The common good

What libertarians—of both the "left" and "right"—want to do is to remove the possibility of an experience I had at work this past weekend.

She's been coming in for a couple of weeks now, and always seems to come to me for help. Her name is Anne. She's African American, and deaf.

This past Saturday, she came in while I was on the reference desk. I recognized her immediately and she asked if I remembered her. I said "Of course", and asked her to sit down. She wrote me a note in which she explained that since English wasn't her first language, would it be possible for someone to help her fill out some paperwork. I asked her what the paperwork was, and she said it consisted of documents she had to prepare for a new job.

Now, technically this isn't in my job description. As a rule, we can't spend an inordinate amount of time with just one patron. But, it was a slow Saturday afternoon, and many times the real job description for librarian is to go beyond what is normally expected. So, I spent the rest of my reference shift helping her with her paperwork. Once my relief came, I had her come with me to the children's area, where there is a small children's table, and we finished with her documentation. The look on her face and her effusive thank yous were enough payment for me for the day.

Contrast this with something that's happening in Kentucky right now, where a Tea Party group wants to roll back library funding 30 years, claiming that taxes were "illegally collected". In service of that, it has a Survey Monkey page which asks: "Are Public Libraries Still Valid in the 21st Century". Of course, I filled it out and encouraged all my colleagues and friends to do so as well.
Ask my deaf patron, bravely striking out on her own, getting help from a librarian, help which she couldn't get anywhere else, if libraries are still relevant in the 21st century. Ask my regulars, with maladies at which I can only guess because I'm too circumspect to inquire deeply, who come every day to use our free wifi if libraries are valid in the 21st century. Ask the parents whose children come to my Storytime every week and are shown a world of imagination and wonder if libraries are still relevant in the 21st century. Ask the old ladies who come in every day looking for their latest book club selection if libraries are relevant in the 21st century.

I could go on. The examples are legion. But I use the example of libraries to put forth a larger point.

What libertarians of either the "left" or "right"—a distinction which isn't a difference—want is for the state to revert back to an antediluvian time, a "golden age" where the state didn't concern itself with social welfare, or security, or any of the matters which occupy the modern state's time. The right libertarians want taxes to be almost non-existent, the nation to be insular, unconcerned with the wider world, and property rights—as they define them—to be paramount. The state's only purpose is to ensure than an individual's property rights are sacrosanct. Those on the "left" want a state which is neutered, with almost no policing power, no powers to maintain security, no ability to "spy" on them. Forget that this would also mean the state would have no ability to protect the commonwealth against legitimate threats; for these left libertarians, unfettered personal "freedom" trumps all other considerations.

Libraries are a metaphor for the common good: a common space where people of different backgrounds come together, a space funded by modest taxation, a space where information is exchanged and ideas are born. Libraries stand for the idea that a government entity can make a positive impact in its citizens' lives. We don't ask patrons as they come inside the door if they pay property tax. We don't condition handing out library cards upon income level. We are here for everyone who walks in, as long as certain rules of behavior are adhered to.

It's this common good which so infuriates libertarians. For them there is no "common good", only self-interest. If interests coincide, then that's one thing. But self-interest is paramount. Whether that self interest be to pollute rivers in pursuit of profit, or rob government of any ability to surveil so as to preserve their sacrosanct "privacy"—a privacy they fritter away every time they post on Facebook or buy from Amazon—it trumps any notion of a commonwealth, of the idea that we are a community, not just a group of disparate, grasping individuals. They want a society which has never been attempted in human history, and for a very good reason: it goes against everything which it means to be human.

Humans are social beings; they band together, join their efforts to achieve a greater purpose. Even in our atomized modern world, we still have bonds of kinship, friendship, society. There is still a sense that we are a community, more than mere individuals. What libertarians want goes against every strain of social genetics; we colonized the world because we joined in groups, not because we struck out on our own. Without groups, there would be no humanity. We are, indeed, at our most human when we band together, set aside petty differences, and work for a common goal.

What Barack Obama is doing domestically—slowly but successfully—is to reinvigorate the idea of the common good. But not just domestically. His position on Syria isn't based merely on US self-interest—although the US certainly has an interest in stamping out any use of weapons of mass destruction. He's framing the Syrian conundrum in terms of a common good, a common humanity. We are more than a collection of striving and scraping nation states. The world system only works if all nations follow a certain set of rules. That creates a sense of trust, an ability to do business, an impetus to exchange ideas. When a state such as Syria violates one of the prime rules so blatantly, its regime must be punished. A common humanity demands it. He's not framing his position on Syria as being solely in US interests; he's framing his position as being in the world's interest.

And when both Alan Grayson and Sarah Palin agree that "Allah should sort it out", you see the bankruptcy of the libertarian idea. It is, merely, the law of the jungle, a state of affairs which humanity has striven to go beyond for centuries. Our modern world only functions on the idea that we owe something to each other, that might doesn't make right. We have enjoyed the longest period of general peace because it works; China couldn't have become the world's second largest economy if it had been involved in wars for the past 30 years; Europe has seemingly put aside 2,000 years of constant warfare to become a semi-paradise.Common interest works. And it's this common interest to which Obama appeals, and which libertarians deride. They deride it not because they think it's flawed, but because they suspect it's right, and they will never achieve their utopia because of it. Specifically, they won't achieve it because of Obama and his constant teaching. They can't match him, so they try to tear him down, like Lilliputians on top of Gulliver.

Tuesday's Oval Office speech will be a watershed moment for this country and the world. Will we band together to stop an atrocity, or will we shake our heads and shrug our shoulders and say "Let Allah sort it out"?

I'll bet on Obama, and on people who serve others, and see that we are all humans, and all owe each other that level of respect and concern.