Reading Caroline Baum’s Bloomberg essay, If only conservatives were more like libertarians, had me thinking of a recent confrontation I’d had with a self-professed libertarian, one that left me wishing that it would be nice if libertarians actually behaved more like libertarians.
It was late May, the night of my son’s graduation from high school, and I was in the kitchen cooking dinner (indeed, I cook—in fact, I do everything—cook, clean, launder, repair, garden, maintain, improve, and not least, doctor a sick kid through a bone marrow transplant, that any household might need, and all for the price of just a three beer per day ration. Stay at home housewives who ignore the housecleaning and laundry, never mind lifting a finger for repairs or lawn maintenance, to munch on chocolates and watch Oprah, all the while bitching about their forlorn lot in life, can eat my dust). I chanced that evening to peer out the window that overlooks the front yard where I saw my neighbor from up the street follow his leashed dog smack into the middle of the yard so that the dog might do his business. It was the same guy who, a few months previous, had been standing just outside my front door in the dead of night, I later discovered, for the very same purpose.
When I noticed him outside my house that dark January evening, I hadn’t known who it was, so went to the closet where I keep, moderately well-hidden and secured, a Colt .45 automatic (officer’s model) and stuffed the gun under my belt to go investigate the prowler (not only am I a good housewife, I’m like Annie Oakley on the prairie, always standing ready with a gun to protect the little homestead from danger. As you might guess, I’m not the type to immediately call the police the first moment something seems awry).
I opened the front door and walked out to the edge of the porch and asked the guy, who could not have been more than ten feet away, “What do you think you’re doing?” It was then I noticed the dog taking a dump in my yard. I was a bit relieved it was nothing more serious than a dog trotter, so let go the cinch I had on the gun under my shirt-covered belt. But I had taken about all I could stand from the cabal of neighborhood dog walking goons who thought nothing of allowing Fido free roam of everyone’s yard. It was time to fight back.
He replied to the effect that he was taking his dog for a walk. So I asked him the obvious, “You know you and your pooping dog are taking your walk in my yard?” Anyone would have known. Though most of the yards in the neighborhood are postage-stamp size, while mine is relatively large, all of them extend further than ten feet from the front of the house. And from where he was standing, the street was a good ninety feet in one direction and about fifty feet in the other (I have a corner lot). He had necessarily walked through more than a few paces of my highly manicured lawn to get to the point where he stood watching his yappy dog poop.
His reply was basically, “So what?” And my response to that outrage was to inform him that he was trespassing, never mind that it was quite rude to allow his dog to poop in my yard. He replied that he would clean it up, ignoring completely the illegal nature of he and his dog’s very presence. I noticed in his hand a plastic grocery bag, the kind so many dog walkers in the neighborhood carry around behind their dogs, waiting to scoop up the poop when the dogs decide to relieve themselves. I didn’t mention how ridiculous he and others like him generally looked, following around behind a prancing dog waiting for it to poop, or the fact that it is quite easy to train a dog in the proper places to do its business. That would have opened a whole other can of worms, besides, I figured the dog walking goons actually encouraged their dogs to relieve themselves in other people’s yards, as it meant the detritus they failed to clean up (there’s no way to ever actually clean up all the poop a dog excretes) didn’t spoil their pristine postage stamps. I just stuck to the legalities.
“That’s nice you would clean up, so far as such a thing is possible, the dogshit your pooch leaves in my yard, but it doesn’t ameliorate the fact neither you nor your dog have any right to be here.”
This apparently angered him, as he then started with the ad hominem attacks. “What’s your problem, buddy?” (You’re trespassing on my property). “Who do you think you are?” (The guy who owns this property?) “It’s not trespassing for my dog to be on your property.” (Well, yes it is, but it’s not just the dog with its twenty-foot leash that has made its way onto my property; you did as well.) I finally just told him he needed to walk his dog somewhere else, at which point he called me an asshole, to which I replied I would call the police next time he set foot in my yard. In order to be prepared if I later had to ask for police help, I asked him where he lived, as I didn’t know him, and as dark as it was, couldn’t be sure I’d ever before seen him around. He told me his name and address, apparently to show solidarity with his own stupidity.
