Given my support for gun rights, people from time to time confuse me for a libertarian. I do insist on the basic rights to own property and to defend one’s life, and the phrasing of that sounds to the followers of Bastiat or Rand or the Austrian School like something they would say.
And that’s not the only libertarian position that I am sympathetic with. I have supported the minding of my own business with regard to the personal relationships of others — as long as everyone is an adult who’s willingly participating, your family life is your own — and the legalization of drugs. I also oppose attempts to silence speech, even — especially — when it’s offensive. Then there’s my support for opening borders.
So far, so free, right? Except that what this illustrates is that political schools of thought can have overlapping margins and even areas of shared belief, while disagreeing in fundamental principles. My problems with libertarianism are many, both structural and consequential.
And linguistic as well. Debate a libertarian long enough, and you’ll be told that taxes are theft, that regulation violates the right of free association, or that fascism is a left-wing ideology. The problem with these assertions is that they sound just barely plausible, and on the surface, they feel right, especially after a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the like.
But a little analysis makes all of that evaporate. Take the claim that fascism is left wing. Yes, Mussolini got his start in the socialist movement of Italy, and Hitler’s group was the National Socialist German Workers Party. And North Korea declares itself to be the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Tyrants aren’t known for their honesty, and only a fool takes them at their word. Are there authoritarians on the left of the political spectrum? Of course. The nationalism and cooperation with wealthy industrialists that were integral to the fascist movement fixes that ideology solidly on the right wing.
The abuse of the language continues with pushes for “right to work” laws in many states. This goes back to that freedom of association business. In the view of libertarians, someone seeking a job operates with the same level of power as an employer, so there’s no need for unions. Or there wouldn’t be if only the government would get out of the way.
Anyone who’s worked a minimum-wage job knows that this is rubbish, that owners and managers aren’t kindly old gentlemen whose entire purpose in life is making a fair deal with their employees, and this is one of the key flaws of libertarianism. It denies human nature. Yes, there is a lot of good in human beings. There is also a lot of maliciousness, particularly as expressed in greed. Balancing the disparities in power does take a counterweight like a union, and yes, like government.
And then there’s the favorite libertarian assertion that taxes are theft. This one has taken on a measure of mainstream acceptance — see Republican speechmaking since Reagan talking about how they want us to keep more of our own money. Though, of course, what they really mean is that they want the very wealthy to keep more, since tax cuts are so rarely aimed at the working or middle classes and the fantasy of trickle down never admits to what is in fact running down the drains that are supposed to swell the tide that lifts all boats.
But theft is the taking of someone’s property by force, and isn’t that exactly what taxes are, the libertarian asks. Yes, if you don’t pay your taxes, you can reasonably anticipate a discussion with the IRS at some point, but there is a fundamental error in the assumption that taxes take away what is rightfully mine.
And yes, I do mean exactly that. We don’t live in a wilderness. The wealth that I’m talking about here is made possible by the society that surrounds us. The Internet that you’re using and the device that you’re reading this essay on wouldn’t exist without the infrastructure, the educated workforce, and the monetary system that society creates.
But society isn’t the same thing as the government, and it’s the government that taxes us, the libertarian will counter. And here’s where libertarianism fails to understand about human nature. There is a tendency in the species for the strong to exploit the weak. In the same way that unions are needed to counterbalance the power of employers, the purpose of government, declared all the way back in the Code of Hammurabi, is to restrain the ability of powerful people to take advantage or the rest. This is expressed today in the police force, in environmental regulations, and in the agencies that guarantee standards of safety in workplaces and in product advertising, among other matters. What libertarians can’t explain is what would prevent a company from dumping waste products in the river behind their factory if doing so would save them money.
And that leads to another major objection to the philosophy. It is almost entirely a system of fantasy. Where has libertarianism been put into practice? Hong Kong, perhaps, for a time, though that’s a bad example, given that it was a colony of a distant empire, not the free association of people who choose to participate. The Internet does offer a case of free-range freedom, for the good and bad that comes with that, but its existence depends on organized society. The wild west is raised as an example, but the problem there is that we’re talking about primitive life, not the complex modern society that we belong to now.
The lack of successful examples for the libertarian philosophy contrasts with all the successes of organized society. Many arts and some of the sciences were supported by wealthy patrons, but it was government agencies that made getting to the Moon possible. We have pictures of the planets in this solar system — and yes, of dwarf planets like Pluto and Ceres — and evidence of planets orbiting other stars because of those agencies. Basic research, the learning of things that won’t immediately turn a profit, is the kind of thing that governments do, not corporations. And the search for knowledge for its own sake is one of the key things that separate us from other animals. My cat plays as practice for hunting, and chimpanzees may experiment with the making of probes for termite nests, but the only species that we know of that will learn just for the joy of learning is humanity.
So no, I’m not a libertarian. I appreciate the valuing of basic rights, and it’s good to speculate about alternative ways of being human in society, but some organizing policy has proved necessary.
When libertarians debate me, I’ve found that their own principle will bring things to a halt. They insist on the concept of free association, of not using force to take from others. Very well. If they want to spend my time, they must pay me. Make a deposit in my PayPal or Patreon accounts. Mail me a check. Or leave me in peace. If they won’t do this, they’re admitting that their philosophy doesn’t work.
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