Network: Libertarians: can't live with them, can't get rid of them. Life - even on the Net - just isn't that straightforward

Newcomers to the Internet expecting a cornucopia of friends tend to be surprised when they find that the animals bite. The views, especially political ones, that are expressed on the Net are far more extreme than in real life, and usually more bluntly put. But the radicalism is all in one direction. You do not find many card-carrying socialists posting on the Net, arguing for higher taxes and unemployment benefit. Hell, no. It's stacked with wild-fingered individualists who reckon that the only thing better than a gun is two guns, that all taxes are too high, and that the problem with society today (they always mean American society) is that there's too much damn government.

For example, I recently saw one well-known Net journalist who writes for Time magazine insisting that the real problem with the US healthcare system is that it's so severely distorted. The problem, he said, is that it's not enough of a free market.

At this point, the newcomer begins pinching folds of skin to make sure this is not a dream. The US healthcare market is too regulated? Hello? As was rapidly pointed out, no nation on this planet has such a free-market healthcare system as the States. Its problems stem from things like reckless malpractice suits - a very free-market action. The journalist wasn't about to change his view, though. He's convinced it's all the US government's fault.

His sort of view is surprisingly common among Americans who express their views on the Net. It's a creed called "libertarianism", and among its followers are people like Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired magazine, and various Silicon Valley millionaires. Their basic creed is that anything but the most minimal government is unnecessary, and that the world would run so much better if everyone had "contracts" with everyone and everything else, in which property rights ruled supreme.

I won't bother here to go into why I think that these ideas are a total crock, as the critiques are done better, and at greater length, at two Web locations: http://www.spectacle.org/897/finkel.html and http://world.std.com/mhuben/libindex.html.

Instead, I want to examine the question that popped into my head the other day: why is it that you get such an overwhelming proportion of libertarians on the Net?

There's no doubt their Net presence is disproportionate. A poll of 1,000 voters before last year's US presidential election revealed that 0.3 per cent of the population would vote for Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party candidate. In other words, three people in the telephone sample picked him. Many other fringe candidates were way ahead. Had those phone votes turned into real votes, Browne would have got a nationwide total of 330,000.

But try an AltaVista search on the word "libertarian", and you get more than 14,500 references. Sure, some are negative, but not that many. (By contrast "communism" gets 6,000-odd.) And it certainly feels as though there's many more than a quarter of a million libertarian loons out there.

Why? Quickly we'll visit the libertarian credo, which flows from the works of Ayn Rand, author of two dire books called The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. At the credo's heart is a single axiom: "Each individual has the right to control his or her own body, action, speech and property." Accompanying this is the statement that "government's only role is to help individuals defend themselves from force and fraud".

If that sounds reasonable to you, I should point out that this is used to justify child slavery, racial and sexual discrimination, the absence of any pharmaceutical regulation (even for deadly substances) and ownership of tactical nuclear weapons by private security firms. (If they nuke you, you sue the hell out of them.) The important thing, though, is that everything pertaining to this philosophy flows out of that single sentence. Why, it's so simple you could boil it down to a computer program.

Which I think is the overriding attraction of this creed to Netties. It turns the unpredictable, shifting world - and unpredictable, emotional people - into objects which could be regimented by a simple flow diagram. It's IF-THEN-GO-TO applied to politics and everything else. You don't even have to interact properly with people to back libertarianism. You can just complain about how unsatisfactory the world is, because in essence people aren't like computers - even though that's how the hardcore Net nerds would like their life, including their politics, to be.

To them, the compromise and uncertainty essential to real-world power- broking is anathema. (The American journalist mentioned above is presently reporting in Washington, and finds the endless give-and-take of the political process hugely frustrating).

So I don't expect libertarianism to conquer the real world anytime soon. But I do think those who espouse it might try, say, sitting on a few town councils. Apart from the fact that by doing so they'd learn something about Realpolitik, it would also give the rest of us some room to put across a few of our own views. Death penalty for middle-lane motorway roadhogs, anyone?

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