Since I was old enough to have political opinions, I’ve always been pretty socially liberal. My dad was a bit of a biker type, and my mom was kind of a hippie, and for the most part they espoused the old “live and let live” philosophy. I learned to value genuineness and self-expression, and maybe even a bit of non-conformity and anti-authoritarianism. But like a lot of working middle-class folks, they bought into the old quasi-Biblical platitudes like “you don’t work, you don’t eat” and “God helps those who help themselves” (although my mother would’ve been quick to point out while she found the second one theologically sound it’s not a phrase that’s actually found in the Bible). I think most people’s initial political stances are are shaped heavily by their parents, and I was no different. As a fledgling voter in 00’s America, I identified most as a Libertarian – socially liberal, economically conservative – small government, personal responsibility, and free markets.
In an episode of the sitcom Shameless, character Lip Gallagher posits “every Libertarian is born on third base and thinks he hit a triple“. I’m not a big baseball fan, but I know enough about it to understand the sentiment. Most people know hitting a home run is when you’re able to round all the bases off one hit – a triple is just short of that – you stop on third base instead of continuing on to home. A runner on third base is most of the way to scoring already – the run isn’t guaranteed, they may still get tagged out heading for home – but they’ve got better chances and less work ahead of them than a guy that’s fresh up to bat.
It’s a poignant metaphor and its history goes back further than Lip Gallagher, even though the writers of Shameless seem to be the first to tie it to Libertarians in general rather than specific, individual people of privilege (previously it’s been leveled against George Bush, Sr. and Jr., for instance). The idea is that it’s hypocritical for a person that was born with advantages to take all the credit for their own accomplishments. If you were “born on third”, you had a lot less ground to cover than a guy that had to hit his own triple. It doesn’t mean you didn’t still face the risk of failure, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t have to run as hard as you could if you wanted to score, but the odds of your success were a lot more favorable. And the unfortunate truth is that a lot of people that have those kind of advantages are blind to them – they do think they hit their own triple.
I spent some of my formative years in a household hovering around the poverty line. Utilities getting shut off was a regular occurrence, we ate from food banks, we were forced out of four homes in about three years. I dropped out of high school and got my first job at seventeen to try and help make ends meet. It’s easy for me to paint a very sad picture of how I came from “nothing”. But I didn’t – not really. Fiscally, even though we struggled throughout my teens, it was the result of a lot of factors – it wasn’t true generational poverty, and we were fairly bougie in my early childhood. My parents didn’t graduate college, but they both had experience in white-collar environments, which means I was exposed to concepts like business etiquette and professionalism. My dad worked for a while in collections at a bank, and I was probably eight years old the first time I got a lecture on the dangers of compound interest. Those kind of things were big advantages in my career and personal finances – advantages not everyone has. While we weren’t rich, my parents recognized how vital computer skills would be for a worker in my generation, and made it priority that we have a PC in the house. I’m sure buying it involved going into debt, but that’s how important it was to them. I had to learn to fix it myself, because the Packard Bell support line wasn’t free, but that ended up being great job preparation. That first job when I was seventeen? It was System Administrator for a small local business (this was during the dot-com bubble – everybody needed IT staff, nobody could afford them, so it wasn’t unheard of for small businesses to pick up whiz kids that hadn’t been to college yet and pay them mostly in pizza and Jolt cola). I was wearing a tie to work at an age my peers were working retail or food service. Not finishing school may not seem like it’d be a good thing, but when my peers were graduating college I already had 5 years’ real-world experience and no student loan debt, which worked out to be a net positive during the Great Recession. And that’s not even acknowledging all the other, simpler advantages I had growing up – English was the only language spoken in my household, I had parents that read to me, and the private Montessori school I went to for kindergarten and first grade had me reading earlier than my public school counterparts. My parents valued education and were involved with my schoolwork. I grew up with good nutrition, a safe place to live, and a quiet place to sleep.
Granted, that’s not the level of privilege someone in the Bush dynasty is born into, but when you consider the fact that if you make $32k a year, about $15/hr, you’re in the top 1% of earners in the world, it doesn’t take a lot to be more fortunate than literally billions of other people on this planet. We didn’t always have much, but one in five families in America have “negative wealth”, which means they have literally less than nothing. The bar for what qualifies as being on “third base” is lower than you’d think from that perspective – maybe depressingly so. And all of that isn’t to say I didn’t have to work hard and take risks to get where I am now, but looking back in the cold light of day, I have to admit that two undeniably necessary factors were a society that provided services for my benefit, and the dumb fucking luck of my birth.
