By Ben Rininger.
Not that long ago, before being hired as an AFJM intern, I had been involved in the libertarian movement. While I no longer wear the libertarian label on my sleeve, I learned a lot about myself through my time being steeped in and then disenchanted with the libertarian movement. It was, after all, libertarianism that first introduced me to skepticism about the structure of our banking system. And that furthermore lead me to the Alliance. Thus, I have a relevant story to tell. I’ll try to make it interesting.
A little bit about me before I tell you about the ideas that have captured me. As psychologist Carl Jung once said, “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people”.
I go to Kent State, and I study psychology and economics. I grew up in the small suburban town of Copley, Ohio—bordering Akron, in the northeastern part of the state. Things I liked to preoccupy myself with growing up included camping and backpacking (through the Boy Scouts of America), choir, reading, creative writing, cross country and last but not least, speech and debate.
Speech and debate was the setting where I first really engaged in political inquiry and was routinely exposed to opposing viewpoints. Prior to joining my high school team, I, like many teens, absorbed my parents’ viewpoints through osmosis. My parents were devout conservative Catholics and, for a long time, so was I.
But as time passed, I changed. It is difficult for me to create a chronology of how I changed, as in time, memory is blurred. Moreover, how I have evolved cannot really be reduced down to discrete moments of revelation or epiphany. Rather, looking back, I see all my conversions as stemming from long periods of reading, thinking and meditation.
I have the conviction that one’s politics are a function of (a) one’s values (b) one’s conception of reality and (c) the community one is surrounded by. As such, I see it fit to describe the evolution of my own politics in terms of the evolution of each of these three factors as they apply to the story of myself.
Of all three of the factors I have mentioned, values are probably the hardest to change. From whence do values come? They are somewhat genetic. I wonder what I would be like if I was raised by communist parents. Or by average-Joe Democrats. Of course, I will never know.
However, I do know that my parents have had an indelible influence on what I value and what I have become. My parents instilled within me a strong spirit of independence and self-reliance, and a belief in meritocracy. They stressed to me the importance of humility, community, and charity, but never professed any faith in government to solve world problems.
Even as my politics have changed, I do not think my values have changed much. Although I have moved from “libertarian” to “left-liberal” on Jonathan Haidt’s 6 moral dimensions test (highly recommend you take, link below), 1 out of 3 times when I take the test, it still marks me as a libertarian. So I guess it just depends on my mood.
Fundamentally, my politics have always been about cultivating government and a rule of law in a way that is most conducive with people living meaningful lives. And to me, a life is more meaningful when people feel a sense of self-ownership. This is, in great part, a reason why libertarianism was so attractive to me—because of its emphasis on personal responsibility.
I have written down in a notebook a quote, from a libertarian convention I went to in Detroit with Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) at Kent State, from the libertarian philosopher Stephen Hicks, who said, in a lecture to us all,
Dignity is not what AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] says it is… to have basic needs provided for you. Dignity is to be able to provide basic needs for yourself.
For a long time, I was possessed by this idea. I never saw the idea as absolute. For one thing, there are disabled people who do not even have the ability to produce as much in economic value as is necessary to survive. Of course, such people can have dignity. Thus, adapting to Hicks, if you would have asked me back at that convention what I would consider dignity to be, I might have said a state of being where one engages in honest, purposeful work, never mooching off of anyone else more than one has to, while being treated with respect—being seen as responsible for and willing to face the consequences of one’s own actions.
I did not like a large federal government or ideas such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), because I thought that they discouraged work. Through picking winners and losers, giving subsidies and bailouts, the government makes so many of the well-connected not face consequences of being wasteful or inefficient. And so on and so on.
If there has been any one specific way in which my values have changed, it would be in respect to the degree to which I value pride against human suffering. To take UBI for example, if providing a universal basic income does reduce poverty, then I would be for it today, while I may have been against it not that long ago, because of a belief in “self-ownership.”
Aside from that change in sentiment, I think that most of my political evolution has stemmed from a change in my view of the mechanics of the economy.
