Once upon a time I wrote a little blog post about how freedom is free, but we still pay for it anyway. Over the years, it turned out to be one of my most popular posts. Here's a slice:
Lucky for us, there is the valiant libertarian movement. They also offer us ways to pay for our freedom. For example, the Ludwig von Mises Institute offers us swag. The LvMI offshoot, Laissez-Faire Books, offers us... books, as well as some subscription services. Peter Schiff offers us financial services. Freedomain Radio offers us a lot of free stuff as a means by which to sell additional speaking engagements and the like. The Cato Institute sells all kinds of stuff, but if you're not in the market for any of it, they are more than happy to accept your generous donation.Liberty for sale. I had hoped it ended there, that the "cottage industry" of libertarian products and services would keep itself mainly in the territory of swag.
Unfortunately, things have worsened.
Remember when Tom Morello got upset because one of his biggest fans was a Republican presidential candidate who also really dug Ayn Rand? I wrote about it at the time, but in hindsight, I don't appear to have had anything better to say than, "Look at that - rich guy criticizes other rich guy for being rich." I had good enough instincts to notice something amiss about all of this, but I didn't quite have my finger on the pulse.
By contrast, here's what The Last Psychiatrist wrote (emphasis added):
I don't begrudge anyone making a fortune from their art, but if you allow the system to make you rich from your art, well, there's a trade off.
Tom Morello may want to do a bit of soul searching: did his art really bring awareness to the public, or did it serve the system's function of keeping everyone in line, i.e. a safe way to let off steam so that the kind of changes he was earnestly demanding were negated? This is the exact same question one must ask about the now safely defuncted OccupyWallSt, and even Obama himself. You know why you don't hear about Ron Paul anymore? Because you heard about him back when it was safe. Now that you have two candidates who couldn't possibly be more similar-- not in "ideology", but in action-- you are given no third option. Strike that, no second option.And then:
And why, when Tom Morello wants to rage against Paul Ryan, he does it through the subversive, iconoclastic, angry medium of.... Rolling Stone? That'll get him. Let me be clear: I don't blame Morello for writing in Rolling Stone, I blame him for not asking himself what kind of a man is he that attracts Rolling Stone.The hypocrisy, as identified by TLP is not that they're both rich guys, but that they've both become tools of the same system they both purport to upheave in their own way. The fact that we become aware of the Morello-Ryan spat by way of The New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine simply highlights that fact. There was never any hope of these guys changing the system so long as they were playing by its rules.
The grift, TLP says, is not that these wannabe revolutionaries aren't genuine, but that they are presented to us in a way that neutralizes their efficacy while simultaneously offering us the illusion of revolution. Sorry, that was wordy. He says it better:
[I]f there is something legitimately dangerous to the system-- and Morello and Ryan both fit this description-- rather than send in the secret police, it absorbs them by hyperpopularity [sic], edits them into TV soundbites, buries them in plain sight. Problem solved.So safe, so costless. We post our opinions on Facebook. We vigorously write memes. We blog. And yet, the years pass, and nothing substantive ever happens. You can't change the system from the pages of the Rolling Stone, because by the time you've hit those pages, you've already been neutralized. At that point, whether or not you want it to be so, you're a product for sale; you're not a revolution anymore.
But Why Do It Willingly?
My point in writing this post was not to re-hash a bunch of stuff The Last Psychiatrist already wrote. I mention it only to reiterate that the act of commodifying your belief system and offering it up to the system as a branded product ensures that whatever change you think you want will never come to fruition.
On some level, libertarians seem to know this. They blog endlessly about "corporatism" and "consumerism" and "producerism" and the various other commercialized threats to real freedom. Sure, they believe in free markets, but like hipsters of every other kind of ideology, the deal is that the free markets also have to be cool. If they're not cool, they have to be uncool in a cool way; sort of like how it's now totally uncool-but-cool to grow a giant neck beard and watch Star Wars all day. The only requirement to live that lifestyle is that you have to click on the ads at NerdFitness.com (link deliberately suppressed) because hey you're into fitness, too, right, and that you have to buy your ironic t-shirts from Woot.
See, the genius of those websites is that they seem to offer you the ability to embrace your inner nerd and be cool at the same time. Look, the models are pretty. Even pretty girls can laugh at the logo on the t-shirt. Pretty girls can click on the adjacent tab and buy yoga pants at a discount price. With all those pretty girls involved, how can it be uncool. But of course you know it's still uncool, that's not the point. The point is that you get to pretend otherwise.
What really gives me the creeps, though, is Liberty.me. In theory it sounds great - a social network for fellow like-minded libertarians, who want a place to discuss the nuances of their revolutionary ideas without having to engage the trolls that are seemingly everywhere, on every other social network.
So libertarians pay a fee - a pretty substantial one, actually - to segregate themselves away from the very society they seek to change, never having to engage in that society at all. Not in the slightest. They can sell each other books and swag, they can try to make a living as an icon of the "liberty community." All that is great, as far as it goes. There's just one problem...
...The threat they pose to the system has been fully neutralized, and they did it to themselves. They paid a fee to sell each other liberty in a gated virtual community the goal of which is to put them asunder from the very people whose minds would have to change in order to make the world a more libertarian place.
Freedom is free, so long as you're willing to pay for it.
No, the revolution will not be televised. That also means that if you happen to see it on TV, or in a click-ad, or on YouTube, or at Liberty.me, then what you're seeing isn't really a revolution. It's a product you've been sold.
Please don't mistake me for a conspiracy theorist. Here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying that the faceless Fingermen of the system have hatched a brilliant theory to monetize liberty, therefore keeping its threat at bay. I don't believe in Fingermen. I don't believe the system is smart enough to put forth that kind of coordinated effort against ideologies.
What I am saying is that libertarians - the people on the ground: you, me, everybody - are not really interested in a revolution. Like TLP might say, we've fetishized it: We've traded genuine revolution for the trappings of a revolution. We've glorified the object at its own expense. We want to be The Guy With The Podcast or The Girl With Blonde Hair Who Makes Liberty Sexy. We want to show up at cocktail events and trade Hayek quotations and discuss chapters of The Machinery of Freedom.
Hey, there's nothing wrong with this as a hobby, but to pretend that you're doing the work of liberty is the real problem here. The American Revolution began when the uneducated plebes started engaging in illegal acts of civil disobedience and fighting against their oppressors with deadly force. That's a revolution. Downloading epub files from the Mises Institute might be a great time (I've been doing for years - it is a good time!), but it's not a revolution.
And meanwhile, the threat liberty itself poses to the system has been neutralized. Our most outspoken spokespeople are on the same television programs, magazines, newspapers, etc. where we find the Kardashians and Justin Bieber. That's not a coincidence. It means that those libertarian spokespeople are every bit as relevant for changing the system as Kendall Jenner.
You get what you pay for.