By N.S. Palmer
When I was a libertarian, I believed that libertarian ideals and so-called “free markets” would make life better for most people. I stopped being a libertarian when I realized that it wasn’t true.
Libertarianism, the political theory that advocates severely limited government or no government, has two flaws, among others.
The first problem is that libertarianism has a simplistic view of human nature.
Libertarians tend to believe that people rationally assess each situation, think about their moral duties, and act accordingly. But that’s only part of our nature. There is also a vast non-rational underground of impulses, aggression, and instinctive responses to people and situations. We react emotionally on the basis of those impulses, and then afterward we make up all the “reasons” why we had to do what we did and why we felt the way we did.
Their over-simplified view of human thought leads libertarians to ignore the fact that corporations and government agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars studying how to exploit human psychological weaknesses to manipulate and deceive people.
Libertarians argue, for example, that consumers “should know better” than to buy shoddy products, and that if they suffer as a result, it’s their own fault. They assume that people can reasonably be expected to see through all the carefully calculated deceptions and avoid the cunningly hidden traps that corporations have laid for them. As a matter of ideology, they invariably take the side of business against consumers and workers. They don’t see anything strange about that, in spite of the fact that donations from business and the super-rich underwrite almost all the books, policy studies and magazines that mislead them with biased information.
When libertarians theorize about an ideal society, they’re thinking about an ideal society for people like them: above average intelligence, highly educated, morally reflective, and concerned about doing the right thing. Most people exhibit those qualities only occasionally; politicians, CEOs, and billionaires almost never exhibit them. Their moral reasoning seldom rises above the level of “I want X, and he’s in my way so he is bad.” They are not candidates for citizenship in a libertarian utopia, nor will a majority of people in any society ever be such.
A second problem is the mistaken idea that natural law prescribes very precisely “who owns what.” That allows libertarians to claim that taxation “steals” their money for the benefit of other people in society.
But it’s impossible for valid natural law arguments to get that specific. To use John Locke’s example, if you’re walking in the forest and pick up some un-owned acorns, then the acorns obviously belong to you. If someone hits you on the head and takes them, then it is indeed “stealing.”
In a complex society, however, most useful things are produced by the joint efforts of many people. There is no non-arbitrary way to say that Joe earned X, Sally earned Y, and so forth. Depending on the legal rules and the institutions involved, Joe might get more and Sally less, or Sally might get more and Joe less. Both of them do “earn” what they get in the sense that they work for it, but not in the sense that an exact amount of compensation is prescribed by natural law.
Over the last 70 years and especially the last 30 years, those in our society who have the most wealth have funded an effort to change the rules so that they get more of the social product and everyone else gets less. They have succeeded spectacularly, partly by convincing working people that it’s about “freedom” instead of a grab for power and wealth by a corrupt plutocracy.
When I was a libertarian, I never thought that inequality per se was a problem. If most people were better off, then why should anyone care if the richest people were a lot better off? But it turned out that libertarian and “free market” policies made the richest people a lot better off and made everyone else worse off.
I had not considered the fact that if some people and corporations were rich enough to buy a fleet of oil tankers, then they were also rich enough to buy laws and bribe regulators. Over time, that enables them to corrupt the system and tilt the rules more and more in their favor — as they have done in the last 30 years.
Libertarianism really amounts to a bait-and-switch scam. It’s sold as a way to give people individual freedom to live as they wish. And in small ways, that’s true. The politically connected super-rich and the Wall Street sharks don’t care if you smoke pot, as long as they get to own the country and beat you down into destitution. They don’t care who you sleep with, as long as they can cage you in a cubicle, pollute your environment with toxins, steal your money with hidden fees, bust unions, and make you live in terror of losing your job and medical insurance. That’s the real impact of libertarianism.
Most movement libertarians are true believers, as I was. They’re not in it for money or personal gain. They want to help people and make a better world. But they’re being duped by people who have less admirable goals.
My niece covered these issues better than I did: http://rinth1989.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/libertarianism-isnt-free/
Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.