You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. – Ivan Boesky
This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault. – Jerry Falwell
Free money makes the rich strong and wise, while it corrupts poor people, making them stupid and weak.– Lewis Lapham
In most parts of the world, the terms “libertarian” and “libertarianism” are synonymous with Left anarchism. Noam Chomsky writes:
The term libertarian as used in the U.S. means something quite different from what it meant historically and still means in the rest of the world. Historically, the libertarian movement has been the anti-statist wing of the socialist movement. Socialist anarchism was libertarian socialism. In the US, which is a society much more dominated by business…it means eliminating or reducing state controls, mainly controls over private tyrannies. Libertarians in the US don’t say let’s get rid of corporations. It is a sort of ultra-rightism.
But political philosophy doesn’t fully explain why libertarianism as we know it has been popular in only one nation in the world – America. To go deeper, we need to ground ourselves in mythological thinking.
The myth of American innocence is a story we have been telling ourselves about ourselves for nearly four hundred years. The idea of a nation divinely ordained to save the world evolved so as to justify the original colonization effort. Later, in changing conditions, it helped account for America’s unique and rapid expansion and its worldwide economic and cultural domination.
This story still moves us deeply because it inverts the guilt of history. It instructs us that white colonizers were the actual victims of the westward expansion — attacked and massacred for no reason by evil savages emerging from the dark forests. Its subtext, of course, is our violent and racist history. But precisely because of this history, no other nation has gone to such lengths to define itself by excluding so many from full membership, while regularly congratulating itself with pervasive stories of freedom and opportunity. This is how we resolve the contradictions of this history, and how we live with ourselves, and with the cruel white supremacy that pervades our daily lives.
While white Americans across the entire political spectrum adhere to this myth in deep, often unconscious ways, libertarians exemplify it in its purest form. Their ideas of history, culture and the relationship between the individual and the community reveal an essentially American, almost childlike innocence that borders on willful ignorance. Or, as the old joke goes, Question: what’s the difference between ignorance and apathy? Answer: I don’t know and I don’t care!
First, let’s get the easy issues out of the way.
1 – Any teenager could quickly dismiss any politician who claims to favor “small government” with a quick examination of his or her positions on military spending, foreign policy, domestic surveillance, corporate welfare, abortion rights, immigration, gay marriage or medical marijuana – all of which assume a large, centralized government and mandate regular state intervention in private lives.
On the national scene, this leaves only Ron and Rand Paul, whose stated willingness to use the power of the federal government to outlaw abortion clearly contradicts their claims to be libertarians. As for their limited anti-war views, activist Tim Wise writes, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
2 – Chomsky disposes of the magical notion that American prosperity was built upon free mar... “Genocide and slavery: try to imagine a more severe market distortion than that.” We are talking about an entire hemisphere conquered by military invasion and then distributed free to (very) selected populations, who then went on to make their fortunes. Indeed, almost all developed countries originally got rich not through free markets but through tariff protection and government-subsidized military conquest. 19th and early 20th century U.S. tariffs of 40 to 50 percent were the highest in the world. Later, the U.S. government paid for 50-70 % of the country’s total ... from the 1950s through the mid-1990s, usually under the cover of defense spending
3 – Americans are already taxed at far lower rates than other developed nations. This has resulted in miniscule social services and third-world levels of economic inequality. One cause of this situation is the tax code, which taxes ordinary income at up to thirty-five percent. The very rich, however, who receive most of their money from capital gains (“unearned income”), pay only fifteen percent. The situation was very different in the prosperous 1950’s, when they were taxed at up to ninety percent. In other contexts, “unearned income” is known as “welfare.”
As a mythologist, however, I am more interested in what we might call the mythic substrate of beliefs and attitudes that right-wing rhetoric engages so easily. Why are so many so willing to listen? Why, uniquely among nations, are we so stirred by hymns to freedom, riled up by rumors of government excess and enraged by the thought that one’s hard-earned, raised-by-the-bootstrap money might be taxed for some vague sense of the “common good?”
Our story describes a continent that was pure potential, the stuff of dreams. Since, in a European sense, the natives were not using the land productively, it was seen as “virgin” land, implicitly available for defloration and fertilization. As I write in Chapter Seven of my book, Sir Walter Raleigh made the analogy of land, woman and rape very clear: Guiana “hath yet her maydenhead.”
This is our creation myth of the American people, innocently arriving from diverse lands, charged with a holy mission to destroy evil, save souls, carve civilization out of the wilderness – and get rich. Professor R.W.B. Lewis wrote that this story saw the world:
…starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race…(Americans were) emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry…Adam before the Fall.
