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Resisting the ‘foolish consistency’ of libertarians and communists

Date Published: 05/31/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


Watching the takeover of the once diverse and progressive Minnesota Republican Party by libertarian Ron Paul zealots reminds me of the war stories about our state’s politics in the 1940s. That’s when communists and extreme leftists in the fledgling Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party were on the rise but were chased out by DFL founders such as Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey.

Under the national leadership of Democrats like Humphrey (who became a U.S. senator and vice president and a leading liberal civil rights hero) and Republicans like President Ronald Reagan (a conservative hero), the international communist movement was defeated, after enormous brutality and the loss of millions of lives and lots of U.S. tax dollars.

Hard experience with this extremist experiment created a world consensus that 100 percent top-down control of an economy was just too much for the state, that humans actually needed to pursue their own self-interest and function in open markets and with democratic governments and competing political parties. Now almost nobody buys the once-seductive promise of perfectly equal economic outcomes under an all-powerful state that takes everything, redistributes it equally and tolerates no dissent. Cuba and North Korea still hold on, but mega-power China long ago went down the capitalist road, and obviously still needs to work on democracy.

But now comes another kind of extremist seducer, this libertarian dogma that “freedom” and minimal government — coupled with headlong pursuit of self-interest and profit — are actually the only important policy principles. These libertarians offer an alluring dream of a totally voluntary society, taxes cut to nearly nothing, minimal obligation to any government or anybody else, all things private all the time or a new “morality of freedom” in the words of syndicated talk show host Jason Lewis in last Sunday’s Star Tribune.

Libertarians are revolutionary, and some in their ranks even say that community and governments and taxes at their current levels are basically illegitimate. Some of their hotter heads mutter darkly about secession, taking up arms or watering the tree of liberty with blood, borrowing from Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote.

As Stephen B. Young, a Minnesota leader and advocate for a more humane capitalism, explained in an intriguing essay in the same Star Tribune presentation, this new siren song is not new at all. Young argues that it’s really a warmed-over version of 19th century Gilded Age capitalism and survival-of-the-fittest social Darwinism. This philosophy held sway over our emerging democracies and industrial revolution for a long time and produced such degrading inequalities that it also spawned, you guessed it, communism.

Many gradations exist within the libertarian fan base for Texas Congressman Paul, and assuredly many libertarians do not actually want zero government, only continued movement toward that end. But as they rise in influence within the GOP, it’s important to start taking seriously their stated goals of a paradisiacal voluntary society.

If you think I’m overstating libertarian goals, you should be aware that Grover Norquist, very much the dominant intellectual force for today’s anti-government policy influencers, has said that the total federal-state-local tax rate ought to be cut in half, and then in half again by the middle of this century. For an up-close verbatim description of his chillingly harsh worldview, and how it hasn’t changed since he was 12 years old, you can’t do better than the CBS News transcript of his “60 Minutes” interview last fall.

Norquist’s tax-burden goal would reduce the total percentage we invest in public goods — colleges and schools, hospitals, Social Security and Medicare, highways, armed forces, police and courts — to a 19th century level of less than 10 percent. And yes, that means those fundamental civilizing goods and services would simply be gone, or be put in private hands, and therefore dispensed disproportionately to those with the means to afford them. (The current total tax obligation in the U.S. economy hovers around 30 to 35 percent, among the lowest percentages in wealthy democracies.)

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, the last governor to get more than 50 percent of the vote in Minnesota, has described the individualistic Norquistian dream world as a “Pottersville,” in reference to the darkly selfish and hedonistic nightmare visited by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Carlson put it just right in his blog last December: “The choice is between a vibrant inclusive community of Bedford Falls where everyone is important and realizes the value of the big ‘we,’ as opposed to a Pottersville which represents a decadent and dying town ravaged by one individual’s greed.”

Both libertarianism and communism are intoxicating because they embrace one single glorious principle to explain and justify how the world works, or how it ought to work. People tend to yearn for that kind of simplicity. And these elixirs are especially appealing when things aren’t working well and rapid technological or cultural change is creating dislocation and upheaval.

But the libertarian revival needs to be resisted because it lacks the most important principle of compromise — that sacred balancing of principles that our American system has produced, a trading off of liberty with equality, a reconciling of self-interest with our collective obligations to others.

Wiser minds and purer hearts from Jesus to Buddha, and many others since, have preached loving kindness and altruistic concern for others as the pathway to happiness. Others, from Confucius to Aristotle, have taught balance in all things, yin and yang, the intelligent and mature course of recognizing that good and contrary principles work in tension with each other.

One of those apostles for balance and moderation was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century sage who ranks among the most influential intellectuals in American history, and who famously said that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Grover Norquist and Ron Paul and libertarian heroine and novelist Ayn Rand clearly belong to the narrow-minded “little statesmen” and “little philosophers” club. They may actually have some things of value to say. But let’s not be hypnotized by their foolish consistency.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, May 31, 2012.

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