Exclusive: Libertarianism has gained new followers amid disclosures of excessive government surveillance. But this trendy ideology is filled with hypocrisy on principles and hostility to facts, having evolved from the South’s defense of slavery and now resistant to the science of global warming, Robert Parry reports.
By Robert Parry
An inconvenient truth for “libertarians” is that their ideology of a minimalist U.S. government grew out of the South’s institution of human bondage, i.e. the contractual right of a white person to own a black person, and from the desire of slaveholders to keep the federal government small so it could never abolish slavery.
That is why many “libertarian” icons – the likes of Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and the later incarnation of James Madison – were slave owners who understood the link between the emergence of a strong national government and the threat to slavery.
More recently, “libertarian” political favorites, such as Ron and Rand Paul, have either opposed or criticized civil rights laws that, in their view, infringe on the rights of white businessmen to discriminate against blacks. And libertarian-oriented Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court and in legislatres across the country are gutting voting rights for black and brown Americans.
But an even bigger crisis facing “libertarianism” now – and why the ideology is particularly dangerous – is the existential threat from global warming and the urgent need for collective government action on a worldwide scale to reduce human output of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping chemicals.
The “libertarian” response to the overwhelming scientific consensus on this life-threatening reality has been either to deny the facts or to propose implausible “free market” solutions that would barely dent the crisis. Some dismiss the threat in mocking tones as some kind of “statist” conspiracy. Typical were sarcastic comments by the Independent Institute’s Mary Theroux, writing: “The climate crisis is real, it’s here, and it’s time for absolute power for Obama!”
There’s also lots of sophistry and quibbling about the science. The preferred “libertarian” position adopts the pretense that the release of carbon dioxide by human activity contributes little or nothing to climate change.
Other “libertarians” accept the science but still can’t bring themselves to recognize that a coordinated government response is needed. Anti-government ideology trumps even the possible destruction of life on the planet, a very real possibility given the likelihood of mass dislocations of populations and the availability of nuclear weapons.
The “libertarians” are further hampered in their thinking about global warming by the fact that many of their principal funders are major energy extractors – and it’s nearly impossible to get people to think rationally about a problem when their paychecks depend on them not doing so.
Most notably the billionaire Koch Brothers who own Koch Industries, a giant oil and natural gas company, have lavished millions upon millions of dollars on “think tanks,” academic centers and Tea-Party-style activist groups to raise doubts about climate-change science and to deflect public demands for action.
Pluses and Minuses
Clearly, “libertarianism” does have its valid points – especially regarding the absurdity of U.S. drug laws, the destructive wastefulness of the American Empire and the excessive surveillance that followed 9/11 – but there are many other crazy elements to the ideology and its resistance to reason.
Its principal tenet of unregulated “free markets” has been discredited again and again, through market crashes, economic depressions and the foisting of dangerous products on customers. There is also the grander lie that “free markets” somehow can or will address broader societal needs when capitalism is really about how to maximize short-term profits regardless of the danger inflicted on the environment or individuals.
There also are legitimate societal concerns that “libertarianism” would essentially ignore, such as how to care for the elderly, how to educate the population for today’s economic challenges, how to ameliorate the suffering of the poor, how to maintain an effective infrastructure, etc.
That doesn’t mean that government has all the answers. But there is a significant difference between adopting a position favoring a government only doing what it needs to do and the “libertarian” insistence on the smallest government conceivable. The former accepts that capitalism can handle many undertakings with minimal government regulation, while recognizing that the failure of “free markets” in other settings requires greater government intervention to “promote the general welfare” as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states.
For instance, the private sector can’t do transportation infrastructure very well. Thus, governments have to step in with spending for roads, rail, airports, etc. Capitalism also has little need for aging, worn-out or sick workers. So, the government is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
On a current topic, the Affordable Care Act represented the government’s recognition that the profit motive behind private health insurance had failed millions of Americans, forcing them to overburden hospital emergency rooms and requiring some government intervention. Yet, “libertarians” still cry tears for the insurance industry.
