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Libertarian Mugged by Reality | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Libertarian Mugged by Reality


The University of Chicago campus. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)

As a freelance political writer living in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that encompasses the University of Chicago, it has frequently been my lot to be haunted by bright-eyed twentysomethings. They seek my professional counsel. Or are just eager to talk about politics. We have lunch; I take on all comers (presuming they’ll buy me lunch). One day in the middle of 2008, the fellow who approached me was named Alex Beinstein.

Alex Beinstein was, like many other a fidgety and overconfident undergraduate who’d sought my company in this way, considerably to the right of center—a libertarian, he told me. We talked; he taped an interview with me for his political talk show on the college radio station; he annoyed me with right-wing clichés; we went our separate ways.

Later, as these kids sometimes do, he got back in touch. But something had happened in the interim. That something, in fact, seems to be happening a lot: kids I knew who were conservatives when they lived in the ivory tower were now liberals. The real world has made them that way.

That’s not how the story is supposed to go. Remember the maxim apocryphally attributed to Churchill? “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” That was then, I suppose. This is now. What changed? The other day I sat down with Alex—I was buying lunch this time—to find out. He was no longer fidgety. He was confident, not overconfident—a grownup.

I mentioned the Churchill maxim. “Yeah, I’ve heard that. I don’t think you can flip it 100 percent for me. But I think you can flip it about 80 percent.”

He recalled coming to college vaguely liberal. But the people who were declaring themselves for causes looked like hypocrites to him. “So I felt myself being drawn more and more to the libertarian philosophy. Like: ‘At the end of the day we’re all selfish.’”

Was it, I asked, exacerbated by the notoriously libertarian-friendly confines of the University of Chicago?

“Definitely. It was easy for me to make a lot of libertarian friends. We had many, many dinners, sitting around, saying, ‘This is a scam, and that is a scam,’ and, ‘If you read what Milton Friedman helped to do in Chile.’ ”

And they would talk about something else. In my first post on this blog, I spoke of the right’s “curious fallacy, a crushing intellectual failure. They’ll act like only governments have the power to deprive citizens of freedom.” Libertarian kids at the University of Chicago think so, too: “It was all about ‘People have jobs, and that’s that, and anything that gets in the way between employer and employee is unhealthy for the system.’ ”

What happened next? He got a job.

He sold books at Borders in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It “did kind of a 180 on me. Just in terms of the rigidity of a corporate structure! You know: they tell you you have to take your lunch break at 1. But at 12:58 a customer starts speaking to you. And if you speak to them until 1:02 the bosses at Borders would start yelling at you to take your break at one, and then if you got an extra minute to 1:31 it throws off the whole schedule but if you volunteer to go two minutes early they fear they might be fined!”

Call it the irrationality of the market.

He learned, too, about the nature of unaccountable power in the workplace. One day the boss promised him five shifts the following week. Then, of a sudden, the boss assigned him only three. And apologized. Said it wouldn’t happen again. Then it happened again.

“I mean, there was a lot of disingenuousness. And I was privileged enough that if I needed a little bit more money from my parents to pay the rent it was fine, but if I was the type of person where literally that was the difference between me paying rent or not, this was a huge deal. It wasn’t like they had enough time to plan in advance—or find another job, because if they think they have to work those days”: their schedule has been monopolized. Which, sort of, is the point. “All of the sudden you see how little liberty average people do have.”

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It’s like that inspiring right-wing slogan says, the one right up there with “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Government for, by, and of the people”: “You can always quit.”

“I was working with people in their mid-30s who had kids and there was one day when somebody’s kid was really sick…but there was no paid sick leave, so they couldn’t afford to take the day off. And then you know people who have really long commutes to this job in Cambridge, and they’re not really investing in transportation systems in the Boston area…”

So he started thinking about infrastructure. He was walking to work through East Cambridge, “which was not a very nice place, and you could could see how unkept the buildings were and how shoddy the hospital was, and the general sense of hopelessness and despair, and all of the sudden I felt like a total fraud for believing the Hayek-Friedman stuff!…I didn’t really see them having any liberty.”

In high school he never worked. In college he always had nice desk internships. “I never felt guilty if I took a bathroom break that was longer than ninety seconds! Or that I took a thirty-one-minute break or something because it was out of my control. That just totally changed everything. And I’ll never think the same way again.”

So there you go, conservative parents, the ones afraid that if they send their darlings off to college that—well, remember how Rick Santorum put it last year? That “there are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate him. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

Nope. The right’s problem began when the indoctrination stopped. That’s when the forbidden thoughts started:

“I could see how much good the liberal stuff had done, but how much more was needed to be done.”

Rick Perlstein last wrote about a libertarian scheme to transform a park in Detroit into a sovereign nation with a $300,000 citizenship fee.

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