Chris Beem

Sorry Ron, some “freedoms” are not worth the cost

By - Jun 2nd, 2010 04:00 am
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

In the Washington Post last Thursday, George Will wrote a column on our own Ron Johnson, a Republican businessman from Oshkosh who is running for the U.S. Senate. Now that Dick Leinenkugel has paid the price for his sins (serving in the administration of Jim Doyle), Johnson will likely win his party’s nomination and challenge Russ Feingold in the fall.

Will offers a flattering portrait, painting Johnson and his campaign in terms of the latter’s “foundational book,” Atlas Shrugged, the magnum opus of Libertarian Ayn Rand. He even casts Johnson as the Wisconsin equivalent of John Galt, the book’s heroic symbol of self-sufficiency.

Here’s the money quote from Will’s piece:

“‘The most basic right,’ Johnson says, ‘is the right to keep your property.’ Remembering the golden age when, thanks to Ronald Reagan, the top income tax rate was 28 percent, Johnson says: ‘For a brief moment we were 72 percent free.’ Johnson’s daughter — now a nurse in neonatal intensive care — was born with a serious heart defect. The operations ‘when her heart was only the size of a small plum’ made him passionate about protecting the incentives that bring forth excellent physicians.”

For Rand and her disciples, freedom is the ultimate ideal. And a society is free when you can earn a living without worrying about government interference, and without having your money taken away and given to “parasitic non-producers” (Will’s words). This ideal is so simple, it is quantifiable: the more taxes we pay, the less freedom we have.

But as with all things that involve myriad moving parts, any time somebody tells you things are that simple, run for the hills. The world is not simple. Determined simplicity will inevitably conflict with reality, and when it does, reality loses every time.

Let’s start with health care. I am very glad that Johnson’s daughter is alive and well. But there is something unseemly about telling this story,  even as his campaign touts health care reform as some kind of Bolshevik plot. What would have happened to Johnson’s daughter if he had been working at Walmart and had no health insurance?  And what would Johnson say now to the father who does?  Does freedom mean that it would be better to live in a society in which some fathers are able to watch their daughters get better and some are not? Is that extra percentage of freedom from

Rand Paul. Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore

taxes worth such a price?

On May 18, Rand Paul won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky.  He, like Johnson, has embraced the libertarian label. Yet Paul almost immediately ran into problems when his unflinching defense of freedom caused him to question the legitimacy of the Civil Rights Act. Paul insists that he is no racist, but freedom demands that business owners have a right to serve whoever they want. If a restaurant owner wants to keep out blacks, or gays, he would abhor their choice, but that is the price we pay for a free society.

Let’s grant the point: business owners are less free because of the Civil Rights Act. But our society is also more just, more equitable and more moral. That tiny diminution in freedom is therefore a trade that I am happy our society chose to make. And I frankly question the moral intelligence of anybody who would not. For that reason, I would like to hear our Randian acolyte offer a response.

And in the name of all that is holy, do I really need to mention what is happening off the coast of Louisiana? Apparently so, for while coverage of the BP spill is everywhere on the Washington Post’s webpage, it is completely absent from George Will’s column. Why?

Because Rand’s and Will’s and Johnson’s ideology cannot make sense of what has happened. In their world, government is the problem; hindering the noble entrepreneur and then taking his money. Their simplistic world view cannot admit the notion that more and better governmental oversight would almost certainly have prevented this spill. Nor can they understand that most people would happily trade a miniscule loss of freedom — in this case, the enforcement of safety standards — for the Gulf to go back to the way things were 2 months ago.

Freedom is an essential good. It is worth fighting and dying for. But it is not the only good. Some goods are public; they belong to everyone. The Gulf of Mexico is a public good. So are clean air, public parks and safe streets. Most people wonder what freedom would even mean without these things. But by Johnson’s logic, our society would be better precisely to the degree that our government had less means to preserve them.

I shudder at that vision. He might be a model of the heroic entrepreneur but I, for one, am not buying.

0 thoughts on “Sorry Ron, some “freedoms” are not worth the cost”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A decent deconstruction of the supposedly freedom-loving Ayn Rand cultists. But it doesn’t go far enough in pointing out how many of these so-called “libertarians” don’t give a hoot beyond their own interests, or whatever corporate interests they are pimping on any given day. Most of them, Ron Johnson and George Will included, are like the pigs in ANIMAL FARM, who judge themselves “more equal” than others. They’ll happily set fire to the First Amendment the moment it protects the rights of someone with whom they disagree, they attack the American Civil Liberties Union shamlessly and often, and are hard-wired to believe the grossest corporate infringements on our freedoms are somehow more benign than any imposed by government.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A good rule of thumb: anyone who praises Ayn Rand is an idiot. Anyone who’s praised *by* someone praising Ayn Rand is probably an idiot.