After my parents’ private school money ran out, I went to publicly-funded schools. I got there on taxpayer-funded roads in a bus I paid nothing to ride. I had good nutrition not just because my parents grocery shopped, but also because regulations on public health and the food industry ensured when they did, they actually got what they thought they were getting. I had a safe place to live because my parents looked out for me, but also because of state-provided emergency services and the criminal justice system. I was relatively healthy in no small part due to municipal sewer and waste management, but when I got sick, while my parents had to pay for my medical care, the medicine I took had been tested and evaluated for safety and efficacy by the federal government. And I had clean water to take it with not just because my parents paid the bills, but also because of public works.
In my teens and twenties, I was often blind to those advantages. Because my parents weren’t moneyed – when my mother died the sum of my inheritance was a checking account with less than $100 in it and a 20-year-old Chevy Lumina that I sold to offset the cost of cremation since there was no life insurance – I felt my accomplishments were solely my own. I was a rugged individualist, I’d found success entirely through the work of my hands and sweat of my brow, nothing had ever been handed to me and I’d had to fight tooth and nail for everything I’d gotten. I’d have bristled at even the suggestion that I was somehow ‘privileged’. But the longer I live, the more people I meet, the more places I visit, the less confident I am that smarts and hard work are enough on their own. I see now that I’ve relied heavily not only on the people around me, but also the society I live in.
That realization makes it exceptionally challenging to subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that less government is always better government, full stop. A common criticism of socialism is that it denies human nature – anarcho-capitalist “invisible hand” philosophy says we’re naturally greedy and will act in self-interest, so capitalism works because all it requires is for everyone to do just that. You don’t have to regulate anything, because people will buy from companies with principles they support, and others will either have to give people what they want or go out of business. A government doesn’t have to provide services, because if they’re necessary, someone will seek to make a profit by filling the niche. But what I’ve seen suggests while that’s true under some conditions in some markets, to think it’s applicable across the board in every instance is every bit as “utopian fantasy” as any other economic extreme. Unfettered capitalism also denies human nature in that it assumes every buyer will be informed enough to know what their best interest is. It relies on prices being controlled through competition, and in doing so assumes that unregulated businesses won’t resort to unfair business practices, and that consumers will be savvy enough about every purchase they make to not reward the ones that do. And the truth is there are countless examples even in our regulated American markets that demonstrate that’s simply not the case. The subprime mortgage crisis happened because buying a house is so complicated that buyers had no idea what their own best interest even was, and were sold on deals that lenders knew were doomed to fail. Internet service providers have shown how ineffective “voting with your wallet” is in industries with psuedo-monopolies and unrealistically high buy-ins for would-be competitors (estimates are that it takes about $1 billion to install Google Fiber in one metro area – by that math, Jeff Bezos’ and Bill Gates’ entire fortunes put together wouldn’t be enough to build new coast-to-coast internet infrastructure from the ground up, even if you ignore how unconscionably wasteful that would be). That’s not to say there’s no successes of capitalism to point to – I owe just as much of my quality of life to industrialization, which is generally held up as capitalism’s crowning achievement. But it’s almost like either extreme of the economic spectrum is unrealistic and the only way to have a truly stable market that benefits both labor and businesses is to have a balance somewhere in the middle – what a novel idea.
The rebuttal to this is that I’m a scumbag communist liberal elitist. “People can’t be trusted to know what their own best interests are and someone else should make that decision for them? Why do you hate freedom?”, but there’s no elitism here. It’s not that anyone is smarter or better or more worthy, it’s simply the acknowledgement that it’s unreasonable to expect any individual will have access to all the information needed as well as the expertise required to interpret it about the manufacture and production of every good or service they intend to purchase in order to make the decision that most aligns with their personal convictions. For instance, if I make a decision that I don’t want to eat foods that contain high fructose corn syrup, in the absence of food labeling regulations, how would I even know what products to avoid (the answer is “anything that tastes good”, but I digress)? The argument goes that if I choose to only patronize companies that voluntarily print an ingredient list on the package, and if enough other consumers do the same, by way of our collective buying power, all companies will either have to comply or be driven out of business. But without a regulatory body, what’s the motive for that ingredient list to be truthful? Then there’s a need for a consumer advocacy group for food labeling, and independent companies will seek to make a profit filling that need. But now we’ve just shifted the problem instead of solving it – I still can’t trust the label, because I don’t know which consumer advocacy groups to trust. How do I know Nabisco and Frito-Lay didn’t just start their own sockpuppet organizations and give themselves their own seals of approval?
