“Freedom Industries” and the Freedom of Industries.

Apparently, when most people in my area think about West Virginia, they remember some incident involving a traffic jam. I mostly remember news stories about the trials and tribulations of the people involved in mining the coal that powers our electronic lives: their labor struggles, and the safety disasters which necessitate their struggles. The latest from West Virginia is a chemical spill that affects the drinking water of 100,000 to 300,000 people in the area of Kanawha, WV.

In the midst of this calamity and the human suffering it has unleashed, there is something almost poetic in its sublime rightness: the company responsible is named “Freedom Industries.” Is there any doubt as to what kind of freedom the company’s founders had in mind? If so, this incident is instructive.

Environmental regulators in the state found that the chemical company took “no spill containment measures” to stem the leak, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Regulators say the company violated the Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, the Gazette reported. 

State regulators said Friday that the company never told them of the leak, and found out only after residents complained of a strange smell, according to the State Journal.

Health, safety, and environmental regulations, we are often told, are infringements on freedom. They burden job creators with red tape that holds them back from their glorious pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Under the regime of this freedom, taking no measures to contain spills would be a perfectly legitimate business decision, and there would by no “acts” regulating pollution to violate. Anyone affected by the outcomes of any accidents which result will have recourse to lawsuits to resolve the issue; depending on how serious you are about freedom, it might be resolved by a privately hired arbiter! No conflict of interest, no distortion of justice from unequal wealth, could be imagined here.

Experts say there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days. People across the nine counties were told not to wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to refrain from using tap water — weren’t waiting for outside help.

The “National Guard,” eh, comrade? That sounds like some kind of collectivist use of government force. The inappropriate kind, that is, the kind not applied to bombing people in foreign countries and suppressing the poor. Using collectivist government force to help people? When did I agree to pay for these peoples’ water? There are much freer alternatives, after all: perhaps the people affected could have had a bit more foresight and individually purchased various forms of insurance and personal countermeasures to pay for disaster recovery. I can foresee no problems with them being able to afford this, once the government stops sucking them dry with taxes. Private disaster relief companies will provide much more efficient responses than the bloated government.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who have seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer-protection division.

Who let this Marxist radical into office? Doesn’t he understand the clear benefits of so-called “price gouging,” that is, the market at work? It is the most efficient way of rationing now-scarce resources. Those who cannot afford the new, fairer price of water can presumably just “economize” on their daily basic needs. Perhaps in the future they will have the foresight to devote more of their generous disposable income to stockpiling bottled water. In any case, the higher prices are sure to attract more intrepid suppliers, somehow, at some point. There’s no need for the jackbooted thugs of the “National Guard” to interfere, spending your tax dollars to provide the biological necessities of human life.

To step back from vitriolic polemic, there’s one other thing I think of when someone mentions West Virginia: its long history of labor struggle. With “freedom” like this increasingly on offer, I have a feeling that state might someday shock the country in the best possible way.

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Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

Marriage equality is the issue of the day, and it’s been a really inspiring experience to see an outpouring of support from my friends and relations. Even if I admit to a little cynicism about “Facebook Fads,” it’s probably done real good for LGBQT folks to see so many declaring their solidarity with a simple change of their profile picture. As if in response to this, I’ve seen some novel suggestions from the self-declared sentinels of liberty that the whole issue is a sideshow, because the real government oppression is in granting marriage licenses at all! What to make of this?

The general shape of the argument is that marriage should simply be a personal, religious, and emotional arrangement which the government has no business regulating. Straight, gay, poly or mono, it’s just not the state’s business. The most amusing advancement of this idea I’ve seen, and the most telling, asserted that the government’s only proper role in civil society is to enforce contracts.

How someone can weigh in on an issue with such bold claims and so little knowledge, I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out to these libertines that the government is already “out of the marriage business” in they way they describe. The government will not prevent any church from performing marriage ceremonies. You can take your lover to an oak tree, carve your names on it, do a small dance, and declare yourselves married for all the state cares. That’s not what’s at issue. What is at issue is, exactly, a contract. We care about marriage as a civil right, an institution granting certain legal privileges.

Of course, there isn’t exactly lockstep unity in the gay rights movement about this. On the more radical edge, you will find queer critics of marriage as an oppressive institution, as patriarchal and bourgeois, as a tool of the “straight state” to mold an ideal citizenry, which should be done away with entirely. I can at least see the merits of this critique, and think there’s room for healthy discussion about what marriage even means, or should mean. The major difference between the radical gay rights critique of marriage and the libertarian one is essentially one of nuance: proponents of the former “get it” on a number of levels which proponents of the latter do not. They at least understand what their moderate allies care about.

Those who support marriage equality, by and large, do accept a role for the state in regulating it as a contract. They don’t want the state to “get out of it” because they do want the rights and privileges of marriage legally provided, but provided more equally. The libertarian call for “getting the state out of marriage” is as tone deaf as so many of their stances on “liberty,” and as per usual, is only a superficial veneer of support for civil rights and tolerance. In fact, it effectively cedes the issue to social conservatives. I wish I could say I am surprised at seeing the sentinels of liberty acting as the neoliberal handmaids of a paleoconservative understanding of social relations and “family values,” but it happens far too frequently.

