Working out Libertarianism

Working out Libertarianism

My South Tampa gym recently enacted a rule against bringing tote bags into the workout area. On the first day that the rule was in place, we were visited by a celebrity—frankly, a personal hero—who broke that rule.

If you ever want to understand why Libertarianism, the political belief that weak government and strong markets best allocate resources and protect rights, doesn’t work in practice, spend an hour at the gym: spend an hour at a semi-public gym with Tim Tebow.

Here you’ll witness a cross section of citizens—most, far more ordinary than Tim Tebow—who expect equality. Here you’ll see members who, regardless of ideology or religion or income, represent diverse gym-communities: meatheads, moms, wandering first-timers, lean-queens, college kids, and earnest elderlies. Many members follow the rules of etiquette, enforcing social norms that Libertarianism depends upon. There are those, though, who practice something far more selfish and, sometimes, frustratingly devoid of situational awareness.

When we opt into semi-public gym membership, we pay dues to cover the overhead of running the business: the greeters at the front desk who check IDs and keep the non-members out, the maintenance staff who keep the machines clean and in working condition, the professionals who lead the popular Rumba and Spin classes, the mid-managers who ensure that the club runs efficiently with a reasonable return to stakeholders.

In general, our pay-to-play—or workout—privileges are enforced by a portion of our dues that support our collected requirements of unity, justice, defense, welfare and the liberty to reach for personal betterment: physical perfection, one rep at a time.

There are those on whom the etiquettes of working out in a semi-public space are lost. Even the seemingly pettiest breakdowns—what economists call negative externalities—of that set of rules create ripples that undermine the common good. A bag in the workout space, even if you’re Tim Tebow,  for instance, impinges on others’ abilities to access space or machines that are not being used except for the storage of those bags. Failure to re-rack weights causes trip hazards as well as frustration for those who know where to look for the particular weights that they need; they’re available but unusable. Bench-hoggers prevent others who should be able to work-in from meeting their own fitness goals. Sweaty, stinking members who fail to wipe down machines  after use endanger the health as well as the comfort of others who workout behind them. Breakers of these rules grossly undervalue the negative externalities of their selfishness and overvalue their own personal liberties.

Where selfishness prevails over self-regulated good citizenship, those whose actions conform to etiquettes are relatively harmed. Either the rule-followers give up to their own selfish proclivities—a sure devolution to anarchy—or the gym must actively enforce explicit rules.

Dues go up for everybody.

What is, in a semi-public space, lost on etiquette, becomes a grand metaphor for the failures in our fully public space. Etiquettes are generally unwritten; they are dependent upon a shared understanding that they will be passed along. Some of us learned these rules in high school physical education classes; such classes are no longer curricular requisites. Some of us learned these rules from trainers that advised us as we were making our way through boot-camps or one-on-one instructions; such classes may not be everybody’s path into individualized, self-guided training. Some of us learned these rules through tribalism and lore; such interactions, when not guided by official knowledge-passers, may lead to bad-acting even as best-intentions prevail.

Libertarianism is based upon the premise, in the absence of explicit and enforceable legislative action, that everybody knows and respects the unwritten rules. Libertarianism requires that our insular—selfish, as it may be—participation in the free market provides rational inputs and reasonable  outputs. Our visit to the gym reminds us that the enforcement of etiquettes sometimes require the rules to be written and, ultimately, enforced. Our visit to the gym reminds us that the tranquility of human interaction needn’t be tranquil, but should be, at least, fair.

And then, there are those few for whom there is knowledge and, arrogantly, a sense that such rules apply to everybody else. Despite all the reasons to love Tim Tebow outside of this metaphor, his disruption of the gym ecosystem highlights that, just like Thomas Jefferson’s slave-run plantation, Libertarianism breaks down in the face of social and economic hierarchies.

Where a free market doesn’t protect the ideals of common defense, common cause, and common opportunity, explicit rules for their protection of the common good must sometimes be enumerated and enforced.  

Justice demands, in the face of Libertarianism, that we enforce rules that may not otherwise be respected—or even known. If the rules are unknown, it is a breakdown of our responsibility to educate. If the rules are known, it is a breakdown of our responsibility to respect our neighbors. If the rules are known and we respect our neighbors, it is a breakdown of our responsibility to respect the market in which we bring our resources to fairly trade.

For Libertarianism to work, either we all, including Heisman winners, follow the same rules, written and unwritten, within the broader Politick, or we don’t. Else we find ourselves within the same striated social order that Libertarianism argues against; else we find ourselves crying out for more explicit legislation to protect our liberties against those forces whose own selfish tendencies would undermine them.

My favorite university History professor argued that the most strident anti-communists are former communists. Apparently, this maxim applies to former fat-kids and former libertarians. How Tim Tebow fans work-in remains up for discussion.


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