Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Libertarianism, and Why It's Not So Great

I want to start this post by noting that it isn’t intended to express some deep-seated animosity toward libertarians or libertarianism. Compared with mainstream liberalism or conservatism, libertarianism is a breath of fresh
Ron Paul (image source)
air, due to the willingness of many libertarians to attack policies like the drug war, the surveillance state, foreign interventionism, and so forth in ways that liberals and conservatives often won’t. On issues like these, people like myself who are further to the left, in the vicinity of Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald, should be ready and willing to make common cause with libertarians, because there’s plenty of area for agreement. I also recognize that, as with any critique of an ideology as broad as libertarianism, some of the generalizations I make will not apply to all libertarians. With that noted, I’ll proceed.

First, I want to be clear when I use the term libertarian. It’s a term with an interesting history, and was first used politically when an anarchist communist applied the label to himself; in many parts of the world, it’s a word that remains closely connected to traditional anarchism. In the United States, however, it’s used in an idiosyncratic manner, generally to apply to people who claim to support free markets. It’s even been used, rather farcically, by people who will happily tell you what a great president Ronald Reagan was, but here I use it just to refer to the Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard brand of libertarianism, which is, to its credit, strongly critical of Reagan and other Republicans, as much as it is of Democrats.

The idea really at the heart of libertarianism is, of course, liberty. But what kind of liberty, exactly? Upon examination, we find it be a very narrow conception. The Libertarian Party platform defines liberty as that “in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.” We then have, as Marx put it, “the liberty of man as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself…based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man…The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.” We have the liberty of the individual-as-property-owner, making libertarianism a thoroughly bourgeois ideology.

The libertarian may object that his ideology only says that property (and life and liberty) are what the government (or society) should protect, not what we should personally value most of all, and that each individual is free to choose his own way in life; but society inevitably influences its members, and when property is the fundamental value of society, it becomes the fundamental value of individuals within that society, inevitably.

This commitment to, and fetishization of, property gave birth to the idea of “self-ownership”—the idea that one is the owner of their own person. This is the libertarian justification for a right to bodily integrity. In reality, individual autonomy is a simple fact, and because of individual autonomy, in order to foster this autonomy, property has come into being. Libertarianism stands this reality on its head, claiming that because of the laws of property, individual autonomy is philosophically justified in coming into being. Plainly enough, each person is their own body, no more, no less—without physical matter, a body of some sort, there is no person. In libertarianism, however, we have the individual-as-property-owner as distinguishable from his physical body, in possession and ownership of his physical body. It’s on this philosophical basis that a person has their right not to be killed or physically injured by others, and to do what they please with their own body.

With liberty and property being understood as essentially the same, we come to the third fundamental right—life. The Party platform defines this right, in practice, as “the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others.” In other words, the right to life as another property, protected from other members of society, but nothing else. The right to life, then, does not mean the right be helped to stay alive when afflicted with illness, injury, or poverty, unless those are directly inflicted by another person. The right to life is ultimately the right not be killed or maimed by another person, i.e., the right to be protected from one’s fellow-citizens, rather than any sort of genuinely right to life as such. Thus, the libertarian philosophy is strongly opposed to government welfare programs, healthcare programs, economic regulation, etc. The ill effects of not having these are explained away, or justified, by use of convenient fictions.

The most prominent of these fictions is the notion of voluntary exchange. For instance, it may seem at first glance that an employer maintaining unsafe working conditions and paying his employees starvation wages is causing them to suffer unfairly, but this is all right because the employees “voluntarily” work there. Perhaps there were no better jobs available and they would starve to death if they didn’t make money, but nonetheless this “voluntary” decision makes the suffering inflicted by the employer acceptable.

We’re furthermore invited to believe the fiction that one can acquire property as an isolated individual, without affecting anyone else, and that the individual who becomes enormously wealthy is somehow doing so without impacting the rest of society. The problem with this is that there is, in fact, a finite amount of property in existence—one person possessing wealth means that everyone else has that much less. And, of course, enormous wealth is generally accumulated by profiting off of workers who “voluntarily” receive less than the full product of their labor.

One could, alternatively, rely on the more pragmatic (but equally unconvincing) argument that, whatever undesirable by-products a libertarian economy might have (such as low-paid workers and unsafe working conditions), it would on the whole produce a better society than the alternatives. This is hard to disprove, given that there are not a plentitude of libertarian societies one can point to; Murray Rothbard cites ancient Ireland as one, but for obvious reasons it seems a bit hard to see an ancient civilization with a mostly pastoral economy as providing the perfect model for the industrialized countries of the twenty-first century, even if we really believe Ireland did follow the principles of libertarianism (which is questionable) and that it really was, as Rothbard claims, a great society.

It does seem a tad hard to believe that libertarianism would really be better than the alternatives, however, when countries that deviate so heavily from its doctrines (at least economically) do so well; the highest-ranking countries in the world on various metrics, in numerous lists, are consistently countries with expansive social welfare provisions and public programs. If it’s true that government intervention in the economy causes more harm than good, it’s a bit hard to explain why the most successful countries in the world by numerous metrics are the ones Bernie Sanders, and not Ron Paul, wants to emulate.

I would lastly like to challenge the notion that America was founded on libertarian principles, which is constantly claimed by libertarians. The easiest way I can think of to do this is to list a few “un-libertarian” quotes from the Founding Fathers:

“All Property indeed, except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of publick Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents & all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity & the Uses of it.”

—Benjamin Franklin

“Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

—Thomas Paine

“[T]he consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property..[a] means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.”

—Thomas Jefferson

“In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.”

—James Madison

This should be enough to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers were certainly not, as a group, opposed to any sort of redistribution of wealth, as the libertarians are. Libertarianism can boast a sort of heritage from the bourgeois classical liberalism that is often seen in the writings of the founders, however, and it has radicalized all the most problematic elements of that philosophy so as to render it no longer even realistic. With all this being said, libertarianism is still refreshing in how willing it is to deviate from ideas that both liberals and conservatives often stubbornly cling to; but one wishes it could do so without finding other ideas to cling to just as stubbornly.

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