“Public Schools in Utopia”

by Sam Buntz

Recently, Allison Benedikt, writing in Slate, declared, “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.”  I totally disagree with this—and not just with the broad generalization itself, but also with most of its underlying principles.  I don’t at all think Ms. Benedikt is a fool or particularly ill-intentioned—I just don’t believe she reasoned out the implications of what she was writing to a very profound degree.

Now, in the interests of fully disclosing my own history, I was educated at a private Montessori school up to fourth grade, and then attended public school until I graduated from high school.  So, I spent most of my education in the public system, took the good with the bad, and here I am.  I have no personal beef with public school, nor any bias in favor of private education.  What most concerns me are the principles at stake—namely, the classic dilemma of individual liberty opposed to the common good, but also the greater claim that having everyone participate in one system will somehow improve it.

Benedikt assumes that if we (voluntarily) sent every kid in America to public school, the public school system would ultimately improve over the course of generations.  She writes, “…it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”  The rest of the article proceeds by taking this assumption for granted—rather than attempting to defend it or even explain, exactly, the mechanism by which universal participation in one system of education will improve public education as a whole.  She says that even religious and behavioral or learning issues aren’t compelling reasons for a family to send their kids to private school—“compelling” being a pretty subjective term, as an Amish person in Lancaster County or a New York Hasidic Jew would obviously find religious reasons very compelling, and a parent with a child dealing with cerebral palsy or a dyslexia—disabilities the local public school might be woefully unequipped to deal with—would certainly find such reasons compelling, as well.

Benedikt’s argument—insofar as it is clearly articulated—also only makes sense if you’re willing to argue that people should sacrifice not only their own basic, human rights and interests (the integrity of their belief systems, the physical and mental well-being of their children) in the favor of a distant common good that might not benefit people with the same religious beliefs or medical difficulties, but would (in theory) generally benefit the average person to a possibly greater degree.  Even if this were true—and it isn’t—it’s ridiculous to ask someone to sacrifice their concern for their children or for the perpetuation of their religious beliefs because it possibly could benefit everybody generations later—or at least everyone who doesn’t have any specific concerns and falls squarely in the median zone of every statistical measurement.

Even if Benedikt were correct—and this would lead to a general increase in the common good—it would still be a morally unconscionable way of doing it, a classic case of bad means leading to a good end.  But the idea that a universal public education system, with total participation and with no rival private systems to compete with, could somehow manage to correct itself over time in favor of the general interest, seems extremely dubious to me.  It leaves out all that we’ve managed to learn about the perils of group-think, about the necessity of leaving big societal programs (like education) somewhat decentralized, so that, if the central system most people use (public education) doesn’t get something right—adopting a particular method to deal with a learning disability, for instance—one of the outlying systems or marginal systems (Catholic schools or Montessori schools or Waldorf schools or take-your-pick) might provide a better alternative.

If there’s only one system—or even just two or three—it will, I think, easily settle into stasis.  No energy can enter into it from outside—it ceases to be open to anything—and it will gradually grind down to as low a level as it can possibly reach, while still, technically, functioning.  That, to my mind, seems like a much more likely outcome of universal public education.  But having multiple systems—and the ever-abiding potential to create entirely new systems—would actually (for the aforementioned reasons) keep the public school system working at a higher level.  Benedikt assumes that universal participation means that, since every parent would have a stake in the system, all would pitch in to make sure it improves.  But, without other systems in which experimentation and innovation can occur, how does something truly new enter into the public school system?  How do improvements arise?  You can’t just materialize them magically—you need to have an element of competition, with different interests free to move in different directions, to see varying outcomes and measure them against each other.

The Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, argued that a real “Utopia” would not be some sort of utterly unified ideal society, but rather a state of liberty in which all parties were allowed to pursue their own “utopias”, creating different patterns of community and voluntary organization that would succeed or fail based on their ultimate value.  Ms. Benedikt—who I’m sure is well-intentioned, and who makes her argument in a tone that is pretty light, and not overly serious in the first place (even though we’re meant to take it seriously)— proposes the opposite state of affairs, while also disregarding the liberty and dignity of religious minorities and of those dealing with learning, medical, and behavioral disabilities.  I offer these remarks as a corrective and not as an attack, and I hope she—if she happens to read them, somehow—will reconsider her views.


