Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Calling bullshit on Bullshit!

I was watching some Penn & Teller: Bullshit! yesterday. I like Penn and Teller. I liked their show in Las Vegas. I enjoy Bullshit! But there's always that point in nearly every episode (and in some cases, for whole episodes) where Penn starts blathering on about some insane libertarian nonsense. So I'm calling bullshit on Bullshit! — at least the libertarian parts.

The problem with libertarianism is in its impoverished and wholly inconsistent definition of liberty. Liberty is one of my personal key values. I understand liberty as substantive freedom to do what one wants to do. Liberty is, in other words, the ability to live the kind of life one wants to live.

But libertarians have a much narrower definition of liberty: freedom from coercion. This manifests itself most commonly in their frothy-mouthed hatred of laws, taxes, and government. But only sometimes.

Libertarians absolutely love for the government to coerce people with laws and force them into not touching their property. And that brings us to the first great heap of libertarian bullshit: property itself is the greatest infringement upon liberty in the world. If a book is my property, I am restricting the liberty of a full 6.7 billion people to read it. Even if I'm not reading it myself. Even if it's just sitting in a closet. No other person has any liberty to read my book, period.

I don't think property is bad or wrong, but I also don't fetishize it. Property is a social norm, something we invented and that only exists because we collectively continue to agree to recognize it. But libertarians can't admit that, because that opens up the possibility that we could invent and collectively agree to recognize all sort of other ideas they hate, like egalitarian access to wealth or (shudder) socialized medicine! So libertarians have invented their own property mythology, involving a magical empty planet where rugged individualists carve up everything among themselves which magically gives them the right to whatever they grabbed and all redistributions that follow happen through the magic of fair and mutually beneficial exchanges. So if you're poor, it's because you're weak and/or stupid — and that's OK. It's a whole lot of magic, even for magicians.

This brings us to the second great heap of libertarian bullshit: they only recognize increasing or decreasing liberty when it's their own. This was evident in Penn and Teller's episode on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which horribly, horribly coerces commercial property owners to give access to disabled people. This mandate leaves no room for compassion, they say.

Libertarians pretend to want to maximize liberty, but they don't. They are willing to accept the idea that governments coercing the recognition of property rights (and therefore reducing liberty) increases liberty, but unable to accept that governments coercing things like accessibility also increases liberty — the liberty of disabled people to live the lives they want to live. "Waaah, wahhh," whines Penn, "it'll cost a bunch of taxpayers' money!" But he also says the state should stick to courts, police, defense, and corruption. These are things that cost the taxpayers, so he isn't opposed to taxation (that is, coercion) for things he believes in. He's just opposed to taxation for things he doesn't believe in.

Penn also breaks out the tired old chestnut that if a store, say, doesn't provide disabled access it will lose customers to those that do. Which brings us to great libertarian bullshit-heap number three: they think free markets just work on their own. Note that he talks about this market correction shortly after mentioning that the number of people who really need disabled access is around 5 million out of the 300 million people in the country. The idea that any reasonable proportion of store owners is going to voluntarily retrofit their property at any expense to attract the 1.6% of potential customers who might need it is absurd.

And indeed, if the market truly catered to disabled people, we wouldn't have needed the Americans with Disabilities Act in the first place. We had centuries to let market forces work their invisible hand magic. But libertarians don't care about that. It is more important for a libertarian to not infringe upon property rights than to allow everyone fair access (or liberty) to the basic privileges of life, such as mobility and community. It doesn't matter than the government and society as a whole establishes the rules for the marketplace and therefore is perfectly justified in making requirements for participating in it. Property is sacred and markets always work.

Penn and Teller's dumbfuck market fundamentalism also came into full effect in their episode on Wal-Mart. They had plenty of valid criticisms of the anti-Wal-Mart movement, most notably when they pointed out the disgusting elitism and classism of some supporters. But then they pulled the wool over our eyes.

They discussed Penn's home town, which fought off a Wal-Mart but found itself sucked dry as people commuted to nearby towns to patronize their Wal-Marts. The Penn and Teller solution: build the Wal-Mart, since people obviously want it. My solution: don't let Wal-Mart artificially lower prices so that any competition is fair. They interview a Wal-Mart employee who is thankful for the store and her wage. And of course she is. As she revealingly says, she needed the money and it was the only job she could find. Libertarians love to pretend that employment is free and fair. Nobody is coerced into taking any given job and everyone involved benefits.

But coercion doesn't only come from people or laws. Necessity coerces countless people into doing all sorts of things they wouldn't otherwise. The idea that an employer like Wal-Mart (2009 revenue: $404 billion) and an unemployed person facing the potential for homelessness and starvation come to the bargaining table on fair terms is bullshit. Yes, the employee will accept very low wages. That doesn't mean they weren't coerced. They lacked the liberty to choose their employment and even to negotiate their wage. Fucking idiot libertarians complain when the government takes 25% of their paycheck, but didn't complain when their company's owner took 60% of the money they made the company before even writing the check — because markets always work, the company is the owner's property, and they made a fair contract.

Libertarians just don't seem to get why society exists: mutual advantage. People are better off working together, in both the evolutionary sense and in the modern world. To a libertarian, the mutual part of mutual advantage is utterly lost. By privileging a narrow and wildly inconsistent form of liberty and property above all other values, they skew the idea of society into something that doesn't operate for mutual advantage, but for the wealth of the strong, smart, or lucky. And wealth is just a token for liberty to do the things it buys, so the result of libertarianism is the reduction of liberty for the masses and the ability for the few to do virtually anything they want. Wealth inequality is liberty inequality — a true libertarian would be, wait for it, a socialist.

So libertarianism is bullshit. Penn and Teller should stick to Jesus and colonics. I'll be watching, anyway.

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