A while back I got a haircut from arguably the most racist barber in San Diego. Pausing between snips of my rapidly disappearing locks of hair he giggled (yes giggled) as he recounted a story of an illegal immigrant being shot, ranted vehemently about ‘the goddamn Jews’, then lamented the passing of sharecropping in the United States. To hear him tell it, our country is on the verge of catastrophic collapse – the cause of which is a nanny-state government perpetuating generation after generation of mealy-mouthed wieners who lack the hutzpah to apply boot to ass in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. The solution? Get rid of big government and let folk take care of themselves. The funny thing is, he’s wrong but for all the wrong reasons. We aren’t a nation made weak by effete intellectuals, and nor has the American way been any stronger at any point in time than now. America is and always has been a nation ruled by the wealthy, and our plutocratic nature is most fervently defended not the monied elite, but by the salt-of-the-earth poor like my barber who fail to recognize libertarianism for what it is: the opiate of the masses.
Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that being a libertarian isn’t tantamount to being a racist. Further, it should be noted that, on the surface, the libertarian philosophy is quite attractive. It advocates for personal responsibility, small government, and individual freedom. Unfortunately, when put into practice it not only fails to deliver on these promises, its effect is quite the opposite.
Let’s take the case of sharecropping. Quite unlike the rosy picture my barber painted of strong, self-reliant families living and working with dignity on farms, the reality was that sharecropping was a system of economic slavery that entrapped millions of poor families for generations. Absent any sort of restriction on the relationship between the strong (the wealthy land owners) and the weak (the sharecroppers), the system quickly devolved into one which maximized the economic advantage of those who already had it.
This isn’t just true of sharecroppers, this behavior has been predictably systemic throughout the whole of our short history as a nation. You think the auto industry would’ve bothered to make cars safer or less polluting if they weren’t forced to? Do you really believe producers of packaged food want to tell you how deleterious to your health that snack is? Don’t you think that if they could, every corporation in America would in a heartbeat get rid of every labor law on the books such that there is no minimum wage, no breaks, no rules mandating safety in the workplace, and nothing preventing you from becoming the de facto slave of your employer? Think I’m kidding? Think it can’t happen? Check this out. Absent significant financial resources, you, me, and 99% of the citizens of this country are the weak and the only thing keeping the strong at bay is the regulatory power of the government forcing the powerful to restrain themselves.
This is why libertarianism is the opiate of the masses. It’s a poison pill fed to the weak (in a plutocracy, this means almost all of us) in the hope of causing us to dismantle the only champion of truth and justice we have, our collective voice made manifest by a strong federal government. Understand, I am not positing the government to be the cure-all for every issue – certainly there are plentiful examples of spectacular failures on the part of an intrusive big government (here and here are some choice examples). What I’m contending is that while it’s important for us as citizens to be vigilant against a government whose policies are illegal, wasteful of taxpayer money and infective, treating reasonable government regulation like it’s the enemy of freedom is just plain stupid. In a den of thieves, pirates, and miscreants, government, while far from perfect, is the only friend we’ve got.
Photo by Dorthea Lange via FSA Collections