Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Constitution, Cato and the Kochs: One Libertarian's Journey to Disillusionment

This post was inspired by discussion with some of my young friends overseas who dream of coming to America, “the land of opportunity,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “with liberty and justice for all,” a nation based on Equality from its very beginnings, a place where any hard-working person can succeed.  I once believed all that, too, when I was young.  The only difference is, I have actually lived here for 51 years.  I love my country.  America is certainly one of the best places on earth and I am sure it compares very favorably to any third-world nation assuming, that is, that we don’t become a third-world nation ourselves, which is liable to happen if current trends continue and if our GOP Congress successfully implements their policies, which I once supported.

Our conversation began when I posted an article revealing that we now have many more empty houses in America than we do homeless people, of whom there are 3.5 million including, to our great shame, many military veterans who defended our country at the cost of limbs and PTSD, who upon returning from overseas, found themselves homeless and without medical care.  I was subsequently accused of being un-American or unpatriotic for daring to suggest that our wonderful country is less than perfect.

My accuser is a very bright and enthusiastic young man whose goal is to become an American citizen and serve in the Marine Corps, and I very much hope he will succeed in so doing!  In fact, I offered to write him a letter of recommendation.  I am from a military family myself and a member of the American Legion.  My young friend and I have some other things in common.  For one, we are both citizens of former colonies that had to fight for our independence from Great Britain.  Additionally, and rather coincidental to this discussion, we both attended college programs funded by the Koch Foundation, where we received a rather one-sided perspective on American politics and economics.  And like him, in my youth I believed in their claims whole-heartedly. 

By now it should not be a huge shock to most people who know me, that my voter ID card says “Libertarian” on it.  It was kind of my dirty little secret, until I blogged about it quite a bit over the last few years.  I refer the interested reader to these links which explain more about what happened and how I became disillusioned:

The Republicans Have Hijacked Libertarianism, wherein I discuss the utopian vision of my youth and how it has very little in common with what is called “Libertarian” today.

Why I Am Not Thrilled with Government, where I describe how, as a tax-paying citizen and owner of several [failed] small businesses, government regulation has had a negative impact on my ability to make a living and for the most part, social programs have not provided any help when I needed it.

A Liberal Libertarian, in which I discuss, “Clearly there is no way to get to my Ideal World from the Real World.”

But why a “dirty little secret”?  I was once proud to call myself  “Libertarian”!  In short, “Libertarianism” today has been taken over by the Tea Party, whereas when I joined as a teenager, I shared the views of Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman and Noam Chomsky.  Of course, I also read Ayn Rand (obligatory for Libertarians), but while I enjoyed her books, even as a child I sensed that she was a rather disturbed individual and not someone I would choose as a role model.

In any event, what attracted me about libertarian philosophy was one thing:  Freedom!  The liberty of all men and women to live our lives as we please, so long as we do not harm anyone else, including, but not limited to, what business we may conduct in the free marketplace, what jobs we can have, whom we may marry, and very importantly, bodily autonomy including whether, when and with whom we will choose to have children, or even what types of plants, medicine, food or drinks we may ingest.  

It was my passionate commitment to freedom and the 13th amendment that led to my giving a speech at a rally against the draft in Honolulu in 1980 when I said on national television, “While it is important to defend our nation against foreign enemies which would seek to conquer us, we must also be vigilant to prevent the rise of tyranny from within.  If we enslave our own citizens, what is left for us to defend?”  I also knew, being a military brat, that an all-volunteer army has better morale and is a more efficient fighting force, but that is beside the ideological principle.

My opposition to involuntary servitude likewise motivated me more recently to become involved in reproductive rights.  I had believed in my youth that this was already accomplished, but it has since come under attack from the same politicians who most loudly proclaim their defense of freedom and private property, except when it involves a woman’s sovereignty over her own body.  One of the things that made me really question the Libertarian Party was when I discovered a group called, “Pro-Choice Libertarians,” which was founded in 1987, and I wondered why on earth such a group would need to exist.   Isn’t “choice,” after all, essential to the definition of “Libertarian” or, for that matter, “American”?!