It’s arguable, of course, that federal oversight is every bit as untrustworthy as any privately-owned advocacy group would be. For instance, the truth is that lobbyist money can and does affect USDA guidelines, and often revisions are based not on new research but on economic concerns from various food industries. The good news is, we don’t have to speculate whether a free market or a government-regulated one leads to safer food – we’ve got real data, and regions that have better regulation on agriculture and public health policy have better food safety. Facts don’t care about your feelings, and the facts are that even when the regulatory bodies have some warts, food is safer with government regulation than without. The food industries’ attempts, successful or otherwise, to influence American public policy according to their own economic interests, rather than demonstrating the uselessness of federal regulation, illustrate how bad an idea it would be to let those industries self-regulate. When this is how far they’re willing to go when they know they’re subject to the transparency of a public regulatory body’s process, how much more misinformation would they be willing to propagate if there were no laws to stop them? And how helpless would we be against deliberate misinformation campaigns?
Facebook caught a lot of heat for being part of the 2016 election interference by being the platform of choice to spread misinformation – the Libertarian take would be it’s their platform, they should be able to let people use it however they want, and the fact that they responded to the backlash by voluntarily purging Kremlin disinformation going forward is the free market at work. But while it’s true it didn’t get to the point that any real regulations or sanctions were passed, lawmakers did need to have some sternly-worded conversations with the Zuck – without at least the threat of legislation, I find it doubtful Facebook’s policies would’ve changed. All that’s tangential to the point I’m making, however, which is that these Facebook users are consumers, and the whole debacle demonstrates consumers are terrible at identifying what’s reliable information and what’s bullshit. That’s not elitism, because I include myself in that. Fifteen years ago I was every bit as confident that laissez-faire capitalism was the answer to everything as I am now that it’s not. Everyone has blind spots. Everyone can be manipulated. Everyone can be fooled now and then into thinking a dropout with a blog is credible just because he Googled some impressive-looking links and then presented his personal conclusions as self-evident. Everyone is guilty sometimes of believing something just because they want to. That’s at least as much human nature as greed or self-interest. Two hundred years ago it lead to people buying oils and tonics with no proven medicinal value on the belief they’d cure everything from headaches to cancer; today it.. well, shit.
The point is, we can’t rise above it individually, to think we can is just intellectual vanity. Establishing what’s true, what’s right, what’s genuinely in everyone’s best interest can only happen collectively. The reason we set up governments and make laws in the first place is the hope that all of us, making decisions together, will make better choices than each of us making decisions alone.
This, of course, spurs some knee-jerk revulsion in Libertarian thinking. The government? Needs to protect us? From ourselves? That sounds like I’m advocating some kind of totalitarian nanny state. Benjamin Franklin said those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither! But once again, that’s presenting the kind of false dichotomy extremist economic positions rely on. The choice is not a binary between a Mad-Max-style free-for-all or a sanitized government-sanctioned gilded cage, there is a great degree of gradation between the two. And anyway, that quote doesn’t mean what you think it means (‘liberty’ here was actually ‘the ability of the government to collect taxes from rich people to pay for public services’ and ‘security’ was ‘a voluntary lump sum donation we could use to kill Native Americans’ – Franklin was arguing from a pro-taxation, pro-public services, and pro-government authority position. This is a good piece about the context if you’re curious, but what he was saying ‘we shouldn’t give tax breaks to rich people in return for a voluntary donations, even though we could totally use that money to kill Native Americans right now’) and besides Benjamin Franklin was a big fat idiot and spent two hours every morning flapping his dick around in the wind. A representative democracy is all about saying “I know we can’t all make unbiased, informed, meaningful decisions on every given topic, so let’s pick someone that we trust to take care of it for us.” Just like you’d hire a household servant to sweep the floors so you don’t have to, you hire a public servant to spend the time understanding the nuances of the decisions that need to be made and evaluating them according to the common good, because even if you had the required knowledge and proficiencies to make wise policy and the ability to be totally unbiased towards your own viewpoint, doing so for every matter that requires legislation wouldn’t leave time for you to do anything else. Public servants making choices on your behalf is what a representative democracy is all about. What puts the ‘democracy’ in ‘representative democracy’ is if you disagree with the choices that are made, you get to throw the bum out, but deriding politicians making decisions on our behalf as a ‘nanny state’ or ‘erosion of liberty’ or whatever other alarmist terms people throw around is to cast aspersions on the framework America was built on. The founding fathers never intended for America to be a direct democracy, and in fact, felt that would be a bad thing; a tyranny of the majority. They envisioned a system instead where we communicate our principles and needs collectively to elected representatives, and they make the decisions on how best to turn them into policy, because
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time
Listen to that elitist propaganda, “men are unfit” to make decisions for themselves – modern economic conservatives would have you believe that must be Karl Marx or something. But actually it’s James Madison, Father of the Constitution and our fourth President.