“Between the Party of Memory and the Party of Hope”

by Sam Buntz

“Rabbi Zusya said, ‘When I die, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’  I will be asked ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” – Martin Buber

In the contemporary liberal approach to education, the contribution of the past—the statements of Church Fathers and Founding Fathers and the assorted “Dead White Men” who dominated the cultural history of Europe and America—doesn’t particularly matter.  The goodness of the individual is, to some degree, assumed—the student just needs a little prodding and molding, helping him or her to get the facts straight.  With gentle social engineering—making sure, for instance, that people understand that racism and sexism are wrong (and they are wrong, certainly; that part of the approach is admirable) and de-conditioning them from their acquired habits as consumerists (less possible and less admirable)— you can ultimately live in a world that is very close to a utopia.  If you can correct the social code just a little bit (or even quite radically), you can ultimately nudge (or shove) society as whole towards making all the right choices, the assumption being that the well-educated people doing the nudging (or shoving) already know what the right choices are.  The liberal uses reason as a tool for planning or re-imagining the shape of society.  He or she (in the purity of theory) does not necessarily depend on a comparative analysis of societal or cultural shapes from the past, attempting to use them as models. One ought to generate the model entirely through the application of reason and empirical knowledge, detached from prior institutional or cultural frameworks.  Emerson referred to such liberals as comprising “The Party of Hope.”

The conservative approach to education is obviously totally different, almost the inverse.  At its worst, it takes the form of mental slavery to one ancient Book of Books or one unchangeable code—but, at its best, it involves an intense attempt to absorb and master the storehouse of acquired wisdom, putting the best that has already been thought and said into action.  Rather than vesting their hopes in a better future they can nudge people towards, the conservative puts his or her expectations into shared cultural memory.  Like Emerson said, the conservative is a member of “The Party of Memory.”  Frequently, however, this does not mean that memory is the key to liberating human beings—using knowledge of our origins to spark us into a fresh awareness of our present condition.  Rather, the conservative often means that we should be utterly obedient to tradition.  The strictures of a St. Augustine or the most original and verifiable sayings of a Final Prophet (without the tradition’s later refinements and interpretations) end up being the last and unquestioned guides for human conduct.

Of course, for myself, neither of these positions is acceptable.  I do agree with the basic, conservative idea that an education should center on an awareness of one’s past and one’s origins—but I don’t view that knowledge, knowledge of “The Tradition”, as something that should be completely (or even rather less completely) binding.  The point of knowing the tradition—of understanding the forces that shaped yourself and your society—is not to then slavishly offer one’s self to those forces.  Tradition is not something you obey—it’s something with which you match wits.  You are to absorb it utterly—to take every bit of wisdom it offers you, and to know its folly and its un-wisdom, as well.  While the liberal thinks that a good or truly new idea can only emerge from the present and instantaneous application of reason and empiricism, and the conservative thinks that a good or new idea can only be a resuscitated old idea, the third stance—which I consider a sort of Classical Liberal position—is to believe that a good or truly new idea can (and must) come into existence, but that it can only be fertilized in the soil of time—in the richness left by old ideas and insights, now possibly decayed, but still containing the ingredients needed to incubate a new realization, a new conquest of reality.

If one tries to dispel the specter of the past entirely, one reaches the extreme touched by the Bolsheviks or by Pol Pot, who tried to start the calendar over at Year One.  Attempting to use reason, without granting it access to the material of the cultural and political past, they ended up with an utterly monstrous society.  Consequently, were someone to attempt to dispense with the entirety of civilized Western or civilized Islamic thought—to live only in a medieval Catholic feudal order, or to live by the fundamentals of the Koran, as the Salafists do, without the aid of the entire history of Islamic jurisprudence to moderate one’s interpretation—one also ends up with something that would, by any humane moral and ethical standard, look pretty monstrous and absurd.