Of course, even among those holding a pragmatic view toward the need for government, there can be legitimate differences over policy prescriptions, whether a certain rail project makes sense or how best to care for the sick. But “libertarianism” and its ideological hatred of “guv-mint” has an irrationality to it, which only makes sense if you reflect on the origins of the philosophy, born in the intensity of the South’s resentment toward the federal government’s intervention to end slavery and later to stop racial segregation.
Some “libertarians” get angry over anyone making this connection between their supposedly freedom-loving ideology and slavery, but it is historically undeniable. Any serious study of the U.S. Constitution, its ratification and its early implementation reveals intense Southern fears about the Constitution’s creation of a vibrant central government and its eventual implications on slavery.
For instance, as historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in Madison and Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason, two “libertarian” heroes who opposed the Constitution and its strong central government, warned plantation owners at the Virginia ratification convention that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected.”
“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia. …
“Madison rose to reject their conspiratorial view. He argued that the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’
“Madison was doing his best to make Henry and Mason sound like fear-mongers. Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”
Despite the success of Mason and Henry to play on the fears of plantation owners, the broader arguments stressing the advantages of Union carried the day, albeit narrowly. Virginia ultimately approved ratification by 89 to 79.
Key Framers of the Constitution – the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the earlier incarnation of Madison – had envisioned an activist federal government that would address the needs of the young nation, from finances to road-building. However, after Thomas Jefferson returned from France in 1789, he emerged as the charismatic leader of the “small government” faction dedicated to protecting the “rights” of Southern whites to own blacks.
Jefferson pulled Madison, his central Virginia neighbor, from Washington’s orbit into his own as Jefferson fashioned what became known as the Virginia Dynasty of three consecutive presidents, Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe, all from Virginia, all defenders of the South’s slavery. By the time Virginia’s grip was broken in the late 1820s, the young United States was on course toward the Civil War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]
This marriage of “small government” ideology and racial bigotry has never been broken. It was reaffirmed during Jim Crow days and during the battle against racial integration. Even today, advocates of “libertarianism” are among those pushing for new restrictions on voting rights with the obvious (though usually unstated) goal of suppressing the votes of black and brown citizens who are seen as likely to vote Democratic. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Marriage of Libertarians and Racists.”]
Global Warming’s Threat
But the most serious threat posed today by the “libertarians” is their resistance to serious government action to curb global warming. Surely, individuals can take personal action to reduce their own carbon footprints, but the scope of the crisis requires aggressive intervention by governments to maintain the livability of the planet.
In his June 25 speech on climate change, President Barack Obama began and closed his remarks with references to the famous “Earth rise” photograph taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronauts circling the moon and looking back on the blue globe that holds the only life that we know to exist in the universe.
Obama’s speech echoed one given by President John F. Kennedy a half century ago, on June 10, 1963, at American University, in which Kennedy said, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
What astronomers have also come to understand in recent decades is how extremely rare – possibly unique – the circumstances were that let advanced life forms develop over four billion years on Earth. The planet has a stable, circular orbit around a small-to-medium-sized star, not too close to burn up but not too far away for a permanent ice age. Plus, there were other lucky breaks, like the giant Jupiter circling outside the Earth and absorbing asteroids that otherwise could have made the planet unlivable.
Peering around our galaxy and deep into the universe, astronomers have found scientific conditions intensely hostile to the development of life as we know it. Interspersed through the frigid void of space, there are powerful stars crashing into one another, exploding as pulsars and collapsing into black holes that then drag other stars and planets to their doom.
Most planets that have been detected are spinning too close to their stars or revolve in irregular orbits that go from searing heat to intense cold. The relatively gentle and nearly perfectly circular orbit of Earth around the Sun is extremely rare.
Because the universe is so vast, one might hope or assume that other planets exist that have been lucky enough to have the combination of factors that makes life possible on Earth. But so far scientists haven’t detected such a place. As far as we know, Earth may be the only place where complex life forms have ever evolved.
Thus our current understanding of the universe makes protecting this remarkable planet even more of an imperative. It would be a tragedy beyond measure if some anti-government ideology – especially one that sprang from the evils of slavery – were allowed to serve the interests of the Koch Brothers and thus doom the one habitable sphere spinning in the universe.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.