The Libertarian Red Pill
by Ari Armstrong, May 20, 2003
The Matrix will go down in history as the One -- the most culturally significant set of films of the era. It explores the nature of reality, the role of religion and politics, and the relationship of humans to the earth and to technology -- and to each other. The film contains so much symbolism, so many layers of meaning, and such universal themes that, perhaps, any intellectual tradition can find within it interesting parallels. Christians, Buddhists, libertarians, and others have claimed the Matrix as their own.
I admit some of the scenes in Reloaded didn't seem to fit, until their purpose became clear to me the next morning. Now, I suffer from the certainty of Morpheus in that I believe I know what will happen in the conclusion of the trilogy. Yet I cannot reveal my prophesy. (I went so far, though, as to seal a copy of my prediction in a dated envelope.)
Two questions nagged at me after I watched the original. First, the matrix seems an awful lot like a perpetual motion machine, and a ridiculously unstable one at that (I mean, why not hook up monkeys or something?). I don't think this problem ever will be resolved (but maybe I'll be surprised), so it is fortunate it serves so well as metaphor. Second, the notion of an Oracle in an otherwise *science* fiction story struck me as inexplicable and frustrating. Reloaded begins to resolve this issue in a way that makes the trilogy a profoundly important comment on modern culture. Taken alone, the original Matrix is little more than an interesting treatment of the philosophical problem of the "brain in a vat." But this is not where the trilogy is going. The critics can say what they will, but Reloaded plugs the trilogy into a vastly more complex set of problems. What we find out about the Oracle in Reloaded may not be as viscerally shocking as Neo's initial ejection from the Matrix, but it is ultimately more profound.
By coincidence, I had been reading about memes for several days prior to seeing Reloaded. The theory of memes fits perfectly with the Matrix' notion of minds plugged into a deceptive system of control. A "meme" basically is another term for concept or idea, only it brings out the evolutionary nature of knowledge as physical self-replication. At the broadest level, then, the Matrix is a metaphor for any false intellectual system that prevents its adherents from grasping reality.
All forms of racism, the labor theory of value (especially as advanced by Marx), and all reactionary religions are systems of memes that fundamentally obscure reality. (I address this issue at greater length in a companion article.) "Taking the red pill," then, means pulling yourself out of an unhealthy meme-plex, detaching from it emotionally, and daring to strive to see reality for what it is. Another name for the "red pill" is skepticism. (I don't mean a deep skepticism that holds nothing can be known, only the tendency to criticize dogmas and accepted paradigms.)
I thus reach a fundamental paradox, given the title of this article is, "The Libertarian Red Pill." Certainly libertarianism is another meme-plex, a complex system of mutually reinforcing ideas. But not all memes are bad. Galileo and Darwin formulated a better set of memes to inoculate against false ones (despite the homicidal co-memes that used to accompany the earth-centered universe). The question, then, is whether libertarianism is an advanced, pro-reality meme, or a regressive, delusional one.
Every meme can be perverted. A good analogy is fraud: the successful perpetration of fraud depends upon the general acceptance of honest trade. A golden calf can be forged even of ideas like science, reason, and skepticism. (The early group surrounding Ayn Rand has been called a "cult of reason.") I think it's obvious there's a reactionary, dogmatic strain of libertarianism, and this should be guarded against.
But there is also a progressive, skeptical, reality-grounded libertarianism that, I believe, is closer to the heart of what it means to be a libertarian. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues one "way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy" (page 277). A large part of the libertarian project, then, is to break down the false ideologies that support the oppressive state. A friend recently forwarded a quote by Harriet Tubman: "I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more if they had known they were slaves." Libertarians and classical liberals have long noted this problem, as the following quotes attest.
"The State is the great fictitious entity by which everyone expects to live at the expense of everyone else." "Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems!" -- Frederic Bastiat, The State, and The Law (75), original in 1850
"The most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends toward which the social plan is directed is to make everybody believe in those ends... If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian governments succeed to a high degree in making people think as they want them to. This is, of course, brought about by the various forms of propaganda." -- F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (168), original in 1944
"Instead of looking upon the State's progressive absorption of social power with the repugnance and resentment that he would naturally feel towards the activities of a professional-criminal organization, he [the mass-man] tends rather to encourage and glorify it, in the belief that he is somehow identified with the State..." -- Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy, the State (83), original in 1962
"If states have everywhere been run by an oligarchic group of predators, how have they been able to maintain their rule over the mass of the population? The answer, as the philosopher David Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, is that in the long run *every* government, no matter how dictatorial, rests on the support of the majority of its subjects." -- Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (53), original in 1973
Literary precursors to the Matrix include the naked emperor and the man behind the curtain. In an important sense, libertarianism follows in this tradition of questioning existing power structures.
One influential "matrix" is mainstream politics. I nearly titled this article, "The Republocrat Matrix." The meme-plexes people identify as "Republican" and "Democrat" are themselves co-dependent, and they lock people into a particular way of thinking about the world.
The memes that comprise the Republican and Democratic mindsets are not logically interconnected, but they are symbiotic. Republicans, for instance, promote the profoundly liberal agenda of personal self-defense, while Democrats promote the reactionary, anti-liberal agenda of victim disarmament. Why is that? Mostly it has to do with demographics: rural people tend to own more guns than urban people do. At the same time, many Republicans want to arrest people for having unapproved sex or reading unapproved literature. Democrats sometimes defend the right of speech or privacy, but they typically want more state control over economic activity. In practice, usually what happens is the Republicans and Democrats fight over who can impose new controls the fastest.
Ayn Rand captured the nature of the "Republocrat Matrix" perfectly:
The conservatives want freedom to act in the material realm; they tend to oppose government control of production... But they advocate government control of man's spirit; i.e., man's consciousness... The liberals want freedom to act in the spiritual realm; they oppose censorship... But they advocate government control of material production... The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles or factories -- with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe -- but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread... Yet it is the conservatives who are predominantly religionists... [a]nd it is the liberals who are predominantly materialists... *[E]ach camp wants to control the realm it regards as metaphysically important*... (Philosophy: Who Needs It, 186-7, original in 1973)
When he was stuck in the Matrix, Neo led two lives: one as a computer hacker and one as a professional programmer. This is in some respects similar to the split between Democrats and Republicans, the split between pursuing intellectual aims versus economic ones. But it is a false choice. Republicans and Democrats are still part of the same matrix, part of the same delusion.
Libertarian ideas offer a way to strip away the facade and see politics for what it is: mostly a system of control. At the same time, though, libertarians are very concerned with establishing a just, peaceful society. As Neo discovers in Reloaded, it comes down to choice. Of course, once we free our minds to the truth, we can still work within the two-party structure to promote positive change -- or we can work outside the matrix. First, though, you have to decide whether to take the blue pill, or the libertarian red pill.