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Monday, November 04, 2013

Why Do I Keep Creating Libertarians?

Just to be clear: I know my title is an exaggeration. I don't "create" libertarians, or anything really, as a university teacher (not even always, as much as I wish otherwise, adequately educated American citizens). When it comes to matters of political opinion and ideology, I am, at most, just another component in my students' ongoing socialization and self-creation. Still, it remains a source of puzzlement to me. While I've become friendlier to certain sorts of left-libertarianism over the years, I've never pretended--to my students, here on my blog, or anywhere--that my own preferred political position was anything but a communitarian, populist, Laschian, localist, Toryish Left. But if that's so (just to play along with the--probably hopeless naive--belief that I as a college professor actually substantively contribute to the choices my students make), how is it that some--not all, to be sure, but over the years, much more than a few--of the best and brightest and hardest working students that I have taught here at Friends have been inspired to form Young Americans for Liberty chapters, or traveled to conferences to receive activist training in support of libertarian causes, or gotten involved in presenting the message of free markets throughout our community, or are currently looking forward to careers in academia or business with the concern for individual liberty at the forefront?

I can think of a few possible explanations:

1) I am actually a superbly effective and open-minded professor, who does nothing but expose my students to the world of ideas and encourage them to critically pursue what they think to be best--and a bunch of them have just happened to decide that libertarianism is what's best.

I'd actually love to believe this is true, but it's kind of conceited, and not particularly entertaining to contemplate. (Not the least reason being that I can't convince myself that the final clause there is at all accurate.)

2) I actually do attempt to indoctrinate my students, and really do put my opinions forward as the obvious truth, but I'm such a lousy teacher and clumsy indoctrinator that most of my attempts at brainwashing have completely backfired.

Related to this would be:

3) I actually do attempt to indoctrinate my students, and I'm relatively good at it, yet what I'm trying to instill in their brains is so obviously convoluted, wishy-washy, and ultimately incoherent that they wish, in response, to embrace the most streamlined and direct ideology around.

This explanation has the advantage of being compatible with a large percentage of all the commentary I've ever received from friends and online interlocutors about my politics, as pretty much every one of the 27 or so people who have ever unfortunately exposed themselves to my rants over the years can confirm.

4) What am I surprised about anyway? Opposition to government programs in America today has never been higher; nearly a quarter of the American people consider themselves libertarian in one sense or another; it's practically a "libertarian moment" out there right now. So what's the big deal?

I don't know if I find this explanation comforting or not, but I do find it the most intriguing. I'm teaching students about politics and government and law at a moment when the basic legitimacy of each and every one of them is being challenged (often lazily and ignorantly, it is true, but still, sincerely) as broadly as ever before in my lifetime. So perhaps I should see it as something of a triumph that a fair number of genuinely smart and committed students that I've been able to teach have taken some of what I've opened up to them and found within it a cause to engage matters of public life, rather than simply disengage in boredom and disgust. (Though there are many who do that too.) I suppose it's that sort of reasoning which lead me--when my students had done the work and came to me with their proposal--to agree to serve as the faculty sponsor (meaning: I'm the one who signs the bureaucratic forms) for their local YAL chapter. Sure, I'd kind of rather it be it be a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists or the Greens, but at least they're not withdrawing: rather, they're making arguments, and that's something I can respect, and want to encourage.

Besides, I've discovered in talking often with my libertarian students--as they good-naturedly push back against my asking them to read John Maynard Keynes or Bill McKibben in the classroom--that the libertarianism and constitutionalism which animates many of them isn't just a chip off the Koch Brothers' block. Their deep suspicion of government systems extends to corporate and religious systems as well; many of them reject a bottom-line individualism with its obsession with rights, and instead identify with what might be called a kind of Tocquevillian localist promise: that as communities and families, as well as individuals, they'll someday be free to govern themselves, and build something themselves, and judge the morality of something for themselves, without getting dragged into (in their view) endless and corrupting fights over whether to allow this tax break or violate that social taboo. If you dig into the data behind the aforementioned studies, that ambivalence is evident. And even more appealing to me, given my own political preferences, is that these evolving libertarian ideas, by developing at least partly outside the paradigm of inviolable property rights and such, may ultimately produce the kind of thinking which can contribute to what I see as truly positive egalitarian or anarchic developments, whether they be some kind of "bleeding heart libertarianism" or good old-fashioned economic mutualism. That may be too much to hope for--but then again, the notion that the present generation is going to give rise to a more affirmative, aggressive, but also decentralized left has at least a little grounding in recent political developments:

