Suspicion of authority and leaders, like peace advocacy, is
not uniquely libertarian by any means, but it is consistent
with libertarianism. I would go further, though, and say
that today, in the year 2009, libertarians are the foremost
voices out there warning everyone not to put too much trust
in leaders and not to ask them to try to perform miracles.
Libertarians, more than anyone else, chafe at the very
notion of being led, and understand that expecting
leaders to bring heaven on earth is the surest road to hell
on Earth—Do Leaders So Often Disappoint?" August 11,
There are other examples
I could cite to bolster my case, like Lennon's opposition to the Drug War or his
distaste for public schools, but the real sticking point will still be his views
of markets. Well, you know what? If Lennon was not a clear libertarian on this
issue, neither was he a clear socialist. The evidence is simply inconclusive,
with some things he said or wrote supporting the libertarian reading, and others
supporting the socialist reading.
To begin with the latter,
there is, of course, "Imagine." In that song, Lennon does ask the listener to
imagine a world with no possessions, where there is "no need for greed or hunger,"
a veritable "brotherhood of man," with "all the people sharing all the world."
This is Marxism, clear and simple. And some of the things Lennon says in the
Playboy Interview back this up. For instance, at one point, Yoko Ono starts
talking about the capitalist trap of undermining family life in order to get
more single people who will work harder because they don't have to be home
evenings and weekends spending time with their families. (This is an odd notion,
since singles are actually probably more likely to party harder and if
anything have fewer reasons to need to work hard, fewer mouths to feed.)
Lennon not only seems to
agree with this; he finds another reason for capitalism to undermine families
and favour singles: "Everybody has to buy their own TV, their own phone, their
own apartment, their own clothes. You know, there's no sharing or anything."
Naomi Klein would be proud, I'm sure, but this is pure nonsense. When people
could not afford individual phones, it was common for many households to share
just one, and it is still common for less-wealthy singles to share apartments.
And I don't see why singles can't share clothes by donating them to charity, if
they want. The simple fact is that people share less when they can afford to
have their own phones, apartments, and clothes. It's called progress.
At any rate, these rants
about markets are balanced with plenty of evidence of a more libertarian view as
well. For instance, Lennon complains at one point that "the car industry is
trying to pass laws and it's pointing fingers and… saying 'Buy America'." Sound
familiar? Lennon counters, "You don't have to put an American flag on it. If
it's good, we'll buy it. If it ain't no good, we're going to buy cars made in
Venezuela." This is a critique, not of free-market capitalism, but of crony
capitalism, of corporatism, where companies try to curry favour with the state
instead of providing a product people want at a price they are willing to pay.
Many libertarians have been sounding the very same notes in the past year, as
both GM and Chrysler went begging for, and got, massive taxpayer bailouts.
In another section of the
Interview, Lennon is asked why the Beatles don't reunite to do benefit
concerts to raise money, maybe as much as two hundred million in a single show,
to help poverty-stricken South America, for example. He responds, "So where do
people get off saying that the Beatles should give two hundred million dollars
to South America?" This simple sentence is a principled, individualistic defence
against the altruistic assumption underpinning wealth and income redistribution,
which is that the rich are morally obliged to help the weak. But this is not
all. Lennon goes on to say, "You know, America has poured billions into places
like that. It doesn't mean a thing. After they've eaten that meal, then what? It
only lasts for a day." Take that, Bono.
A little further on,
Lennon admits that he once thought money was "equated with sin." His views
evolved, however: "Money itself isn't the root of all evil. Money is just a
concept; also it's just energy. So now you could say I've come to terms with
money and making money."
And when asked point
blank about "all this talk of transcending possessions," Lennon answers, "You
can transcend possessions without walking around in a robe. Possessions can be
in the mind. A monk who's off in a cave dreaming about fucking, sucking, and
eating is in far worse position than me who has so-called money in his back
pocket. I'm over the conflict that says you can't be awake and have money.
That's absolute rubbish." And here's the kicker: Yoko Ono, who as far as I can
tell was more of a socialist than John Lennon ever was (and more prone to
spouting mystical mumbo-jumbo), "actually helped a lot with the lyrics" to
Whatever Gets You Through the
I probably haven't
succeeded in convincing you that Lennon was a full-fledged libertarian. I
haven't really convinced myself of that. Nowhere does he seem to realize, for
instance, that international market interdependence (i.e., globalization) is the
surest route to lasting peace. But judging from the sources I consulted, there
was an awful lot of overlap between his views and libertarianism, and not just
on the obvious issues. And I think, too, that there is a lot of overlap with
a lot of people who consider themselves left wing, but the whole while are
actually railing against crony corporatism, not free-market capitalism.
Let me leave you with one
last quotation. Again in response to a question about a Beatles reunion, Lennon
says, "What's this game of doing things because other people want it? The whole
Beatle idea was to do what you want, right? To take your own responsibility, do
what you want and try not to harm other people, right? Do what thou wilst, as
long as it doesn't hurt somebody." To my ears, that sounds like a tolerably good
expression of the fundamental libertarian principles of non-aggression and self-ownership.
That may not make John Lennon a libertarian icon, but it does show that he had a
lot more in common with libertarians than we might at first have imagined.