Tag Archives: libertarianism

The myth of the free range human

… Is a myth that I, as much as anyone, wish were true. My dream is to have a little place in the middle of nowhere, off the grid, with a couple of greenhouses, a composting toilet, a 12gauge loaded with rifled slugs, and a pair of vicious dogs. The truth is though, the only way to realize my dream involves relying on things made on the grid. Even after I am established, I’m going to need things from town – in other words, from other people – to maintain my little homestead.

One might argue that my situation is artificially contrived. Nobody asked me to begin in the middle of a civilization, I was just born here. I had no part in constructing it, and I am quite justified in feeling that the whole thing could’ve turned out a lot better than it did. But that would be wrong too. We are all stuck with something like what we’ve got. It’s inscribed in our genome. When my children were born, I did not have to give them any special instruction in speech and language. I simply talked to them, and soon enough, they began to speak. That’s because they have special structures in their brains which are receptive to language learning. We are social animals, and there’s no getting around that.

We are stuck with a duality. We are fully individual, but we can only realize our individuality by way of our social nature. There are no arts, sports, or academics without other people. And as social creatures, we direct our communal effort towards the full expression of individuality. From the isolated point of view of the collective, arts, sports, and academics are a waste of resources, yet we pursue such things as a group because of their benefits to the individual participants.

The dialectic of the social individual permeates all of our institutions, even medicine. Medical professionals treat patients one by one, but on the basis of the statistical effectiveness of each treatment. In fact, our most effective treatments – interventions involving nutrition, sanitation, and immunization – purely play collective odds to benefit an individual patient’s health.

By the same token, our best treatments are not things done to the patient by the physician. Our best interventions require the participation of the individual, and the exercise of individual virtues like patience, generosity, and courage. The current pandemic is a perfect example. Public health institutions aim to immunize the population, in the hopes of preventing individual tragedies.

Libertarians object to such collective efforts, in defense of individual integrity. But this is where the dialectic flips. To exercise individual virtues, and so maintain individual integrity, each person should participate in the treatment. The failure to do so does not demonstrate rugged individualism, but mean spirited cowardice.

In defense of individual integrity, our society allows meanness and cowardice. Nobody is going to hold someone else down and give them a shot. But neither is anyone obliged to give credence to all the excuses and objections expressed when measures are taken to mitigate the collective effect of failed individual character.

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Dirtbag Libertarianism

Wool, fiberfill and Scotch-guard – vintage dirtbag

In recent years, there’s been a loud discussion in the black community on the merits of the N-word. Specifically, people have disputed the value of  ‘claiming’ the word. Many have offered eloquent arguments on either side of the issue, but few have looked for lessons in history. Those lessons exist; here is a familiar and recent one.

The word ‘dirtbag’ is an honorific in the climbing world. It refers to devotees whose total commitment to the sport has led to a de facto vow of poverty. Nowadays, the word calls to mind the romanticized, early days of climbing in Yosemite, where the pioneering resident climbers, in the course of surviving in the Park, earned the label as an epithet.

The Park Service and the concessionaires saw the climbers as parasites – dirtbags who camped illegally and stole food scraps while contributing nothing to the park or society in general. The authorities were correct, too. Most of the climbers were parasites, due to lack of means and a single-minded desire to climb. They didn’t pursue parasitism, they fell into it by default, abetted by the availability of a corpulent, plethoric, degenerate host. Besides, their parasitism produced results.

Climbing  thousands of feet of seemingly impassable rock may not be worth anything to society at large, but it might buy you a word. To the original users, ‘dirtbag’  meant someone who was nothing but a worthless nuisance. A ‘dirtbag’ who could climb El Cap. might still be considered a worthless nuisance, but it was hard to say that was all they were. Plus, not all those who lived to climb were rootless kids looking for an outlet for their dissatisfactions. Always, some dirtbags chose an austere life to pursue their visions.

The latter group planned to work only enough to buy gear, subsist on cat food, and climb as much as possible. Their’s was a long-term plan, and it became a template. Over time, they emerged from the rest of the ‘dirtbags’ but never disavowed the name. Through them, ‘dirtbag’ came to mean ‘the opposite of dilettante’. So much so that modern climbers see ‘dirtbagging’ as a rite of passage and a special opportunity.

By this definition, all sorts of people, from artists to Buddhist monks, are dirtbags, and many of them have taken to using that shorthand description for their lifestyles of devotion. Of course, the original sense of the word will persist. No derogatory term can escape its origins, and the American conservative libertarian will continue to call everybody who chooses to live low and climb high, a dirtbag in the original sense of the word.

He didn’t build that wood stove, and the Yeoman farmer didn’t mine the iron for his plow. There is no free-range human.

That’s one of the good things about dirtbagging, though. There may be some true libertarian dirtbags – people who believe in the myth of the Yeoman farmer. There are precious few American conservative libertarian dirtbags – people whose credo is: “Everyone must be free; free to be just like me”. Just as being a dirtbag can teach one the difference between voluntary frugality and true poverty, wearing the word can be a reminder of the source of its negative content, and serve as a warning against perpetuating that negativity.

Nevertheless, claiming the word is a perilous trick. The term is a poisonous thing at heart, and it’s hard to play with it without getting any on you. However, some people are going to call climbers camped at a crag with nothing but a rope and a rusty Subaru to their names, ‘dirtbag’ anyway. Tucking tail and slinking away or trying to teach stupid people a lesson don’t seem like better strategies, and overall, owning the dirtbag label has worked out pretty well for the climbing community. For what it’s worth.

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