Note: I don't want to let the title of the following essay lead anyone to believe that I ever had any actual connection to the Project for the New American Century. I just happened to use the PNAC in the role of The Great Neocon Satan...
I was a stooge for the PNAC. Edit
We called ourselves libertarians. We believed in the Second Amendment as well as the First. We believed that freedom of religion included, if we so chose, freedom from religion.
And we believed in the Free Market.
We believed not only because we grew up during the Cold War, with undeniable evidence that Our System was better than Their System, but because we had good teachers. For beginners, there was the mass-marketed Ayn Rand, from whose mistakes we learned even as we embraced the vision of a world in which we could thrive by exchanging our own best efforts for the best efforts of others. There was Milton Friedman, the details of whose advice were best ignored, but who pointed out the unintended consequences of the activist government policies of the post-FDR, post-Keynes era. We had Reason magazine, the Cato Institute, and Laissez-Faire Books to guide us through the end of the Evil Empire to - we dared to hope - the final triumph of the One True Way.
The Austrians - von Mises, Hayek, and their followers - were the real thing. They had avoided Ayn Rand's pseudo-objective idealism to identify consumers' subjective preferences as the ultimate economic driving force. Their analyses showed us where and how the visible hand of government would collide with consumers' wishes to create surpluses, shortages, and general unhappiness. They had rejected mainstream economists' dreams of quantitative predictions, choosing instead to stay at the micro level where human behavior shapes and responds to human institutions, and they understood before almost anyone else that central economic planning could not be made to work.
Our enemy was the State. We were nowhere near any actual political power, and like Noam Chomsky's tribe of left-anarchists, we let ourselves imagine that things would somehow fall together if the Bad Guys were thrown out. We didn't accept the idea that governments had the right to impose taxes on us. We were more concerned with the logical purity of our theories than with the very distant possibility of our actually having to figure out how to hold bandits, warlords, and hostile states at bay, so we tended to ignore the most basic facts about governments and why they existed at all.
My use of the past tense here means only that I no longer identify myself as a libertarian, and not that I see other people moving away from libertarianism. I can still go to the Reason and Cato websites to read about why global warming, oil depletion, and Microsoft's domination of the software industry don't matter. Now, though, I feel liberated by the fact that I can look at the evidence for each of those situations independently rather than treating them all as corollaries of the big truth that The Market Can Do No Wrong. I have no idea how to disentangle the human role in climate change from the natural evolution of the planet's weather, and I distrust anyone offering simple and definite answers to those questions. My concerns about the undeniable end of the era of cheap oil may yield to facts, but I can no longer accept "the market will provide" as an argument against the theory that energy shortages will lead to increasingly severe economic effects. (As a computer geek, I never did pay much attention to claims that Microsoft couldn't possibly behave like a monopoly.)
The libertarians, as doctrinaire cheerleaders for so-called free-market capitalism, are significant only as stooges for the neo-conservatives. I was a stooge for the PNAC.
Why did I stay in the libertarian camp for two decades? Like any Marxist or Freudian, I enjoyed having one theory that could answer all questions. Like the Cato essayists, I reinforced my beliefs by moving quickly past inconvenient facts while remaining focused on what I imagined to be bigger truths.
Why did I move on? Because the Free Market, useful as it is in economic thought experiments, doesn't exist. The coercive power that exists in real markets is neither accidental nor the arbitrary product of "evil" politicians. This became obvious to me as I examined the nature and consequences of "intellectual property" laws in the software and entertainment industries. Patent and copyright legislation is never guided by abstract principles or concern for the public interest. Laws are created by lawyers and lobbyists hired by the industries they affect, and then delivered to Congress by well-compensated Senators and Representatives. The rules of the "intellectual property" game exist solely to promote corporate interests.
Having once stepped beyond the idea of the self-regulating free market, I then saw that the American-style corporation was itself the product of a particular kind of legal system with a particular set of goals. The laws under which corporations are created assign a particular set of rights and responsibilities to each category of stakeholder. Independent voluntary action can't create an enterprise that can go bankrupt or be convicted of a crime without passing those consequences on to its owners. Only law can do that. And if law can do that in a democracy, then the whole bundle of roles, duties, and privileges ought to be modifiable by the democratic process. Must a corporation inevitably be a totally undemocratic obey-or-leave hierarchy? Shouldn't a democracy at least have the power to examine such questions?
To regard a corporation as a person-like entity with "rights" of its own, familiar though that is, is neither necessary, nor, in many cases, even reasonable. Any human being has a complex set of values and can be influenced in a variety of ways. A corporation values exactly one thing - its bottom line. It will voluntarily abandon profitable activities only to concentrate on more profitable activities. When libertarians oppose government regulation of corporations in the name of freedom, but view corporate property rights as absolute, they are calling for a system that defends investors' interests against all possible claims of employees, customers, suppliers, and communities.
This brings us back to such groups as the Project for the New American Century, which want exactly that: a world ruled by an American financial and managerial elite that holds political power and economic power in the same set of hands. We stooges have been ignoring the power of wealth, mumbling about the foolishness of of trying to undo what a free market has done, while the PNAC and the Democrats' Trilateral Commission ensure that freedom never interferes with the plans of the ruling elite. We need to shut up and take a good look at how the world really works.
Where do we go from here? Certainly not to Great Society "liberalism", Stalinist central planning, or New Left utopianism. There's no theory to guide us toward a system that human beings can't screw up, nor any reason to imagine that we're finally about to invent one. There's no constitution or governmental machinery that can't be rigged to serve some people's ends at the expense of others. The American "Founding Fathers" did a good job of balancing freedom against democracy and installing checks and balances at all levels, but they did that a very long time ago. Their system no longer works. Unfortunately, it will probably be replaced only on the other side of an economic and social calamity - which is likely to arrive sooner than we think.