“That perfect liberty they sigh for– the liberty of making slaves of other people– Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago.” — Abraham Lincoln
Apparently someone’s curse worked: we live in interesting times, and among other consequences, for no good reason we have a surplus of libertarians. With this article I hope to help keep the demand low, or at least to explain to libertarian correspondents why they don’t impress me with comments like “You sure love letting people steal your money!”
This article has been rewritten, for two reasons. First, the original article had sidebars to address common objections. From several people’s reactions, it seems that they never read these. They’re now incorporated into the text.
Second, and more importantly, many people who call themselves libertarians didn’t recognize themselves in the description. There are libertarians and libertarians, and sometimes different camps despise each other– or don’t seem to be aware of each other.
…then this page isn’t really addressed to you. You’re probably more of what I’d call a small-government conservative; and if you voted against Bush, we can probably get along just fine.
On the other hand, you might want to stick around to see what your more fundamentalist colleagues are saying.
Libertarianism strikes me as if someone (let’s call her “Ayn Rand”) sat down to create the Un-Communism. Thus:
Does this sound exaggerated? Let’s listen to Murray Rothbard:
Or here’s Lew Rockwell on Rothbard (emphasis mine):
Thomas DiLorenzo on worker activism: “[L]abor unions [pursue] policies which impede the very institutions of capitalism that are the cause of their own prosperity.” Or Ludwig von Mises: “What is today euphemistically called the right to strike is in fact the right of striking workers, by recourse to violence, to prevent people who want to work from working.” (Employer violence is apparently acceptable.) The Libertarian Party platform explains that workers have no right to protest drug tests, and supports the return of child labor.
On Nietzsche, as one of my correspondents puts it, some libertarians love Nietzsche; others have read him. (Though I would respond that some people idolize executives; others have worked for them.) Nonetheless, I think the Nietzschean atmosphere of burning rejection of conventional morality, exaltation of the will to power, and scorn for womanish Christian compassion for the masses, is part of the roots of libertarianism. It’s unmistakable in Ayn Rand.
The more important point, however, is that the capitalist is the ber-villain for communists, and a glorious hero for libertarians; that property is “theft” for the communists, and a “natural right” for libertarians. These dovetail a little too closely for coincidence. It’s natural enough, when a basic element of society is attacked as an evil, for its defenders to counter-attack by elevating it into a principle.
As we should have learned from the history of communism and fascism, however, contradiction is no guarantee of truth; it can lead one into an opposite error instead. And many who rejected communism nonetheless remained zealots. People who leave one ideological extreme usually end up at the other, either quickly (David Horowitz) or slowly (Mario Vargas Llosa). If you’re the sort of person who likes absolutes, you want them even if all your other convictions change.
The methodology isn’t much different either: oppose the obvious evils of the world with a fairy tale. The communist of 1910 couldn’t point to a single real-world instance of his utopia; neither can the present-day libertarian. Yet they’re unshakeable in their conviction that it can and must happen.
Academic libertarians love abstract, fact-free arguments– often, justifications for why property is an absolute right. As a random example, from one James Craig Green:
Examples of natural property in land and water resources have already been given, but deserve more detail. An illustration of how this would be accomplished is a farm with irrigation ditches to grow crops in dry western states. To appropriate unowned natural resources, a settler used his labor to clear the land and dug ditches to carry water from a river for irrigation. Crops were planted, buildings were constructed, and the property thus created was protected by the owner from aggression or the later claims of others. This process was a legitimate creation of property.
The first paragraph is pure fantasy, and is simply untrue as a portrait of “primitive tribes”, which are generally extremely collectivist by American standards. The second sounds good precisely because it leaves out all the actual facts of American history: the settlers’ land was not “unowned” but stolen from the Indians by state conquest (and much of it stolen from the Mexicans as well); the lands were granted to the settlers by government; the communities were linked to the national economy by railroads founded by government grant; the crops were adapted to local conditions by land grant colleges.
Thanks to my essay on taxes, I routinely get mail featuring impassioned harangues which never once mention a real-world fact– or which simply make up the statistics they want.
