Friday, June 02, 2006

Libertarianism, and the escaping of hurt

People have often thrown strange tags at me – this -ist and that -ist.

Now, there are several online tests that will give you your tags if you’re fond of wearing them. I took a test, and it turns out I’m libertarian. Though my quadrant is left-libertarian rather than right, and since I appear to stand close to where Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are positioned on the analysis graph, I'm not worried.

Yet, on the face of it, who isn’t a libertarian?

If the essential guiding philosophy of libertarianism is ‘liberty’, then I certainly am one.

Freedom - of the individual, of the community, of the mind, of the body, of the species, of other species, of speech, of action, of thought, of expression, of enterprise, of art, of science, of trade, of service – is precious.

If there is one thing worth fighting for – it is freedom. The right to live as you choose. The right to say what you think. The right to do what you will – as long as you’re not hurting anybody.

But that is a bit of a stumbling block - this business of 'victimless' living. It is so easy to assume that you’re not hurting someone else, and so impossible to believe it. Like the poet said, ‘No man is an island…’

In fact, no island is an island, either. One volcano on one island causes currents and ripples in the ocean, which might cause a Tsunami on another island.

Let’s begin with simple examples.

You want a divorce.

Your husband doesn’t. Would a libertarian go ahead with the divorce? Because the husband is going to hurt like hell... What’re you going to do?


Your son wants to be a Bollywood actor.

You want to thrash him, but you don’t. You simply cut off his allowance. Your money… you have the right to do what you want. Your son has the right to pursue his Bollywood career. But he can no longer afford to. He gives in to your wishes and decides to become a bank manager instead. He spends the rest of his life feeling miserable. And hurt.

What’re you going to do?

Now, let’s take this to another level.

Let’s say you drive a car.
You need this car. You may have worked your backside off to acquire and fuel this car. You might drive very carefully, following all the traffic rules, but what will you do about pollution? Pollution in a major city might translate into a toddler being exposed to the equivalent of twenty cigarettes a day. If there are one million cars and one million toddlers…?

Are you hurting nobody?

Let’s say you live next door to an unhappy Muslim woman who wants a divorce but is not getting one, because she will lose custody of her children. It is none of your business, so you do not interfere. You are not a Muslim woman so you will not campaign for changes in the Sharia, nor fight to change the law of the land.

Have you hurt nobody?

Let’s say you set up a cola factory in a rural district where there’s only one source of fresh water. You set up shop, you pay your taxes, you put your little profit in the bank. It is true that there’s less water available for the villagers’ drinking, bathing, cooking, irrigation…

But nobody’s getting hurt, surely?

Let’s say you’ve got a girlfriend in another city. With cheaper airlines, it is absolutely glorious being able to fly down every weekend… and let’s assume that you’ve been convinced, beyond your ability to doubt, that human self-indulgence has led to climate change. That every decade of our development leads to rivers receding, polar bears dying, Amazon rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, more frequent floods and hurricanes. The events that in the long history of planet earth used to occur at intervals of a thousand years, are now occurring at intervals of a hundred years, and by the time our kids grow up, will by happening every few years. There is more drought, more famine… and there’s cheaper air travel. Now, you just want to hold onto your girlfriend. You don’t want to hurt anybody.

In all honesty, have you hurt nobody?

Sure, we’re all advocates of individual freedom here. We’re all libertarians here… but each minute of each day, you are hurting someone.

Because you hurt people through silence. You hurt people when you refuse to rethink what you’re doing and why. You hurt people when you fail to acknowledge their needs and rights and ambitions and furies, as equal to your own. You hurt people when you betray their voice by superimposing your own agenda over it. You hurt people when you form opinions without checking on facts, when you fudge data, or tell only half the truth, show only half the picture, or fail to ask questions.

For, no man is an island...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...

I know I should get on with my life. It is beyond one individual, trying to tackle the concerns of an ever-expanding, forever-besieged world…

But you know what?