The Past Masters’ understanding and wisdom—from whatever cultural tradition—looms up as an affront to one’s own.  You see how much value the Canon has inside of it, and you—if you’re a person who can appreciate Genius and greatness when you see them—feel humbled.  But you also feel re-energized—the more you study, the more you notice things that seem off, that seem half-reasoned or discredited.  You begin to sense your own competence, your own ability to digest and assimilate these ideas, and develop a viewpoint peculiar to yourself.  As Paul Valery said (in a quote cited in another recent blog post—one I wrote on Bob Dylan), “A lion is made from digested sheep.”  Ultimately, the student—by which I mean any person questing for understanding, to know the true and the good—deals with the same heady realizations that challenged the Masters and Matrons of the past, the same sense of an inner power rising up, provoked by the apprehension of external greatness, of Genius.  In “As I Sat on Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Walt Whitman expressed this in a profound and highly memorable passage:

“I will confront these shows of the day and night,
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they,
I will see if I am not as subtle and real as they,
I will see if I am to be less generous than they,
I will see if I have no meaning, while the houses and ships have meaning,
I will see if the fishes and birds are to be enough for themselves,
and I am not to be enough for myself.

“I match my spirit against yours you orbs, growths, mountains, brutes,
Copious as you are I absorb you all in myself, and become the master

“America isolated yet embodying all, what is it finally except myself?
These States, what are they except myself?
I know now why the earth is gross, tantalizing, wicked—it is for my sake,
I take you specially to be mine, you terrible, rude forms.”

No Self, No Merit, No Fame

(A Brief Note on Taoists and Libertarians)

by Sam Buntz

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.”

Tao Te Ching

Libertarian thinkers have already noted certain apparent similarities between their philosophy and that of the ancient Chinese wisdom teachers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.  (For the record, many Western scholars claim Lao Tzu might not have existed and that his work was primarily a compilation of sayings.  They might have good reasons for reaching this conclusion, but I sometimes wonder if people one thousand years from now won’t wrongly claim T.S. Eliot or William Blake as invented personalities, as they have in the case of Homer, no less than Lao Tzu.)  Yet, it is difficult to corral the doctrines of, say, Ayn Rand, a common Libertarian idol, into the same pen as these Men of the Tao (Tao, for the benefit of the uninitiated, usually translated as “The Way”—though, according to Lao Tzu’s paradoxical saying, “The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.”)  Indeed, both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu praised “action-less action”, whether by the government or by anybody, but their meaning flowed from a different intellectual and spiritual vein than that of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Tea Party people.  Practically, many of the implications for government would be the same, but the Taoist Sages didn’t want to reduce the role of government in order to emancipate selfishness, and would’ve reacted with ironic amusement to the title and content of Ms. Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

I think that Chuang Tzu would’ve thought that someone who talked a bit too much about the utter-sovereignty and centrality of self-interest had probably fallen off the wagon so long ago, as to have forgotten what the human spirit really is, identifying it with mere desire, or (so much the worse) the critical intellect.  According to the Taoists, the spirit doesn’t want anything—that grasping instinct springs from a source far dirtier than that of the pristine spirit, which would imitate the turtle, who, in one of Chuang Tzu’s tales, prefers to remain alive in the river’s mud than to be stuffed up dead on a shelf in the emperor’s palace.  The contented spirit simply “abides” (in a manner similar and dissimilar to that of the ever-abiding Dude from The Big Lebowski).  When Ayn Rand attacked the Libertarians for being “hippies of the Right” and associating with “anarchists and scum” she was attacking the most noble side of the Libertarian movement, it’s would-be Taoists, who follow (however un-gracefully) the non-method of wu wei, “effortless effort.”  She would’ve reacted with bilious scorn to Chuang Tzu’s wonderfully blithe affirmation: “Therefore, I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.”

Of course, the Taoists weren’t talking about being couch potatoes—yet the reflective couch potato often discovers a wisdom more sublime than that of the frenetic hot-rodder.  Such is the fertility of stillness.  Yet, the crucial term is, after all, “effortless effort”, which is different from plain effortlessness, the abyss of dark inertia.  The followers of Chuang Tzu—insofar as such an individualist can be said to have voluntarily had “followers” rather than a free assortment of interested parties—did not (and do not) seek a “triumph of the will”, a victory attained by force over either nature of their fellow human beings.  Nor was theirs a path of proto-hippie self-indulgence, wallowing in easy pleasures and mistaking it for transcendence. Far from it! The Taoist path is one in which the critical mind—that which makes judgments and distinctions—attains the freedom to drop off or slow down.  It is a sublime wriggling out of the chrysalis, a rupture of the cocoon, precipitated without aggression.  The Tao—the way of that which is naturally so—simply keeps going, “a river flowing everywhere, like a sea” (in Wallace Stevens’ words) and events occur as they occur.  It is a practical mysticism, one that does not baffle the soul with over-many metaphysical complexities (although “religious Taoism” does have a very complex and beautiful metaphysics and cosmology—but I’m speaking more of Taoism as a philosophy.)