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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A Kind of Freedom

When I think about what it means to be free, I come to the conclusion that I am as free as my choice of experiences and to the extent that I can choose to change my circumstances. In other words, independent choice and agency are freedom, and freedom is a matter of degree. I think this is a useful definition because it’s inclusive: it encompasses the negative liberty concept of “freedom from coercion,” since being credibly threatened reduces my effective options, while accounting for limits to freedom that are not coercive, which are systemic and environmental.

But seeing as it’s a matter of degree, could I determine how free I am? How would I measure it? Is there a unit of freedom, “libertons” maybe? Does anyone study this sort of thing? Are there scientific papers on levels of freedom? It turns out there are, and that unfortunately for me, those who seriously study freedom have a more specific approach. They extend the concept of negative liberties to its ultimate economic, political, and social conclusions, with an emphasis on the role of the government. Political scientists William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, define freedom strictly by how little the government obliges one to do. They’ve taken this standard and applied it to public policy with enough fine-grained precision to rank the fifty states according to how free they are, in their study “Embargoed: Freedom in the 50 States.”

The study’s commitment to defining freedom by the lack of government intervention is actually fairly extreme even from a libertarian standpoint. It seems as if the authors are so intent on denying any other circumstantial limit to freedom that they discard analysis of the one function of government most libertarians will recognize: protection of person and property.

We would also argue that freedom, properly understood, can be threatened as much by the weakness of the state as by overbearing state intervention. Individuals are less free the more they have reason to fear private assaults and depredations, and a useful government punishes private aggression vigorously. However, we focus on threats to individual liberty originating in the state. Therefore, we do not code the effectiveness of state governments in punishing rights violations. -Embargoed, Page 6

Even personal coercion, the use of force or intimidation by one person against another, is not a part of their measurement of freedom unless the aggressor is an agent of the government. While studying government interference in freedom is a valid and interesting pursuit, to rhetorically define government non-interference, and that alone, as “freedom” is actually a deeply problematic standard. On the one hand, it makes sense that, for example, laws banning marijuana or which make it illegal to videotape the police are restrictions on one’s choice of actions, and potentially very severe ones. On the other hand, taxation is a vital part of their understanding of freedom: lower taxes mean more freedom. Again, on the surface, it makes sense that the less money someone has, the more limited are their options. I would never argue that economic circumstances do not constrain agency. But most libertarians are able to make a sort of intellectual “devil’s bargain” here, accepting so much taxation to support an institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which is limited in action to protecting that monopoly. Here there is an implicit recognition that non-legal circumstances constrain freedom: in the authors’ words, “individuals are less free” if they live in fear of violence from other individuals. But this is not actually a part of their measurements, and so freedom from taxation has an asymptotic maximum, no taxes at all, which would be the most free in this respect regardless of one’s personal safety in such a society.

With this complete exclusion of circumstances beyond impositions by the government from their measurement of tyranny, the authors are able to discount any argument that the state is an enabler of freedom by providing positive liberties. This is “compulsory welfare,” presumably as much an imposition on freedom as “compulsory upkeep of public security.” From these premises, what conclusions do we reach about the nature of freedom?

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The Triumph of the Bill: Ayn Rand’s Worst Kept Secret

Last Friday, the long-delayed, nearly fabled, movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged was released, to less than rave reviews. Yet, as Roger Ebert noted, the movie got a four star rating from readers on the internet before it had been publicly released. Rand’s epic clearly has a certain power to fascinate. It’s even ensnared me: as left-leaning as I am, I can’t help having a soft spot for Atlas Shrugged, in the way that bad movie buffs think fondly of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I read it several years ago, and felt as if I had discovered a sort of master codex to the dysfunction of American politics. I’m putting my ideological cards on the table so that the reader will be able to gauge what size grain of salt to take this with, in case the title was not warning enough. If I seem overly biased against the author on ideological grounds, let me say that I think Rand was a competent writer of nonfiction. A very bad storyteller, given the odd placement of a detailed and well-written tract explaining her philosophy near the climax of a novel and unconvincingly passed off as character dialog, but the infamous Galt Speech was serviceable at clearly explaining her ideas.

The issue that brings me to the keyboard today concerns a suspicion I have had ever since reading the Galt Speech, the seed of an insight which grew more and more  plausible as I thought back over the events of the novel. This blooming suspicion cast its shadow beyond the novel the more I read about Ayn Rand, her life and ideas, the much remarked-upon pseudo-cult that formed around Rand in the 1970s, and her adolescent crush on a child killer. These are often treated as “exceptional” items in Rand’s biography, unfortunate extremist phases or passing fancies. I can’t accept these excuses, though. My suspicion is that these episodes are integral to Rand’s entire worldview, in ways unrecognized by most commentators, and probably by Rand herself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that in terms of theme, the only thing separating Atlas Shrugged from The Iron Dream is irony. Ayn Rand was one of the great stifled totalitarian dictators of the 20th century.

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