    Anyway: I might respect libertarians generally if, along with being all huffy throwing hissy fits about taxes, they also gave up any and all benefits that come their way from taxes. So: no driving, flying, or using the train (all transportation systems are subsidized and largely possible via government), no police or fire response (duh), no using any medicines or treatments developed wholly or partly by or in conjunction with publicly funded universities or research centers, etc. Without abjuring all of that, libertarians are just the typical selfish type who’ll take what benefits them while complaining about what does not, and pretending there’s some sort of principle underlying their whines.

  3. Anonymous says:

    (No, I am not the candidate…just another libertarian with a great name :))
    I suspect Chris Beem doesn’t know many real live libertarians, or this article would have been better thought out. Let me touch on a few points:
    1. Ayn Rand hated libertarians. She was all over the board with her support of Richard Nixon and “Scoop” Jackson. I don’t really understand it except that it was part of the ‘cult’ that her every pronouncement was truth, regardless of how wacky. Nevertheless. her books have inspired libertarians and non-libertarians alike. Some of the passages in Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead are jaw-dropping beautiful and insightful (others are wooden and pedestrian). Libertarians, like me, were formed by being exposed to Ayn Rand at an early age, but we didn’t stop there. We’ve read Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, Wood, Rockwell, Rose Wilder Lane, Spooner, Jefferson, etc. Because we found Rand to be formative does not mean we did not branch out and acquire more depth and perspective. I don’t know your Ron Johnson, but I’ll bet he does more than quote Rand chapter and verse. He would have to if he chose to call himself a libertarian.
    2. In a more libertarian time, before WWI, the distribution of wealth in American society was much flatter. The ratio between rich and poor was much less pronounced then than it is today. Why? Libertarian theory says government interference in the free market inevitably is twisted to favor the wealthy (power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely). We are witnessing that happen today with the big bank and Wall Street bailouts. We are quickly becoming a two tiered society, as the writer noted, with the elite ultra rich politically connected on one side, and you and me on the other. (Hint: Obamacare will not change this…infact it will probably exacerbate it. The rich will not be phased by the mandates, but you and I will be impoverished by them.)
    3. It’s a pity not enough people read Martin Luther King. He marched to end Jim Crow laws which forced society to segregate. Where did those laws come from? From racists who were appalled at the eroding racism in the south after the Civil War. The people, left to their own devices, were breaking down the race barriers and they objected to the use of government power to force people to segregate. (There are great sources of information at the website maintained by King’s family.) Enacting a law prohibiting discrimination in private businesses is a sham…racists simply find reasons not to hire the black guy while they smile in his face and claim to be an equal opportunity employer. This hidden racism is not lost on blacks. There is a deep distrust of the motives of whites by blacks, and that distrust is directly related to the inability to figure out who is a racist and who is not. Clearly, discrimination is happening, but who’s “ass do you kick?” Better to let the racists let their ‘freak flag fly’ so we all know who to avoid. Forty six years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, we still have not bridged the gap…because, in part, of the Civil Rights Act.
    4. The writer mentions “moral intelligence,” as if he places himself higher than other people, therefore making it ok to force other people to live the way he wants them to live. Not very moral, in my book.
    5. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico happened despite numerous overlapping regulatory agencies and, supposedly, stringent regulations. The truth is, regulatory agencies may start out with good intentions, but they inevitably get perverted and serve the purposes of the people they’re supposed to be regulating. The perversion even has a name: Captive Agency Syndrome. Ironically, one of the regulations is that the oil company’s legal liability is capped at $75 million. A paltry sum. If their legal liability was for all damages they incur, then they would be more circumspect in the how they affect the environment of other people. But, thanks to government regulation, BP had little to lose in a spill, but a lot to lose if that well kept draining them at the rate of a million dollars per day. The marketplace regulates through potential profits and losses. When we remove the liability for the loses from the people who are incuring the loses, we witness something called ‘moral hazard.’ No (or mitigated) consequences means out-of-control risk taking. That describes BP, as well as the financial system. Moral hazard virtually guarantees any other attempts are regulation will be thwarted.

    This was a long response, and I thank you for your indulgence. Libertarianism is not two dimensional idealistic thinking. It is principled, nuanced, logical, and well developed by hundreds of years of experience as well as the thoughts of some of the best and the brightest thoughout history.

    I invite Chris to discuss issues with real live libertarians (warning: we tend to discuss ad nauseum). Perhaps he should even give good old Ron Johnson (not me, the other guy) a call and get into his head. Could be enlightening.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the author the freedom of business is a small price to pay to hold a nation together, it is wrong to take this as a personal attack on Ron Johnson this is an attack on an ideal that is fundamentally corrupt, the idea of freedom to discriminate is ridiculous. The point that the government often favors big business is true, mainly because of the “Freedoms” granted to big businesses allowing them to lobby until politicians give in, or make huge campaign donations that they wouldn’t be able to make if it weren’t for our “Libertarian” viewpoints. While freedom is important the strength of the nation cannot be placed below your small and petty business. Libertarians are the ultimate anarchist capitalist believing they should be able to live as wild savage business owners using whatever methods necessary to make a fast buck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *