Sunday, March 25, 2012

Librarian Party: Taking the "E.T." out of "Libertarian"

Having just read The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs, I concluded that it was time to take him at his word and start a third party that would focus its efforts on returning Americans to a sense of civil purpose.  And I knew just the group to do it: librarians.

Librarians are small-g government. They are local. They are efficient, service-oriented, and inexpensive. Because, for the most part, they are women. It is well known that any career that is identified as a "female" career is efficient, service-oriented, and inexpensive. You think teachers are expensive? How much is it worth to change someone's life? And when was the last time a banker did that? Bankers don't even give change. Tellers do that.

But librarians have another asset: they read. If they were to read more of the right kinds of books--like The Price of Civilization--instead of dystopian series after dystopian series written for young adults, maybe they'd realize that dystopia isn't really such a fantasy, and they'd mobilize their political might and change things. Or, seeing how their political might consists of being patronized by politicians who know librarians are essentially powerless--as well as efficient, service-oriented, and inexpensive--maybe they'd form a discussion group on Goodreads. Which is what I'm going to do. Hey, the national anthem was once a drinking song.

We already live in a dystopia in which millions of people don't begin to get adequate educations or have adequate access to healthcare, and librarians see and work with these people every day, because they come to libraries looking for help: how can I get a job? how can I get housing? how can I find a doctor who will take care of me? And no, I don't mean just any doctor. I mean a doctor who will take care of me.  Or do doctors not do that anymore? For people without money?

(I live in an urban area that is going to host a RAM event in a couple of weeks. RAM = "Rural Area Medical." But we're not rural. We're just dysfunctional. Close to 5,000 people will be treated in three days, people who live well within distance of hundreds of dentists, optometrists, and internists. But they're poor and uninsured. The people. Not the doctors.)

We already live in a dystopia in which greed has become good, Mammon is God, and the philosophy of Ayn Rand has replaced the philosophy of the Founding Fathers. The latter, those Age of Reason philosophers tempered by English and Presbyterian traditions of self-government, understood the need for government--a certain amount of it anyway--and they were justifiably proud of their efforts to engineer a continental system that worked an understanding of selfish human nature into the design of it. Political power was something to be balanced and separated; civic virtue was something to be cultivated and promoted so that selflessness and sharing for the common good would flourish. Benjamin Franklin exemplified much of what drove those men, with his eagerness to advance knowledge through shared scientific research and libraries that lent out books to working stiffs.

It was well understood that energy and hard work could make you a fortune. It was also well understood, maybe even better than today, that luck was part of it. Boom and bust was the name of the game. One day you had it, the next day you didn't. You had to keep scrapping, you and your family. And government could help pave the way to opportunity by providing schools and Erie Canals that you couldn't otherwise afford (although you could dream up Erie Canals while in debtors prison). Granted, no one really wanted to pay the taxes for those things, but at least there was a sense that government had a role.

No longer is that the case. The public sphere has been ransacked by "free enterprise ethic." Those are the words of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who uses them in a Wall Street Journal review of Sachs's book. Ryan, of course, doesn't notice that there's a problem. In one telling paragraph, he starts out promisingly by saying that the pursuit of happiness "has long been recognized in America as a natural right to be secured by good government." Hmm, "secured." That's a good, active word. Only, in Ryan's way of thinking, it's a phantom: "it was to secure the right to pursue happiness by not interfering with either normal commercial transactions or freedom of worship."

That's it? Government is only supposed to stay out of the way? Why bother having any government at all? So eager is Ryan to paint Sachs as a big-government, declinist Europhile--and worse, a Francophile (even as he praises Thomas Jefferson, who was no slouch in either department)--intent on busting America's economic future with burdensome Federal taxes that he fails to note Sachs's radical proposal to tax nationally but spend locally. Where in Europe is that being done?

Nor does Ryan ask if the "free enterprise ethic" is going to provide the culture of education that everyone says we must have if we're to prosper as a nation. Everyone agrees it is part of the pursuit of happiness. How is it to be "secured"? If anything is a phantom, it is that free enterprise will do the job.

If anything is alien to American tradition, it isn't looking to Europe for answers. The Founding Fathers looked everywhere for answers! It isn't trying to restore a robust public sphere. That, in fact, was the original American exceptionalism! No, the alien element is the gospel of Rand, which gave Reagan his creed and got Ryan into politics. The doctrine of solitary, naked self-interest as a positive thing--as something to be glorified rather than understood, balanced, or channeled--owes more to Russian anarchism than it does to any American tradition or body of thought. And its growing inroads in American culture is stripping bare our ability to understand or appreciate the role of government.

Paul Ryan says that we learn from Sachs that the price tag for civilization is "quite steep." We also learn from Sachs that Oliver Wendell Holmes liked buying civilization with his taxes. Maybe Ryan is shopping for something else.

Pursue happiness the Ben Franklin way. Join the Librarian Party.

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