Well, maybe not; at least, not in the beginning.  And this is where we must take a closer look at the doctrines we hold so dear and assume we know what they mean, or once meant.  Everyone loves to quote from the Declaration of Independence:  

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  

The problem is, when Jefferson wrote “all men” he clearly did not mean “all,” because he, like several other Founders, owned slaves.  What the phrase really meant at that time was “all white male land owners.”  It did not include Africans, Indians, or even the Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims survive their first year here, and women, of course, also were not included.  I and my friends who were discussing these unalienable rights would not qualify for them!  While the principle of Equality was there from the start, its actualization only happened recently in history.  Slavery officially ended in 1865, Black men got the right to vote in 1870 and their full civil rights in 1964, while women were not able to vote until 1920, and in 2014 our Equal Rights Amendment has not yet been approved by Congress.  America is still growing into her full potential.  Our Founders’ vision of Equality, Liberty and Justice for all is a work in progress.

So, how did we get here today where, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, 3.5 million people are homeless while 18,600,000 houses are empty, and many people working full-time need government assistance to feed their families?

Many people mistakenly blame our economic situation on Mr. Obama.  Although the President has many talents, time travel is not one of them, and the collapse of our economy occurred in 2007, the year before he was elected.  Other people are quick to blame President George Bush Jr., because the expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a huge deficit, the economy was sluggish during his administration, and many of our jobs were sent overseas.  But Mr. Bush did not start this problem, either.  Rather, it all began 20 years earlier during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, whose economic advisors, including Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, convinced him to cut taxes on the rich and deregulate the banks and corporations.  The theory behind this policy was that the Market could be trusted to ensure that businesses would prosper, jobs would be created, and the wealth would “trickle down” to benefit everyone, not just the rich.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work.  Or rather, it worked extremely well, but only for the wealthiest 1% of Americans.  Over the next 30 years the wealth “trickled up,” making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class increasingly poor.  But, to be fair, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and Reagan had no way of knowing what would happen.

Now, I realize I will be attacked as stupid and naïve for saying that.  Most liberals like to paint Reagan as an evil, heartless man who purposely instigated the destruction of the middle class.  I, however, liked President Reagan.  My impression of him at the time was that he was a warm, caring person who genuinely meant well.  I prefer to believe that he was sincerely convinced those economic policies would work.  He, being a generous person, naively assumed that the wealthy CEOs of the major corporations would do the right thing, investing their wealth wisely for the benefit of the whole country.  Instead it mostly went into their pockets.  How was he to know?  Unlike our current President, Mr. Reagan was not a constitutional scholar.  He was a Hollywood actor who became Governor of California not because of his economic or political knowledge, but rather, his charm.  As President, he believed what his trusted advisors told him.

I am not sure that President Bush Jr. can be given the same benefit of the doubt, since by the time he was elected in 2000, the effect of 20 years of Reaganomics should have started to be noticeable.  Or, some would argue, it was noticeably beneficial to all of his very wealthy friends in banking and industry and therefore he chose to continue those same policies, which likewise were being promoted ever more vigorously by the Republicans in Congress.  Meanwhile, wages for 99% of Americans had been steadily falling since the 1980s relative to the cost of living, despite worker productivity and corporate profits being at an all-time high. 

In any event, deregulation of the banks led to unwise (some would say, "predatory") lending practices in which people were given loans that they were unable to pay back, and the banks would then foreclose and take their homes.  At the same time, the unregulated stock market was having huge success selling “derivatives,” a complicated sort of gambling whereby investors could make money on the sub-prime mortgage loans in a manner which I do not fully understand, and as with all gambling, a “winning streak” cannot last forever.  At some point in 2007 it all came crashing down, the banks and corporations began to fall like dominoes, and the stock market plummeted. 

That was not supposed to happen, according to what I learned at my Libertarian college summer school at the Cato Institute, which the Koch Foundation had given me a generous scholarship to attend.  The students were told that free market capitalism was essential to our constitutional freedoms, and that the government should never interfere.  The Market was something almost sacred which, if left alone, was self-regulating and could be completely trusted to provide the best possible outcome for everyone.  Therefore, regulation of banks and industry, and labor laws like the minimum wage and overtime pay were “un-American” and dangerous to Liberty.  This is the belief still promoted by the Koch Foundation and the GOP – not because it is true, but because it advances their agenda of corporate control over America.  Contrary to what we were told, deregulating Big Business over the last 30 years did not result in prosperity for most Americans; it was a catastrophe for 99% of us. 

While my favorite Libertarian, Dr. Mary Ruwart, describes in glowing terms how a truly free market would create jobs and opportunity and wealth for everyone, unfortunately we can’t get there from here.  There is no “free market” in America because the playing field is not even close to being level, and the game is already rigged to prevent competition.  I am quite sure this is not what our Founders intended, and it is the key point where I differ from "libertarian" philosophy as it is commonly presented today.

