I need to begin this column with a short preface. Libertarians are not conservatives even though the terms are often equated. Conservatives and liberals alike can, and do, have libertarian leanings. However, there are extreme libertarians whose ardent and gifted operatives have done a masterful job of convincing life long, old time conservatives that libertarian ideas are the answer to their apprehensions about “big government.” With that in mind, let us proceed.
A libertarian friend shared a meme featuring a young woman holding a hand written poster complaining that, with BFA in hand, she was jobless and deep in student debt. The implication was that society had failed her and owed her. To my friend she represents the lazy, shiftless, self entitled youth who look down on hard working ordinary people like him, and are the reason this country is in such rotten shape. She’s a handy poster child representing the political enemies of real people who voted for Trump, and are likely to do it again.
There are many questions embedded in the meme and his short comments about it. The most obvious to me: did it depict a real student who made and shared it? Or was it a clever bit of propaganda designed to popularize the idea that the new crop of graduates are nothing but lazy, bloodsucking socialists?
It certainly appeals to the libertarian sentiment that liberal arts education is a waste of tax payer money. Hard working, tax paying Americans, real Americans, are shackled with expensive state and federal education programs of no value to them. They do nothing but prop up snotty, over educated elites who are afraid to get their hands dirty. At least that’s the talk after a couple of beers at the local tavern.
Another question: does the meme suggest that liberals, and Democrats in general, look down on working class folk? Perhaps not directly, but my friend took it that way. It’s a theme promoted by Trumpsters that has fed the insecurities of many hard working people who believe they see others living an easy life forever out of their reach. Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” line nailed it for them, which is too bad because the worst of libertarian ideology really is morally deplorable. And it’s deplorable that the immorality of an amoral Trump was able to use it to good effect in 2016, and may again in 2020. It’s deplorable that extreme libertarian ideology has little respect for the needs and rights of the working class, even as its proponents claim to speak for them.
So back to the meme. Is a Bachelor of Fine Arts to be ridiculed as something useless? Presumably it’s equipped a talented person with greater ability to produce art enriching the beauty of society, or illuminating its failures. It’s not a job ticket. Nobody ever claimed otherwise. By itself it promises nothing but hard work for no predictable reward. A few will become famous, even rich. Most will make their living the old fashioned way, doing the hard work of all working men and women. The young woman in the meme, if she’s real, will slave away at something, producing her art on the side, and hoping for the best. There’s something about art that declares a promise, remembers the past, and carries the burden of civilization into the future. A BFA explores it all to give it deeper meaning for aspiring artists. Is art really that important? I don’t know, but there has never been a society that hasn’t hungered for and treasured art in its many forms.
There are other academic degrees in the liberal arts, and each discipline tries to guide students toward a lifetime journey of becoming educated persons. Does that make college educated persons snooty elites? My experience in thirty years of government and corporate work was the opposite. Competitive, yes, but also insecure and working hard to do the best they could with what they had. Outside their disciplines, most are no more sophisticated or intellectually snooty than Edith Bunker.
Not that arrogant elitism isn’t around. There are conservatives who’ve ‘made it’, deluded with the illusion that they’re better than those who haven’t. There are liberals whose compassion for those ‘less fortunate’ leads them to offer more help than wanted or needed. The worst, in my experience, comes from libertarian intellectuals who are fully aware that their appeals to working class folk are a cover for individualism free of government interference accruing to the nearly exclusive benefit of top earners and certain investors.
There has always been a lingering suspicion among working class folk that life could be better if things weren’t stacked against them. It’s what drove the Grange, unionization, demands for quality public education, civil rights and the progressive agendas of the 20th century. There has always been reluctance from investors and bosses to give up any of their freedom to run things in their favor. All people want freedom for themselves, and some believe they have a right to more of it than others. In healthy democratic societies, these tensions get worked out in acceptably imperfect ways.
Right now, the forces of ardent libertarianism are angling to reduce the republic to an oligarchy they believe will be more efficient and profitable than sloppy democracy allows. With consummate skill, they’ve convinced a sizable minority of mostly white men and women that too much democracy, with too much equality, allowing too many to vote, will lead to government control of their lives. They’re selling the line that for the working classes to preserve their freedom, they must give up their freedom to libertarian ideologues who will do the right thing for them, and keep others in their places.
A closing note. Libertarianism, like socialism, is not a thing. It’s a range of ideas and assumptions with an emphasis on the value of individual rights in competition with restrictions community imposes on them. In moderation, it’s a valuable element in the political spectrum. Within the range is a form of extreme libertarianism that claims maximum rights of freedom from government oversight for the few in control of wealth and production. Publicly disdaining government interference in private and business lives, it’s more than willing to use every power of government to assert and protect its own interests. When its camouflage of worker friendliness is stripped away, it’s revealed as plain old fascism, at least in its modern form. In its more romantic form it’s 19th century robber baron, Jim Crow, mercantilism. Either way, it’s corrosive of democracy and the good of the nation.