The Libertarian vs. the Activist

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Last month I read a pair of little news stories about animals in German menageries and what people have done, and not done, about them. These stories suggested certain analogies to human behavior that, when they occurred to me, appeared far-fetched. They may be so. But the stories kept coming back to me — evidence, at least, that they spoke to some personal identification with the ideas they suggested. They may be suggestive to you, too.

One of the stories had to do with a pair of male penguins in a German zoo. They were brought there to mate with female penguins and help preserve the king penguin species. But “they only mated with one another.” The zookeepers gave up and let them enjoy themselves in their all-male love nest.

In the other story, humans just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Animal rights “activists” — what a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession — were inspired by the slogan “Free All Animals” to break into a small circus and “free” two ostriches and a goose. The goose and one ostrich were recaptured, but the surviving ratite might have to be executed, because German law requires ostriches to be kept in pairs and the other ostrich was killed by a car. It seems that fowl, once “freed,” still aren’t very good at negotiating modern streets.

Of course, the animals themselves are not a fair analogy to humans, who do indeed have rights and deserve to be free. What interests me about the stories is that they illustrate two different approaches to life.

What a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession.

The penguins benefited from the first approach. They enjoyed the tolerance and capacity for reflection that leads people to say, “Oh well. Our plan failed. I guess we don’t know everything. But go ahead; be yourselves. We’ll let you alone.”

This, as I take it, is the libertarian approach, and the truly libertarian mindset. But there is another mindset, one that sometimes masquerades as libertarian. This is the approach that destroyed the ostriches. It’s the approach that assumes, “I know everything, and what I know is that everything is a moral issue, and everyone has an obligation to be active in addressing all moral issues, and therefore no one should ever leave anyone or anything alone.”

I confess that this attitude disturbs me about as much as anything could, especially when it gets mixed up with the idea of rights and freedom. Even the notion that animals have rights strikes me as a fantasy originating in a refusal to leave anything alone.

The concept of rights, which is perhaps the most valuable concept that mankind ever discovered, is grounded in the observation that there are beings in this world that have the capacity to make their own moral decisions and take responsibility for doing so. A coherent conception of rights involves the notion that rights are guarantees and therefore must not contradict other rights or guarantees. My right must not conflict with your right.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it.

The animal rights “activists” whom I have known — good people, well-meaning people, fine people in almost every way — have waged war on hunting, zoos, pet stores, and even municipal restrictions on the presence of wild animals in the hearts of cities. Yet they have kept their own cats, dogs, fish, and ferrets in close captivity, and they have had no moral compunction about killing them when they got old or sick. Surely there is a contradiction here. And surely there is a contradiction in thinking that a cat has the right to kill a bird, just as a bird has the right to fly where it wants, even if it’s into the jaws of a cat. The deeper problem is that none of these animals is capable of making a moral decision or accepting responsibility. None of them is capable of respecting other animals’ “rights.” And no wonder, because they don’t have rights. That’s why nobody, least of all the “activists,” wants to try Pudgie the poodle for killing Peter the possum.

Animal rights “activists” (who are often libertarians) believe in rights, which is good; and they believe — when it comes to animals — in kindness and tolerance, which are also good. But they can’t leave any of those concepts alone; they have to take them out of their proper context and let them run wild, to trample or be trampled, until there is nothing left but carrion.

And they aren’t the only ones. This is what you see when a libertarian calls you a racist or a fascist, a foe of all rights, because you place some value on borders and border security. These good people think that terrorism is merely a word invented by government to tighten its control on the populace. They believe that when religious zealots bomb a footrace, bring down a skyscraper, or shoot up a Christmas party full of friendly co-workers, they are merely responding to American aggression in the Near East. These intellectual activists are eager for everyone who has the price of a plane ticket to migrate to America, be supported on government subsidies for education, healthcare, transportation, and every other feature of the welfare state, and finally vote for a government that is exactly the opposite of libertarian. The abstract idea of “rights” is all that matters to them. And if you disagree, they cannot leave you alone in your ignorance and folly. No, they must attack.

If you can find this activist streak in libertarians, where can’t you find it? It is perhaps the major problem in America today. Here’s a topic, picked literally at random: student loans.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it. Leave the young penguins alone. Don’t keep telling them that everyone must go to college. Don’t keep suckering them into government-sponsored loans. Don’t keep sending federal money to colleges, to make sure that everyone can and will attend them. It doesn’t lower student costs, although it does give administrators larger salaries and larger staffs and greater leverage in society. Let the colleges find out how to offer students something they value — actually value for itself, not for the notional status of having graduated from an institution (any institution will do) of higher learning. Let students go into debt, if they think their education is worth it because, for instance, they think it will qualify them for a good job, or because they may learn something in college that they wouldn’t learn anywhere else. If their decision was rational, they can pay off the loans, as other people pay off loans, considering them payment for value received.

Conservatives' problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness.

But the liberals won’t leave the idea of “college” alone. They insist all the more that everyone should be “free” to go to college, in fact should go to college, and that colleges should be so well subsidized by the government that most of them never need to attract students by lowering their costs. The liberals make sure to increase these costs by saddling colleges with every kind of social mandate they can devise, thereby doubling or tripling the total price of a college education. After that, the liberals insist that everyone in the country has a responsibility to pay off the loans that the students contracted — either that, or just pay everyone to go to college. College education — free at last! Here again we see the ostrich of “freedom” bolting wildly through deadly traffic.

Conservatives are justly famous for not being able to leave anything alone. Their problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness. Is it right that foreigners have corrupt governments? Is it right that some people’s lives are ruined by drugs? Is it right to spend every waking hour drinking, smoking, fornicating, and indulging an “addiction” to pornography? No, it is not right. But the conservatives, like the liberals, cannot stop with such an admission. They have to do something to make sure that, metaphorically, no penguin ever makes the mistake of mating with the wrong penguin.

Now picture the near future, part of which is already with us, thanks to conservative and liberal activism. In that future stands the great composite ideal of the liberals and conservatives: an 18-year-old Marine who is being sent to die in Afghanistan without ever having drunk a beer, smoked a cigarette, sniffed some coke, gone to a dirty website, owned a personal firearm, had sex without a condom, used a racial epithet, neglected to recycle, or expressed a doubt about global warming. And all this because he has been doing what he is told and required to do.

Please don’t write in to debate about whether these particular prescriptions are right or not. That young Marine is not right. He is an absurd deformation of the concept of humanity. He is one more ostrich on the loose, racing toward spiritual annihilation. But that’s what the activists always want. They want to maximize their favorite types of behavior. They often call that “freedom.” The results? Why worry?

Well, I said it was a far-fetched analogy. But is it? I hope so. But the point about the penguins is not far-fetched. Leave the penguins alone.




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