Joshua Heath | Let’s ‘Cancel’ Libertarianism

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One of the greatest radical takeovers in history came in 1964, when Republicans selected Sen. Barry Goldwater as their presidential nominee. It was the coming-out party for the libertarian movement in American politics, as they finally found a major candidate who shared their vision. This motley crew cleverly updated the barbarous social Darwinism of a prior era for the modern age and in the process took over the GOP.

Their perspective was simple: The best government governed least and did nothing to interfere in the natural course of life. Let the strong reap the riches, and the weak suffer whatever fate befalls them. Any compassionate assistance was to come from private charity, not the state.

For more than 50 years, the leaders of the conservative movement have done their best to implement this agenda. Thankfully, they’ve largely failed, having been foiled by a singular force: the decency of the American public. In Ronald Reagan’s first term, his policy advisers crafted a crippling reduction to the safety net, including major changes to Social Security and other critical programs, to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.

Voters, including many grassroots Republicans, reacted with outrage and the GOP was forced to drop that agenda for the rest of Reagan’s term. “The democracy had defeated the doctrine,” said David Stockman, White House budget director at the time.

Subsequent attempts to implement similar policy, such as President George W. Bush’s drive to privatize Social Security, and recent Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare, induced similar outcomes. Americans, fortunately, have a stronger moral compass than right-wing ideologues with their misguided visions of utopia.

However, it is not unthinkable that one day, a smart, tactile conservative — someone like TV host Tucker Carlson comes to mind — will come to power and be persuasive enough to convince the public to accept a radical libertarian agenda. The consequences would be dire.

Consider what happened in Chile when dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power in the 1970s. Pinochet’s government, following advice from leading conservative economists at the University of Chicago, implemented a series of hard-right policies that upended the nation.

Chile’s progressive safety net, which included free access to health care and education, as well as comprehensive social security, was abolished. Large tax cuts were granted to the very wealthy and banking regulation was reduced to a bare minimum. The rich and powerful prospered. 

Everyone else? Not so much. “The free market model as applied under Pinochet had an enormous social cost,” said Lois Oppenheim, professor of political science at American Jewish University. “Whereas in 1970, only 23% of the population was classified as poor or indigent, by 1987 that proportion had reached 45% — almost half — of the population.”

With rhetoric eerily similar to what one would hear on Fox News, the changes were justified in the name of restoring freedom and ending “socialist tyranny.”

To prevent these policies from happening domestically, we should cancel libertarianism as a concept. Like America has done with cruel ideologies of the past, such as anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia, it’s time to consider this set of ideas too harsh for civilized society. It would induce outrage from many corners, but that’s nothing to be concerned about.

We cannot maintain our goodness as a country if we don’t distinguish between which perspectives are morally legitimate and which are not. Respect should be granted to points of view that are humane and in line with universal values. When a philosophy is a producer of suffering rather than justice, death instead of life, people of conscience must banish it from the public square.

Libertarians believe the course of one’s existence should be decided by income. If you make enough money, lucky you, everything will be fine. If the opposite is the case, you’re on your own. Don’t look to the government to help with necessities like health care, education and housing.

This is barbarism. So much of what makes life enjoyable is made possible by workers who don’t receive a living wage. Think of how much labor it takes to facilitate dinner and a movie with your family, from your waitress to the employees who punch tickets, serve popcorn, clean the theater and man the projector.

The notion that these folks who give our world coherence and order should be left to the cruelties of the free market, where they will struggle to survive, is too inhumane for serious consideration.

We must do away with the idea that so many must suffer for their economic circumstances, much in the same way society no longer accepts mistreatment on the basis of race or religion. Instead, let’s provide all our citizens — the ones who work, as well as the sick and disabled — a meaningful social safety net that ensures basic dignity throughout life.

When the Greatest Generation handed Goldwater a spanking in 1964, granting him one of the worst electoral defeats in history, they took a stand and said libertarianism was beyond the pale of polite society. Let us alive today emulate their hard-won wisdom. If we fail to cancel noxious points of view from our culture, then America will not have much of a culture at all.

Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident.

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