Facts, Propaganda and Libertarianism

by Michael Sean Winters

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“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.” This celebrated line of the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has become a political football, hurled first by Senate Majority Leader at the Koch Brothers in a speech on the Senate floor and then hurled back at Reid by the Charles Koch in an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Alas, poor epistemology. No one studies it anymore.

The Koch op-ed was remarkable in every way but most obviously because it was so juvenile. How dare anyone question their motives? Did they think no one would respond when they are spending millions of dollars in attack ads against politicians? I confess I was surprised to find out Charles Koch was, apparently, so thin-skinned.

But, it was the repetition of the epithet “collectivist” that best exhibited the sophomoric thinking of this scourge on our body politic. Stalin was a collectivist. Mao was a collectivist. Obama? C’mon. To note only one example, despite the fact that the entire culture now refers to the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare, what happened the past few months is the seven million people signed up for private insurance. They did not sign up for “Obamacare,” they signed up with Aetna or Blue Cross or Kaiser. How is that evidence of collectivism?

I also think it is at least histrionic to say that freedom must be “restored” in our society. There are many things that ail American society to my mind, but a lack of freedom is not one of them. I can’t think of something I have intended to do in recent months but for the fact that the government was impeding me. Oh, I stop at red traffic signals, but not because the government tells me to do so, but because I don’t want to be in a traffic accident. If you want a glimpse of the libertarian vision the Koch Brothers champion, I suggest you go to a major intersection one day when the traffic signals are not working. That is freedom, to be sure, but is it what we want?

Libertarianism is one of the leading heresies of our day. The definition of heresy as truth run amok fits perfectly. Libertarianism is a heresy of liberalism, not the modern, Obama kind but the classic, Lockean and Madisonian kind. Any thoughtful Catholic has sufficient difficulties with liberalism, all of which tend to wish it were less individualistic, less focused on human autonomy, less redolent of rights apart from correlative responsibilities. Libertarianism wants to pull liberalism in the opposite direction, removing even the few checks on unfettered license that liberalism supplies.

But, when it comes to epistemology, there should be no such thing as a libertarian position. Facts are facts, right? Well, not exactly. Look at the coverage of the Affordable Care Act. My friend E.J. Dionne wrote a splendid column yesterday asking if there was any penalty for untruthfulness in politics anymore when politicians and faux journalists routinely claim on thing, their claims are subsequently disproven, and they just look for different facts the sustain the same claim.

The fight over the ACA is only part of the problem. If you watched only MSNBC the past few weeks, you would be convinced that the most important story in the country was the investigation of Governor Chris Christie regarding the closure of lanes onto the George Washington Bridge. If you watched nothing but Fox News, you would be sure that the most important national story was either the utter failure of the ACA or Benghazi or, maybe, the so-called IRS scandal. If you watched CNN the past few weeks, it has been all Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 all the time, whether or not any new set of facts warranted such attention and the “Breaking News” banner. It is pitiful. Our news agencies are either propaganda arms of the political parties or they are ambulance chasers. Thank God for March Madness and Law & Order re-runs.

Facticity has its limits. I have cited before the observation of Leon Wieseltier that “there is not a chart in the world that can explain the significance of charts in the world.” We humans will always need philosophy, not mere scientism, and philosophy permits disagreement, especially on this tricky issue of epistemology. But, most political discussions are not subverted because of a faulty epistemology. They are subverted because the desire to win trumps the desire to be correct. When that desire to win is aligned with mountains of cash, you get the Koch Brothers. They look at our unruly, chaotic, highly individualized culture and they perceive a need to “restore” freedom? They see “collectivism”? Either they are blind, or they know nothing of history and what a real collectivism looks like, or they have drunk too much of their own Kool-Aid and are now incapable of sight and truth. Heresies are like that.





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