Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ron Paul and the Downsizing of Freedom

Yesterday I received the great news that I have been offered the job I consider my “dream” job. It’s a welcome (if a little scary) departure from the direct services/ program development I’ve been involved with for the last fifteen years, but I am totally psyched. Truth be told, I’ve been burned out on the services side, it just takes too much out of you. Now, I’ll be able to concentrate on research and social policy advocacy that can have a systemic impact.

On another note, the offer couldn’t have come at a better time, as my financial situation had reached critical stage about a month ago… Yes!

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We’re all Austrians now…
 -- Ron Paul, during post-Iowa Caucus speech

Much has been written about Ron Paul’s “honesty” and adherence to libertarian ideology since he has surged (somewhat) in the reality show/ clown care debacle also known as the Republican Primary. Paul is kookier than a Laoruche fan on crack, but that doesn’t mean shit these days. Two major influences on Paul are Ayn Rand, the cult figure, former Hollywood hack-turned-novelist, and Austrian economist, Frederick von Hayek. American libertarianism would be unthinkable without Ayn Rand’s influence. Even an establishment conservative like Rush Limbaugh has occasionally shown signs of having been influenced by Rand’s ideas, albeit indirectly, through second or third-hand sources. His attempt to defend the “greed” of the eighties borrows heavily from Rand. Before Rand, only a handful of iconoclasts and other eccentrics would have dared defend greed in public.

Rand’s followers, who often come off as cultists (as do Ron Paul fanatics) attempt to paint her philosophy as grounded in logic and reason, but nothing could be further from the truth. Her understanding of the mechanics of the human brain, or the role of emotions, for example, has nothing to do with modern science or empirical research.

When I was growing up, reading Alisa Zino’yevna (aka Ayn Rand) was almost a family tradition. It was necessary reading in our household. My father would often give each one of us something to read and then we would have to discuss it critically. He also encouraged me to read Walt Whitman and other American transcendentalists -- which was probably the antithesis of Rand’s “objectivism.” Looking back, I see he was trying to show me how to think critically -- how to hold two opposing ideas at once and come away with something of value and original.

I think Rand appeals to young people because it is a philosophy mired in the lower levels of moral reasoning. It appeals to young people because it addresses an immature, self-centered slice of life. In fact, previous posts of mine have been a refutation of Rand’s “philosophy.” Her epistemology has been taken apart by others, no need to revisit that here. I mention Rand today because she connects to the first part of my series on the history of humankind’s struggle to define freedom.

By the 1950s, both fascism and its antithesis, communism, had redefined freedom, but largely failed to deliver anything resembling freedom when implemented by the likes of Stalin and Mussolini. A ramped up Cold War with the Soviet Union was being waged and the biggest thing then was the Red Scare (communists were the Muslims in the 1950s) and the threat of nuclear war. Unbelievably, people were actually buying “bunkers” to protect themselves from radioactive fallout in those days. Today, we’re bombing innocent people in bunkers in far off lands.

In the 1950s, both Rand and Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek proposed a new vision of freedom. Their freedom was more of a negative type freedom. They asserted that self-interest controlled all human behavior, and the only true measure of what was best for individuals were their belongings or what they were attempting to accumulate. This “market” of getting and hoarding, acted out simultaneously by millions of people in a society as complex and huge as the United States, for example, produced hundreds of millions of individual “decisions” every moment. Hayek suggested there existed a force of nature, the product and consequences of all these individual buying and selling behaviors, which he called the “free market.” At the same time, Ayn Rand’s hugely popular novels, the Fountainhead and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, championed a philosophy of greed and an enlightened self-interest similar to von Hayek’s.

Freedom was being redefined.

Instead of being a collaborative effort, the result of a society working together to provide for the basic needs of the individual, the family, and society, freedom was now being reconceptualized as the individual’s ability and right to act in his or her total freedom for selfish self-fulfillment, regardless of the consequences to others (within certain limitations). Freedom was a negative force in the worldview of von Hayek, his student Milton Friedman (father of the Chicago School of libertarian economics), and Ayn Rand’s objectivism. This freedom was more of a freedom “from” than a freedom “to”: freedom from social obligation, freedom from taxation; freedom from government assistance or protection (now perceived as “interference” or “serfdom”); freedom to consider one’s needs and wants, because if each individual followed his selfish desires, the mass of individuals acting in concert in a “free market” would result in a utopia.

Shades of Thomas Friedman! The world is flat, burn the fuckin’ olive tree and hock the goddamned Lexus!

This vision claims to be the true vision of a free world. Its creators claimed that a world where government limited nothing but violence and all markets were free -- market here meaning the behavior of individuals or collectives of individuals (corporations) -- had never before been attempted. Their opponents, progressives and liberals, pointed out that their system had in fact been tried many times throughout history, and was the history of every civilization of the most chaotic eras (feudal times comes to mind). Lacking a true social contract and interdependence, these societies were characterized by physical and economic violence. In this social schematic, those most willing and able to plunder would rise to the top of the economic heap. In the past, they were rightfully called robber barons and today are diagnosed as sociopaths.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, think tanks funded by wealthy individuals and multinational corporations joined forces with subservient politicians to win the “battle of ideas.” Greed, combined with a blind belief in free markets, was their dogma. This movement brought into power both the feeble-minded Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Reagan would oversee the greatest redistribution of wealth and the destruction of Labor. Both Thatcher and Reagan would turn government into a force against labor, both busting powerful unions in their respective countries. Both “freed” markets by dropping tariffs and undoing regulations. In both instances, industry fled both countries, to wherever labor was cheapest, and the middle class was rudely bent over and fucked without so much as a kiss.

This new economic religion would be put into operation in Chile with disastrous results. Poverty and wealth gaps would increase dramatically and the privatization of the social security system threw even more people into abject poverty. Of course, a few bankers, industrialists, and politicians became wealthy.

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys,” not satisfied with the failures their policies created in Chile, would apply this system with equally disastrous results in Russia. Undaunted and in need of a new country to experiment on, they found a series of willing dupes starting with the inept Ronald Reagan on through to George W. Bush, whose entire cabinet was made up of people who shared the von Hayek/ Rand worldview. The result, as we all have seen, has been a failure of historic proportions. Well-paying jobs were replaced with jobs whose only requirement was that workers ask the question, “Do you want fries with that?”and with social mobility dropping and wealth gaps increasing to levels not seen for over a hundred years.

This is where we are living today and there are people still demanding we continue on this road to serfdom.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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