The word “Libertarian” as adopted by the GOP has come to mean the liberty of corporations to exploit peoples’ labor and rip us off to the fullest extent possible.  These faux “libertarians” who want to deregulate the banks and industry are perfectly happy to regulate the hell out of ordinary citizens in our own bedrooms and small business owners in our attempts to compete with Big Business.  That is why they support the Citizens United ruling which awarded “personhood” to corporations and equated money with “free speech,” thereby essentially handing over our elections to them.  This collusion of government and industry, i.e. fascism, is the opposite of liberty! 

In 2008, with an epidemic of people losing their homes in the wake of the stock market crash, the government stepped in to save the tanking economy, offering bailouts.  The GOP supported the bailouts as a necessary response to the emergency situation.  But, the bailouts were not given to the citizens who had lost their homes and their retirement, or people drowning in debt from high-interest student loans or credit cards, or those bankrupted by medical bills.  Family farms and small businesses were not eligible for help.  No, not a penny of the bailouts went to the American people.  Rather, the money was given to the same banks which had issued the bad loans, foreclosed and taken the peoples’ homes, and gambled with their derivatives, and to the insurance companies who had either refused to insure them, or else collected their premiums and then failed to pay the claims.

Because of my belief in the Constitution and the principle of Liberty, I supported Gary Johnson in the last election.  This was despite my affection for Barry Obama, with whom I attended high school in Hawaii and who I think has done an amazing job in the face of continual opposition from Congress.  Unbelievably, the GOP treason went so far as to shut down the government, including suspending pay for our active duty military, in protest of the Affordable Care Act because they did not want the American people to have the same health insurance that they enjoy, which our tax dollars paid for!  The President finally wrangled an agreement with Congress so that our military personnel could pay their rent and feed their families.  Since then Congress has agreed to hardly anything.

Anyway, while I respect Mr. Obama, Gary Johnson was the only candidate in the race with the balls to openly state in his platform that he would oppose “crony capitalism,” another name for fascism.  He also was the only candidate to fully support bodily autonomy, equal rights for all Americans including LGBT, and the legalization of cannabis, which our Founders grew and is now illegal in most states, primarily due to the pharmaceutical industry lobby.  Interestingly, while David Koch once ran as Libertarian VP and has funded many campaigns, he did not donate to Gary Johnson, on the basis that Gary was “too extreme” in his support of personal liberty!

Our Constitution states:
“We the People of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

While I still believe in the Libertarian principle that the primary function of government is “to prevent force and fraud,” over time I have come to a broader understanding of those terms which recommends government intervention to a greater extent than I once thought necessary.  The “free market” sounds good in theory, but what happens when unrestrained capitalism is unjust, upsets domestic Tranquility, fails to provide for the common defense, damages the general Welfare, and conflicts with the Liberty of individual citizens and their right to private property?  If it comes down to a choice between capitalism and the broader principle of the Constitution itself, which is to protect our country and its people, then I must choose the Constitution.

The sort of “liberty” advocated by the Kochs and the GOP is the freedom of citizens to be mercilessly exploited by the banks, insurance companies and corporations, to work long hours at low wages insufficient for survival, to be sent to war and then cast off like damaged goods, to become homeless, to starve, or to die from lack of medical care.  Conservatives obsess over the “free market,” which is not actually mentioned (only implied) in the Constitution, while completely ignoring the “promote the general Welfare” part.  That is because they are doing the bidding of their corporate masters.  Congress does not represent us, the ordinary working people whose taxes pay their salaries and provide them with generous benefits including the best health care available.  They represent the billionaire donors who have paid for their election, made easier by the Citizens United ruling. 

Our Founders came to the new world for Liberty.  They fought a war for independence from Britain motivated in part by “taxation without representation,” as well as their opposition to the monopoly of the East India Company, the “crony capitalism” of its day.  The current policies supported by the GOP and promoted by the Koch Foundation would turn Big Business loose to devour America and take away all the protections that our citizens have enjoyed.  This has been made possible by unlimited campaign financing and laws enacted to take away our representation and hand it over to the corporations, all in the name of so-called “constitutional liberty.”  The Constitution was written to define and limit government in order to guarantee the rights and liberties of the American people, not the multinational corporations.   

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