[A] mountain of survey data--including the heavily Democratic tilt of Millennials in every national election in which they have voted--suggests that they are not especially susceptible to the right-wing populist appeals....[T]oday, a Republican seeking to divert Millennial frustrations in a conservative cultural direction must reckon with the fact that Millennials are dramatically more liberal than the elderly and substantially more liberal than the Reagan-Clinton generation on every major culture war issue except abortion....They are also more dovish on foreign policy. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are close to half as likely as the Reagan-Clinton generation to accept sacrificing civil liberties in the fight against terrorism  and much less likely to say the best way to fight terrorism is through military force....Millennials show a libertarian instinct in the privatization of Social Security, which they disproportionately favor....But Millennials are also more willing than their elders to challenge cherished American myths about capitalism and class. According to a 2011 Pew study, Americans under 30 are the only segment of the population to describe themselves as “have nots” rather than “haves.” They are far more likely than older Americans to say that business enjoys more control over their lives than government.  And unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly, favor socialism.

So, maybe what I'm managing to help create--whatever my role in that creation may actually be--is a bunch of libertarian-inclined potential anarcho-socialists, people who want to build a fairer, less violent, more equal, and more sustainable society, and want to see it done through local action, not the government dole. There are ways to argue with that position, and it may not fit my idiosyncratic Christian democratic dreams--but its worth taking seriously and even praising all the same, I think. And so, as my students go about building their free speech walls and mourning the death of the 10th amendment around campus, I'm kind of delighted. No, it's not the revolution I want, but it is, however minimally, a revolution which takes ideas serious--and seeing as how I think at least some of those ideas are absolutely correct, how could I not be happy to see it up and running?


Glen said...

Russell, I suspect that a big part of this has really nothing directly to do with you. Libertarianism appeals to a lot of young people because it has a simple, appealing message - that people are capable of self governance - and it also has the significant advantage of never really having been tried. Therefore, few people have any direct experience with any of its disadvantages, and tend to underestimate them.

You gotta remember that communism appealed to a whole lot of people too, with it's own simple, appealing message. And it remained appealing for a surprisingly long time after it had actually been tried. But eventually most people realized that that simple appealing message was, while theoretically nice, utterly impossible to put into practice.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the comment. Obviously, I meant this whole post at least partially in jest: obviously the huge majority of what my students believe has very, very little to do with me at all. You're probably right about libertarianism being primarily a way of viewing the world which is particularly appealing to young people because they're looking for a message which explains things, and libertarianism (like most isms) certainly does that, without carrying any troubling baggage with it. Still, it's fun to speculate that there might be more going on intellectually than just that.

Glen said...

Oh, I know it was in jest. But it's a phenomenon that I find interesting. Apparently people really really want simple explanations for their problems. This is a desire that I find almost completely alien. I've never found the world to be a particularly simple place, human beings even less so, and I just really don't understand why any intelligent person would believe that a simple solution to the world's problems was even possible.

Withywindle said...

Your survey data doesn't include the basic Steve-Sailer point that you need to adjust for demographic change: there are fewer whites among younger Americans, therefore younger Americans, since more heavily black, Hispanic, etc., register more left/liberal. You really should account for that in your analysis. I'd also want to know how your students compare demographically with millennials as a whole--e.g., if they're heavily white, then I would expect them to skew a lot more libertarian than millennials as a whole.

By way of comparison: according to the exit polls, the Republican candidate for mayor here in NYC, who lost in a humiliating landslide, actually scored even with the Democrat among white male voters. They're just such a small portion of the electorate here, it doesn't matter much. But with that sort of disparity going on here in NYC, I would be startled not to have it registering over in your neck of the woods too.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Withywindle (speaking of whom, good to see you're still out there!),

Your survey data doesn't include the basic Steve-Sailer point that you need to adjust for demographic change...

Well, the obvious reason it's not included in my survey data is that I don't have any such data--this was really just me anecdotally reflecting than actually studying anything. That said, though, your observation isn't without relevance: Friends University's student body is predominantly white, and with only a couple of examples, all the students I'm specifically thinking of here are white males. (Those two examples, though, include a woman with a very strong feminist perspective, and an African-American member of Friends's elite jazz combo. Take that for what you will.)

Withywindle said...

Thank you for the kind word! I have been in exile in a far land, but will return to my rightful inheritance once I finish exegesis of a poem.

Jazz, improv comedy, and libertarianism all have strong natural affinities. Hence Rand's memorable appearance with Satchmo at Second City.