The American dream-story was built up over four centuries of preaching, oratory, fiction, poetry, storytelling, popular songs, textbooks, advertisements, films and television. Its essence was that anything was possible.
In this land of opportunity, one’s greatness was limited only by his or her own desires. Americans like to believe in the tabula rasa, the “clean slate.” Even now, we happily consume TV commercials for the military that encourage us to “be all you can be.” The cliché moves us because it rests upon the old notion of human purpose. Americans, however, are constantly told that we can be anything we want to be. This is an adolescent misreading of the indigenous teaching that each person is born to be one thing only, and that the human challenge is to discover what it is.
By the late 18th century, Americans had developed a curious and contradictory mix of traditional Puritanism and modern Enlightenment values. Individuals were fallen and sinful; yet one could make of oneself whatever one might want. Indeed, in 1776 – for the first time in history – a nation proclaimed the “pursuit of happiness” as its primary reason for existence.
America redefined the word liberty. On the one hand, liberty (from the Latin liber, an epithet of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and madness) implies release, pointing toward liberation, in both its Marxist and Buddhist meanings. Liberty, however, has a continuum of meanings, including permissionto do what one wants, the power to do what one likes and the privilegeto “take liberties” with others. The Founding Fathers were apparently unconcerned with the obvious fact that the passionate, unregulated pursuit of liberty by some people inevitably results in the destruction of the rights of others. In practical terms, freedom outside of an ethical framework – freedom without responsibility – becomes license, and it is inseparable from simple criminality. It is also inseparable from unfettered capitalism.
Early white Americans experienced a heady mix of the puritan emphasis on personal salvation and the opportunistic disdain for class distinctions. For three centuries free land in the west served as a safety valve for the discontented; thus abject poverty was relatively uncommon. Most whites (prior to the mass immigrations of the late 19th century), to an extent unimaginable in Europe, became landowners.
But when extremes of wealth and poverty appeared, the rich felt little obligation to the poor. After all, declared Puritanism, poverty was proof of sin. Its belief in predestination survived into the 21st century as a Social Darwinism that has eviscerated the welfare state. And this thinking clearly underlies most libertarian pronouncements. When the poor are concerned, the idea of the tabula rasa recedes into the background.
To be a white American was to have the right to “make something of oneself.” If one failed, he had no one to blame but himself. America, in our myth, became a nation of purposeless, “self-made men,” each individually making his destiny.
But curiously, the nation itself had a unique purpose. The myth proclaimed that God had chosen this people to spread freedom and opportunity. Eventually, Americans extrapolated this idea onto world affairs. The nation of individualists became an individual among nations, shaping other societies to its image of the good life. All empires have rationalized conquest; but only Americans justified enslavement and genocide with myths of freedom, good intentions and manifest destiny. The Bush II administration carried this magical notion to its extreme, but it has always been the core of American policy, and Barack Obama restated it as recently as 2016.
The myth predicted inevitable progress toward the best of all possible worlds. Thus mobility became a major value, and history moved from east to west, allowing one to forget its lessons and continually exist in a “new” America. The ideal American was always moving towards something better; and he tended to look condescendingly upon those who held to the values of place. For those who believe in upwardly mobility, said James Hillman, to be is to be stuck.
The psychological implications are significant. Fifteen to twenty generations of restless Americans have come of age assuming that maturity implies freedom from all restraints, that family and community (and, for many men, all binding relationships) are constraints to be escaped from. Historian James Robertson writes, “The ritual American act of courage is the declaration of independence-rebellion-migration of the American adolescent.”
Our sacred notion of mobility — the freedom to move — evokes one of our most enduring themes: the New Start. Always, one could pull up stakes, move on, start a new church, change one’s name, dream a new American dream and start over. Mobility also implies expansion: geographic, economic and spiritual. Americans from the start have taken for granted the imperative to constantly expand and grow – and the internalized judgment of those who are not upwardly mobile.
This leads to wildly divergent yet surprisingly similar ideals – both the infinitely expanding consumer economy and “personal growth.” New Age spirituality could not be more American. Consider the book, The Secret (30 million copies in 50 languages), by Rhonda Byrne. In the film version, a series of self-help teachers promote positive thinking, primarily toward the goal of acquiring consumer goods and a great love life. This tradition extends back to the New Thought teachers of early 19th-century America. The film ignores the values of community almost totally. For more on the myths of progress and growth, see Chapter Nine of my book.