I want those polar bears to live... I want the desert to stop somewhere far, far away from the doorstep. And the tides to stop at the shore. I want rivers to flow. I want children to eat. I want women to feel free. I want men to be happy and non-aggressive. I want everybody to work equally, but also to have the leisure to write poetry and paint masterpieces…

And it hurts me to see a pregnant mother bear dive into a frozen sea, again and again, coming up empty-handed, going hungry for eight months, giving birth, only to see a cub die...

It doesn’t kill me. But it hurts. It hurts even more to think that I am as culpable as anybody else, since I’m so busy doing my bit to warm up good old mother earth.


I don’t know about being this ‘-ian’ or that ‘-ist’. But I know we need to rethink ‘humanity’ and ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ and ‘growth’. A close friend recently pointed out to me that human civilization has charted a warped course for itself.

It has given us the tools to make nuclear missiles and to create the wonders of the world, to write poetry and to perform brain surgery. But it has failed to give us the tools to be content, to give each other the minimum possible pain. We have failed, as a species, to avoid hurting ourselves or each other.

We’re quite pathetic, come to think of it. We cannot be content with three pairs of clothes, or even thirty. We buy new jeans (and cell phones and ipods and laptops and television sets and insurance) each year. We buy bathtubs to bathe in. We buy plastic shower curtains for our bathrooms. And we don’t just take a dip in the sea. Instead, we buy bottled ‘sea minerals’ mixed with ‘soap-free shower gel’.

Guess what nobody buys?

An argument.

The argument that we need to stop, and think about all this ‘growth’ and where we’re headed. To think about reversing some of our damage, and to acknowledge the victims of our passivity, to acknowledge the need to make amends when we do cause damage. That argument, nobody wants to buy.

(Disclaimer: There is no particular agenda to this post. I was writing all this in my diary really, chewing my intellectual cud… and thought it might be fun to get others to chew along. Chomp-chomp.)


Anirudh said...

Apparently, I am also on the libertarian left. Though since my political views aren't well-formed and I mistrust tests, I am very suspicious of anything like this. In any case, seems as if I am very close to anarchist.

Charu Majumdar said...

i really suggest that you read "State of Fear" by Michael Crichton. It will clear your head about things like global warning...
and yes, i am a libertarian too....

Arnold said...

Right Libertarian! [The only place to be according to be! Come join me up here!] Hah!

Ashish Gorde said...

Am not sure what I am, and I'm not particularly interested in finding out anyway... however, whichever side of the fence one sits (or not sit at all), I agree, we need to have polar bears, an ozone rich blue sky, people having jobs and a livelihood and an opportunity as well as the freedom to speak their mind... basically, couldn't agree more with what you have written.

Now the only problem is, who will buy the argument?

barbarindian said...

Another example: you want a seat in a good college. You study your ass off. Then, another kid, who scores half the marks you did snatches away your seat.

Pawan said...

Brilliant and no arguments as usual:). How've u been? Back in India?

P said...

Couldnt agree with you more..

Working in a office full of people with masters degrees who refuse to switch off their monitors (even the entire system at times...what exactly is this stupid standby mode anyway).

At times every light in the stupid office is switched on...all when there are only ten people in it.

Like Levitt puts in Freakonomics no one really bothers about the environment because the changes arent tangible rightaway. I guess we are all going to pay a huge price for our follies someday.

Venu said...

Annie, I have written a detailed response to this post on my blog.

The crux of my argument is that you've understood libertarianism wrong. Libertarianism says that an individual should have the right to decide what he should do with his own life rather than have decisions forced on him by someone else. It doesnt specify what the decision itself should be but just leaves it to the individual. Therefore in none of the examples you cite does libertarianism take any stand; it is all upto the morals the individual himself endorses.

Do read my post for a more comprehensive explanation.

Venu said...

Sorry, the link in the above comment does not work. Here is a link that works.

annie said...

anirudh: so am I. and anarchists have their merits.
charu: I will, when I can
arnold: who's 'be'?
ashish: :)
barbarindian: once again, a non-contextual comment... the point being?
pawan: not yet. another four weeks.
prashanth: absolutely.

venu: I saw your post. If you don't subscribe to the 'victimlessness' theroy, this post clearly does not apply to you. But let me assure you that there are plenty pf people who wear libertarianism like badge of honour and who DO believe that your actions must not hurt anybody else. I could point to relevant posts, but I am not trying to start a war here. Besides, the principles of libertarianism or any other 'ism' really doesn't matter. Not to me. I have nothing invested in either tomtomming them or discrediting them.

