Libertarians in the House of Usher

In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story about the fall of the House of Usher, a mysterious narrator goes to visit his old friend Roderick who lives in a once-glamorous, now decaying mansion. Roderick has a strange psychological ailment where he’s hypersensitive to virtually any stimuli like noise, light, or smell. Our narrator — let’s call him Bobby for convenience sake — receives a letter from Roderick and rides out to visit him in the dilapidated estate where he and his spinster sister have been living. Bobby says he hasn’t been in touch with Roderick and indeed barely knew him in their youth, but he felt compelled because of the letter’s urgency to visit him.

Bobby comes to find that the Usher family lineage has dwindled down to this morbid brother-sister team. At one point Madeleine the sister is presumed dead and Roderick tells Bobby that he has her corpse stored in a vault below the house. Roderick plans to preserve her there for two weeks until he can carry out a proper internment. But as Roderick and Bobby sit and talk about great books they’ve read, a gloom descends even darker on them. Bobby comes to feel as though his friendly outreach to a childhood friend has now turned into a horror story, or better named, a Poe short story.

Eight days into Madeleine Usher’s entombment in the vault, Roderick comes during a nocturnal storm to see if Bobby is still awake. Bobby is reading an old legend about Ethelred. Roderick cries that he realizes he enclosed his sister inside the vault alive, not dead. And now Madeleine has somehow found superhuman strength to break out of the vault. She stands in a bloodied gown.

Bobby rushes out of the house and watches it crumble into oblivion:

[47] From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened–there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind–the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight–my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder–there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters–and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “HOUSE OF USHER.

I call to mind this Poe story because I’d rather converse with literary ghosts than deal with libertarians who’ve expressed outrage over my last post, “Goodbye Lenin, Goodbye Hayek.” As I said in that post, I am not going to get into a dogfight and don’t want to play the victim. I knew that criticizing Hayek would infuriate someone. Yesterday some pointed attacks on me circulated on the web.

In the contested post I expressed my view that F.A. Hayek, for all his great contributions to conservative economic theory, has long passed his zenith and now exists like Marxist writers after 1990. As we say in Spanish, ya se le fue su ├ępoca. Times have changed. The coronavirus is not the only factor but it has played an enormous role in changing our ideological landscape.

Consider that Congress passed a massive $2.2. trillion spending bill this past week, and only one congressman spoke against it. He was a libertarian who, in Hayek fashion, warns against governmental overreach and wasteful spending. We should not, his fellow libertarians cry, involve ourselves in any centrally organized projects such as this one, because we will end up betraying our liberties. In their mind, liberty rests ultimately on the free market and on small government.

Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which allows the usually right-of-center New York Post to dub him a “Masshole.” He forced Congress to reconvene to vote on the stimulus bill. Everyone else in his party and all the Democrats attacked him in loathing hatred when he tried to raise objections on the floor of Congress.

Against his lone objections the bill passed. It is the largest stimulus project in history and amounts to the nationalization of several key industries. Libertarians hate the bill. I can respect their fidelity to their values. But I don’t think Massie is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think he’s Roderick Usher freaking out over stimuli while shut in with a walking corpse (in this case, libertarian ideology).

Obviously there is a bunch of junk in this stimulus bill. I am asking everyone in the Southern Baptist Convention to make sure that the usual den of weasels circling around Al Mohler and Russell Moore doesn’t turn up milking the feds for coronavirus money to fund their nepotistic projects and finance the denomination’s downgrade.

I get the resistance from libertarians to the stimulus bill. I also understand the importance of speaking up even when you face popular opposition; if I did not value that courage I would not have given up California tenure and gotten fired by Southwestern Seminary.

Sometimes, though, I have to go with the majority. This is one of those times. The fact is that Congress operates, as we all know, based on pork and horse trades. No citizen with half a brain trusts the character of people in Congress. The stock market cratered, most of America is quarantined, unemployment has exploded, and we face a pandemic as a people without South Korea’s or England’s national healthcare safety net. With all its warts we had to birth that stimulus and stop the country from complete anarchy.

The bill would go nowhere if we tried to get all 535 lawmakers to agree to terms dictated by libertarians. Libertarians are people who classically support privatizing the post office, eliminating public education, and rescinding the minimum wage. Libertarians generally oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but joyfully support massive protections for homosexuality, marijuana, and pornography. For years many of us on the conservative side have had to listen to these postulations with a straight face because all the right-wing foundations whose support we needed operated on rich donors’ money. If you are rich and completely buffered from the real world where all these ingenious ideas would quickly lead to miserable chaos, you tend to like libertarianism.

Libertarianism tends to be popular with young and inexperienced fans of Ayn Rand, retired people, and rich people who hate paying taxes. They have other demographic bases, but their strength comes largely from these founts. Those rich people create thinktanks that employ the young Rand aficionados, who craft the cultural arguments to be broadcast on Fox News, watched by millions of retired people. No other conservative constituency — certainly not Christians — has ever had such an effective machine. The problem is that this machine is deceptive; outside of the insulated echo chamber these ideas actually gross out the vast majority of Americans. Why? Because people who talk this way usually come across as, well, callous and unreasonable jerks.

