Libertarian Graffiti in Bolinas

Libertarian Graffiti in Bolinas (Photo credit: philosophygeek)

Dear Generic Libertarian,

Every time I make the mistake of arguing with libertarians on Facebook or Twitter I shake my head in wonder at the way you have been misled by those who promote the idea that government is terrible, but individual-centric society is grand. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of your convictions I do doubt their foundation, and I certainly question how they have taken hold in a society where government is the reason we have a country with an ability to weather everything from the Civil War to profound economic depressions. I write this letter not to mock you, but as a sincere effort to counter claims which you consider truth.

Your most recent target — the Affordable Care Act —  has become a straw man for every other argument libertarians ordinarily make against every facet of government. One of you laid out your objections to government as clearly as I’ve seen anywhere, so I will use those remarks as a framework for this letter with the caveat that I am not singling this writer out or making this personal to him.

1. Government is force – This is a classic mantra of libertarians, who ignore the alternative (anarchy) to argue this as a legitimate political viewpoint. Our founders – liberal and conservative – believed government is inevitable. That men would be governed was beyond all question.  Their main question was whether it could be structured in such a way as to minimize the ambitions and avarice of men. The solution was to create a government by, for, and of the people governed, and this has succeeded for well over 200 years.

Conversely, a nation with no laws and no government whatsoever would simply give itself over to the tyranny of those who have the most resources to capture more. A nation with no laws and no government would simply open up the borders and the oceans for any other country to invade and conquer. Don’t believe me? Go take a look at the history of Afghanistan, where tribal factions have successfully pushed out and defeated invaders while leaving the people of that country in abject poverty with very little hope for a future or a way out of that poverty. You can argue that invasions haven’t succeeded, but I would argue that invasions never needed to happen if Afghanistan weren’t a society so deeply entrenched in tribal factionalism.

Like it or not, we live in a society which has been successfully governed by, for and of the people for over two centuries. Yes, it relies on the consent of the governed to agree that we will make sacrifices of money for a greater good, but what we receive in return — opportunity, freedom, and a voice — is worth that sacrifice.

2. We have more government, and because we have more government, everything costs more — education, health care, pensions.

Your same argument was accompanied by a claim that government spending $17 trillion took $17 trillion away from people. I’m not entirely sure how one makes the argument that the government who issues the money is somehow taking it out of other people’s pockets, but I’m more interested in the (false) notion that government involvement causes costs to go up.

Medicare, a government-run single payer health plan for the elderly, has the lowest overhead and administrative costs of any health plan out there. Private insurers don’t get close to what traditional Medicare can do. In fact, they’re whining about “only” getting a 15 percent cushion for their overhead.  Medicare, on the other hand, provides completely affordable health care for the elderly because government has the power to negotiate prices and keep administrative costs to a minimum. Has there been waste and abuse? Yes, there certainly has, and the most egregious offenders have been or will be caught and prosecuted. However, there is also fraud and abuse when private insurance providers are paying benefits. This is not the fault of the system as much as it is the fault of flawed humans who seek to profit from others’ distress.

Education and health care are foundational commitments we make as a society to every member of that society, not some kind of manufactured market where we tally up the cost according to who can pay and who cannot.

Factually, you’re also wrong about  the current size and reach of government. We actually have far less government than we have had in the past, with more and more functions contracted out to private enterprise at taxpayers’ expense when it could be much more efficient if it were simply a direct function of government. Social Security is an example of a direct government-administered program that has been more successful than any other while staying out of Wall Street’s grifting ways. That single program has lifted more elderly people out of poverty and given them a lifeline they would not otherwise have.

Similarly, the ACA will do more to foster entrepreneurship, alleviate the economic drag from unpaid medical bills and foster good health in our nation. Ten years from now people will wonder why we waited so long. There is a reason that Medicare and Social Security are incredibly popular programs. They work.

3. Taxation is theft

This is Ayn Randian claptrap wrapped in hyperbole to appeal to selfish people. In a government run by, for and of the people, we have made a decision about what we consider priorities. I can argue, for example, that paying for a war I didn’t authorize and didn’t support could be called theft, but I wouldn’t be honest if I did. I wrote tax checks during those years, just as I will write tax checks now to help pay for government assistance to help people pay their health care costs.

Taxation is the price you pay to live in a free society. None of our founders argued that taxes are evil. They argued that taxation without a voice was evil, which is why we have a representative government.

James Madison wrote that “revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.”

Some of those exigencies are urgent; others are not. Roads, firefighters, disaster assistance, and yes, national defense. As Elizabeth Warren so eloquently argued, “we are not a country that tolerates dangerous drugs, unsafe meat, dirty air or toxic mortgages.” All of those things are things government regulates, and tries (when properly funded) to mitigate.