In Taoist thought, the critical intellect may have good intentions—like those of so many communists and authoritarians who thought they could manage us into utopia—but it is unable to carry them out without reducing its object to the conditions of the police state or the gulag.  There is a famous parable from Chuang Tzu, describing how “King Chaos” (“Chaos” being taken not in a pejorative sense, as in the West, but in the sense of the Unconditioned, the state in which the Tao flows without impediment) hosted two visiting kings (representing, I believe, the ratiocinative intellect, the time-bound mind) named “Sudden” and “Brief”.  Chaos entertained them very well, whenever they visited, and so they wished to re-pay him.  Noting that King Chaos did not have any of the five senses, the other two kings decided to drill him some eyes and ears, a nose and a mouth.  Seven days after this operation, we are informed, King Chaos died.  The parable brilliantly illustrates a truth that has personal as well as political ramifications.  The attempt of the critical mind to carve up and manage reality—whether it is reality as one’s own household or neighborhood or reality as a contemporary nation-state—fails.  The patient dies.  The parable implicitly counsels calm abiding, and an intuitive acceptance of the “spontaneous order” of reality (the term “spontaneous order” being used by the Austrian School economist, F.A. Hayek, to describe the order that develops within free markets of its own accord—a shadowy and perhaps less-than-perfect image of the kingdom of King Chaos.)

Oscar Wilde was a “socialist” or an “anarchist”—though apparently of the voluntary variety, and hence consistent with libertarian principles—in addition to being one of the first admirers of Chuang Tzu in the Western World.  Wilde wrote a fascinating review of one of the first translations of Chuang Tzu, wherein he presents and summarizes the sage’s vision of the Ideal State (existing, one can suppose, more as a form or guiding image, than as an achievable earthly nation—rather like Plato’s Republic, except utterly departing from the incipient totalitarianism of that political model):

“Yes; incredible as it may seem, this curious thinker looked back with a sigh of regret to a certain Golden Age when there were no competitive examinations, no wearisome educational systems, no missionaries, no penny dinners for the people, no Established Churches, no Humanitarian Societies, no dull lectures about one’s duty to one’s neighbour, and no tedious sermons about any subject at all. In those ideal days, he tells us, people loved each other without being conscious of charity, or writing to the newspapers about it. They were upright, and yet they never published books upon Altruism. As every man kept his knowledge to himself, the world escaped the curse of scepticism; and as every man kept his virtues to himself, nobody meddled in other people’s business. They lived simple and peaceful lives, and were contented with such food and raiment as they could get. Neighbouring districts were in sight, and ‘the cocks and dogs of one could be heard in the other,’ yet the people grew old and died without ever interchanging visits. There was no chattering about clever men, and no laudation of good men. The intolerable sense of obligation was unknown. The deeds of humanity left no trace, and their affairs were not made a burden for posterity by foolish historians.”

Wilde and Chuang Tzu provide an idealism that is refreshing.  I don’t believe that such a Golden Age is something attainable through external reforms—but that’s exactly the point.  The Man or Woman of the Tao finds himself or herself already living in the Golden Age, once the mania of critical organization falls away from the mind.  The Western Wit and the Eastern Sage both recognize that relaxation is blessed—the most truly creative state—whereas all that braces or restrains ought to be thoroughly damned.  Plenty of young idealists today call for the removal of taboos, but their obsession with these taboos often belies an over-consciousness of them.  The worst taboos exist inside the head—obstructions and blockages that impede the Tao.  In a weird though effective metaphor, Lao Tzu likens the sage to an infant: “It knows nothing of the union of the male and female / And yet its virile member stirs.”