Most conservatives in America don’t actually think like libertarians. They support pro-life and pro-family causes because they have traditional values. They are not driven by a calculated wish to privatize the post office.

We got eight years of Obama because Republicans listened to libertarian advisors in 2008 and 2012, who convinced the party that what America really wanted was free-market solutions to health care. The suggestions from Republicans involved millions of people having no health insurance whatsoever and the vast majority of Americans facing life without health insurance if they ever lost their jobs. John McCain said if he became president he’d give us $2,500 tax rebates so we could cross state lines to buy private health insurance; this is so ridiculous I can’t believe Republicans ever expected to beat Obama with it.

Obama swept into power and created the monster of Obamacare, a hybrid private/public healthcare system that made everything 1,000 times worse. It came from the Heritage Foundation’s initial drafts, and had been endorsed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, whom the Republicans nominated to run against Obama. Romney’s brilliant stance on healthcare was to promise he would issue waivers to all 50 states so they would not have to enforce the Affordable Care Act. This meant some states would be stuck with the lousy system that predated Obamacare and some states would be stuck with Obamacare.

These are libertarian ideas. They involve little incentives and rolling back of rules. You get a lot of mention of states and local control as if America didn’t try the decentralized Articles of Confederation in the 1780s and then found them disastrous because of their lack of central authority. They depend on the promise that ingenuity and entrepreneurship combined with Darwinian adaptation will bring everyone to a grand desired outcome. Most of America had the chance to vote for such schemes as they were embodied in John McCain and Mitt Romney. Americans weren’t really all that interested. Then in 2016 Republicans had a bunch of small-government dynamos to choose from: union-buster Scott Walker, Paul Singer’s favorite Marco Rubio, Heritage Foundation darling Ted Cruz, and dynastic hand-me-down Jeb! Bush. Republicans chose Trump, a guy who talked about building a wall, imposing tariffs, supporting Christian evangelicals, and attacking Wall Street. We all know Trump doesn’t live up to 100% of those things, but the point is, he broke the libertarian stranglehold on the conservative movement. That’s why Ben Domenech, Ben Shapiro, David French, Charlie Kirk, and a host of right-wing icons all came out against Trump. He was uncouth, yes, but more importantly, he wasn’t going to play well with the Kochs, Paul Singer, and many of the deep pockets behind the right-wing counterintelligentsia.

Trump wasn’t telling working-class Americans worried about the opioid crisis, the erosion of their labor market, and illegal immigrants that he was going to get the government out of their lives and unleash the brilliance of corporate America. Trump knew that if the GOP chose that route, the GOP would lose. Trump said, the government should care if the country is suffering, and if he was going to become president, he would make sure the full force of the government would be directed to change lives for the better.

And then, lo and behold, conservatives had someone they supported in the White House. It’s not perfect. But a lot changed because of that.

It would not have taken a genius for someone to fan across America and talk to people, then figure out the issue. People get sick. It’s practically a universal experience. And most of America lives with the fact that they cannot afford to get sick. This is a case where “literally” applies. They literally cannot afford to get sick. If, through no fault of their own, they fall ill and can’t perform in their job, and they get fired, they face a steep plummet into personal ruin.

If they work for a place that doesn’t offer health insurance, they’re already facing ruin. No, you can’t go out and buy decent health insurance, even with Obamacare. Drug prices can demolish your monthly budget. COBRA slams you with fees like $2,500 a month when you’ve just lost your income. Sean Hannity’s anecdotes about how he worked really hard when he was starting out don’t offer real solutions here. Christian cost-sharing ministries can’t solve the problem. Advice to exercise and eat better is nice but again, not a real solution. The situation has been unworkable since the 1990s, and the coronavirus scare has shown how breakable our whole economy is, purely based on the nation’s generalized anxiety and insecurity about getting health care.

The political toll that the right has paid to keep libertarians happy on the health care issue has been staggering. Loyal to their socially liberal donors like the Koch Brothers and Paul Singer, Republicans flooded the conservative commentariat with libertarian talking points about “unleashing the private sector,” “makers and takers,” “the evils of socialism,” and “deregulation.” All of this classical liberalism was completely fake anyway, because Republicans thrive on big government when it means big corporations enriching themselves off of connections to big government.

Camped out in places like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, they have spent the last thirty years raving about the wonders of a classical liberal world that everybody knew could never exist. They have pie graphs and videos with John Stossel. The rest of the world has common sense. Common sense has ultimately won.

At this point when I hear about libertarians on the web attacking me, I call to mind Poe’s short story. It’s Roderick Usher having another panic attack because he’s trapped in his decaying mansion with a walking corpse. Thankfully I know how the story ends–I rush out of the house and history moves on.