A mere half century after the revolution, Alexis De Toqueville observed of American preachers,
…it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.
Eventually, religion and the mentality of business merged as they did nowhere else. Without a state religion and with Protestant churches constantly splitting in schisms, each individual preacher was forced to become an entrepreneur of souls, a salesman, in order to distinguish his church from other churches. Consequently, a business-growth mentality grew within American Protestantism, and its philosophy of optimistic self-improvement merged with the capitalist ideology of greed and perpetual growth.
“New Start” also implies another old idea. In the tribal world, initiation removes youths from their community before returning them with their sense of purpose revitalized. It is a point in time rooted within space. But America inverted this ancient truth; since one could simply leave his community to acquire a new identity, initiation became a point in space rooted in time. As early as 1600, America symbolized the New Start for the entire western world. This aspect of the myth remains nearly as strong today. And it tells us that we rise up not as members of an ethnic group or social class, but as individuals.
The Myth of Individualism
In an odd reversal of initiation motifs, the American heroic son “kills” his father symbolically – if he has one – by individuating, moving away and repudiating everything the father stands for. In truth, we perceive family as at best a necessary evil, something to leave, so that one may get on with the pursuit of happiness. In America, progress happens through separation.
In terms of child-raising, Americans generally consider infants to be so fused with their mothers that we make every effort to encourage autonomy as early as possible. We hold and carry babies less than most nations do, very early admonishing them to be “big boys.” The Japanese, by contrast, consider the infant to be utterly alien, from some strange, other world. Like most traditional people, they make every effort to enfold it within community as early as possible. Neither view of the child is right or wrong, said James Hillman; both are myths, because they are “lived unconsciously, collectively as truths, performed un...
In the story of modernity, which is essentially an American story, unlike anything that came before, we have convinced ourselves that purpose can be divorced from community. But in a culture of consumerism, the desire to be seen as special produces a quest for expensive symbols – a quest that is ultimately futile, wrote sociologist Philip Slater, “…since it is individualism itself that produces uniformity.”
Paradoxically, our American obsession with individualism produces persons who “cannot recognize the nature of their distress.” This results in a desire to relinquish responsibility for control and decision-making to the images provided by the media. Here lies a great paradox of American life: our emphasis on the needs of the individual always constellates its shadow of cultural and political conformism.
But conformism and rebellious individualism should not be our only choices. In the indigenous world, community exists in order to identify and nurture the individuality of each of its members, who are, in turn, necessary for the community to thrive and reproduce its values. Malidoma Somé writes that in West Africa, “Individuality is synonymous with uniqueness. This means that a person and his or her unique gifts are irreplaceable… A healthy community not only supports diversity, it requires diversity.”
Americans – when not involved in our periodic moral crusades – valued the individual over the community more than any society in history. The opportunist argued for individual responsibility against the suffocating presence of big government. Determined on success, he was in a perpetual state of rebellion against authority (while ignoring the cavalry that protected his property, massive subsidies to the railroads that carried his goods, and later, a military-industrial complex that ensured his oil supply and markets for his products).
His wealth was proof that he lived in God’s grace – and his neighbor’s poverty indicated the opposite. But there was a price, writes Historian Greil Marcus:
To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.
Whether in the relentless drive for wealth or in his obsession to know God’s plan, the American, like no one before him, strove for self-improvement. Inside the word “improve,” however, is the anxiety of one who can never positively know if he is saved. Thus he must continually “prove” his worth. He does so, he believes, only on his own merits. And he proves this worth only in relation to those who have less, those who (according to Puritanism) deserve less.
Mythmakers continually emphasize the individual over the collective. Most notably, Horatio Alger’s nineteenth century dime-novel melodramas affirmed the Protestant virtues of frugality, hard work and delayed gratification. His young heroes “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” These immensely popular stories of personal success counteracted populist agitation in a time when socialist ideas from Europe were questioning the mythic narrative.
In the 1880s they were already well-established in the American narrative. And for the last 140 years they have only grown stronger. So many of us, born on third base, think we hit a triple.
All societies confront the perennial conflict between individual and community. America’s emphasis on individualism and its puritanical shadow produced a bewildering series of dualities that express, temporarily resolve and often cover up this tension.
