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