This sort of balls-out aggressivity probably wins points at parties, where no one is going to take down an almanac and check their figures; but to me it’s a cardinal sin. If someone has an answer for everything, advocates changes which have never been tried, and presents dishonest evidence, he’s a crackpot. If a man has no doubts, it’s because his hypothesis is unfalsifiable.
Distaste for facts isn’t merely a habit of a few Internet cranks; it’s actually libertarian doctrine, the foundation of the ‘Austrian school’. Here’s Ludwig von Mises in Epistemological Problems of Economics:
The ‘other sources’ turn out to be armchair ruminations on how things must be. It’s true enough that economics is not physics; but that’s not warrant to turn our backs on the methods of science and return to scholastic speculation. Economics should always move in the direction of science, experiment, and falsifiability. If it were really true that it cannot, then no one, including the libertarians, would be entitled to strong belief in any economic program.
Some people aren’t much bothered by libertarianism’s lack of real-world success. After all, they argue, if no one tried anything new, nothing would ever change.
In fact, I’m all for experimentation; that’s how we learn. Create a libertarian state. But run it as a proper experiment. Start small-scale. Establish exactly how your claims will be tested: per capita income? median income? life expectancy? property value? surveys on happiness? Set up a control: e.g. begin with two communities as close as we can get them in size, initial wealth, resources, and culture, one following liberalism, one following libertarianism. Abide by the results– no changing the goalposts if the liberals happen to “win”.
I’m even willing to look at partial tests. If an ideology is really better than others at producing general prosperity, then following it partially should produce partially better results. Jonathan Kwitny suggested comparing a partly socialist system (e.g. Tanzania) to a partly capitalist one (e.g. Kenya). (Kenya looked a lot better.) If the tests are partial, of course, we’ll want more of them; but human experience is pretty broad.
It’s the libertarians, not me, who stand in the way of such accountability. If I point out examples of nations partially following libertarian views– we’ll get to this below– I’m told that they don’t count: only Pure Real Libertarianism Of My Own Camp can be tested.
Again, all-or-nothing thinking generally goes with intellectual fraud. If a system is untestable, it’s because its proponents fear testing. By contrast, I’m confident enough in liberal and scientific values that I’m happy to see even partial adoption. Even a little freedom is better than dictatorship. Even a little science is better than ideology.
An untested political system unfortunately has great rhetorical appeal. Since we can’t see it in action, we can’t point out its obvious faults, while the ideologue can be caustic about everything that has actually been tried, and which has inevitably fallen short of perfection. Perhaps that’s why Dave Barry and Trey Parker are libertarians. But I’d rather vote for a politician who’s shown that his programs work in the real world than for a humorist, however amusing.
At this point some libertarian readers are pumping their hands in the air like a piston, anxious to explain that their ideal isn’t Rothbard or von Mises or Hayek, but the Founding Fathers.
Nice try. Everybody wants the Founders on their side; but it was a different country back then– 95% agricultural, low density, highly homogenous, primitive in technology– and modern libertarianism simply doesn’t apply. (The OED’s citations of the word for the time are all theological.)
All American political movements have their roots in the 1700s– indeed, in the winning side, since Loyalist opinion essentially disappeared. We are all– liberals, conservatives, libertarians– against the Georgian monarchy and for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You can certainly find places where one Founder or another rants against government; you can find other places where one Founder or another rants against rebellion, anarchy, and the opponents of federalism. Sometimes the same Founder can be quoted on both sides. They were a mixed bunch, and lived long enough lives to encounter different situations.
The Constitution is above all a definition of a strengthened government, and the Federalist Papers are an extended argument for it. The Founders negotiated a balance between a government that was arbitrary and coercive (their experience as British colonial subjects) and one that was powerless and divided (the failed Articles of Confederation).
The Founders didn’t anticipate the New Deal– there was no need for them to– but they were as quick to resort to the resources of the state as any modern liberal. Ben Franklin, for instance, played the Pennsylvania legislature like a violin– using it to fund a hospital he wanted to establish, for instance. Obviously he had no qualms about using state power to do good social works.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Founders’ words were nobler than their deeds. Most were quite comfortable with slave-owning, for instance. No one worried about women’s consent to be governed. Washington’s own administration made it a crime to criticize the government. And as Robert Allen Rutland reminds us,
The process of giving life to our constitutional rights has largely been the work of liberals. On the greatest fight of all, to treat blacks as human beings, libertarians supported the other side.