Fear: For every story of heroic, optimistic, progressive, entrepreneurial, forward-thinking, frontier-crossing heroism, we have the background of fear and anxiety. Our stories have always focused that fear upon the inner and outer Others of our imagination. And I mean always, as Glenn Greenwald observes, because a mythology built to justify empire and white supremacy absolutely requires a state of constant anxiety to motivate people who, left to their own devices and traditional mythic worlds, would not tolerate such an unsatisfying life.
People, of course, can feel fear about many things, especially of loss. But in America this mythology gets condensed through the generations down into the loss of freedom, which expresses as the loss of opportunity and the loss of money. Just behind the libertarian’s obsession with freedom lies his fear of losing his hard-earned resources, which he believes he achieved entirely independently of a broader social network.
And in this zero-sum American mythology it is impossible to separate the fear of loss of resources from the fear of redistribution of those resources, and those racialized groups whom government would give them to.
Early white fear and hatred of the dangerous, Indian Other created mythic opposites: the hero and the captive. Both our history and our psychology waver between the viewpoints of the helpless, innocent victim of pure evil, and the redeemer/hunter/hero, who vanquishes it and saves innocent Eden. By 1700, America’s first coherent myth-literature appeared: potent tales of people — usually women — who’d survived capture by the Indians.
The heroes of the western expansion became the stock characters of the second theme in American myth. The greatest, Daniel Boone, moved further west as civilization encroached, complaining, I had not been two years at the licks before a d—d Yankee came, and settled down within an hundred miles of me!
Whether Boone actually said that is irrelevant; Americans needed him to. The myth of the frontier contrasted Apollonian Cities with the Dionysian Wilderness (hence, three hundred years later, the spatial center of libertarianism in our Western states). The frontier was a safety valve of free western land when urban conditions became unmanageable, linking militarism with civilization’s moral progress. Since society must grow or perish, it insisted on the racial basis of class difference and taught that such progress required the subjugation or extermination of both wild nature and savage races.
These themes had deep resonance, because they superficially resembled ancient hero myths. Both the hunter (willingly) and the captive (unwillingly) entered a primal world. If they could maintain their racial/cultural integrity there, they might incorporate its power, defeat its demons and return to morally renew their community (even if they rarely did so). It was initiation – and redemption – through violence.
The opposition of Puritan obsessions and the opportunists’ predatory mania led to a division in the psyche that remains with us today. We regularly confront the opposing values of freedom and equality, framed as individualism vs. conformism. To modern Puritans, all are equally sinful, requiring eternal vigilance to prevent infection. But descendants of the opportunists, from robber barons to anti-tax crusaders, sexual hedonists and libertarians, venerate the sacred right to ignore community standards.
Conservatives (more appropriately: reactionaries) often intertwine these values, because one of the privileges of whiteness is to pick and choose among seemingly contradictory positions. Hence, we have the curious phenomena of gay Republicans who overlook their party’s hatred of sexuality; proponents of increased police presence who oppose gun control; others who oppose abortion rights but support capital punishment; and demagogues like Richard Nixon, who terrorized Middle America with warnings of both“the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy” in the same speech.
The pendulum has swung back and forth. But wherever one of these values predominates, its shadow soon constellates. The conflict emerges in the tension between libertarian hedonism and wartime conformism – often in the voices of the same persons. Another example is equal opportunity vs. the meritocratic values of our institutions – and the old-boy networks that actually ensure continued WASP dominance (the C-grade high school student George W. Bush was the ultimate “Legacy” admission at Yale).
The consensus on the issue of equality is that all Americans have equal access to jobs, education and housing. Assuming that all start on a “level playing field,” we proclaim May the best man win. The winners are those who “try hardest,” applying the Protestant values of discipline and delayed gratification. Theologically speaking, they show by their success that they are among the elect of God — and exempt, by the way, from the Christian obligation to help the poor.
Conflicts in the myth can emerge in terms of fairness vs. cheating. The notion of fairness promises that all who play by the rules will prosper. Cheating breaks the rules, but it also reveals our core, capitalist, individualist values. This explains our moral indignation about steroid abuse and rule violation in sports, one of the few areas in modern life, a ritual space perhaps, in which we claim to honor truth and fairness. But Eldridge Cleaver sawthat when we all secretly subscribe to…“every man for himself,” we really do perceive the weak as the prey of the strong.
But since this dark principle violates our democratic ideals… we force it underground… sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving.
This is a deeply mythic story not necessarily because it is untrue, but because its pervasiveness and its unexamined assumptions produce a consensus reality. It is a container of multiple and inconsistent meanings; its very ambiguity gives it the energy that motivates us.
