If you have anything to do with intelligent teenagers (children, siblings, students, colleagues), you’ll have heard that the only political belief worth having at the moment is libertarianism. Teenage libertarians, unlike all too many of the grown-ups who lay claim to the ideology, are often very intelligent and not at all vicious. They are usually more entertaining and more engaged than their peers, and rather than scream about tax cuts until they’ve grown throat nodules the size of ping-pong balls they’ll consider other political or economic doctrines and acknowledge the justice in them. If you doubt this, consider the Renegade Craft Fair.
Renegade tours the United States, with a stop in London as well. In Los Angeles, it featured a hands-on woodworking truck, where kids could get a feel for craft. Food was (of course) supplied by food trucks, including fried chicken from a Michelin-starred chef. As for the stalls themselves, there was more cute pastel letter-press printing, more mustache silhouetting, and more DIY t-shirt producing than really seems necessary. A new favorite medium was old books, which artisans use to make jewelry, wallets and notebooks (the cover of my new notebook was taken from Some Thoughts on Catholic Apologetics). In between all of that we found a pair of tea-blenders from San Francisco, an Art Institute-trained illustrator, a woman who made pornographic bicycle bells, and a woman with a naturally-made-popsicle cart that had a steady and well-deserved line of 15 people from 11:30 on.
To me, Renegade looks like a pomo version of William Morris and John Ruskin’s Arts & Crafts movement, except that whereas Morris and Ruskin sought to recover traditional craft excellence in the first industrial age, these artisans are creating new types of craft excellence—nobody there is interested in traditional crafts—informed by ideals of sustainability and the increasingly prevalent aesthetic of cute/fey/twee.
But to young libertarians, this is what capitalism looks like: a large number of young, independent entrepreneurs producing highly individualized and authentically made merchandise for highly individualist customers who seek authenticity. And they’d be right: there are no guilds here to instruct or restrict their members; almost no “official” presence aside from a tent selling Renegade Craft Fair merchandise and a couple of guards; no signs telling you to keep off the grass or to keep your dog out or advising you of the food truck’s health and safety rating. And it’s lovely. Everyone’s very polite. We all complement each other on our impeccable taste in polka dot dresses, cute jewelry, well-chosen eyewear and perfectly clashing shirts and ties. If this is what you see when you see capitalism, what else would you want?
In fact, Renegade looked a lot like the Olympic opening ceremony: young, multicultural, slightly chaotic, full of smiling, happy people. The Australian, one of the world’s most consistently libertarian newspapers (rare is the Australian news article that doesn’t use the term “nanny-state”), was sent into raptures by it all: the ceremony reveled “deliberately … in the chaos of Britain’s free society … in an obvious retort to the breathtaking order and intimidating precision and scale of Beijing’s ceremony in 2009.” Libertarians could also point to the true stars of the ceremony, the Independent Olympic Athletes, who fun-timed their way around the stadium, dancing, laughing, imitating their events and generally looking like a great advertisement for not belonging to a governed nation-state. And the ceremony as a whole was a great time, although less well-crafted and less tasteful than Renegade. On a “this is your brain, this is your brain on government” scale, you can’t deny the appeal of libertarianism. We all know that having no rules can be fun.
But what often looks to libertarians like unfettered capitalism is actually nothing of the sort. The Olympic opening ceremony was a love letter to social democracy, as the Tory MP Aidan Burley accurately, but controversially, tweeted. His faux pas forced other Tories to pledge their love for multiculturalism (which exists thanks to government intervention), universal health care (ditto), and political correctness (regrettably, ditto). The Renegade Craft Fair took place in a public park and was peopled not by capitalists—who use large quantities of money and resources to produce economically valuable objects and services without regard to the non-economic quality of those objects and services—but by craftspeople and merchants obsessed, like the Ruskins and the Morrises, with non-economic qualities: cuteness, sustainability, authenticity, cleverness, kindness. And for all its commercialization, Olympic competition is the most publicly beloved example of non-capitalist endeavor that remains to us. As extraordinary as the gymnasts’ bent-arm hand-stands are, that’s nothing compared to the athletes’ desire to do something well despite its outcome being, in almost all cases, economically null.
Nonetheless, huge numbers of people have learned, like goodhearted, teenage libertarians, to see capitalism where there is no such thing, to believe that their desire for well-crafted, cute, mustache-themed clothing (or, on the other side of the cultural spectrum, their desire for guns) is grounded in the same principle as their bosses’ desire for low wages and low taxation; that financial markets function in the same way as craft markets; and that joyful, chaotic freedom is the exclusive preserve of small government shrews.
It is this (mis)perception that could allow the Romney campaign to get away with the bald faced lie—pace Obama’s reminder that enterprise relies on non-capitalistic infrastructure and utilities—that entrepreneurs, like the big bang, make everything from nothing. The Olympic opening ceremony shows us that at least some people remember that social democracy is a respectable and, above all, realistic alternative to libertarian conservatism: you can have universal health care, multiculturalism and the best dance moves all at once.