Saturday, May 24, 2014

Kochistan: the libertarian fantasies of the Koch brothers

This is the decade of libertarianism. Two billionaires, Charles and David Koch, are spending vast fortunes to convince Americans that we can have a utopian society if we embrace libertarian ideals and elect Republicans to office. The Kochs have been successful to a great degree. Several states have elected Republican legislatures intent on turning back progressive programs from the last century.

Right now, residents of those states are seeing some of the results of this rejection of progressive ideas. New Jersey has reduced taxes and lost so much revenue that its bond rating has been reduced six times, meaning that the state will have to pay more and more interest on money it has already borrowed. Other states have reduced the ability of unions to organize, the ability of women to obtain birth control and abortions, and the ability of lower income people to vote.

So far, so good. The Kochs have succeeded in bringing politicians to their banner. But that is the easy part, after all. Politicians are available to be bought, and the Kochs have more money than God. The hard part will be to convince the populace that the libertarian utopia is a place they would like to live in. Fortunately, we have a genius who once lived in that utopia and described it for us. His name is Charles Dickens.

Dickens lived in England when industrialists had everything their own way. They expelled peasants from their land so it could be used to raise sheep—wool was the commodity that brought wealth to England in those days. The peasants, now without farms to work, migrated to the cities, which became the nightmarish place so well described in such books as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and Little Dorrit. What were the institutions that made this place a hell for so many of its inhabitants?

First off, there was no birth control, which Republicans seem intent on outlawing. So there were plenty of orphans. The industrialists could use these orphans as factory workers, for there were no laws against child labor. Some orphans were cared for in orphanages, operated for profit, which created the kind of hunger described so vividly in Oliver Twist:
[the proprietors] established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.
Here you see the libertarian nature of the orphanage, or the workhouse, for they were the same place. No one is compelled to enter the place. Each person has the option of starving in the streets or starving in the workhouses.

Another institution of the libertarian utopia is the debtor's prison. A person who cannot pay a debt must be sent to prison, where they sit until the debt is repaid, or the rest of their lives, if it is not. There were thousands upon thousands of unemployed workers in England. The factories automated production so that only a few workers could do work that previously had kept many employed.

Here again we see the beauty of the free market at work. People who cannot find gainful employment are thrown back upon their own devices. The children became petty thieves and were hanged for it. The men became soldiers or criminals, although there was little difference between the two professions in those days. Soldiers relied on loot to supplement their wages. It was a kind of legal robbery.

Poor women had a harder life, of course. There were many more women than men, so marriage was not an option for perhaps 750,000 women in Dickens's England. Single women could become servants for the wealthy or prostitutes. Here again we see the operation of the market place, which libertarians place above any governmental program. Women were free to sell their services on the open market. They did what they had to do to survive.

Dickens's libertarian utopia can better be described by what it lacked. There was no social security to provide retirement income for the elderly. There was no medical care for the poor, since only the middle class could afford doctors. There was no unemployment insurance. If you couldn't find a job, you were once again thrown into the marketplace: You could commit a crime or starve to death.

There was one safety valve for the poor in Dickens's England. The poor could emigrate to America or Australia or South Africa. Millions of poor people did just that. But there would be no safety valve in Koch's libertarian utopia. The poor could beg in the streets or starve.

Rather than listen to the blandishments of libertarian apologists like Rand Paul or Charles Koch, we should ask ourselves if we would like to live in the libertarian utopia of Kochistan. It's a great place if you're wealthy, but hell if you are not.

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