October 15, 2017

BENITEZ | Rejecting Libertarian Intuition

Print More

At the end of Ayn Rand’s dystopian novella Anthem, the story’s protagonist, escaping an oppressive society in which everything from technological progress to reproduction is centrally-planned, retreats to distant mountains where he happens upon a series of texts from the early 20th Century. In them, he re-encounters the word “I,” and hence reclaims his agency after having been brainwashed from birth to not use such first-person language.

Putting aside whether our ability to perceive of ourselves as distinct, first-person entities can be so fundamentally altered by a change in language, Anthem has stood out as an effective encapsulation of the intuitions fundamental to political libertarianism. Chief among them is advocacy of minimal governance from a belief that society is bettered by unleashed individualism. Indeed, the political libertarian holds a series of admittedly-consistent notions pertaining to all levels of society: in the “micro” by holding steadfast to the tenet that no one can understand the ideal trajectory of your own happiness better than you; and in the “macro” by believing that the interactions between these self-aware individuals can most fairly and justly optimize the productivity and welfare of the population as a whole.

I suspect, as someone who formerly held deep-rooted beliefs that leaned libertarian, that most would find this “micro” belief in ourselves as the best suited to direct our individual happiness appealing as we experience adulthood for the first time. It’s a belief that attracts because it appeals to the desire to “break free” of the paternalism that had guided all of our lives up until a certain point, and it isn’t something that can be easily refuted.

However, while this foundational belief might hold merit, those broader, political beliefs that are derived from it aren’t nearly as sound. A belief in the freest of markets as a perfectly effective arbitrator of just desserts, perhaps the less empirically-supported of libertarian political views, requires one to accept that, say, the current distribution of wealth directly corresponds to what is fair. And most of us, hopefully, recognize from our varying interpersonal relations that this is not true. This probably most-clearly occurred to me from watching a 2012 Princeton commencement address given by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short, among other books.

With light-hearted candor, he identified how much of his own professional success is simply ascribable to luck: the opportunity to write his first book, Liar’s Poker, depended on him being at a certain dinner party, otherwise known as “the right place at the right time.” And indeed, the fruits that we reap are often causally-determined by factors beyond our control. Even the notion that one’s success is deserved because of their relative diligence or intelligence appears less equitable when in light of the extent to which these “virtues” are shaped by either social conditioning, whether it be the way we were raised or the company that we keep, or biological factors determined by the fortune of birth. The grand irony is that this libertarian metanarrative frequently contradicts the biographies of the world’s most prominent libertarians. The Koch Brothers, whose dogmatic faith in the free market appears to be what drives their unrelenting support of policies that further enrich the nation’s wealthy, literally need not look any further than their own privileged, inherited biographies for a startling contradiction to the meritocratic assumptions of political libertarianism.

The question that then arises in response to this problem is whether or not the existing distribution of wealth ought to at least be re-configured via governmental policies that, to the best of their ability, attempt to address the growing inequality in this nation. Setting aside the nobility of his charitable giving, it should bother us that we inhabit a world where Bill Gates is 621,678 times wealthier, and, according to the way we conceive of value under our economic system, 621,678 times more important, to society than the average American household. Such value judgements don’t appeal nearly as much to our innate humanism when expressed in such a way, and yet such recontextualization uncovers how interpersonal relationships have become transactionally-perverted by how productivity is now organized, both intra- and internationally.

It’s fascinating to now consider my previous attitudes that held the preservation of individual liberty as paramount. Anthem, which I admit was my first and last exposure to Rand’s writing, ends with Prometheus, the protagonist’s adopted name, free from the shackles of community, leaving us to assume that what awaits him is some libertarian, mountainside Eden. Because we’re a species with a unique capacity to grow our empathy through knowing the injustice and inequality experienced by others, I’m skeptical that the future awaiting Prometheus is necessarily a happier one.


Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Not a Cop appears alternating Mondays this semester. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com.