Nothing illustrates the impoverishment of political discourse in the United States today than the emergence of U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as potential GOP presidential candidates, both of whom have expressed support for libertarian political ideas.
As a political movement, libertarianism in the United States traces its ancestry to the writings of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman who urged a return to the ideas of classical liberalism with its emphasis upon extreme anti-social individualism, negative freedom, individual rights, protection of private property, the inviolability of contacts, minimal government and laissez-faire economics. In its American expression, classical liberalism owes its inspiration to an extremely selective emphasis upon a number of ideas expressed in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume and David Ricardo, as their ideas were extrapolated and applied to the American political experience by Jefferson, Madsion, Adams and others.
When Ted Cruz first ran for the United States Senate, he professed to be an advocate of limited government, states' rights, an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, and hostility to government regulation of the economy. Cruz's support for libertarian ideas and his antipathy to government regulation of the economy date back to his early adolescence when, reportedly at the age of thirteen, his father enrolled him in an entity called "the Free Market Education Foundation." In that study group, which apparently was organized in manner somewhat similar to early twentieth century Marxist indoctrination groups, Cruz was schooled in the "free-market" ideologies of economic philosophers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
In a similar vein, Rand Paul, son of the former Republican Congressman and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul describes himself as a libertarian. As a U.S. Senator, he has expressed support for term limits for Congress, a balanced budget amendment, and extensive reductions in federal taxation, and spending, especially as the latter relates to helping the poorest among us.
As one example, in 2012, Senator Paul advocated substantially reducing the food stamp program because of the various wastes and fraudulent activities that have been perpetrated by some of its users. "We do not have an endless supply of money. I think that Americans would be just flabbergasted at the amount of money and some of these programs are duplicative so people getting food stamps for a meal are also getting a free lunch at school. Some of these programs were actually advertising for applicants," he said. "In my hometown they advertised to try to promote to get people to come in and eat the free lunch during the summer time. It's not that we won't help people, we just need to be conscious of how much money we have and can we help only those who cannot help themselves?"
There are important questions that need to be asked of both of these Senators and of libertarians in general, but that are rarely, if ever, raised in the mainstream media. Are their ideas desirable or workable? Would families in the United States be better or worse off government regulation, including environmental and safety laws, food and drug laws, anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws, and labor laws, all already weak by European standards, were further relaxed and government taxation and regulation of businesses and corporations was substantially curtailed?
The evidence of the last forty plus years in which government regulation of the economy has been rolled back, while the wages of employees have continued to decline and as the U.S. became a net debtor, service economy in which corporations, in the name of freed trade, outsourced almost all of this country's manufacturing capacity, suggests otherwise.
All of the grim economic news that continues to hobble the U.S. economy confirms one of the central paradoxes of libertarian political philosophy as it plays out in the liberal democracy of the United States: the inability of that ideology to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of self-interest and equality. If self-interest, as expressed in the pursuit and acquisition of property, is a natural right since, as Locke put it, "God gave it to the use of the industrious and the rational (and labour was to be his title to it)" and the primary role of government is the protection of that property, isn't it inevitable that, over the span of generations, because of the complicity in not protecting such inheritances, and because of social and genetic distinctions among "the industrious and the rational" and those who are not, inequality will increase?
The magnitude and the duration of the existing economic crisis raises other questions that libertarians and classical liberal ideology --and the latter's economic expression, market capitalism--cannot answer. Of what value is the meaning of individualism to most individuals if, in the competitive roulette of "survival of the fittest," the fit and the victors increasingly number only a few, while a significant number of the population are vanquished or declared to be unfit?
Isn't the pursuit of self-interest by individuals, each of whom is in competition with all others, self-defeating? Doesn't unfettered competition often have deleterious effects upon the public interest? Isn't it an economic fact of life that, in a market economy, individual actors--whether human beings, corporations or governmental units--seek to maximize their advantages and to minimize their risks in a capitalist economy? Isn't it also true that, when each actor "hunkers down" during an economic crisis, the self-replicating behavior--as reflected in job losses, withdrawal of investment and the collapse of consumer demand--ripples through the economy to the detriment of all but the few, most fortunate? Doesn't that behavior then exacerbate the very problems that individual actors seek to inoculate themselves against, the public consequences of their behavior be damned? At that point, doesn't Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons become rather than a parable, an empirical reality?
Doesn't even Locke's concept of negative freedom--because it does not provide for an economic underpinning--become, especially in times of economic misery, a platitude or a meaningless abstraction?
The historian Thomas Franks has expressed his suspicions about the reasons why libertarian ideas have been able to insinuate themselves so prominently into the public square, "Libertarianism," he argues, "helps conservatives pass off a patently probusiness political agenda as a noble bid for human freedom. Whatever we may think of libertarianism as a set of ideas, practically speaking, it is a doctrine that owes its visibility to the obvious charms it holds for the wealthy and the powerful. The reason we have so many well-funded libertarians in American these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grassroots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas. Like social Darwinism and Christian Science before it, libertarianism flatters the successful and rationalizes their core beliefs about the world. They warm to the libertarian idea that taxation is theft because they themselves don't like to pay taxes. They fancy the libertarian notion that regulation is communist because they themselves find regulation intrusive and annoying."
Franks' suspicion that, aside from protecting and promoting economic self-interests, libertarians are not really concerned about freedom for ordinary people is exemplified by Rand Paul's unqualified endorsement of government intrusion into the bedrooms of Americans and his support for the micro-regulation of every woman's uterus. His website proudly proclaims, "I am 100% pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being. It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution. For this reason, I introduced S. 583, the Life at Conception Act on March 14, 2013. This bill would extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception."
Ted Cruz insists that he, too, is "pro-life," and that the only exception to abortion that he would allow is when a pregnancy endangers the mother's life; and he opposes same-sex marriage, professing his belief that marriage is "between one man and one woman."
The late Christopher Hitchens once observed, "I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough."
The irony is that self-proclaimed libertarians such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have entered into Faustian bargains with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which they have agreed to support the most selfish agendas of the economic elite, no matter how short-sighted, destructive or harmful such policies may be to the immediate and long-term best interests of the constituents they claim to actually represent or to the public interest. Their hypocrisy and illogic speak volumes about their qualifications for public office and are a sad commentary on the intelligence of the voters of Kentucky and Texas to whom they pandered so successfully.