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The Absurdities of Libertarianism

Thursday, November 18, 2004
This essay is the first in a series critiquing the principal schools of conservatism. I had been contemplating such a thing for quite some time, but postponed it due to the election fervor. Agre's essay and my wife's encouragement (she HATES libertarianism) have given me the kick I needed to get started. I’m hoping these posts will start some discussion, and that my readers will give me their views. All right, enough preliminaries...

Libertarianism is one of the most widely popular forms of conservatism, but at the same time the least intellectually coherent. First let me describe libertarianism's basic motifs. Libertarians' primary if not exclusive emphasis is on individual liberty. They believe that state intervention is inappropriate in nearly all circumstances. The job of government is not to inculcate virtue or re-distribute wealth. It is only there to guarantee the personal rights (particularly property rights) and act as a neutral umpire in disputes. Libertarians believe that there is a zero-sum relationship between government power and personal liberty. Any increase in public authority, no matter how well-intentioned, is a form of oppression.

On social issues, libertarianism shares some ground with liberalism. Libertarians are the determined foes of the religious right and their ilk. Like liberals, they believe that personal choice should be the dominant method of determining personal identity. Social norms are basically irrelevant because they are other-regarding preferences. You don't get a say in what someone else does, as long as it harms no one else.

It is on economics that libertarians and liberals part company. Liberals are suspicious of agglomerations of wealth and power as antithetical to democracy and fair equality of opportunity. Libertarians, on the other hand, view the market as the best way of allocating social resources. Since markets are a mechanism of free choice among rational actors, then any market outcome is legitimate. It is morally indefensible, they say, to redistribute income from the successful to the less successful. The "losers" in the economic game have earned their fate. Taxes are a form of theft, or even slavery, since they take the product of one person's labor and give it to another.

Libertarianism's resistance to government coercion also extends to regulations. Private property rights are absolutely sacrosanct. If I want to carry a gun, light my woods on fire, sell cocaine, or have a prostitute, it is my own business. If you want to distill libertarianism down to its essence, it is that they believe that I should be able to do whatever I want unless it directly harms another.

Libertarianism is most clear in defining what it is against: government coercion. It is this rebelliousness from community norms and the public responsibilities that makes libertarianism so appealing to the mildly educated young. We have all met the 20-something libertarians in college and high school who are eloquent, passionate, and a little unstable. This is not to attack libertarianism because of who believes in it (that would be poisoning the well), but only to explain why it is attractive to a particular subset of the population.

On the surface, there is something attractive, even noble, to the libertarian's commitment to liberty. To believe that we can act in an anarchic utopia is a very old dream on the left, which is why a lot of people you would think to be leftists have become libertarianism. One of the oldest impulses of the left has been to resist authority. This belief goes back at least to Socrates.

So why do I treat libertarianism with such contempt? Because its basic premise is flawed. First, they fall prey to what I have called the Jeffersonian fallacy. They have forgotten that forces other than the government can oppress you. Their problems go much deeper, however. Libertarianism is intoxicated with the idea of the "free market" when they have very little understanding of what markets really are or how they work. Their theory is also nonsensical because its policies will result in the opposite of what it intends. You can criticize other theories because their vision of the future is unattractive. Libertarianism is unique in that its attempts to guarantee personal autonomy will result in less autonomy.

The market is not a force of nature. It is a social construct. Humans have made it up- it has no greater normative force than any other decision rule. For example, we have prohibited the practice of slavery. Why is that? Why can't I sell myself into slavery? Because to do so invalidates the principle you are arguing for: selling your ability to make choices is inconsistent with the idea that we can make whatever choice we want.

The market, left alone, is a very flawed instrument. It strongly tends towards monopoly. As some groups gain a larger share of resources, due to hard work, ability, chance, whatever, they can use their market advantage to eliminate their rivals even if their rivals have a superior product. Beta was a superior device than VHS, and MAC is a better operating system than Microsoft. Quality does not always win out. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with economics knows about the tragedy of the commons, externalities, and the problems with monopolies. It was to make the market work, not to abolish the market, that progressives created all these regulatory institutions.

There is also the problem of heredity. If property rights are sacrosanct, then I should be able to give my wealth to whoever I like. No libertarian I know is in favor of a 100% inheritance tax and the abolition of private schools. But this is what would be necessary if each person were truly to start on a level playing field. Otherwise, we are allowing one generation to passed its (supposedly) earned advantage to the next generation, which becomes an unearned advantage. The libertarian is then left with two undesirable choices: claiming that an unearned advantage is unacceptable, which requires state intervention to guarantee equality of opportunity (which would make them liberals), or allowing the creation of permanent landed wealth which is unrelated to personal merit.

Libertarianism is incoherent because, given the nature of a purely "free" market, the outcome of libertarian economic policies is the creation of a highly consolidated economic system dominated by a hereditary aristocracy. This aristocracy would then inevitably use its economic power to dominate politics and culture. So much for the libertarian utopia.

But let's just assume that these contradictions can be overcome. Is the libertarian vision consistent with our notion of the good life? Does is accord with what we know about human beings? The answer is simply no. In fact, the heroic individualism of the libertarian credo bears little resemblance to reality. My actions are not solely the product of my own will. I am not an atomistic entity bouncing around the universe. My identity and choices are influenced and constrained by my environment and the choices of others. My family, my community, historical events, my friends, my education, and just dumb luck all have an enormous impact on my ability to succeed. Michael Jordan would not have amounted to much had he been born in 1765 rather than 1965. And the businessmen of the 1930's weren't just dumber than the ones in the 1960's. Its just that they were living through hard times without a lot of opportunities.

This is not to say that my character is chance "all the way down." It is only to remember that what happens to others effects me. Let's say half of what I do in life is the product of circumstances outside of my control. This means that I have no moral responsibility for or claim on half of what happens to me.

In addition, libertarians forget how much of our lives is a product not of personal action but social cooperation. This is, after all, what the market is - a social institution. A city, a country, a household function the way that it does because everyone participates. IBM has thousands of employees who in concert create the company's product. Does it seem right than only a handful of people see th rewards?

The most serious intellectual effort to justify libertarianism was Robert Nozick’s "Anarchy, State, and Utopia." In it Nozick asserts that any result is just that comes from a just procedure. If there is justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and justice is rectification, then any outcome is just fine and we shouldn't tinker with it. What amuses me about libertarians' use of Nozick is that they have clearly never finished the book. At the end, he takes it all back. Why? Because the notion of justice in rectification (making up for past mistakes so that the process is really fair) requires that we go back and look carefully at history. Was property justly acquired? Since there is almost always some long-ago injustice in how property was created, the state has to go in and make up for it. Bingo! Government intervention.

I want to close with the most annoying argument made by libertarians. It goes something like this: there is no point in re-distributing wealth. Even if you just divvied up everything, in a few years the operation of the market would put everything back the way it was. This statement reveals libertarians' confusion of success with virtue, and their belief that the market as it exists now is a perfect instrument.

My response is simply to take them up on their challenge. Let's make all the background resources (education, etc) equal, and give everyone the same amount of money to start out with. Say, $10,000 when they turn 25. Then let's see whether the distribution of wealth, and who sits where within it, is exactly the same as it is now. Libertarians should agree to this radical social re-engineering. After all, what have they got to lose? If they really believe the results would be the same, then it would be no big deal.

Put up or shut up.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:49 AM
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