On individualism & society
Posted on December 5, 2013 at 6.50 pm
Q. Is expansive individualism inherently part of Libertarianism? I know a lot of people who are extremely suspicious of top-down solutions but strongly believe in community-based problem solving. Some would call themselves anarchists. — squashed, from tumblr.
A. To the extent that I can generalize, I would say that most well-informed, reasonable libertarians don’t see individualism and community-based problem solving as opposing sides between which they must choose — at least, I know I don’t, and I’m sure many voluntaryists would agree.
For me, and for many libertarians I know, individualism is an emphasis on the rights and worth of each person — as well as an interest in independence, responsibility, and self-reliance.
But none of that suggests a belief that we live in some sort of state of nature in which working together to solve problems somehow diminishes or persecutes the individual. After all, our ideas on the market itself are predicated on the idea that it’s good to voluntarily interact with others in society, and that we’re all made better off by doing so.
If anything, I’d suggest that the individual worth/personal responsibility aspects of individualism push me toward civil society, not away from it.
Remember when Obama (kinda) said the infamous “you didn’t build that” line? When that happened, some pro-liberty types engaged in a knee-jerk reaction by all reposting an Ayn Rand quote about the Magnificent Entrepreneur Doing Everything All by His Lonesome (he’s so good at business he doesn’t even need his customers!!!).
It was inane.
But from more thoughtful libertarian circles, we got responses like this one from Sheldon Richman at FEE:
Of course no one succeeds alone. In society no one does anything of value in isolation. We think in a language and compute with numbers that others taught us. We all continuously benefit from, imitate, and build on what others have done. That’s what society is….
All of us depend on social cooperation, which is the very essence of the marketplace. Yet the greatest obstacle to such cooperation is government social engineering. Therefore Obama’s justification of big government in the name of social cooperation fails.
Libertarians (justifiably) complain that our opponents like to equivocate our opposition to the government doing something with opposition to that thing existing or happening at all. But with individualism and community-based solutions, I think some libertarians accidentally do the same thing to themselves: In rushing to oppose government-managed solutions to societal problems, we can sound as if we oppose having solutions to those problems period (especially if it involves more than the isolated efforts of our Magnificent Entrepreneur to make it happen).
That perspective may be orthodoxy for the strictest Objectivists — after all, Rand really did think charity was neither a virtue nor a moral duty — but it’s not libertarian dogma. To my mind, anti-society rhetoric paints a picture of a free world which is underwhelming and repulsive all at once.
As libertarians we are not anti-community or anti-cooperation; we are anti-government co-opting those very virtues.
And, yes, Ron Paul is with me on this one.
On the fuss over Common Core
Posted on December 3, 2013 at 2.45 pm
Q. This is a little out of your foreign policy realm of focus, but how do you feel about this Common Core education thing? Other than the fact that it’s even more of a takeover of education at the federal level, it doesn’t seem to be anything more than higher standards of learning across the board. Am I missing something glaringly obvious? — warrenjt, from tumblr.
A. I’ve seen a lot of fuss about Common Core in libertarian circles, but I haven’t looked into it too much because, as you noted, education policy is usually outside of my wheelhouse.
But the funny thing is I was just reading about Common Core in my second job this morning (in addition to doing communications stuff part-time for YAL, I also am a part-time researcher for a higher ed writer). My employer wrote a feature article about Common Core’s math curriculum, and I have to admit it sounded like a good idea — with potentially disastrous implementation.
For the math curriculum, at least, the concept is to have students figure out math formulas (e.g. how do you find the slope of a line?) for themselves instead of just having the teacher give them the formula and tell them to start using it. This is intended to give the students greater understanding of how the math they do works, instead of simply teaching them what to do to make it work.
Now, I’m not a teacher and I’ve only had one math class since 2004, so I can’t claim expertise on this subject.
But I can say that this doesn’t sound like a bad method of teaching math, and perhaps other subjects in the Common Core curricula involve good teaching ideas as well — I don’t know.
(Of course, if you’re in 9th grade and you’ve spent your entire school career learning math the old way, getting suddenly dumped into this new method would be frightening for many. Thus the disastrous implementation.)
All that said, I understand some of the objections small government types posit against Common Core…and some not so much. First, the good objections:
- Some states have relatively good public school systems; some have relatively bad systems. Common Core may force some of the bad systems to improve, but it also will lower the standards of the good systems to bring them down to the national goal.
- Like No Child Left Behind, Common Core ends up forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” which “has a ‘dumbing’ effect on teaching and learning as worksheets, drills, practice tests and similar rote practices consume greater amounts of classroom time…time spent on test taking often overemphasizes basic-skill subjects and neglects high-order thinking skills.”