Crackpots are usually harmless; how about the Libertarian Party?
In itself, I’m afraid, it’s nothing but a footnote. It gets no more than 1% of the vote– a showing that’s been surpassed historically by the Anti-Masonic Party, the Greenbacks, the Prohibition Party, the Socialists, the Greens, and whatever John Anderson was. If that was all it was, I wouldn’t bother to devote pages and rants to it. I’m all for the expression of pure eccentricity in politics; I like the Brits’ Monster Raving Looney Party even better.
Why are libertarian ideas important? Because of their influence on the Republican Party. They form the ideological basis for the Reagan/Gingrich/Bush revolution. The Republicans have taken the libertarian “Government is Bad” horse and ridden far with it:
Maybe this use of their ideas is appalling to ‘Real Libertarians’… well, it’s an appalling world sometimes. Is it fair to communism that everyone thinks its Leninist manifestation is the only possible one? Do you think I’m happy to have national representatives like Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry?
At least some libertarians have understood the connection. Rothbard again, writing in 1994:
Can you smell the compromise here? Hold your nose and vote for the Repubs, boys. But then don’t pretend to be uninvolved when the Republicans start making a mockery of limited government.
There’s a deeper lesson here, and it’s part of why I don’t buy libertarian portraits of the future utopia. Movements out of power are always anti-authoritarian; it’s no guarantee that they’ll stay that way. Communists before 1917 promised the withering away of the state. Fascists out of power sounded something like socialists. The Republicans were big on term limits when they could be used to unseat Democrats; they say nothing about them today. If you don’t think it can happen to you, you’re not being honest about human nature and human history.
The Libertarian Party has a cute little test that purports to divide American politics into four quadrants. There’s the economic dimension (where libertarians ally with conservatives) and the social dimension (where libertarians ally with liberals).
I think the diagram is seriously misleading, because visually it gives equal importance to both dimensions. And when the rubber hits the road, libertarians almost always go with the economic dimension.
The libertarian philosopher always starts with property rights. Libertarianism arose in opposition to the New Deal, not to Prohibition. The libertarian voter is chiefly exercised over taxes, regulation, and social programs; the libertarian wing of the Republican party has, for forty years, gone along with the war on drugs, corporate welfare, establishment of dictatorships abroad, and an alliance with theocrats. Christian libertarians like Ron Paul want God in the public schools and are happy to have the government forbid abortion and gay marriage. I never saw the libertarians objecting to Bush Sr. mocking the protection of civil rights, or to Ken Starr’s government inquiry into politicians’ sex lives. On the Cato Institute’s list of recent books, I count 1 of 19 dealing with an issue on which libertarians and liberals tend to agree, and that was on foreign policy (specifically, the Iraq war).
If this is changing, as Bush’s never-ending “War on Terror” expands the powers of government, demonizes dissent, and enmeshes the country in military crusades and nation-building, as the Republicans push to remove the checks and balances that remain in our government system– if libertarians come to realize that Republicans and not Democrats are the greater threat to liberty– I’d be delighted.
But for that, you know, you have to vote against Bush. A belief in social liberties means little if you vote for a party that clearly intends to restrict them.
For the purposes of my critique, however, the social side of libertarianism is irrelevant. A libertarian and I might actually agree to legalize drugs, let people marry whoever they like, and repeal the Patriot Act. But this has nothing to do with whether robber baron capitalism is a good thing.
The libertarianism that has any effect in the world, then, has nothing to do with social liberty, and everything to do with removing all restrictions on business. So what’s wrong with that?
Let’s look at some cases that came within spitting distance of the libertarian ideal. Some libertarians won’t like these, because they are not Spotless Instances of the Free Utopia; but as I’ve said, nothing is proved by science fiction. If complete economic freedom and absence of government is a cure-all, partial economic freedom and limited government should be a cure-some.
At the turn of the 20th century, business could do what it wanted– and it did. The result was robber barons, monopolistic gouging, management thugs attacking union organizers, filth in our food, a punishing business cycle, slavery and racial oppression, starvation among the elderly, gunboat diplomacy in support of business interests.
