18 May 2010

Let's get political: A former high school libertarian speaks out

I think I present the image of being rather apolitical. I think it's somewhat of a misrepresentation of the full extent of how I think politically, but it's convenient.

Most political discourse sucks. You present a political opinion and you expect to have it rebutted almost immediately. Did your debater really consider the extent of your point? How could they respond so quickly? Then you're expected to fire back, targeting holes in their argument. But say if they said something that you can't really respond to well? You lose. And then later on you realize how you could have countered it, but it's too late. You lost. But say you could counter it. You go back and forth, and more often than not you don't find consensus, both parties feel exactly the same way they did before, plus there have probably been some personal attacks exchanged and feelings hurt. You've seen this before. You've seen it on TV between career politicians. You've seen it in classes. You've seen it between your parents. You've seen it between your friends. And yes, it doesn't always happen like this, but it's awfully uncomfortable when it does.

Personally, I think political discourse should be deliberate and civil. I think the process of forming a political opinion should be a long and arduous one. Write out how you feel. Does it seem convincing? Have you approached it with a critical eye and realized its potential flaws? Can someone with opposing views read it without being incensed?

Confronting an opposing political opinion should work along the same lines. Take a lot of time to consider what the author has to say. Be critical, but don't be hasty. Ruminate. Can you calmly point out what you see to flaws in the reasoning? Are there parts that you agree with?

Jefferson and Adams did this sort of stuff in their letters despite being political rivals from different parties. Why can't we? I'm sick of politics being a divisive force or being used to rile people up. If you can't be friendly and civil with people who have opposing viewpoints, you suck. Seriously. The vast majority of the time, the people we get in political spats with aren't 'bad guys', just people with different views on how to make things run better. Find some fucking common ground and hate people for running over your dog or fucking your significant other or killing your dad, not how they voted!

So this is going to be my attempt to do just that. I'm going to try to get my opinion out on some issues in contemporary American politics. I can't guarantee flawless reasoning or lively debate, but at very least I hope to point out how I feel and get some thoughtful responses on it.

But first, something I think anyone who writes on politics should do. We're all biased, and I think our political history is tip-off to the readers what our biases are likely to be. So I give you my political history.

The earliest political sort of thoughts I remember having were heavily focused on equitably distributing political power and resources throughout the world. If I had any idea of the means through which this was to be established, I forget it now. I doubt that I did.

I managed a pretty thorough reversal of this, probably some time in late middle school or early high school. Influenced in no small part due to my father, I began to believe that the government functioned better the less that it actually did. My father has always been a bit of an angry political person. I've known him to be a fairly harsh critical of politicians from both of the major parties. The people running the political machine were not the greatest flaws in the system, the machine itself was too big to function.

I took this and ran with it. Things really peaked my junior year of high school. My teacher for AP US History was very much into running debates in class, sometimes using historical material as context, sometimes focusing on some current event. As one would expect in the typical Massachusetts classroom, there would be about two or three conservatives and a bunch of liberals and they would group up on opposite sides of the classroom and debate along the party lines. Very rarely did the groups change.

Then there was me. I could be a bit of a wildcard. I'd sit with the conservatives on most economic matters and go over to the liberal side on most social and foreign policy ones. It probably looked like I was just being contrarian, but I still believe to this day that I had a point. The traditional American parties don't make a whole lot of sense to me. Intense regulation of social norms while allowing very lax financial regulations? Strong financial regulation while allowing greater social freedoms? To me, both seems like silly things to conflate, but such is the reality of the political scene. I wasn't buying it.

I remember one day we were having a debate on gay marriage. The typical groups formed. I dragged my desk to the middle of the room. When asked, I asserted that the government had no place in the recognition of any marriages. One guy from the liberal coalition dragged his desk over next time mine, saying that he agreed the government should issue civil unions to all consenting adults and whether or not people called them marriages could be according to their beliefs. I continued, however, that even this was not what I was going for. The government should be entirely agnostic to such a vague bond between people. If people wanted to share property or custody, they could sign explicit contracts to do so. But the government wouldn't care if they considered themselves in a civil union, a marriage, or whatever they were calling it. This would simplify the tax code and codify the obligations between partners on a case by case basis. This was freedom. The guy kept his desk in the middle, but moved it conspicuously away from mine.

Near the end of the year, I was so convinced that I found the solution that I started drafting plans for a body of governance based on strict libertarian principles. This was pretty extreme stuff. There would be no public schools, public roads, public utilities, or public emergency services. Political decision-making would be done electronically by a completely referendum-based system where any citizens proposed new legislature and new laws were voted on daily by all interested citizens. The judicial system would act similarly. The executive branch would merely consist of technical oversight of the electronic governance system and a contracted police force. The government would never go into debt. Most money would be raised by advertising on public land and systems. The government merely existed to prevent a more controlling government from forming. I never finished it and to this day, it's sitting in a drawer at my parents' house.

I never finished it because I began to realize two things. First, I realized that such a system was in such stark contrast to people's notions of a political system that it was doomed to be dismissed. The second issue was more subtle. This system was all about the rank and file citizenry establishing the laws. They did this electronically. But who owns this infrastructure? Does the government? If so, why doesn't the government own the police that enforce the laws? Why doesn't it own the roads the police will have to go over to go about their business? How can every citizen be ensured access to this infrastructure? Does the government guarantee internet access? Can it do so to someone without a permanent residence without making public voting kiosks? And then how can it be guaranteed that the operators of the private roads that must be traversed in order to access these public kiosks will not try to skew election results? Is this the goal of regulation? At some point an arbitrary line is drawn between what the government does and doesn't do. And when I looked purely from the perspective of minimizing government, I couldn't give a good indicator of where to put the line. I could be as ideological as I wanted, but I could not fashion a pragmatic system from it.

So I gave up. And midway through my senior year I started shying away from the debates. I started looking at the government as more of a sausage factory. I had less interest in how it ran, I just want it to make delicious sausage, or in this case cause me the minimal amount of disturbance while providing me the services that I want.

And that's roughly where I stand today. I have some ideas one how I want the government to work, and yes many of them are shaped by my days as a high school libertarian. But I hope that they have more of a pragmatic bent. I hope to share them with you in a constructive and thoughtful environment.

Next time, the first issue I hope to expound upon is universal healthcare.


  1. For someone ostensibly into civil political discourse you sure have liked to avoid political discourse with your friends and instead make fun of them whenever they attempt it!! Perhaps you have had a 'change of heart'. Actually, I think I vaguely remember a single time when we had a serious political conversation, though it might've just been a serious conversation about political conversations. I don't remember the content at all, only that we were sitting on those stools in the new Berkshire, near the pizza, and no one else we knew was there.

  2. I guess I didn't make my point very well. I think good political discourse is extreme hard to pull off in person. There's too much of a temptation to interrupt and snipe no matter how civil you try to be. That's the shit I want to stay out of of! And I do! That's why I'm doing this in written format.

  3. where was i when you were drafting a new government?

  4. and then i never expounded on any of this good times