II. Conceiving Reality
When I first got started with libertarianism, I was enchanted with all the libertarian authors: Mises, Rothbard, Friedman, Hayek, Hoppe, Sowell. Those authors were the first to teach me economics before I even chose to go ahead and major in economics (with the plan of either studying economics further or going on to law school; I have chosen law school.)
Libertarians (particularly libertarian economists of the Austrian school) are infamous for excessive reliance a priori reasoning (coming to conclusions through theoretical deduction from a set of assumptions). I have no special gripe with a priori reasoning. Indeed, such reasoning becomes necessary when you have no data to look at. However, when you have data, and said data contradicts the conclusion you anticipated, then . . . Perhaps you ought to question your assumptions or your reasoning.
I’m not claiming that libertarian economists do not do this. But, over time, I have come to believe that they do not do this enough. They certainly are not unique in this regard. You can find social scientists of all stripes guilty of being attached to theories where, when their expectations are not met, they question the data, rather than their own theories.
I do not think I can encapsulate in this blog all the empirical studies and arguments I have read, and how they have contributed to my changing views. But I can just generally say that, on a variety of libertarian claims, the facts do not fit the theory. That’s just my humble view at this point in time.
For some book recommendations—particularly the books that changed my mind, I recommend that you read Animal Spirits by Akerlof and Schiller and Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman, in addition to a book I am still reading as I am writing now, The Lost Science of Money by Stephen Zarlenga. As I have come to find out only recently, one of the areas where Austrian libertarians are most wrong is in the subject of money and its origins.
All of that said, I do not want to discount libertarianism completely. I have still learned a lot from the philosophy, and libertarians, in my view, do have plenty of good things to say. The label just does not fit me anymore. If there’s any libertarian author I would recommend it would be Thomas Sowell; with him, you get less a priori jargon.
The world is a complex place. Any human mind is limited in its capacity. Given this, humans cannot simply evaluate all costs and benefits of everything accurately. So, we form heuristics—mental shortcuts that allow us to make judgments quickly. Take for example… regulation. Republicans tend to want less of it and Democrats tend to want more, regardless of what they are regulating.
What can explain this? Well, in my view, these things are shaped by the stories people have inside their heads. Take for example, my father. My whole childhood, he worked as a salesman of chemicals to municipal water plants, and he would come home, and complain about EPA regulations and bureaucrats. He painted a picture in my head of regulations as stifling, ill-thought-out and excessive. He was for all sorts of environmental regulation, but he thought the EPA had gone too far. That was his own experience.
And because he told his story and his experience so well, I believed him. To a certain extent, I still do. But my belief in him exists as an article of faith. After all, I haven’t spent dozens of hours evaluating the science of pollution and crunching the numbers.
Politics, society, and belief and use of money all hinge upon trust. You work for a dollar or borrow a dollar today because you expect somebody to accept a dollar tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes and your dollar is accepted, your faith is reaffirmed.
Whenever you join a political group, you tend to become invested in a given political ideology. Because everyone around you is reaffirming the values and beliefs your ideology upholds, your yourself reaffirm said values and beliefs. And the process is a feedback loop, just like money exists through a feedback loop.
I think part of the reason I was as able as I was to leave libertarianism was because libertarians were so disagreeable (I still receive YAL newsletters that contain an encouragement for people to come join “diverse-minded individuals” in discussion). Some wanted completely open borders. Some wanted a wall. Some were cool with a UBI to replace all welfare programs. Some just wanted to get rid of all welfare programs, full stop.
The acceptance of division among libertarians is what made it so easy for me to ditch being a libertarian. Half of my friends at college are libertarians from YAL. And I don’t feel any more apart from them.
So many people need to be attached to a certain “ism” in order to feel as though they have an identity and to feel as though they belong somewhere—to be part of something bigger than themselves, to have a coherent view of the world and to have a life meaning.
For now, I am okay living without a complete ideology. You don’t need to have an ideology to have community. Or to learn new things and make progress.
This semester, I look forward to learning a lot of new things as I assist the Alliance in helping to advance monetary literacy and progress toward a more just system of banking.
And that’s my introduction. I hope I made it interesting.
And if you were curious about my values…
Ben Rininger is the intern at the Alliance For Just Money for the Spring 2021 semester.