Friday, October 19, 2012

Libertarian or just bourgeois?

Some of my students like to engage in political sparring with me, especially during the election season. And, since they tend to assume I'm a far-left liberal—they tend to have a very skewed idea of what my views actually are—they like to try out right-wing or libertarian or conservative arguments on me.

One quite intelligent student, who wears campaign shirts to class every day and self-identifies as a libertarian, was talking to me about the various propositions on the ballot in California this year and asking me what my vote would be on several of them. I told him my general dislike of propositions, because of the way they lead to inconsistent legislation, the writing of legislation by interest groups, and because of the way they allow the Legislature to avoid dealing with any hard issues, the very job for which they are paid.

So, he asked me in particular what my vote would be on California's Prop 34, a measure intended to effectively repeal the death penalty. I told him I would probably vote for that one, because I'm opposed on practical, though not clearly theoretical, grounds to capital punishment. And, I threw in, that I am also opposed to the three-strikes law that California enacted through the proposition system.

He seemed amazed that I would be opposed to the three-strikes law and the death penalty. I told him that, apart from the fact that the three-strikes initiative was bankrolled by the Prison Guards' Union whose members have a financial interest in longer sentences—and, he had just told me how unions have too much influence in society—I have little faith in the police or the courts or prosecutors and certainly not enough faith in them to allow them to take lives. He seemed to find this surprising. And, then I realized, he isn't really a libertarian at all. Like many anti-government Americans, he doesn't like government when it interferes in his life in any way, but the idea that government is corrupt in those instances never bleeds over to the idea that it might be corrupt in its exercise of the police power or military adventures.

Not unlike the common belief in some circles of socialism for business and libertarianism for the individual, there is a theoretical inversion with the same result: libertarianism for the middle and upper classes and authoritarianism for the poor and delinquent and the foreign. But that's just to say, that too many of our political commitments are nothing more than rationalizations for whatever we think will benefit ourselves.