks as minarchists and Randroids from this critique.)

Libertarians' prime concern is the conservation of maximum personal freedom. This is what they all say. Yet in practice, there comes a point at which the personal freedom of maximum property rights conflicts with the personal freedom of maximum civil rights, where one has an either/or choice. Jeffersonian libertarians acknowledge these crises, admit that there is a contradiction. Then they make the right choice, for the preservation of civil liberties. Friedmanite libertarians, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge at all the contradiction. Their usual refrain to this charge is, "freedom is freedom." They make a choice (while denying that they have done so), all right, and it is always the wrong one. I posit that the modern libertarian movement is almost wholly composed of Friedmanites, thus rendering the rhetorical and ideological three card monte that the likes of Reynolds plays as a superfluous concern; put another way, when libertarianism means what it has come to mean, authoritarian creeps like Reynolds might as well be given their precious libertarian label. They've earned it.

The apotheosis of Friedmanite libertarianism was the regime of Augusto Pinochet, the economic scheme of which was indeed invented by Chicago School-of-Miltie thugs. Pinochet, of course, was a tinpot dictator with all the accoutrements of thugacracy we've come to expect: a secret police/death squad team (DINA), a repeal of democracy, a negation of all civil libertarianism. But there was personal economic freedom! Thus those Friedmanite libertarians made a choice: property rights over civil rights. A Jeffersonian libertarian spits on regimes like Pinochet's, as well as its enablers and collaborators. Given a choice between governments that maximise property freedom but minimise civil liberty with goverments that maximise civil liberties but have a welfare state (like, say, The Netherlands), the Friedmanites always choose the former while the Jeffersonians choose the latter. Now, both say -- and they are not lying -- that they'd prefer a government that maximised both freedoms (again, Friedmanites confuse things -- for others and themselves -- when they insist these freedoms are indivisible), but when it's time to choose between one or the other, Friedmanites prefer authoritarianism (or worse) to any involvement with a welfare state. Property uber alles.

When did the libertarians split? Jefferson himself, though too old to do anything about it, saw the danger when he wrote to George Logan, "I hope we shall crush in its infancy the birth of the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already challenge our government to a trial by strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Thus he saw the essential conflict: a doctrinaire "right to property" belief threatens, or can threaten, other rights humans hold. Also, "property uber alles", congealed into entities like corporations which function as proxies for wealthy individuals, can be difficult to combat. Jefferson understood power, thus his fear: power accrues to super-wealthy entities in a way that has no democratic check or balance. Nor is corporate power checked by sociological means: a corporation has, in the words of another 19th century wise man, "no soul to condemn nor posterior to kick." In the 1880s, of course, the recognition of a corporation as a legal person (effected by the cynical co-option of Reconstruction Amendments designed to give freed slaves their constitutional rights) was decided by an intensely corrupt Supreme Court: Mistah Jefferson, he dead. Viewed through a Jeffersonian prism, the ironies here are even more twisted and evil than what is obvious. The correction of the supreme error of Jeffersonian government -- legalised chattel slavery -- was almost immediately hijacked by agents of property, while the newly freed blacks were concomitantly doomed to another hundred years of fascistic oppression. The correction effectively bypassed those for whom it was designed, and given rather to the powers that Jefferson expressly and correctly feared as a menace to democracy. Property uber alles!

Jefferson's yeoman libertarianism was unimpeachably sincere; it had a purity. Aside the ugly hypocrisy inherent in its endorsement of slavery, it strongly presumed a concept of equality -- if only among white males -- which is ultimately the antithesis of Friedmanite libertarianism, the final stage of which is, inevitably, corporatism and authoritarianism. Alas, Jefferson's libertarianism was also impractical. He wanted little more than a postal system and a judiciary. This almost minarchist conceit is the only reason he is still revered by modern Friedmanites -- well, that and making war on the Tripoli pirates.

But the point is that he recognised a heirarchy of rights: it was he who tweaked the older, Whiggish refrain of "life, liberty, property" and euphemised, beautifully, the embarassing third word to something much better: "the pursuit of happiness". I posit that this alteration was not just for literary improvement, but an acknowledgement of the crassness of the "property uber alles" mindset; and an implicit affirmation that the unlimited right to property is less important than the rights to life and to liberty -- the rights to be secure in one's person or home, to free speech, etc.

In a sense, the split of Jeffersonian libertarians from the rest was as much structural as philosophical. Jefferson was agrarian; the new libertarians (not yet known by that name) were industrialist. Philosophically, well .. the Friedmanites come from this mindset; the Jeffersonians do not. The split was inevitable, which figures, because Friedmanite libertarians are indistinguishable -- aside the occasional semi-sincere remarks against the Drug War -- from far-right conservatives.

It's just that they come to a reactionary stance from a different direction, the belief that there is no heirarchy of rights. Thus broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause is for them a Stalinist action, while the right of the state to usurp ownership of a citizen's uterus is good government.

Yeah, the irony is flaming: the level plane of rights -- strictly eschewing any notions of hierarchy -- perversely, for modern libertarians, translates in practice to mean that the right to property actually trumps all others. For the modern libertarians, the right of wealthy advertisers (like Nike) to lie is inalienable, but the right to a free press is at the government's indulgence. The right to own guns shall not be infringed, but ownership of one's uterus is right out. Thus authoritarianism begins, and we walk the path to Santiago.

In three consecutive posts Roy Edroso has a good time with the libertarian embrace of the Alito nomination. In comments to one of these posts, this guy offers a terrific neologism for these libertarian agents of authoritarianism: propertarians. Excellent.

Clicking through Roy's links (Instayokel's position was no surprise), the best is Protein Wisdom's "libertarians for Alito" roundup, and this hunk of shit from the Randroid nitwits at Reason. Note how the Reason non-endorsement endorsement neatly balances Alito's appeal to the Christian Right with his defense of unlimited property rights. Julian Sanchez then does his level best to excuse Alito's egregious Fourth Amendment-raping. Even the "real" libertarians are Instapundit-weaselly in their endorsements of Full Cavity Search 10 Year Old Girls Alito.

So it doesn't really matter if people like Glenn Reynolds dishonestly use the "I'm a libertarian" shield against accusations of flaming wingnuttery. The "real" libertarians are virtually identitical to him. I have no doubt if they were considering a judge who unambiguously authorised death squads and insisted that abortion was thoroughly unconstitutional but also argued that that the commerce clause was a tool of constitution-shredding socialist devils, they'd argue for the judge's swift confirmation. They are all about property, and nothing else.

Fuck the propertarians.

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Added:

Crooked Timber and Suburban Guerilla on Alito's animosity to the democratic organ of Congress. Yet another reason for propertarians to love him! Do recall that when it comes to a choice between democracy and property, for propertarians the former is found quickly disposable. The propertarian author of this cheery non-endorsement endorsement of Alito once told me that the democratically-elected President of Chile deserved to be overthrown in a military coup and replaced by Augusto Pinochet. But then he is an admirer of Timothy McVeigh, as well as of the authoritarian (but property-protecting) Chinese Consitution (he claims this post is a joke -- unlikely since he has otherwise never demonstrated a sense of humor).

CATO, to which the suspected-of-a-conscience libertarian digamma often defers, endorses Alito. But then it hires former Pinochet thugs, and has been cheerfully accepting of other authoritarian-creepy actions of the Bush regime. Ignore the bust of Jefferson on CATO's masthead: they are propertarians, too.

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