Anonymous said...

Hie there are very strong, divergent strands in liberal thought and to argue it as a homogenous whole is very misleading.

Crazyfinger said... did you get into this mess? Stop, backup. No, no, don't turn back, just slowly backup all the way. You see that sign that says "Construction Site, No Throughway"? How did you miss it? Where do you want to go? What's that? To "I-Want-To-Be-One-of-Them-Ville?" Oh, really! But why? Because it's all so exciting, everybody is talking about this economy, that economy, this free-market, that reservation, this quota, that quota, this IIT, that IIM, all those super-duper Wikipedia articles, high thinking, women, men, liberation, LIBERATION, this analysis, that synthesis, all sounds sooo exciting, intellectual, the rewards from a flurry of comments, the angst of a disagreement, the pleasant sounds of a rah-rah crowd ("I too feel like you! You are so, like, my fayvrate blogger!" It's all so exciting!)? Oh, that's why? No? That's not why? Hmmm... Here, sit down for a minute dearie, want some tea? Now, listen to me, you won't like it but don't be upset. Forget all that ideology, shaideology, nobody blogs about this stuff from hardened experience but everybody blogs from passionate knowledge, following their pet theories and when it comes down to it, a "leftist" has no hangups buying an iPod and a "free-market" fellow has no compunctions issuing protection controls. In this jungle, you have to find your own way. Here's the secret. While most people start their intellectual lives with subscriptions to an "ism" or an ideology, I suggest you defer that subscription until later and when that "later" arrives, postpone it indefinitely, perhaps until the day you die and on that day, something will happen to you that will make all "isms" as clear as the day light. Until then, don't subscribe to any of it. Life is too short, not just for bad comedy, but also for any intellectualization of it by "isms" and philosophies.

Instead subscribe to this. There's this thing. I can't name it but I feel it, sense it, it comes and goes, fades in and fades out. It's almost like a glue that binds me to everybody around me. Makes me energetic when I am around people, who don't talk but do stuff first, and fills me with a peculiar kinship to them when I am not around them. But sometimes this glue disappears, the times when I read an emphatic, sure-footed opinion from analysts, bloggers, university students, economists, news junkies, internet technologists, and such like. This is when the glue comes undone. When this happens, I look at him, I see a white man. I see her, I see a black woman. I look at this child and I think this child is ugly and I look at my fellow country men and women and I am embarrassed by their awkwardness. I look at those men and women running out of shops with broken windows and I think with disgust what animals and what ANIMALS! I am rotting because that glue has left me, I left it. I see inside me, I see nothing but emptiness but I am stern in my opinion, I see my confident analysis but I am filled with feelings of disgust. I am like a leper who began to like his decaying skin, and my leprosy is in my mind, and it is my heart and my soul that is infested. I see darkness everywhere, I blame the media thinking that even at such a dire hour, there is a conspiracy. In all this confusion, I forget that this world's machinery is run by people, by people, like ME. Then I stop reading stuff, the glue comes back. Everything is once again peaceful: the glue makes me energetic when I am around people who don't talk but do stuff first fills me with a peculiar kinship to them when I am not around them.

So, "If all you got to live for is what you left behind, get yourself a powder charge, and seal that silver mine" (Robert Hunter). And if all that's there are words and no actions, then you don't even need a powder charge and that ain't no silver mine Missie! Hey, where you going? You left your car keys!

P.S. Parts of this comment are a reuse of an earlier blog entry.


Venu said...

