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:: Monday, October 14, 2002 ::

What's Wrong With Libertarianism

I was browsing through comments on Dawn Olsen's site when I found a critique of libertarianism. Occasionally someone does put out a thoughtful and well written critique of the movement, but this is not one of those times. It's found on Zompist.com. Let's go straight to the action with a few choice passages and my responses.

Libertarianism reads like someone (let's call her "Ayn Rand") sat down to create the Un-Communism.

Hyporbole. The roots of libertarianism go back long before communists were a factor. Libertarians were called 'liberals' a few centuries ago, before leftists hijacked the word.

Libertarianism (=) property is sacred.

Untrue. Individual rights are sacred, within sharply defined boundaries, of course.

(Libertarianism = ) any government is bad.


Simply false. Libertarians recognize many legitimate roles for government.

(Libertarianism = ) Capitalists are noble Nietzchean heroes

Hyperbole. Capitalists are just people.

(Libertarianism = ) Workers have no particular rights.

Wrong. Workers share very specific personal rights with everyone else.

(Libertarianism = ) The oppressed deserve their oppression.

A lie. Libertarians believe in punishment for oppressors and restitution for the oppressed.

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.
This disdain for reality manifests itself in other ways. Libertarians love abtract, fact-free arguments. Thanks to my essay on taxes, I routinely get mail featuring impassioned harangues which never once mention a real-world fact; or if they do, the statistic is simply made up.
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.


Great, so some 'crackpot' makes a poor argument, and that's evidence of the invalidity of an entire school of thought? Have you never heard of the Cato Institute, or any other libertarian think tank? If you want to argue statistics, it can be done.
As for the 'real world instance of Utopia,' that's an old argument, and a tired one. Libertarians are decidedly anti-utopian. No pure libertarian government has ever existed, and probably none ever will. However, the more a government is able to secure individual right for its populace, the more likely that government and nation is likely to prosper. This was true of the classical empires, and of more recent successful nations. There were some exceptions, free(er) countries that failed and brutal regimes that did well, usually in the absence of more open societies to offer competition.

Crackpots are usually harmless; but I consider libertarianism to be quite dangerous. The "Libertarian Party" is a joke; but an unattractive subset of libertarian ideas has become mainstream in American politics. The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, took most of his program from libertarianism

Newt Gingrich's program? Did I miss the parts about eliminating the income tax, decriminalizing drugs, and reducing U.S. military presence overseas? Any overlap between Gingrich's program and libertarianism is strictly utilitarian, he borrowed some arguments from libertarians where it was convenient to do so. Gingrich as a libertarian is the ultimate straw-man debate tactic.

If you press the point, libertarians will generally cotton to being against corporate welfare and for legalizing drugs. The Libertarian Party website makes as much of social liberty as it does economic liberty. However, I've never seen the libertarian elements among the Republicans do a thing about these theoretical ideals; on the contrary, they're happy to ally themselves with Ashcrofts willing to trash judicial rights, Starrs poking into politicans' sex lives, Bushes mocking the protection of civil rights, and theocrats wanting the government to control movies, university courses, and women's wombs.

That's why there is an LP. Libertarianism represents a diverse range of opinions, but there are some constants. Support of free speech, free trade, medical feedom, and freedom of religion are basic, one who doesn't support those concepts can scarcely be called a libertarian. If some in the conservative side of the Republican party want to call themselves 'libertarian' they are usurping the term, much like leftists stole the word 'liberal.' I won't readily allow them to take the label.

In practice, then, libertarianism has nothing to do with social liberty, and everything to do with removing all restrictions on business. So what's wrong with that?

Well, you're incorrect on the first point, and I'll bet you'll tell us what's wrong with the second.

We tried it, and it failed
We used to have a government which was within spitting distance of the libertarian ideal.


But you said above... oh, never mind.

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, racial oppression, starvation among the elderly, gunboat diplomacy in support of business interests.

Blaming management thugs, racial oppression, and gunboat diplomacy on libertarianism. Kind of like blaming doctors for the existence of disease. For a short discussion on the myth of the Robber Barons, try this. Longer (book length) discussions are out there, too.

Libertarianism is essentially the morality of a thug. It's a worship of the already successful, privileging money and property above everything else-- love, humanity, justice. And let's not forget that lurid fascination with firepower.

More junk. Libertarianism is the first political philosophy to successfully bring morality into the political process. You remember the golden rule and all that? Every other 'ism' is based on the use of force, using the power of the state to force society to do whatever it is you think society should be doing.
The kicker is at the end. The author lists what he would like from politics:

I have my own articles of faith. For instance, I think a political philosophy should
-benefit the entire population, not an elite of whatever flavor
-offer a positive vision, not just hatred for another philosophy
-rest on the best science and history can teach us, rather than science fiction
-be modified in the light of what works and what doesn't
-produce greater freedom and prosperity the closer a nation comes to it.


And how, exactly, do you propose to establish this, err, utopia? The Nazi's thought they offered the best from science and history. And that last point sounds rather libertarian.

All right, it's not really fair to pick on this critique, since there are better ones out there, including Mike Huben's. And my rebuttal isn't as good as David Friedman's response to Huben's. I suppose one rises to the level of the competition.

:: Walter 8:06 AM [+] ::
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