The Mask of Liberty

"I am the 1%, Let's Talk."Last fall, I took a day to visit the original Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. As it turned out, the day I chose was to be an odd one, as it was the day that investment broker Peter Schiff decided to visit with the intent of opening a dialog. He set up a large banner in front of a small camera crew for maximum exposure and attention gathering. The banner read: “I am the 1%, Let’s Talk.” Mr. Schiff’s theme was that the goals of the OWS movement were misguided; that it is not capitalism that deserves to be protested, but the government; that more capitalism, not more government or socialism, will lead to greater freedom. It had the predictable effect of drawing a large crowd of Occupiers who argued with him into the evening.

This interesting episode came to mind when I read an interview with Schiff on his participation in a debate where he argued that China’s version of capitalism is superior to America’s. Some stand-out quotes:

Slate: You’ll argue on Tuesday in support of the motion that China does capitalism better than America. What do they know that we don’t?

Peter Schiff: First of all, I don’t think either the United States or China does capitalism all that well. America did capitalism a lot better in the 19th century than China does it now, but today, China does it better than we do. Though both countries have far too much government involvement in the economy, we have more. They’re Communists, supposedly, and we’re not, but our government screws up our economy more than the Chinese government screws up its.

Slate: What lies ahead for China politically?

Schiff: I think there will ultimately be more freedom than there is today. Will China ever become a one man, one vote democracy? Hopefully not, for the sake of the Chinese. Doing so has certainly not served our interest. We enjoyed a lot more freedom and prosperity when we were less democratic. In the 19th century we were quite undemocratic in the way government ran, and we benefited from that lack of democracy. But as we became more democratic, we grew less free and therefore less prosperous. If they’re wise, the Chinese won’t follow that example. They’ll try to model their government after what America used to be, before we screwed it up.

This is a lot to take in. It seems that when Schiff argued that the government is the problem and capitalism the solution, he did not merely have in mind the extent of government operations but its very form: a representative democracy. There’s a lot of familiar stuff here. I have commented previously on the trend of libertarians viewing the 19th century in the United States as a golden, rather than gilded, age, and on the propertarian opposition to democracy. They are entwined here in a very disturbing way: as the franchise expanded to the poor, and then to black people, and then to women, “we grew less free.” Greater citizen participation in government led to a decline in the freedom “we enjoyed” which did not serve “our interest.” Viewing Schiff’s use of the first person plural very literally and personally, I suppose he is entirely right: rich white men like him had a lot more freedom than others back then.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a very long review of Atlas Shrugged which deconstructed the book’s utopian vision to reveal its implicitly totalitarian message. It ended with what I think of as an appeal to the “average libertarian,” the sort of person who feels strongly against government intrusion in all fields but who might not understand the perverse implications of Rand’s thoughts. Granted, Objectivism is not the same as libertarianism, but the former has provided enough intellectual backing to the latter that I felt the warning worth making.

This was predicated on the idea that most libertarians, regardless of what I thought of the impact of their ideas, really did care about freedom and saw their ideas as key to improving the human condition, in sharp contrast to the message of Atlas Shrugged, that the common good is irrelevant and plutocracy is self-justified. As I looked into libertarianism more and more, in the time since then, I found a number of things that challenged this picture, from statements by libertarians and their fellow travelers to unfortunate implications of libertarian arguments. I have written about them on this blog, but always thought of them as odd flukes, or a few cranks letting slip their darker motives.

At this point, while I still don’t doubt that the majority of people calling themselves “libertarians” have good intentions, I can’t extend this benefit of the doubt the activists and thinkers of the movement any more. Libertarianism is, inherently, nothing more than a defense of plutocracy. Its ideal, the propertarian minarchy, creates the perfect apparatus for the private dictatorial control over everyday life, with the state serving no function but enforcing the will of those with extraordinary economic power by the protection of property rights. It used to be that the idea of liberal democracy as a sham was a leftist or Marxist preoccupation. It was said that this theory justified tyranny since, after all, parliamentary representation is nothing but a bourgeois dictatorship. Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Libertarianism is the radical communism of the 21st century, in that it is a utopian ideology that values certain principles and goals above everyday freedoms and accountable government. And like the communists of the early 20th century, its adherents are either blind to the hellish implications of their ideas, or cynically exploiting the rest for their own ends.

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