I WAS A LIBERTARD
I used to be a “libertard.” What’s that, you ask, is it like what the unpleasant ones accuse Democrats and liberals with, a “libtard?” No, not what the gymnasts wear, it is not a leotard. I made this one up because it really needs to exist. It’s a name for a libertarian who is as convinced as a fundamentalist of his (or rarely her) beliefs and has proof for all of them. And would gladly lecture you on the subject but you’re not intelligent enough for them to waste time on.
I encountered Libertarianism in the late 1970s and especially in year 1978 when the national Libertarian convention was held in Boston. I had some good friends who were devoted Libertarians and I used to hang out and listen to them. Another major influence on me was reading the “Bible” of libertarianism namely Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” I read this instead of studying for my final exams in graduate school and nevertheless did well academically, though I hated every minute of it and was preparing to leave.
All of the libertarians I knew were science fiction fans and worked in the tech industry which was a big economic factor in the Boston area. In 1978 the Internet belonged to the U.S. military and a handful of scientists who shared data. Engineering and space calculating folks, almost all of them male, hung out in Harvard Square and their center of attraction not to mention book collecting was the “Science Fantasy Bookstore” presided over by the owner, Bruce Robert “Spike” MacPhee. I hung out there and listened to the conversations. It was not just politics they discussed, but “alternative” religion. I first heard of Neo-Paganism at Spike’s store, and it scared and fascinated me.
Rand was the prophetic author of the Holy Scriptures that no Libertarian can fully escape. The important thing is that Ayn Rand was a science fiction author, not a conventional novelist. She was succeeded by writer heroes such as Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, L. Neil Smith, and other macho-techno scriveners. This is added to with conservative theorist authors like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. These authors are on just about any Libertarian’s bookshelves. Their books often describe, as Rand does in “Atlas Shrugged,” a deteriorating civilization which can only be saved by brilliant engineering geniuses, “enlightened” military warlords, and capitalists of various sorts, reconstructing smokestack industries for the coming Millennium. Does this sound familiar? This is a fantasy by and for engineers and scientists. I listened patiently to countless conversations about how technology would save the world (this is the era of DARPA and the early Internet, after all.) The literary fans were the same people who dreamed of building themselves self-sustaining space or Moon or Mars colonies - with a libertarian social structure of course. Libertarians in Space! They were dosing themselves on Heinlein and Rand, a couple made in a philosophical techno-Utopia, “Galt’s Gulch” in space at the L5 equilibrium point.
If you assimilate (or are assimilated by) Libertarianism, you come into the domain of a weird variation on the clockwork world of the Enlightenment. The world, not just Earth but the Solar System, our Galaxy, and eventually the whole universe, is a great machine of turning gears, moving measured parts, action and reaction, check and balance. And the highest virtue is Reason and Logic, which Libertarians worship to this day. If you are intelligent enough, if you have enough reason and rationality, you can understand the system and see how one follows another, cause and effect, effort and result. And once you understand the system with your imperial wisdom, you can make it work for you.
In this view, there are no accidents, no mishaps, no inborn flaws or inevitable events. Everything has an explanation, and every problem has a solution, which you are responsible for. No begging for help from someone else - if you have the problem, you have the solution. Don’t have a job? Move to another place where there is work. Are you sick? Maybe you didn’t live a “healthy lifestyle.” You should work harder and make enough money to pay a doctor. Did your car break down? You didn’t maintain it. The combination of reason, rationality, and hard work can turn the wheels of the world. At least, this is the way it is supposed to be. Basically, the world makes logical sense and behaves in a logical and ultimately predictable way. This is true not only for us struggling individuals but for the general social world. Is a company polluting the environment? Organize a boycott and lawful protests to oppose the company, or just ignore it as pollution isn’t that bad for you. Is a store selling inferior merchandise? Is a provider delivering poor service? Don’t buy it and by the rules of logic, the store or provider will fail. In Libertarian World, not only are you the individual expected to take care of yourself, so is the wider social world. Sometimes, this works. But not all the time. What happens then? What happens if an accident or disability befalls you? You can organize help for yourself, find a job that allows for your disabilities, even seek help from a church or private charity. No one stops anyone from doing voluntary charitable work. But what if that is not enough? Government welfare? No way. “Taxation is theft!” The free market will solve all problems! Even if some poor soul is too disabled or old to work, you should not be forced to hand over your hard-earned cash to help them. You did the work, it was your mind and skill that earned the money. But…in that world how can anyone survive? Even if you did care about them? What if your best was still not enough?
No buts here, libertarian purists. Inexorable logic and reason will explain everything…maybe. Both in the social and the physics world. I often wonder what Ayn Rand would have thought about the findings of quantum mechanics, in which at the smallest level, there is no logic or chain of reasoning, only dismal, sizzling statistics. She actually lived at a time where quantum mechanics was well-known, but she didn’t choose to read about it or find out more about it. Where the “Objectivist Epistemology” depended on classical Greek or Medieval notions about an absolute rational-mind reality, anything that challenged that with a fundamental irrationality was simply unacceptable.
So you may ask me, What on earth attracted me, a typical miserable Eastern graduate student intellectual with a good background in basic knowledge…what on earth attracted me to Libertarianism and their prophetess Ayn Rand? It’s paradoxical. She ranted that “emotions are not tools of cognition!” but what attracted me was the way Randworld made me feel….powerful. I read Rand and wanted to be like Rand’s tall, hard edged blonde or red-haired heroes. I wanted to turn the world’s wheels, too. I wanted not to be an effeminate academic but a mind mover with the ideological wind blowing my cape behind me as the train passed by with a stirring horn blast. I knew the secret now. Rand’s Art Deco stylizing gave me a rush I can still feel today. It was part of why I left academia and became an artist instead…I wanted to re-create that rush in my own art work. And not picturing drippy mermaids or woodsy cottages or big-eyed puppies or girls in their nightgowns standing by golden pillars. I wanted to paint the images that would rev the engine of logic and industrial righteousness for you as well as me.
The only problem was that it was all a myth. The greatest shame for any Rand-ite was that I could not make a living all by myself. I accepted the crushing shame of not having a high-paying job but instead taking money from my generous parents. The shame of FAILURE. Which I have never escaped. I will never be a slick entrepreneur making millions on some gleaming iconic contraption. Nor will I ever wear a steel-hued satin evening dress. But I still sneaked looks at “Atlas Shrugged” every so often, just for the rush.
It was only when I read Adam Lee’s three-year commentary on “Atlas Shrugged” that the rush was stopped by a concrete block of moral reasoning and practical analysis. Lee is an Atheist blogger under the “Patheos” label and a fiction writer himself. He undertook this chapter-by-chapter evaluation of the Rand Scriptures purely for the need to save would-be thinkers like me from being ground under the wheels of the Objectivist train. He posted faithfully every Saturday and for those years I couldn’t wait for each week’s installment. He brilliantly deconstructed the twisted morality, horrific kinky relationships, proto-Fascism, and other dark smoky labyrinths of violence and wrong thinking, as well as the steaming plot holes.
Adam Lee destroyed the Rand zeppelin for me, but rather than watch it crash and burn I re-integrated the feeling into a line of my own art. You’ve seen my bright-colored geometric abstractions for years. The designs originally come from Art Deco and the early 20th century Bauhaus and the works of Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky. But they also come from old Madame Rand, where I can take ruler, T-square, or Photoshop and cast colors into the darkness. They are my skyscrapers, my power plants, my rockets and oil refineries, my technological flames. Now that you know their origin, you may not like these compositions any more. That won’t stop them. There’s always something completely different for you. In the name of the best within us, as the Iron Rand would say.