It turns out he lived just a couple of houses up the street, in one of the many newly-renovated houses in the neighborhood. When I went by to confirm the address a day or so later, I could see why he liked borrowing my yard for his dog’s bowel movements—his yard was about the size of a small bathroom–a choice he had made when he tripled the size and footprint of his house during renovations. “Too bad for him,” I thought to myself, “but I didn’t buy my oversized lot so his dog could have a bathroom”. Then I noticed something that seemed quite out of place—there was a “Ron Paul, 2012” sign out front of his postage-stamp lawn, stuck in the ground next to his mailbox. I chuckled. The irony of a Ron Paul supporter failing to understand how fundamental is the notion of property rights to Paul’s political philosophy, which is the closest any mainstream candidate has ever openly come to libertarianism, was apparently completely lost on this asshole.
When the neighbor repeated his transgression six months later, this time in broad daylight, I stepped outside to ask him, after confirming I had the right guy, and after I had told him, not so politely this time, to get out and stay the fuck out of my yard, “Do you understand that Ron Paul’s political philosophy profoundly depends on the respect of private property rights? “
“But it’s just my dog” or something to that effect, he mumbled back, trying to play the dog card, which has in many respects become more compelling to a certain set than playing the child card as an excuse for selfishly inflicting depredations upon one’s neighbor. (Incidentally, I could not care less when kids, who don’t understand, nor should, the concept of property lines, stray into my yard during their explorations. Kids need a little leeway to allow their bodies to follow where their curious minds lead them. Dogs on the other hand are a public nuisance when they aren’t properly restrained, and it is nothing but a matter of disrespect on the part of dog owners for the community in which they live when they allow their dogs free rein on other people’s property.)
“Yeah, bud,” I replied, “The legal principle goes back as far as biblical days that men are responsible for the trespasses of their domesticated animals. But you wouldn’t know that, now would you, seeing as how you don’t even remotely grasp the political philosophy of the guy you purport to support.”
By this time, I had escorted him, mostly by menacing glares, to the edge of the yard and onto the city right-of-way. He called me an asshole again. I shot him a bird as I walked back into the house. Whew. If that guy’s a libertarian, which is a political philosophy asking from government little more than to provide for the common defense and to ensure that people are secure in their persons and property, I’d hate to think how a similar confrontation might have unfolded with a liberal or conservative.
Neither conservatives nor liberals have a problem with governmental intrusions into the life of the individual. Libertarians mainly just want the freedom to be left alone, as Ms. Baum aptly observed.
Conservatives are as much enamored with government as are liberals, they just have different ideas for the ends to which government power should be directed. For conservatives, the government monopoly of force, always necessary if a government is to enjoy any legitimacy, should be primarily directed at protecting property rights. Conservatives believe it a mistake, or at least a superfluity, that John Locke’s words explaining the purpose of government as protecting “life, health, liberty or possession” were transmuted by Jefferson to only “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the preamble to the Declaration. For conservatives, possessions, or at least the free acquisition of them, are the essence of happiness, so Jefferson’s change was unnecessary. This protectiveness toward the acquisitive impulse ultimately meant that government, in the main, existed to ensure that capitalist’s accumulations of wealth were safe from the marauding mobs who might threaten them, or to protect the capitalist in his possession or exploitation of other humans, as humans gradually, over the course of the Industrial Revolution, became nothing more than inputs necessary to make capital, either land or machinery, profitable for the capitalists. In the modern era, the protection of acquisitiveness resolved to force projection overseas, to ensure capitalist property interests were safe wherever they might be located. Thus is the neo-conservative paradigm for the purpose of government—to provide the force necessary to allow capitalists to get rich.
