A Spiderman among Libertarians

Gerin Eaton–Staff Writer

After trying and failing to begin this reflection piece numerous times, I’ve finally found a starting point through which to introduce my general thoughts on libertarianism, courtesy of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Peter Parker and his uncle, Ben, are seated in their car on 5th Avenue, having your typical adult-adolescent failed-conversation, as Peter attempts to hide his new superhuman skill set and his uncle ineffectually attempts to offer advice.  Of the many quote-worthy quips and tips that Ben presents to his nephew in this scene, though, the one that I would bring to your attention is probably the one you’re already most familiar with:  “With great power,” says Ben, an eerie, if not foreboding, smile on his face, “comes great responsibility.”

In a nutshell, it is this notion that there is a necessary relationship between power or, as I will substitute, freedom and responsibility that most directly epitomizes the issues I’ve been wrestling with following my encounters with libertarianism and libertarian-leaning thought over the course of the past year.  For although I do believe liberty to be an integral and essential facet of the universal human experience, I have also been unable to adopt the opinion that any sort of unqualified or absolute freedom is necessarily a goal comparable or parallel to the construction of a peaceful world.  Sure, I can see that government bureaucracy and economic regulations aren’t in themselves inevitably the best ways to go about maintaining balance, stability, and wellness for all.  And yet, I would also suggest that the most wholesome, sustainable, and desirable human reality is fundamentally dependent not on an unbridled or reckless freedom but on a freedom tempered by a sense of responsibility dedicated to the best for self, for others, and for the whole in which and by which we interact and live.  (This is not to say that the entire liberty movement may be equated to some kind of anarchist coalition, either; I just find myself feeling uncomfortable when terms like liberty and freedom are seemingly thrown around without being grounded in the language of human connectivity and interdependence.)

With such thoughts in mind as we made our way to Washington, D.C. to attend an international student libertarian conference, I felt both a bit nervous and subversive; that is, until we disembarked and met two of the most amazing Cornell alumni ever.  Just talking to Laurie Rice and Caitlin Ewing, who were attending the conference on behalf of The Atlas Society, made it clear from the first that there were no agendas to be pushed or ideologies to be converted to but genuine people and ideas to engage with and learn from in accordance with our individual inclinations and curiosities.  This theme of respectful openness combined with an innate strength of conviction and commitment to thorough exploration characterized much of my academic and interpersonal experiences throughout the conference, ultimately making for a truly incredible and well-spent weekend.

As far as the presentations I had the opportunity to attend are concerned, my favorites were quite naturally those in which a clear sense of the integral balance of liberty and responsibility was expressed or advocated for.  Gregory Wolcott of the Institute for Humane Studies, for instance, gave a great presentation titled “From Invisible Hands to Visible Hearts,” during which he spoke about the importance of preserving and continuing to develop a grounding sense of morality in the liberty movement.  I also deeply appreciated Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade’s passionate exhortations for attendees to pioneer new ways to advance economic prosperity and development in Africa by supporting the growth of a culture of liberty, entrepreneurship, and empowerment there.

And finally, my favorite presentation of all was that given by Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey on his philosophy of conscious capitalism:  a paradigm of business in which capitalism is harnessed as a tool for the entrepreneur’s attainment of a “higher purpose”; be that sustainability, clean energy, Wade’s dedication to the end of poverty, my own commitment to contribute to the betterment of the human condition, etc.  I was so inspired by Mackey’s vision for the potential of entrepreneurial, positive-change agents that I even briefly dared to consider leaving college early and diving into the world of entrepreneurship the moment classes end this semester.

It was definitely unnerving to observe this internal shift to a singing of the praises of capitalism and business as we were leaving Washington, D.C.; particularly in that such an occurrence within me, the would-be anti-consumer who worries that advertising and commercialism may yet prove to be the undoing of our fundamental humanity, was quite the unexpected development.  And yet, I think it was the consciousness of the capitalism that Mackey emphasized that ultimately enabled this truly valuable and transformative development of perspective.  For in the end, I believe that consciousness, like empathy and compassion, could prove to be one of the keys to unlocking that blend of freedom and responsibility necessary for sustainable, peaceful, and altruistic human progress around the world.

And so, though I may yet be a “spider-manian” in my heart of hearts, the weekend I spent with libertarians and the friends of liberty definitely demonstrated to me the potential for a greater flexibility of thought and a greater variety of opportunities for positive change than I’d been aware of when we set out from Cornell; and for that I am truly grateful.  In closing, I’d like to thank all those who made the trip possible for us; who made possible a truly gratifying opportunity to grow further and see anew.  Thank you.

Released in print March 27, 2013.