Wednesday, April 01, 2015

David Boaz rewrites his Libertarian Primer from the 1990s

Author: David Boaz
Title: “The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom
Publication: New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015 (1997), 418 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-1-4767-5284-6, Preface, twelve chapters, appendix with personal political quiz, heavily indexed.
Amazon link
The author is an executive vice-president of the Cato Institute in Washington DC.  The title page calls the book a “Revised and Updated Edition of ‘Libertarianism: A Primer’”, first published by The Free Press in 1997, accompanied by a collection of essays dating back to ancient history, called “The Libertarian Reader”, edited by Boaz.  (In fact, see the mini-review of those here March 28, 2006)/ 
The book argues its points in simple and straightforward language.  In a practical world, we start running into some questions, but at a certain point these questions are no longer simply about polity or political theory about government, but more like “how to live free in an unfree world”, as Harry Browne used to say. 

For example, Boaz argues that health care costs have gotten out of control because “someone else pays” for health care in most cases.  True.  In fact, in the past, a lot of people used the health care system very little and lived long life spans, actively, on sheer momentum, before passing away suddenly when time was up.  Today, we expect every possible treatment attempt for every disease.  But, of course, this brings up the question of personal luck.  If we don’t want “Obamacare” logic says we have to take some kind of position on pre-existing conditions.   Either the public takes care of this, or “family or friends” do, or unlucky people go without.  You have to take some kind of position.  Ted Cruz, for example, doesn’t seem to answer that point.  On the other hand, Obamacare has disrupted plans that already works, and saddled people with requirements for unnecessary coverage in some cases. 
On Social Security, it is true that the Social Security Trust Fund is getting into trouble sooner that we had expected.  Well-off people do not have as many children, and people are living longer.  But it is not correct to call Social Security just a “welfare” plan that would otherwise be covered by adult children being obligated to provide for their parents – an idea that gets into the issue of filial piety and filial responsibility law (although libertarians wouldn’t want these to be laws).  In my own case, my FICA contributions more or less comport with the Social Security benefits I get, but that won’t be as true for people working today.  I do like the idea of migrating to privately owned accounts that could not be raided by future opportunistic politicians (with the next debt ceiling crisis).  But there is cost – and some sacrifice – involved in transitioning to a private system.

Boaz offers an interesting interpretation of the idea of "the tragedy of the commons", to deflect away from the idea of its being part of a zero-sum game. 
Boaz dedicates ample space to the dignity of the individual, and maintains that there are only individuals, not groups, that actually have moral agency.  But it’s when he talks about “Civil Society” that he risks running into moral or philosophical contradictions. In a real world, extended families, religious bodies and nations do take on purposes of their own. 
At this point, I want to mention that I wrote my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book about the same time that Boaz wrote his 1997 Primer, and I wrote DADT III about the same time he wrote this update.  (My DADT-I book was sometimes called "The Manifesto".)  I knew David in the 1990s through GLIL, and it seems that my work and his are like opposite faces of a coin.  What’s different is that my books are developed from personal narratives, which have lots of ironic and morally problematic situations.  That’s because I’m writing from a “personal space” rather than from a position of employment in a think tank or any policy-debating group.  You could say, how does a person “like me” find “freedom in an unfree world” – the Browne Question.  You could ask, how should I behave, or be expected to behave? This question has contexts in both coercive environments (like the military draft, in my own case) and in situations where you need to have others want to work with you or do business with you. 
That’s mainly the concern in my writing. I may be a mixture of “Divergent” and “Factionless” (the boundary can be narrower than we want to admit), but there are a number of intertwined themes in my narrative, some of it concerning the model for my “second career” in journalism, and, in earlier times, my sexual orientation.  Generally, I have the impression that others sometimes see me as like a kibitzer of a chess game, an alien observer whose stares can actually affect the subjects of his attention (an idea of relativity, after all).  I have the capability to influence policy beyond what numbers show, and probably influence how people more heavily socialized than I am feel about themselves, and whether they feel following the deeper mores of society is “worth it” if I have the freedom to live in my own alternate space so visibly. Yet, I steadfastly refuse to become someone else’s tool (like teenager Bob in the movie "The Zero Theorem").  Having taken the course that I did, in writing the books, there is no going back, no joining someone else’s cause and being their spokesperson.  There can be no pimping, no hucksterism, no glorification of victimization.  Boaz would be correct in maintaining that some of my dilemmas were created by government:  the demands for gender conformity had a lot to do with militarization and war (as I dealt with all the ironies of the Vietnam era draft).

Still, libertarians are learning that social capital matters.  This was most clearly articulated in Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” (March 14, 2012).  There is something to be said to social solidarity, for people working together for goals “beyond themselves.”  What happens when these goals are wrong?  That could leave us with appealing to religious faith.  Social competence is a virtue in its own right, a fact with an ironic reflection in the attitudes I expressed toward others about the time I confronted others that I am homosexual.  There was a curious puritanism in my own world, an insistence that some sort of relationship with another was valueless to me (emotionally) unless the person was “worthy” (and even “perfect”).  Psychologists call that “upward affiliation”. 
Boaz talks about the value of fraternal organizations in getting people to help each other with volunteer efforts rather than depend on government.  (And, note above, “filial piety” would have major implication for the mean of “marriage” vis-à-vis “personal responsibility” – although that probably helps the cause of “marriage equality”.)  Good social networking in the real world (not just Facebook) and competence at it probably helps stable marriage in a reciprocal fashion.  But fraternal organizations (unless just spiritual, like Rosicrucianism) need to reach out to others besides “one’s own”.  (And his idea about fraternal groupings led to a strange moral crisis for me in the 90s when I worked for a company that specialized in life insurance for the military.)  Boaz points out that the LDS church was very good at this, being one of the most helpful religious groups for victims of Hurricane Katrina. 

As for the moral obligation to “give back”, as in volunteerism (as to “living free”, above) Boaz writes that most economic hardship results from people having children before they are capable of supporting them in two-parent (which could now be same-sex) families.  But (beside the population demographics issue) luck and fortune do have a lot with poverty, starting with the kids “unlucky” enough to be born to irresponsible parents, as well as everything else in life that can go wrong (crime, disaster, disease, genetics, etc).  When people “give back” and others (the less lucky) know that societal structure encourages charity, society does tend to become more stable than it would if it took such a narrow view of “personal responsibility” as I took myself in the past.  But that social structure can infringe on personal goals, especially of the “divergent”.  Freedom, after all, is a pre-requisite for innovation, for raising the living standards of everyone in the first place.  Boaz points this out repeatedly. 

See also comments about Matthew Rognile's Brookings paper at MIT, on Piketty's review July 22, related to what Boaz argues.  

No comments: