How “Breaking Bad” Demonstrated the Weakness of Libertarian Self-Interests

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Anyone who has watched the AMC’s Emmy-winning series “Breaking Bad”  becomes painfully aware of the axiom that actions have consequences.  Consequences that can exceed expectations and most normal considerations.   But often consequences beyond imagination and reasonable concern occur from non-action.  Perhaps the worst of this latter example for our protagonist Walter White is his attempt to help both himself and his meth manufacturing partner Jesse Pinkman from ruining his life through drug addiction. Jesse you see was necessary to help Walter achieve his goals to make a killing in the methamphetamine market in order to provide for his family before he succumbs to the lung cancer he has contracted

Walter’s inaction occurs in this scene where he fails to save Jesse’s girl friend Jane from choking to death on her own vomit as she and Jesse lay in bed passed out from an earlier injection of heroine they took together.  Jane becomes a hindrance for Walter in bringing Jesse back to the desired state Walter wants.  So allowing her to die on her own upchuck is seen as a necessary sacrifice from Walter’s perspective.  However, Walter realizes that his inaction to save Jane ultimately leads to the death of hundreds from a midair collision, which ironically occurs directly over the neighborhood he lives in.

It turns out that Jane’s father is an air traffic controller at the Albuquerque Air Port.  His daughter’s death has shaken him deeply and remains distraught a week or so later as he decides to return to work to help him get past this crisis.  In his sorrow and grief he becomes careless in his air traffic control duties and fails to see two airliners on a deadly collision course.  When Walter learns this fatal accident resulted from the actions of the man whose daughter he could have saved but chose not to, he realizes that his self-serving purposes to protect Jesse and the failure to prevent Jane’s asphyxiation have created the consequences that killed these innocent lives.

But perhaps a more telling segment about how actions have consequences comes in a less dramatic scene weeks later when Walter, sans Jesse, teams with a drug czar who heads a prosperous cartel for North America out of Albuquerque.  Gus Fring, the drug czar builds a state of the art laboratory where Walt can make his near pure meth in ideal conditions that Walter is enthralled by as a chemist.  He is teamed with another chemists that Gus has prepped years earlier through a college grant specifically designed to open opportunities for people to get their degrees in chemistry.

The assistant chemist, Gale Boetticher, is a likable, nerdy sort who is in awe of Walt’s skill as a chemist.  Walt comes to like Gale because they both share a love for the laboratory and during a break in their work he asks Gale, in this scene here, how he got into this line of business.  His response got my attention pretty quickly as someone who has watched the self-interests of the libertarian philosophy take over conservative politics in this country.

“Well, there’s crime and then there’s CRIME, I suppose” Gale tells Walter.  “I’m definitely a libertarian.  Consenting adults want what they want.  And if I’m not supplying it they will get it somewhere else.  At least from me they are getting exactly what they paid for.  No added toxins are adulterants.”

Gale, as a definite libertarian, has weighed his actions in terms of what best serves his needs and in a market he feels will exist with or without him.  The consequences of his actions seems to go no further than giving people what they want, regardless of how that negatively impacts other individuals, their families and the community resources that have to deal with drug addiction.  And the drug addiction is more certain because Gale, along with Walt are making a meth drug, toxin and adulterant-free, that will ensure users return for more.

The social consequences of their work doesn’t concern Gale as a libertarian and therein lies the flaw with this philosophy.  Thinking in terms of the individual and doing what’s best for one’s own self-interests often pays little or no heed to the social consequences of such choices.  The belief that people can make choices not to use meth is used by Gale to justify his own action, even though he has to know that there will be people who are lured into this drug addiction behavior by people they trust and out of simple human curiosity to push the envelope.

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In the vein of Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “There is no such thing as society”, libertarians lose sight of the fact that not all individuals are “prepared to take responsibility” for their lives.  Clearly children and many elderly either can’t or lose the means to take care of themselves and it then falls on others to assist these members of society.  But for people like Thatcher and the libertarian, this must be done in the context of the “tapestry of men and women and people” doing it as separate individuals, not as a collective society and its means to function as a collective – government and its agencies designed to address large social issues

It’s this convoluted notion that a tapestry of men and women and people is somehow different from social structures like the government.  Is not the government formed by and made up of other humans who can empathize with people whose conditions make it difficult and even impossible to care properly for themselves, who arrive at their fate through no fault of their own?   Humans who are also able to devise rules and processes to ensure abuse doesn’t occur.

Ronald Reagan who saw Thatcher as a kindred spirit expounded on the notion that individuals choosing to help others, not government assistance enacted through the will of the people, was the right and proper way to address the needs of the less fortunate in our society.  “Government is not the solution to our problems”, he told the crowds at his inauguration, “government is the problem”. 

These notions hit upon an inherent trait that many in societies dominated by free-market  economies like to believe they have.  The ability to provide for themselves.  Within this dogmatic is the noble view that they don’t want to rely on other people if conditions exist that make survival difficult.  And yet as a species our very survival depends on a social structure where everyone plays a part in seeing that the individual is healthy and able to prosper.  The primary social unit for this is the family and the extended family.  As humans evolved they congealed as clans and tribes based on physical characteristics and regional domains.

libertarianspiritThen of course there are those libertarians who would even justify withholding assistance for the elderly and children simply because they or their parents failed to adequately provide for their needs.  “Why” they would ask, “do they have to pay for someone else’s poor choices?” 

But as we all know we don’t live in a vacuum and as families assimilated into clans and tribes, survival needs of land and food eventually pit one clan against another until ultimately the thinking person came to realize that we had to foster conditions that enabled us to coexist without the friction that arises from meeting basic needs of survival.  Thus the modern society and various forms of government to coordinate a growing population evolved.

The American experience was the first that tried to separate itself from monarchial forms of government and in so doing tried to focus on the Enlightenment concepts of the time that elevated the individual.   The notion that giving a man “40 acres and a mule” and leaving him to his own devices had merit in a time when we were still a young nation and their was room to test this premise, even if it meant we had to kill the native inhabitants to promote it.

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But the population growth would soon force us to realize that we live in a world where the model for making it on our own becomes a historical relic, not a modern reality.  We have to develop social economies and governments that accommodate a population requiring more than what laissez-faire principles promise. We don’t have to abandon our sense of individuality and the urge to do our own thing.  We do however need to accept certain restrictions that limit actions effecting negative consequences for those we share the same environment we call home.

The test for us isn’t to try to relive a lifestyle that no longer fits the modern world.  Blaming government as part of the problem and twisting the concept of society as something unnatural is an ideological square peg concept being forced in a round reality hole.  Governments on a large-scale can be effective if designed to accommodate the common interests, not simply special interests.  Laws and ethics need to be adhered to by everyone to prevent undermining those common interests.

People still want limited government and the opportunity to “make it on their own” but the limitations that exist in our current state make that impossible for many.  A substantive life for everyone will require a plan where the social collective needs to have a framework to assist those who cannot meet the demands imposed by a free market system.  One that ignores age and opportunity as well as contending with human greed where one takes more than they need.

Self-interests action have consequences and when they negatively impact innocent people who struggle or exist through no fault of their own, expecting humans to respond in selfless ways is not what it used be when we lived as members of a close, regimented clan or tribe.   We have put too much emphasis on individuality and for that we have conditions where people don’t even know their own neighbors who reside next door to them.  It’s the price we pay for an ideology that refuses to recognize its flawed nature.

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13 responses to “How “Breaking Bad” Demonstrated the Weakness of Libertarian Self-Interests

    • Oh indeed MMJ we all have a self-serving streak. The critical distinguishing point between the Libertarian devotee and everyone else is we don’t idealize it and put it on a pedestal. 😉

  1. Brilliant, Larry! You made your point much better than did I. (And the libertarian cartoons are priceless!) The libertarian/GOP opposition to government at all (wanting it to be small enough to drown in a bathtub) comes from their cowboy mentality. If my opponents do not band together, I can defeat them one-on-one. (Imagine the guy with the shotgun in the doorway above looking out and seeing the Fifth Cavalry aiming at his chest and then see what his tune becomes.)

    Collective action is neither good nor bad, it simply is a mechanism to amplify our abilities. Would we have gotten to the Moon yet if it were only to be undertaken by one individual and all the people he could hire out of his own pocket?

    So, the military-industrial-complex is using collective action to make sure that there are ready markets for its war material. At the same time it encourages others to oppose collective action in opposition.

    Libertarianism is just a horse the plutocrats will ride to discourage collective opposition to their will. When it fails to deliver, something else will be used. The amplification of collective action cannot be abandoned by those folks because it is too valuable of a tool. They just don’t want others using it.

    • “Libertarianism is just a horse the plutocrats will ride to discourage collective opposition to their will.”

      Exactly. As I suggested to MMJ above, they exploit the self-serving streak that exists within all of us for personal gains.

  2. Most psychopaths who victimize people say their victims “deserved it” because they were stupid enough to fall for it. Am I comparing this to Libertarian economics? Fucking right, I am!

    Libertarian-ism is logical, but only if you’re:

    1) a psychopath.
    2) drunk, stupid and high on the ideology…or just plain high.
    3) able to convince yourself that nothing is random and that everything is determined based upon “merit”. Merit is determined by seeing who has been rewarded and then using that reward as “proof” of merit.

      • Good link.

        Libertarianism can really only exist in a vacuum. Like GMO plants, they are safe/logical only in the lab. But out of the lab, they generate all kinds of negative consequences and interact in ways completely unforeseen (or seen & ignored) by their promoters.

        And America lives in that vacuum. As the author stated, only about 30% of Americans have passports and probably even less have travelled to other nations in any significant way. While America dumps its toxic culture on every nation under the sun, it is completely insulated from any other culture. The only time America learns anything about another culture is when it’s about to annihilate it in a war.

        The Americans with the most contact with the outside world are the 1% and they only experience these countries the way the domestic 1% experience them; in well guarded bistros where they serve $400 burgers topped with gold shavings. The only people they have contact with are those local 1%-ers who (Surprise!) hold the exact same viewpoints as they do.

  3. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I like to repeat myself.

    I’ve listened to libertarian idiots from my town say that all roads should be privatized. We actually have a private highway here. Our pro-business government sold it brand new to a private company for less than what it cost to build. It charges tolls that only people with expense accounts can afford to drive on. This ensures that the highway is never more than half full, even at rush-hour, so that all the people who count can get home fast. Not having to serve everyone really cuts down on costly road maintenance too.

    But that’s not even the kind of private road the libertarians were talking about. They wanted ownership of every road & street handed to the persons/entities that owned the properties adjoining them. For example, Dave Smith would own the 35M in front of his house and his neighbour, Fred, would own the 20M in front of his property line…and so on. It would be up to each of them to maintain the road in front of their house as they saw fit with money they’d get form charging tolls.

    That may be logical in Libertarian Laboratories, where everyone behaves in their own best interests and the best interests of society 24/7. But I live across the street from a real life example of such a road. There’s a private alley owned by a few doctors offices, a dentist’s office, the nation’s largest grocery store, a major Canadian bank and the other side of the alley is dominated by mansions. Despite the sheer amount of cash the owners have, the alley has had potholes big enough to swallow a Smart Car for as long as I’ve been alive.

    What’s really sad is that these guys honestly believed it would work. I told them to try the alley, but I never saw them again, so I don’t know if that wisened them up.

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