A corollary construct necessary to the neo-conservative paradigm justifying government is a society stable and secure enough that capitalists can be reasonably certain their wealth is protected. The capitalist-protecting conservative therefore has no problem with the government imposing its moral code in personal affairs, if it believes its moral code will yield a society stable and secure enough for capital to reliably accumulate. But it must be pointed out that most, if not all, of the moral issues of which conservative politicians confess concern, e.g., traditional marriage, the immorality of promiscuous sex, the drug scourge, abortion, etc., are mainly hot-button political issues that win votes among the people most likely to support conservatives in their defense of capitalism. There is a deeply puritanical strain to conservative thought. Conservatives embrace the idea that life is a punishment for mankind having sinned, mainly because the idea helps justify the depredations of capitalists by justifying the treatment of humans as nothing more than inputs to a machine. Conservatism only entertains its social agenda to keep its minions quiescent to its capitalistic designs.
Libertarians are also concerned with protecting property interests, but perceive of government’s necessity as arising from something more closely resembling, ironically, Lockean principles, in that they see governments as necessary among men because men often otherwise fail, acting alone in a state of nature, to protect their life, health, liberty or possessions. To the libertarian, and to Locke, governments exist to ensure people are left alone and in peace. But the problem with libertarianism, its central and fatal paradox, is that any entity powerful enough to protect the individual’s life, health, liberty and possessions is itself a threat to all of them. And what, once the Leviathan of the state is thereby created, is there to protect the individual from the depredations of government? Exactly. Nothing.
For liberals, government should operate, like the libertarians believe, to enhance the welfare of individuals. But with liberals, government should not be so concerned with protecting property interests, rather, it should be concerned with leveraging its power to take property away from some in order to give it to others. Liberals are, like libertarians, very much concerned that government not infringe on individual liberties, such as what type family might be appropriate (perhaps a monkey and two men really is a suitable arrangement for raising children), or whether a woman’s reproductive choices might have an impact beyond her own selfish promiscuousness. Liberals want all the goodies of individual liberty without the responsibilities that come with them. Its mantra is essentially that of a two-year-old child: give me all I want, but without imposing any sense of responsibility in the bargain. Libertarians, however, fully well understand that nothing in nature or society is free, and that accepting the benefits that government might wish to bestow inevitably forces a contraction in freedom.
But all told, there is no hope for libertarianism. It suffers from its fatal paradox, but more practically, it suffers from the impossibility of its denizens, like the guy with his dog shitting in my yard, from ever capably rising above their own selfish imperatives. If even a Ron Paul supporter doesn’t get that in order to be free of an oppressive and intrusive government people must respect boundaries, property and otherwise, else no one gets left alone, then libertarianism is a hopeless cause. People have always sought to twist government to their own purposes, seeking to do collectively that which they wouldn’t imagine doing individually. Though my sample size is only useful as anecdote, how could anyone hope to achieve the limited government promised of libertarianism if even libertarians have no compunction about individually infringing the rights of others? Collective action through government is a power too seductive to be resisted. The best can be hoped is the world remains in a Hegelian dialectic, never quite giving in to the passions of either side. Maybe if the liberal and conservative social engineers are busy battling each other, they will unwittingly leave us libertarians to our own devices. In the meantime, humble libertarians that wish just to be left alone might want to simply tend their gardens (keeping one eye open for government bureaucrats that might wish to regulate, a la Wickard v. Filburn, their backyard activities for its potential impact to the greater national good).
(And a final note to Ms. Baum—don’t despair at having skipped your Western philosophy classes. Of course, God or Buddha or Allah or Christ or Kant or Spinoza or even Rousseau, would whole-heartedly agree that two responsible gay guys raising crack babies is magnitudes better, i.e., is good, than two crack babies growing up without any hope of becoming anything more than crack daddies and mothers. That the conservative apologist would object to the hypothetical as Roussean in its emotional appeal reveals how little conservatives really think of the individual, and how they are as much about social engineering, and not freedom, as any liberal who believes the only answer to social ills is expanding the government writ. Conservatives are Sadducean in their impulse to defend institutions and not individuals. Speaking for libertarians, as I mostly am one, I think most would agree that it is a good thing–not necessarily for the society, because libertarians mainly don’t care about the greater society, but for the welfare of individual children–if responsible people, no matter their sexual orientation or race or national creed, etc, volunteer to help raise disadvantaged kids, and that good things like what your friend have agreed to do would happen more frequently if government, especially as government is run by conservatives, simply got out of the way).