The New Deal itself was a response to crisis (though by no means an unprecedented one; it wasn’t much worse than the Gilded Age depressions). A quarter of the population was out of work. Five thousand banks failed, destroying the savings of 9 million families. Steel plants were operating at 12% capacity. Banks foreclosed on a quarter of Mississippi’s land. Wall Street was discredited by insider trading and collusion with banks at the expense of investors. Farmers were breaking out into open revolt; miners and jobless city workers were rioting.
Don’t think, by the way, that if governments don’t provide gunboats, no one else will. Corporations will build their own military if necessary: the East Indies Company did; Leopold did in the Congo; management did when fighting with labor.
Or take Russia in the decade after the fall of Communism, as advised by free-market absolutists like Jeffrey Sachs. Russian GDP declined 50% in five years. The elite grabbed the assets they could and shuffled them out of Russia so fast that IMF loans couldn’t compensate. In 1994 alone, 600 businessmen, journalists, and politicians were murdered by gangsters. Russia lacked a working road system, a banking system, anti-monopoly regulation, effective law enforcement, or any sort of safety net for the elderly and the jobless. Inflation reached 2250% in 1992. Central government authority effectively disappeared in many regions.
By the way, Russia is the answer to those testosterone-poisoned folks who think that guns will prevent oppression. The mafia will always outgun you.
Today’s Russia is moving back toward authoritarianism under Putin. Again, this should dismay libertarians: apparently, given a little freedom, many people will demand less. You’d better be careful about setting up that utopia; ten years further on it may be taken over by authoritarians.
Or consider the darling of many an ’80s conservative: Pinochet’s Chile, installed by Nixon, praised by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, George Bush, and Paul Johnson. In twenty years, foreign debt quadrupled, natural resources were wasted, universal health care was abandoned (leading to epidemics of typhoid fever and hepatitis), unions were outlawed, military spending rose (for what? who the hell is going to attack Chile?), social security was “privatized” (with predictable results: ever-increasing government bailouts) and the poverty rate doubled, from 20% to 41%. Chile’s growth rate from 1974 to 1982 was 1.5%; the Latin American average was 4.3%.
Pinochet was a dicator, of course, which makes some libertarians feel that they have nothing to learn here. Somehow Chile’s experience (say) privatizing social security can tell us nothing about privatizing social security here, because Pinochet was a dictator. Presumably if you set up a business in Chile, the laws of supply and demand and perhaps those of gravity wouldn’t apply, because Pinochet was a dictator.
When it’s convenient, libertarians even trumpet their association with Chile’s “free market” policies; self-gov.org (originators of that cute quiz) includes a page celebrating Milton Friedman, self-proclaimed libertarian, who helped form and advise the group of University of Chicago professors and graduates who implemented Pinochet’s policies. The Cato Institute even named a prize for “Advancing Liberty” after this benefactor of the Chilean dictatorship.
The newest testing ground for laissez-faire is present-day America, from Ronald Reagan on.
Remove the New Deal, and the pre-New Deal evils clamor to return. Reagan removed the right to strike; companies now fire strikers, outsource high-wage jobs and replace them with dead-end near-minimum-wage service jobs. Middle-class wages are stagnating– or plummeting, if you consider that working hours are rising. Companies are rushing to reestablish child labor in the Third World.
Under liberalism, productivity increases benefited all classes– poverty rates declined from over 30% to under 10% in the thirty years after World War II, while the economy more than quadrupled in size.
In the current libertarian climate, productivity gains only go to the already well-off. Here’s the percentage of US national income received by certain percentiles of the population, as reported by the IRS:
This should put some perspective on libertarian whining about high taxes and how we’re destroying incentives for the oppressed businessman. The wealthiest 1% of the population doubled their share of the pie in just 15 years. In 1973, CEOs earned 45 times the pay of an average employee (about twice the multipler in Japan); today it’s 500 times.