Besides, the principles of libertarianism or any other 'ism' really doesn't matter. Not to me. I have nothing invested in either tomtomming them or discrediting them.
Well, I thought the point of your post was that there is something trivial about libertarian beliefs, typified by this sentence: Yet, on the face of it, who isn’t a libertarian? Your post was also about the futility of ideology tags, I think, but then again your own beliefs (especially the last paras) so clearly put you in a group called left/liberals. That you choose not to call yourself that wont prevent others from calling you that, and you might end up using arguments very similar to those others in your "camp" use to defend themselves. This whole business of ideology tagging is so that others can better and quicker understand where you come from and what your core beliefs are. It has limited utility, yes, but it has some utility and you cant wish away the fact that people will ultimately group you. Given this, it would be better if we are all less ignorant of what the more popular ideologies are (broadly) trying to say.

Ofcourse, I totally understand when you say you dont want to start a war etc, and let the matter rest here.

Rabin said...

i did the test too and came out as a libertarian (leaning to the left). Honestly till recently I didn't quite bother to learn what a libertarian was, so I did that this monday morning.

I generally am skeptical about labels, ie, ones like 'liberal' or 'conservative' etc, coz these are at best relative terms and people can be one or the other at different phases of their lives. One of the explanations I found about what a libertarian was that "A libertarian is someone who, in general, supports government policies that favor individual liberty in all matters, whether economic, personal, or social" Somehow I've started liking this term. Unlike terms like conservative or liberal it is hardly relative, it deals with a way of thinking rather than any specific preferences. But I am surprised at the various interpretations of this term that I've read in the blogging world in the past. I have seen some proponents of 'a free market economy' (which they restrict to opening of the economy to the walmarts of the world) claim this tag as well. When in reality freeing the economy for the global giants to enter infact would have the effect of killing small local businesses and create high entry barriers which goes against the right of a small company to survive. Survival of the fattest is what would ensue. That I assume is hardly a utopian world for a libertarian.

Now to your post about freedom and the victimless living. I agree with you that we all survive because someone else suffers. But that in a very cold manner is the one of the basic tenets of human survival. From the food we eat to, the clothes we wear to the places we live to the economic lifestyle we have are due to the loss of someone or something.

For someone to win, someone else has to loose. The resources in this planet hardly is enough for everyone. Or atleast it is percieved that way. Now though the most important point you raise is not of hurting someone but being blissfully unaware of the same. Most of us in our day to day life have too much to worry about. So if any single trait can be pinpointed as a reason for humanity's ultimate decline, I think it would be selfishness.

(much regret the length of this comment, I just kept rambling on)

jaygee said...

why we are at extremes is perhaps more the question to wonder about? Progress does not necessarily mean doomsday for the future but may be why we cant achieve a balance is what we need to think of!
A car can be monitored for no pollution but not buying a car is not the answer. Your son can still become the actor he wants - with a little struggle - if you have raised him as he should perhaps - he will fight it out and let a candidate who wants to become a bank manager, get his job. Yes his life wont be easy and he will learn. The cola factory is paying a price today for not respecting nature. But thats irrelevant. You are right isms are no good - especially when they translate into no action. I agree with crazyfinger. All laws are unto when it comes to self.. if you really want to make a difference - like they (whoever they are)say start with urself. Every little action can make a difference am sure.

jedi said...

about we as a race failing.. desmond morris in his 'naked ape' has a different perspective. suggest reading it. could enrich your perspective. :)

annie said...

anonymous: I'm all for diversity of thought. And I am all for doing away with labels.
crazyfinger: I'd agree with you on most points, except that bit about 'don't talk but do something'. To write is also to do something.
rabin: to quote a wise man, there is enough on earth for human need, not enough for human greed.
jaygee: i agree. and i do try to do small things. for starters, i don't use plastic/paper cups for coffee in office. and don't switch on air-conditioning when it is not needed. use natural light as far as possible, etc.
venu: who cares how other people tag me?
jedi: did so, a long time ago. must re-read, one of these days.

Crazyfinger said...

Aaah...that "don't talk but do something" insinuation was not directed at you but just speaking out loud. Also, for someone whose posts emanate life like fresh drops of water, I think you'd agree that sometimes agreement/disagreement have no place. One just reads, listens and speaks. My original comment was something like that.


Space Bar said...

Annie, an eloquent post...I find tagging people with descriptive labels quite futile, but I'm going to take the test anyway!

Perhaps not quite for fun, but because even a generic test can be a catalyst of some sort.

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