If you truly believe taxation is theft, then please stay off the roads, grow your own food (and hope your soil isn’t tainted by some polluter nearby dumping toxic chemicals in the water), buy no product which has been examined for safety, and above all else, stay off the internet, which was the product of government and government-funded academic innovation and which benefits not only American society, but the entire world.

4. People should be free to associate with whomever they want, either socially or in business. Obamacare mandates that insurance companies do business with customers that they do not want to do business with.

Like Rand Paul, I take it you don’t believe in the Civil Rights Act either? Your argument might fly a little bit if you supported a government-run single payer system, but you don’t. However, you do illustrate how necessary government is, because yes, private insurance companies have to associate with those odious people who have pre-existing conditions as insurers themselves defined them. In other words, what we had before was a system where private enterprise created and supported by government corporate subsidies created two classes: those who they deemed worthy of access to health care and those they did not. Somehow this is perfectly fine with you, but most of us have objections, just as we object to restaurants slamming their doors in the faces of people whose skin color is different from you.

We don’t live in a society that leaves lepers at the gate to starve and beg for pennies. If you want that, I’m sure you can find lots of company in a different country. But in this country, we don’t look at people and say to them that they should die because they had the misfortune to have a chronic disease.

5. A question of personal responsibility; Living a life without honor

You write:

I understand that you and others may be frustrated with your inability to find work, and obtain health insurance, but there are actually things worse than being sick, or poor (you can afford a computer and internet connection, so it can’t be that bad), and unemployed, and that could be living a life without honor, placing your family’s problems on others… every household has its share problems, including mine. But I don’t place my burdens on other’s – they have enough to deal with – whether we know it or not, and it isn’t their responsibility.

Assumptions about my personal finances aside, let’s unpack this idea of placing your burdens on others. There are certain conditions that exist when a few people live side by side in the same general geographic area.

  • It is bad for everyone when children are not well-educated and ignorance prevails
  • It is bad for everyone when the general state of public health is bad.
  • It is bad for everyone, but especially business, when workers are too ill or too ignorant to fill the positions they need filled.
  • It is bad for everyone when wildfires roar through, followed by catastrophic floods, and there is no one to mitigate the damage because no one person is big enough by themselves to do so.
  • It is bad for everyone when earthquakes level cities, leaving tainted water and open gas lines in their wake, not to mention flattened dwellings. It is worse when there are no building codes and so buildings are constructed in the cheapest possible way.
  • It is bad for everyone when hurricanes come and levees break and people drown and starve and there’s no one to come to their rescue because there is no one person big enough to tackle something of that magnitude. It’s worse when those hurricanes come without warning because there are no systems in place to warn.

These are things bigger than individuals that can only be solved by a government strong enough and solvent enough to step up and craft ways to either fix or mitigate the problem. These are only a few “burdens” that we agree we all should share, because but for the grace of God go us.

None of us are immune to earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes. None of us are exempt from the possibility that illness or injury will take our ability to work away from us, temporarily or permanently. None of us are vaccinated against the costs of an ignorant populace.

If I understand you correctly, you libertarians believe that there should be no government involvement in any of these things. You believe I should just suck it up and hold my head high because…honor?

Living a life with honor

I believe living a life with honor means living alongside people who are worse off than I and doing everything within my power to help them, personally and within the confines of government. That means paying my self-employment taxes with the knowledge that they help my aged mother and your aged parents and elderly people across this nation. It means paying my income taxes even when I don’t like the fact that a big chunk of them goes to pay off two wars I hated and never wanted. It means driving the speed limit and not drinking before I drive because I respect the lives and safety of those around me. It means I agree that the benefits of this place we call the United States outweigh the sacrifice of not keeping 100 percent of what I earn.

It means respecting community and my neighbors rather than just doing what makes me feel good. In the end, that is honor. There’s no honor in acts of selfishness, my friend.

As I said when I closed our discussion, I am glad you haven’t known the terror that comes when you are unemployed and learn your child has a chronic disease that must be treated, no matter the cost. I am truly happy that hasn’t happened to you, and I don’t wish it on you. But at the same time, I caution you against the arrogance that comes with not encountering that kind of hardship, because tomorrow could bring you news you never wanted to hear and can’t handle on your own. At that point, you will begin to understand community, and why I believe in government, and why I believe the Affordable Care Act is so important, flaws and all.

I would rather you simply imagined yourself in those circumstances and came to change your mind. If you can do that, and see things through eyes other than your own, perhaps you will discover that pocket of empathy you never knew you had that will enable you to understand why we, the people sometimes need to act in the interest of ALL the people, and not just those with the money to do what they wanted anyway.

Libertarian friend, I wish you peace and prosperity and hope you will discover that mercy which seems to be missing from your worldview. We will all be better off when you do.