So neither end of the economic spectrum would be viable without being balanced by the other. Private ownership of everything ultimately harms consumers because the obligations of direct democracy via free markets are an unrealistic and unbearable burden, but handing ownership and control of literally everything to a government becomes too corruptible and restrictive to personal liberties to be desirable. That being the case, how should we decide which markets to regulate and which to leave to their own devices? To answer that, consider that in order for capitalism to adequately regulate a market, there has to be an option not to buy. Ultimately that’s what all the consumer’s power stems from in a free market. I recently bought an unnecessarily large television. If just before I’d made that purchase, television manufacturers had decided to arbitrarily triple the cost of televisions, I would not have bought it. I have that option, because a television is not a necessity of life. That means there is a very strong incentive for television manufacturers to sell televisions as cheaply as they can, because the more expensive they are, the more people will choose not to buy them. As a result, the price of televisions goes down over time. If, on the other hand, a drug manufacturer makes the decision to arbitrarily triple the cost of insulin, those consumers have significantly fewer options – pay whatever price the producer demands, or die. Because of that, we see healthcare costs increase over time. Healthcare is a necessity of life, and in the realm of necessities of life, the balance of power between the seller and the buyer that a free market relies on is tilted too heavily in favor of the seller for self-regulation to happen. Obviously, killing your entire customer base isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy, but in the American economy, ‘sustainable’ and ‘long-term’ are secondary concerns, and “but they went through corporate restructuring sixteen months after your loved one died!” is cold comfort. To condense that down to a bumper sticker you can put on your pickup truck, “socialism for needs, capitalism for wants”. Neither alone is the source of all society’s ills, nor the answer to them. There will always be “haves” and “have-nots”, and that’s fine – I actually think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that thinks the government should provide everyone with a yacht and a private villa. But it shouldn’t be considered radical to demand the “have-nots” aren’t malnourished in a country where 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, and no one sleeps on the street in a country with more empty homes than there are homeless. Those that live by “governments are for building roads and fighting wars” can take comfort in the fact that still fits largely into that worldview, as long as you take ‘building roads’ to mean ‘infrastructure’ and realize that things like housing, education, and healthcare as soft infrastructure are every bit as vital to a thriving economy as highways, because every job creator relies on healthy, educated labor. And the idea that job creators should somehow be exempt from paying back into the public services that their businesses rely on is patently ridiculous – the bigger they are, the more they’ve benefited from what we’ve collectively provided to them – and to whom much is given, much is required – that one actually is in the Bible.
That opinion seemingly puts me in an unpopular place for an American. If you watch Fox News, I’m a far-left liberal lunatic. Ironically, a great deal of the American left doesn’t want me either, though, because hand-wringing “better things aren’t possible” Democrats say candidates that reflect my values are “unelectable” and trot out George McGovern as evidence – despite the fact the majority of Americans support Medicare-for-all and federally funded college tuition and two out of three Americans support a wealth tax. These ideas aren’t actually as unpopular and divisive as you’d be lead to believe. While both sides of the establishment seem bent on making me feel alone, the truth is more and more Americans are coming to the same conclusions I have – prosperity and stability comes from an economy where social ownership and private ownership temper each other. Neither philosophy is ‘evil’, it just requires picking the right approach for each market based on that market’s specific characteristics, and we see the wisdom of that approach borne out among the most prosperous nations in the world. On that global scale, these ideas aren’t “far-left”, they’re downright moderate. And as the man that will hopefully be the 46th President of these United States said, “I do not feel lonely now.”