Do I intend these observations to function as a program for society?  Obviously not, given how self-defeating it would be to turn wu wei into a social program, with committees and spaghetti dinners.  However, I do believe that a heady dose of Chuang Tzu would perform wonders in our world.  The would-be world reformers in our society seek to reform the world through the very methods that have consistently made it un-reformable.  The real state of peace and abiding dignity that everyone claims to be looking for was found by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu in that state of “effortless effort”, that primordial non-method of wu wei. In an America troubled by schemes added upon schemes, by over-management and bureaucracy, by senseless aggression and circular criticisms—like every large country that has existed or every large country that ever will exist (at least, in this Iron Age)—the wisdom of the Taoist sages has the capacity to confound our categories, disrupt the casual course of reason and good sense, and (most importantly) calm us down.  It even has the potential to inject a word we so frequently bandy about—I mean, Liberty—with a new and radical meaning.  Since the ethic of liberty lies in non-coercion, what better philosophy to uphold it than a philosophy that supports non-coercion not only in the international arena, but in the overlapping realms of the body, the mind, and the soul?

Celebrity Smackdown: Thoreau vs. Marx

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never felt the attraction of socialism—although I think I understand what makes it appealing.  For a while, I admit, I was interested in non-Marxist forms of socialism and communal forms of living—like the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy— but this was mainly because those paths made individual development a priority, and they were voluntary associations.  Their existence wasn’t compelled from above by the state, and the thinkers who inspired those movements didn’t say the kinds of things that Karl Marx said— for instance, that “The smallest human unit is two people.”  Although many people find this statement to be a beautiful condensation of the idea that we ought to live for others, it never resonated with me.  In fact, it repelled me.  I do believe we ought to help other people—not that we should be forced to help them, though, since this usually proves to be self-defeating enough.  The idealists who devoutly espouse this principle often seem to think a bit too narrowly about what it means to help other people.  They end up becoming the flip-side of the Ayn Rand worshippers, who make it a moral imperative to live selfishly and not to help others.  That is, they seem to think about charity in primarily material terms—curing hunger and sickness, for example.  But every socialist or communist country that has ever come into existence—and I mean the nations which enforced complete government ownership of all industries and the abolition of most private property, and not the Scandinavian countries, where private property and private enterprise both still exist—seems to have ended by reducing the concerns of humanity to the base material level.  The greatest artists and spiritual figureheads the Soviet Union produced were its dissenters and undertakers—people like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak—and not the various Stalinist lackeys whose artistic and architectural monstrosities now seem as dead as the empire that funded them.

Undoubtedly, hunger and sickness are enemies we need to fight—but if I insisted that everyone commit themselves to a Marxist notion of what it means to fight them, I would never have allowed Thoreau to spend so much time idling on Walden Pond and in Concord, Mass., taking eight slow years to finally revise and self-publish a book about his often solitary life-experiences. A committed Marxist would’ve seen what many of Thoreau’s more materially-minded contemporaries saw—a lay-about who wanted to “hoard his virtue for himself”, to collect nature-lore and observe the passage of the seasons without ever lifting a finger for others (aside, of course, from sheltering slaves on the Underground Railroad and performing the occasional act of civil disobedience—which are, admittedly, pretty significant instances of Thoreau’s social-conscience.)  All of Thoreau’s contemporaries (except Emerson) were blind to the great gift of Walden—and it failed to find its full audience until the Great Depression clued people into the virtues of simplicity, and again, with a resurgence in the 1960s.  It did eventually have an impact on tens of thousands of people—yet essential to its eventual success was the fact that it had been produced by a man, who, in his lifetime, shirked the idea that we ought to live overtly and materially for others.  He criticized this idea in a passage from Walden:

“I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man… His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion.”

This is perfectly balanced wisdom.  But if Thoreau had lived in the Soviet Union, he would’ve been prime fodder for the Gulag.  Of course, post-modern Marxists will argue that the Soviet Union failed to realize Marx’s ideal—which, I would submit, is due to the fact that no one can realize it.  (And besides, the authoritarian state endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao didn’t depart significantly from Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”, anyway.)  And I don’t mean to argue that, since Walden never would’ve been written if Thoreau had lived in a communist state, the Marxist idea is totally bankrupt.  I mean to argue that since thousands upon thousands of meaningful achievements, attained by people known and unknown to the world-at-large, would never have happened if they had been circumscribed by Marx’s rigidly material notion of human-development, the Marxist ideal is totally bankrupt.

