Monday, January 21, 2008

Libertarianism for 1st graders

from Joshua Katz on

I remember only one event from first grade. It happened on the first day of school...The school had a milk program, where parents could pay each week for their children to receive a pint of milk at snack-time. My parents had paid, and so I was to receive milk at snack.

As the school day began, the teacher settled down the class and taught us the basic rules for the classroom. Some were familiar...However, one was new and unusual – if you have something to say, raise your hand, don’t just shout or jump out of your seat....

Nonetheless, this rule immediately struck me as wise and worth obeying. I was quite clear that any reasonable person would choose to follow this rule, given that the consequence would be that all others would follow it too. Even lacking universal assent, it would work unilaterally too – those who choose to follow it can simply ignore anyone jumping around and screaming to get his point across. I resolved to follow it immediately and flawlessly.

Such was my state of mind when snack time came around, and the teacher asked, "Who has a milk account?" I responded the way I considered proper – by raising my hand. My fellow milk-drinkers, though, immediately began to jump out of their seats and shout. Having just learned of the alternative to such behavior, I considered their actions atrocious and quite unsuited for polite society. I kept my own counsel, and kept my hand raised.

You can probably figure out where this all led – I didn’t get any milk that day....

Libertarians often find themselves in a similar position. We support principles that we know everyone else has learned, and it seems that most people in polite society believed in them at some point. We were taught as children about not hitting other people, and we still believe it. Sure, we have more developed philosophies now, stronger arguments for why we ought not to hit people, but the basic principle remains. There are basic rules, like not hitting people, without respect for which no human society can function.

Even the rules regarding self-defense find themselves expressed in elementary school terms. The only viable defense, when caught hitting another child, is "he started it." Any just teacher will recognize that, even if the response was not quite proportional, the child who hit the other first deserves at least more blame. So, libertarians grow up understanding, along with everyone else, that the only time it might ever be acceptable to use force is in response to an aggressive attack. Then we find our neighbors advocating all kinds of force – wars of aggression, taxation, imprisonment for non-violent crimes. It seems as unfathomable to us that people would promote such things as it did to me that the only way to get milk was to break the hand-raising rule. No parent allows their children to take toys away from other children, but rather they encourage their children to share their own toys. Yet the children grow up to think that they can take away people’s property to give it to others, and to not share their own wealth.

As a result, we libertarians often find ourselves tongue-tied in debate. We can address all the economic issues, and point out the utilitarian benefits of liberty, but that’s not what we really want to do. We want to point out the morality of freedom, the evil of coercion – but we are unable, precisely because it is so obvious to us. We cannot effectively answer those who say "We must imprison drug users because it’s the government’s job to protect people from themselves," because it is so unbelievable to us that anyone would think it acceptable, nay, obligatory, to hit someone who has not hit someone else himself. I am often reduced to looking at such a person with a mix of horror and incredulity, and wondering how someone can think such a thing.

We make what seem to us completely obvious points – that we ought to follow our basic moral codes, and the necessary rules for civilization. We think that this ought to work, just like I expected raising my hand to work. We are puzzled by those who proudly and arrogantly proclaim that they are above the rules for civilization, just as I was puzzled by the fact that the children who broke the rules got their milk.

Consider the masses who laugh at libertarianism. Ask them just what, exactly, they oppose. Is it the idea of private property? Is it opposition to theft, or to murder? These are the fundamentals of our position, are they not? Or do they challenge the application of the position to specifics? Would they maintain that it is something other than theft to take away money from Peter to give it to Paul? What word is more applicable?

You’ll quickly find that most don’t oppose anything specific at all. They just think libertarians are weird, kooky – and to a certain extent, we are. While the diversity of the movement continues to grow by leaps and bounds, we remain a somewhat eclectic bunch. How could it be otherwise in a world with a public education system, where "normal" folks are taught never to look behind the curtain? Yet, this is no argument against our positions. In an insane world, only those who appear out of step with the rest will be sane. I appeared weird to my classmates, too, when I sat quietly, following the rules, and raising my hand. When breaking important rules is profitable, why not join those who break them? Look around you – success is in the government sector! Why not join in? Why not indeed. How about – because it is wrong to hit people?...

Most people will not spontaneously become libertarians when they become aware of the contradictions, but if libertarian ideas are in view when they are made aware of it, then they are likely to be persuaded. This is how our movement will grow. So, our goal must be outreach and education. We must remember, though, never to beat anyone over the head with our message – we need only to put it out there, to present it well, and they will come, just as supporters from all communities have flocked to Ron Paul....

Our message, although dressed up and more cogently argued, really is nothing more than the kindergarten creed. But adults cannot embrace what they learned in kindergarten, they fear they will look foolish. So we must argue for it through economics and through philosophy, but the message is still the same – don’t hit people. Go forth and spread the word.

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