Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The price of liberty is - everything

Of all the sad things about the Internet, the fourth most depressing, I've decided, is the rise of "libertarianism".

This, for those of you lucky enough to have missed it, is a political idea whose conditions seem to be ripe - though not as ripe as its conclusions, which are higher than a skunk's latrine. During the Cold War it seemed just plain silly; before the Internet it was written off as an adolescent phase one grows out of, much like Leninism; before the economic crisis it seemed to be addressing an abstract, tedious problem that few people cared about. But now it's gaining traction.

It's sad, really. "Libertarianism" started out as an extreme left-wing idea, aimed at freeing people from the shackles of arbitrary authority. Now, it's been adopted gleefully by those whose main concern is to preserve their own privileges. For that, I mostly blame Ayn Rand - the woman who made a career out of her personal bitterness that the Russian Revolution had robbed her of the wealth and privilege that, she was raised to believe, were hers by right. Rand took a deeply held personal belief - that there could be no possible justification for strangers to have taken her toys away - and turned it into what's euphemistically called the "philosophy" of Objectivism.

Now, in a reasoned debate with any real political philosopher, Rand wouldn't have lasted five minutes. In her lifetime she was, rightly, ignored by everyone. Her ideas simply don't take account of - well, pretty much anything outside her own head.

But on the Internet, that's no longer a problem. Online, it's not hard to find a clique of true believers for absolutely anything. St Patricks' Day is a global conspiracy to promote the colour green? Barack Obama is the direct male heir of Genghis Khan? The Rapture actually happened in 2002, and now we're living through the End Times? There is no belief so bizarre that some idiots won't support it.

Better yet, those who don't support you - no matter how numerous - can simply be ignored. And so you can live in a beautiful dream bubble in which yours is the mainstream opinion, and you never have to defend it. It's a curious paradox, that free speech has delivered us to exactly the opposite of the situation that John Stuart Mill, with his sunny Victorian logic, hoped for: where every idea goes unchallenged, and nobody ever needs to change their mind.

And people see these sites, and there will always be a small number of those people who imagine that there must be something to them.

Take this drivel, for example. These morons seem to think that there are people who oppose exploiting the Earth. (Of course there are such people, by the same no-niche-left-unfilled principle I've just been describing. But to characterise this belief - that we need to exploit the Earth - as a courageous, individualistic stand against repressive conformism, makes about as much sense as handing out leaflets proclaiming "The sky is UP! Don't let THEM deny it!")

The Exploit-the-Earth loons remind me of the philosophy of Franz Fanon, who held that violence has a liberating effect. To make oneself free, one must break taboos; and the greatest of these is violence, especially murder. How do you show your defiance for the eco-nazis who would subjugate human life to the interests of trees and squirrels? Set fire to a tree today!

We are free, within the law, to destroy what we own. You can, if you like, buy a field, then salt the earth with chemicals so nasty that nothing will grow there and no builder will ever want to build on it. It's your property - if you want to destroy it utterly, the libertarians would say, that's nobody's business but your own.

But does that make it right?

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