The American Transcendentalist tradition—which is fairly close to enlightened Libertarianism—is not an enemy of charity, but only of a materialistic notion of charity.  Emerson did say that he thought a dollar given to the philanthropist was a wicked dollar, although he sometimes indulged in it himself, but his meaning was evidently that real charity isn’t second-hand, but something we produce with our own energy and through the use of our own talents.  I used to think Steve Jobs was a bit selfish for saying that he thought he could due more good for the world by investing his money in Apple, rather than trying to set up a massive charitable foundation like Bill Gates, but ultimately I think that both paths are valid.  The Socialist tendency to condemn all private enterprise jars irreconcilably with this fact.  It would be better to start competing, and marketing good and ethically-responsible products against the constant flow of crappy products that don’t improve life, and in fact damage or lessen it, rather than attempting to destroy those wasteful or value-less products through management from above.  Too often we try to combat those products—like the Kardashian shows or whatever cliché object of derision you want to use for demonstration—by railing against the stupidity of the consumer and attempting to get the government or society to somehow protect the consumer from his or her own negative propensities.  But did it ever occur to anyone that the consumer’s attention might actually be more effectively diverted by the production of quality alternatives—by great ideas and slick marketing?  One might need to wait for some time to see the final fruition of the goal (like Thoreau’s ghost had to), but it is important to consider Time as an ally.  Emerson urged people to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness—such advice would’ve probably diverted the energy that was wasted in things like the Occupy Movement into infinitely more effective channels.  Individualism and Libertarianism are not for people who want to manipulate the public interest without creating anything real—they’re for people who believe that the latent powers of mind and will in humanity-at-large will respond when provoked by a true act of creation.

Enlightened Libertarianism?

by Sam Buntz

“Practice no-action; attend to do-nothing; taste the flavorless, magnify the small, multiply the few, return love for hate.” – Tao Te Ching

Libertarianism is ready to strike, but has yet to prove whether its attack will be that of a wasp, stinging once and dying, its innards ripped out by the force of its initial attempt, or that of a more tenacious and canny beast.  At present, I think the main problem with Libertarianism, from a practical and not a philosophical standpoint, is that it has yoked its wagon to a waning star: back in the bad old days, when Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard were at the helm of the Libertarian Party, they sought foolishly to seek out the support of that inelegant species, the Enraged White Southern Male—hence, the racism and homophobia present in Ron Paul’s newsletters from the ’80s and ’90s.  And even though Rothbard was Jewish, he called for a “Redneck Outreach” effort to bolster the movement, and once seemed to defend David Duke.  That Klan-ish specter still haunts contemporary Libertarians—most of whom are, I believe, socially liberal, or tend that way—evidenced by the fact that Jack Hunter, with whom Rand Paul co-authored his first book, performed as a radio personality named the “Southern Avenger”, praising Lincoln’s assassination whilst donning a Confederate-flag mask (among other objectionable words and actions).  Politicians can, evidently, live anything down once, and I suspect Hunter’s former racism (or, at least, his woefully misguided notion of what “states rights” means) won’t impact Senator Rand more negatively than President Obama’s friendship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright affected him.  It’s pretty easy for a Southern Republican to disavow a racist past, and even easier to dismiss that of an associate.  However, minimal as it may ultimately prove to be, I do think that this situation illustrates an important point about the precariously hopeful situation of the wider Libertarian movement.  It’s full of potential, but its own impurities may deliver it stillborn.

Looking back to the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, we can find plenty of Republicans who took essentially the same attitude towards foreign and domestic politics that Libertarians take today.  For instance, the man known as “Mr. Republican”, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, intensely opposed all overseas intervention, most notably, by objecting to American involvement in World War II (maybe not his best decision, but still one that demonstrated his commitment to the ideal of non-coercion.)  He was also a major antagonist of the New Deal, though his biggest victory came with the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947, which, among other things, prevented unions from enforcing a “closed shop”.  With a few caveats, it remains the Federal labor law to this day.  Additionally, in the same way that most Libertarians oppose the drug war, Taft objected to Prohibition.  But, despite these parallels with contemporary Libertarianism—namely, a dogged commitment to non-aggression in spheres both international and domestic—Taft was far from the racism and “Redneck Outreach” of the early Ron Paul.  He resolutely opposed the Ku Klux Klan at a time when its political influence in the South and Midwest was enormous, voted against mandatory Bible-reading in public schools, and cast one of the very few votes against the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.  Also, although he disliked the New Deal—particularly condemning deficit spending and agricultural subsidies (reminiscent of those offered to the farmers who are paid not to grow alfalfa in Catch 22)—he supported Social Security.  John F. Kennedy later made Taft one of his “Profiles in Courage”, honoring him for questioning the lack of due process in the Nuremberg trials when it was extremely unpopular to do so.  Taft combined Libertarian principles with a humane sensibility—a combination that occurs, in the present day, all too infrequently.