Thirty years ago, managers accepted that they operated as much for their workers, consumers, and neighbors as for themselves. Some economists (notably Michael Jensen and William Meckling) decided that the only stakeholders that mattered were the stock owners– and that management would be more accountable if they were given massive amounts of stock. Not surprisingly, CEOs managed to get the stock without the accountability– they’re obscenely well paid whether the company does well or it tanks– and the obsession with stock price led to mass layoffs, short-term thinking, and the financial dishonesty at WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia, HealthSouth, and elsewhere.
The nature of our economic system has changed in the last quarter-century, and people haven’t understood it yet. People over 30 or so grew up in an environment where the rich got more, but everyone prospered. When productivity went up, the rich got richer– we’re not goddamn communists, after all– but everybody’s income increased.
If you were part of the World War II generation, the reality was that you had access to subsidized education and housing, you lived better every year, and you were almost unimaginably better off than your parents.
We were a middle-class nation, perhaps the first nation in history where the majority of the people were comfortable. This infuriated the communists (this wasn’t supposed to happen). The primeval libertarians who cranky about it as well, but the rich had little reason to complain– they were better off than ever before, too.
Conservatives– nurtured by libertarian ideas– have managed to change all that. When productivity rises, the rich now keep the gains; the middle class barely stays where it is; the poor get poorer. We have a ways to go before we become a Third World country, but the model is clear. The goal is an impoverished majority, and a super-rich minority with no effective limitations on its power or earnings. We’ll exchange the prosperity of 1950s America for that of 1980s Brazil.
Despite the intelligence of many of its supporters, libertarianism is an instance of the simplest (and therefore silliest) type of politics: the single-villain ideology. Everything is blamed on the government. (One libertarian, for instance, reading my list of the evils of laissez-faire above, ignored everything but “gunboats”. It’s like Gary Larson’s cartoon of “What dogs understand”, with the dog’s name replaced with “government”.)
The advantage of single-villain ideologies is obvious: in any given situation you never have to think hard to find out the culprit. The disadvantages, however, are worse: you can’t see your primary target clearly– hatred is a pair of dark glasses– and you can’t see the problems with anything else.
It’s a habit of mind that renders libertarianism unfalsifiable, and thus irrelevant to the world. Everything gets blamed on one institution; and because we have no real-world example where that agency is absent, the claims can’t be tested.
Not being a libertarian doesn’t mean loving the state; it means accepting complexity. The real world is a monstrously complicated place; there’s not just one thing wrong with it, nor just one thing that can be changed to fix it. Things like prosperity and freedom don’t have one cause; they’re a balancing act.
Here’s an alternative theory for you: original sin. People will mess things up, whether by stupidity or by active malice. There is no magical class of people (e.g. “government”) who can be removed to produce utopia. Any institution is liable to failure, or active criminality. Put anyone in power– whether it’s communists or engineers or businessmen– and they will abuse it.
Does this mean things are hopeless? Of course not; it just means that we have to let all institutions balance each other. Government, opposition parties, business, the media, unions, churches, universities, non-government organizations, all watch over each other. Power is distributed as widely as possible to prevent any one institution from monopolizing and abusing it. It’s not always a pretty solution, and it can be frustratingly slow and inefficient, but it works better than any alternative I know of.
Markets are very good at some things, like deciding what to produce and distributing it. But unrestricted markets don’t produce general prosperity, and lawless business can and will abuse its power. Examples can be multiplied ad nauseam: read some history– or the newspaper.
Libertarian responses to such lists are beyond amazing.
Slavery is another example: though some hoped that the market would eventually make it unprofitable, it sure was taking its time, and neither the slave nor the abolitionist had any non-governmental leverage over the slaveowners.
(Libertarians usually claim to oppose slavery… but that’s awfully easy to say on this side of Civil War and the civil rights movement. The slaveowners thought they were defending their sacred rights to property and self-government.)
And those are the better responses. Often enough the only response is explain how nothing bad can happen in the libertarian utopia. But libertarian dogma can’t be buttressed by libertarian doctrine– that’s begging the question.
Or it’s simply denied that these things are problems. One correspondent suggested that the poor shouldn’t “complain” about not getting loans– “I wouldn’t make a loan if I didn’t think I’d get paid back.” This is not only hard-hearted but ignorant. Who says the poor are bad credit risks? It often takes prodding from community organizations, but banks can serve low-income areas well– both making money and fostering home ownership. Institutions like the Grameen Bank have found that micro-loans work very well, and are profitable, in the poorest countries on Earth, such as Bangladesh.