It allows the privileged to select either one of the two polar ideals to justify themselves. For example, segregation – “separate but equal” – was legal for sixty years. Libertarians invoke equality to reject affirmative action, calling it reverse discrimination. Assistance to minorities only encourages idleness (let us not forget that in Puritan theology there is no greater sin than laziness). Though the argument is false, it has potency because it contains some truth: since individuals have occasionally succeeded on their own, then, claim conservatives, everyone should be able to. If others cannot, then it is their own fault.
(Few libertarians, with their permissive attitudes around sexuality, would admit to being part of any organized religion, especially anything puritanical. But we are talking about “boy psychology,” the characteristic expression of uninitiated young men, where one’s rebelliousness is merely the mirror-opposite of the father’s authoritarianism.)
Conservatives attack progressive legislation by invoking the ideal of individualism, terrorizing working-class white males with the prospect of lost jobs and, paradoxically, suburban homogeneity. “Freedom” reverts to the right to accumulate and invest wealth without government regulation.
Marketing exploits both sides. As early as the 1830’s, De Tocqueville noticed the tendency toward conformity that resulted from an ideology of equality in a materialistic society. Now, we purchase identical sunglasses, cigarettes, leather jackets and motorcycles becausethey symbolize rebellion against conformity. Fashion is a simultaneous declaration of freedom and membership: we present a unique self to the world while looking like selected others. “Individualists” often look and think, for the most part, within narrow parameters.
Military recruiters offer romantic images of individualistic warriors while simultaneously emphasizing the joys of dissolving oneself into the group. They seduce young men with images of noble knights in heroic, solo combat, conquering dragons in video games so as to entrain them in the automatic responses of large, anonymous armies.
Each contains the seed of its shadow. The conservative ideal of shrinking government inevitably produces restrictions on personal freedom and a prison-industrial complex.
Here is the essence of our story: both the Puritan and the Opportunist perceived freedom in autonomy and material possessions rather than in social relatedness. Eventually, both figures became somewhat interchangeable, as history transformed the aesthetic, religious notion of predestination into Social Darwinism and the secular culture of consumerism.
The grand product of this mix was the American: enthusiastic, confident, practical, optimistic, extraverted, competitive and classless. But to those who endured his excesses, he was arrogant, childish, narcissistic and belligerent, the “Ugly American,” innocently trampling tradition, making fine distinctions between the elect and the damned, or gleefully crushing the weak with astonishing cruelty.
Generally, a unique if superficial balance has ruled; the land of freedom and equality remains profoundly attractive to the world. Philosopher Jacob Needleman suggests the American ideal poses the ancient question of “what man is as opposed to what he can become.”
And yet, we have a Bill of Rights but no Bill of Responsibilities. Radical critics find the source of this paradox of freedom and equality in unexamined definitions of just who is a member of the community, the polis. When only a small percentage of the population is admitted to that rarified atmosphere and all “Others” are excluded, then both the contradiction in the rhetoric and the sense of denial and innocence are heightened.
During wartime, we quickly forget the civil liberties that the nation was founded upon. Terrorized by the Other – or being told this – we almost unanimously ignore or condone the grossest violations of the right to dissent. As the mid-term elections of 2018 approach, and keeping in mind the history of various “October Surprises,” we would do well to recall that on September 10th, 2001, G.W. Bush was the most unpopular president in our history, and that on the 12th, he had a 90 percent approval rating.
This is Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority. For all their emphasis on individual rights, Americans had put so much emphasis on equality rather than upon diversity that they became intolerant of the very freedom to be different. He wrote, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”
Over time, unrestrained capitalism provokes responses such as the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt reframed freedom: of speech, of religion, from want and from fear. But after FDR’s death, Harry Truman dropped the last two, replacing them with freedom of enterprise.
More fundamental to American myth than ideals of freedom or equality, the unrestrained quest for wealth trumps them both. And yet, as noted above, during the Eisenhower administration, the rich paid extremely high income taxes, because (until the Reagan years) the consensus of social compassion still existed. Still, even now, corporate welfare, federal subsidies and regressive taxation prop up big business and big agriculture; both they and their “small government” libertarian spokespersons would be horrified at the notion of a truly free market.
Yet the myth retains its pervasiveness, as middle class resistance to increased taxation on the super-wealthy indicates. Americans characteristically dream of becoming wealthy. Our sacred expectation of social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has been decreasing significantly for many years. But as recently as 2003, in a poll on the Bush tax-cut plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it.
The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained in our national psyche that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. And it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to find similar thinking among Trump supporters today.