Going back even further, Abraham Lincoln’s version of the Republican Party was much closer to true economic Libertarianism than were the politics of the slave-owning oligarchs in the South—which ought to prove a particularly valuable lesson for Rand Paul and his confreres.  People often forget that the Civil War commenced not because the North attempted to infringe on “states rights” in the South, but because the Southern Slave Power tried to expand slavery into the West and (effectively) the North, turning Kansas and Nebraska into a blood-drenched battleground, passing legislation that would’ve forced Northerners to hand over escaped slaves, and even—with the notorious Dred Scott decision (the most horrific example of judicial activism in our nation’s history)—allowing slave-masters to bring their slaves into free states without fear of prosecution, essentially spreading slavery into the North.  In the true Libertarian spirit—if Liberty has anything to do with Libertarianism (and it should)—Lincoln’s Republicans and “Free Soil” Democrats (like Walt Whitman) were simply trying to make sure that new states would operate on the basis of free-exchange, instead of on the authoritarian basis of the Slave Power.  The Libertarians who identify with the Neo-Confederate South-will-rise-again mentality doom themselves by associating intellectually dead and discredited ideas with a much broader and more truly “progressive” set of ideals.  Most reasonable people agree that free markets have done more good than bad, increasing global prosperity—or, at the very least, the potential for global prosperity—everywhere they’ve developed, provided they’re not being hampered by corruption and favoritism.  It’s the very thing Lincoln attempted to insure against the shackles of the slaveholder (and the reason why radical collectivists like the late Howard Zinn won’t say anything too nice about Lincoln.  He too readily disturbs their conceits.)  The anti-immigrant bigotry of the Know-Nothing Party was countered and ultimately overwhelmed by the tide of history, which turned towards the more inclusive vision of the American Way favored by Lincoln, the “Radical Republicans”, Coolidge, Taft, and others.  Those who seek to chain the noble ideal of Libertarianism to far-right populism ought to take heed.

I trot out my admittedly amateurish knowledge of American history only to provide a few humble suggestions to those who lean toward supporting the free-market, working to reduce elements of centralized-control in the economy while de-centralizing government.  If the Libertarians and the fiscally concerned Republicans want to make real gains, they’re going to need to lighten-up on issues like immigration and gay marriage and fully distance themselves from unfortunate racist associations, while more ardently courting Latino, Asian, and African-American voters.  Then, they’ll be free to take desperately needed measures, like breaking the teachers’ unions’ stranglehold on the educational system, and pursuing a balanced budget amendment and a “Read the Bills” law.  If they’re prudent, they can hopefully help turn the tide against the over-zealous hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have been dominating the Republican Party and even exercising undue influence on the Democrats.  The Libertarians can re-direct America’s foreign policy towards subtler diplomatic tactics (and here, Rand Paul has proven himself to be a gifted statesman).  The age of Taft’s full-stop non-interventionism is over, but a lighter touch—found neither on the Left or the Right—is much desired.  And medical marijuana legalization will certainly prove to be another winning issue.  If the Libertarians can disassociate themselves from their ideologically incompatible Neo-Confederate Tea Party fellow-travelers, and embrace a humane attitude towards gays and immigrants and support the very basic guarantees of equal opportunity—while wholeheartedly and sincerely rejecting the Romney-ite tendency to dismiss nearly half of the population as moochers—they might actually manage to free the American people to better their own lot, if they can but extend their influence with care and craft.  It is the most enlightened Libertarians who better grasp the peculiar brand of wisdom enunciated by the Tao Te Ching than many of our current ideologues: “When government is lazy and informal / The people are kind and honest; / When government is efficient and severe / The people are discontented and deceitful.”