A proven solution to most of these ills is liberalism. For fifty years liberals governed this country, generating unprecedented prosperity, and making this the first solidly middle-class nation.
If you want prosperity for the many– and why should the many support any other goal?– you need a balance between government and business. For this you need several things:
Perhaps the most communicable libertarian meme– and one of the most mischievous– is the attempt to paint taxation as theft.
First, it’s dishonest. Most libertarians theoretically accept government for defense and law enforcement. (There are some absolutists who don’t even believe in national defense; I guess they want to have a libertarian utopia for awhile, then hand it over to foreign invaders.)
Now, national defense and law enforcement cost money: about 22% of the 2002 budget– 33% of the non-social-security budget. You can’t swallow that and maintain that all taxes are bad. At least the cost of those functions is not “your money”; it’s a legitimate charge for necessary services.
Americans enjoy the fruits of public scientific research, a well-educated job force, highways and airports, clean food, honest labelling, Social Security, unemployment insurance, trustworthy banks, national parks. Libertarianism has encouraged the peculiarly American delusion that these things come for free. It makes a philosophy out of biting the hand that feeds you.
Second, it leads directly to George Bush’s financial irresponsibility. Would a libertarian urge his family or his software company or his gun club to spend twice what it takes in? When libertarians maintain that irresponsibility among the poor is such a bad thing, why is it OK in the government?
It’s no excuse to claim that libertarians didn’t want the government to increase spending, as Bush has done. As you judge others, so shall you be judged. Libertarians want to judge liberalism not by its goals (e.g. helping poor children) but by its alleged effects (e.g. teen pregnancy). The easiest things in the world for a politician to do are to lower taxes and raise spending. By attacking the very concept of taxation, libertarians help politicians– and the public– to indulge their worst impulses.
Finally, it hides dependence on the government. The economic powerhouse of the US is still the Midwest, the Northeast, and California– largely liberal Democratic areas. As Dean Lacy has pointed out, over the last decade, the blue states of 2004 paid $1.4 trillion more in federal taxes than they received, while red states received $800 billion more than they paid.
Red state morality isn’t just to be irresponsible with the money they pay as taxes; it’s to be irresponsible with other people’s money. It’s protesting the concept of getting an allowance by stealing the other kids’ money.
Ultimately, my objection to libertarianism is moral. Arguing across moral gulfs is usually ineffective; but we should at least be clear about what our moral differences are.
First, the worship of the already successful and the disdain for the powerless is essentially the morality of a thug. Money and property should not be privileged above everything else– love, humanity, justice.
(And let’s not forget that lurid fascination with firepower– seen in ESR, Ron Paul, Heinlein and Van Vogt, Advocates for Self-Government’s president Sharon Harris, the Cato Institute, Lew Rockwell’s site, and the Mises Institute.)
I wish I could convince libertarians that the extremely wealthy don’t need them as their unpaid advocates. Power and wealth don’t need a cheering section; they are– by definition– not an oppressed class which needs our help. Power and wealth can take care of themselves. It’s the poor and the defenseless who need aid and advocates.
The libertarians reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s description of people who are so eager to attack a hated ideology that they will destroy their own furniture to make sticks to beat it with. James Craig Green again:
Here’s a very different moral point of view: Jimmy Carter describing why he builds houses with Habitat for Humanity:
Is this “confused hysteria”? No, it’s common human decency. It’s sad when people have to twist themselves into knots to malign the human desire (and the Biblical command) to help one’s neighbor.
Second, it’s the philosophy of a snotty teen, someone who’s read too much Heinlein, absorbed the sordid notion that an intellectual elite should rule the subhuman masses, and convinced himself that reading a few bad novels qualifies him as a member of the elite.
Third, and perhaps most common, it’s the worldview of a provincial narcissist. As I’ve observed in my overview of the 20th century, liberalism won its battles so thoroughly that people have forgotten why those battles were fought.
What’s wrong with libertarianism – Zompist.com