- The curricula were written by education trade associations and businesses. Their interests show up in the focus of the lessons, too, as informational texts gain ground against literature. In fact, by high school, students will only read30% literature compared to 70% informational texts, even in English class. Again, I’m not a teacher, and maybe my perspective is biased as a writer, but that seems very unbalanced.
And the not so valid:
- The primary objection I’ve seen is that Common Core is a top-down, unconstitutional, federal education monolith. This is true, and expecting every child in a nation of 300 million to learn the same way, with the same methods is both foolish and dangerous. But public schools are already subjected to national control, and while Common Core continues and expands that trend, it certainly doesn’t pioneer it.
- Some have claimed that Common Core will implement a new national database on American students. Unfortunately, the government has already been tracking this kind of data for years. The database(s) are invasions of privacy, to be sure, but they’re not an invasion of privacy caused by Common Core.
I went to four different private schools, a public school in America and one in China, and spent two years homeschooling before I finished high school (we moved a lot).
One thing that I gathered from all those different schooling experiences is that people learn very, very differently. I learn best by writing. Taking notes by hand and writing papers are the most important parts of any class for me. Other people’s minds work in completely different ways — ways that I don’t even comprehend. And that’s why — principles against government being involved in education in the first place aside — I am naturally suspicious of national curricula.
Different students have different learning styles; different teachers excel with different lesson plans; different communities have different educational needs. Particularly in a country as large as ours, bigness is not a virtue in education. With Common Core, the strain of attempting to force a whole nation of schools into one mold is showing.
So I’m inherently distrustful of Common Core because it is a national education standard. Like No Child Left Behind, Common Core will run roughshod over the needs and differences of local schools.
But I have trouble joining the frenzy which has been whipped up by some small government types. My reticence may have something to do with my policy interests being elsewhere, but much of it I attribute to the fact that Common Core is in many ways simply a new gloss on the same old problems.
Liberty & the Shutdown
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 2.47 pm
Q. [This fall] the US government was shut down because the House couldn’t pass the necessary appropriation bill and now it seems to me the whole political system of the United States is blocked because of a small group of libertarian/tea party/conservative representatives (to be honest I’m still a little bit confused where the difference between the first two is). My question is, don’t you think that the government shutdown is a rather bad thing for libertarian groups reputation because the people notice that at least for some tasks the government is necessary? Additionally I’m getting the impression that a large majority of the population of the United States wants “more” governmental control and support programs, isn’t that kind of weakening the libertarian position? — Jakob, from Germany
A. Thanks for your question, Jakob. Since it’s really three separate questions, let’s address them separately.
1. What’s the difference between libertarians, the Tea Party, and conservatives?
We could talk about the finer details of this distinction for hours, but for now, I’ll just give you the short version. Libertarians are the best-defined of the bunch. We support smaller government all around, even in foreign policy. As I like to explain it, libertarians want the government out of your church, your bedroom, your wallet, Wall Street’s pocket, and the Middle East.
The Tea Party began as a fairly libertarian movement — the very first Tea Party even was associated with Ron Paul — albeit with generally an older crowd. It’s comparatively rare to find young people taking the Tea Party label, and in general it’s a less popular designation than it was a few years ago. These days, my perception is that the Tea Party’s uniting issue is fiscal conservatism/economic freedom. They’re interested in other policy areas (and of course there’s ideological diversity within the movement), but cutting spending is the central idea.
Conservatism is a bit more nebulous, and a very broad label today. In political philosophy, it’s generally used to refer to people who want to preserve (or conserve) the status quo. There’s a strong focus on tradition and avoidance of change.
In practical politics, people who claim and/or are given the conservative label vary widely. Some of them are basically libertarians; others can be hawkish neo-conservatives like Dick Cheney or nanny-state social conservatives like Rick Santorum. Generally, though, you can assume that when someone is called a conservative, it means they share the interest in cutting spending that libertarians and the Tea Party has, but they possibly want more social regulation and military spending than a libertarian would.
To make things more confusing (ha!), there are plenty of people who will claim any combination of these terms for themselves. Likewise, groups claiming one or more of these labels often tend to work together on the issues where they agree (like spending). Usually, however, you won’t need to parse all that to dissect American politics.
2. Does shutting down the government over spending debates give those responsible a bad reputation?
Well, for Senator Ted Cruz, the leading shutdown advocate, it certainly did (Cruz is Tea Party and conservative, by the way, but not libertarian). Sen. Rand Paul, by contrast, took a more congenial approach — despite sharing Cruz’s conviction on the need to cut spending. His reputation did not take the same hit.
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