Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 28, 2010

Two Flaws in Libertarianism

By N.S. Palmer

Back in The Day: When I ran for office on the Libertarian Party ticket.

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.


Responses

  1. I’m kind of a lefty, so I really don’t have much of value to add to what you’ve said, except to remark that it’s an interesting, if brief, look into another mindset. I know you’re busy with your studies, so I’ll merely say that you left me wanting to know more.

    Libertarianism, to me, had always been the shiny brand name for that “I’m alright, Jack” sort of selfishness that often (but not always) seems to be the sine qua non of getting ahead. It seemed parasitic to me on the backs of much of the rest of humanity willing to accept less to get along and benefit society in general (a Pollyanna view, I admit, but a heartfelt one). It’s interesting to see it characterized as a mindset of contemplation and doing the right thing as well as acquiring and maintaining material comforts. That’s an aspect I’d like to know more about.

    Time to start reading, I guess. 🙂

    • When I was a libertarian, I believed that libertarian ideals and so-called “free enterprise” would improve the lot of most people. I stopped being a libertarian when I realized that it wasn’t true.

      I never thought that inequality per se was a problem. If most people were better off, 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 also not considered the fact that if a person or corporation is rich enough to buy a fleet of oil tankers, it’s 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.

      Most movement libertarians are true believers, as I was. They’re not in it for the money or personal gain. They want to help people and make a better world. But they’re being duped by people who have baser motivations.

  2. Nice write up, but I do have some problems with it, being a bit of libertarian myself.

    The thing that always bothers me about these types of discussions is that Libertarianism is only ever viewed in the context of the absolute mess that has been made of the US government. You said, “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.”, but why do people never consider that in a Libertarian society there would be no regulators to bribe and the corporations would hold little to no power in the government, unlike today.

    Also, when you talk about an ideal Libertairn 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.” you come upon a fatal flaw with your arguement. Libertarians do not believe that they are “better” than anyone else. I have the ability to look critically at the world and make informed decisions and I believe that everyone else does too. Other political ideologies like to pick out groups of people and decide that they must be saved by the government because they are, for some reason or another, unable to help themselves. I find this to be the height of arrogance, class warfare and often rears it’s ugly head as the big R-word.

    I think you would be better served to rewrite this post and replace every occurrence of “Libertarian” with “Republican”, or better yet, NeoCon.

    • Jason,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      (( Libertarianism is only ever viewed in the context of the absolute mess that has been made of the US government. ))

      That might be true sometimes, but not in this case. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that the U.S. government is a libertarian institution. And the U.S. government is not an aberration. It is the norm. In fact, as bad as it is right now, it’s better than the norm.

      (( why do people never consider that in a Libertarian society there would be no regulators to bribe and the corporations would hold little to no power in the government, unlike today. ))

      There’s a reason why references to “a libertarian society” are always in the subjunctive: such a society “would be like this” if it existed. But it never has and never will because it’s impossible. It’s inconsistent with human nature and the dynamics of human social groups. Human societies are hierarchical and based on violence because that’s what naturally evolves from the interactions of large numbers of people.

      We can and should try to limit the influence of hierarchy and violence: in that way, libertarianism is a positive force. But we shouldn’t deceive ourselves, as libertarians typically do, about what is possible. Nor should you deceive yourself about the fact that libertarianism has been hijacked and turned into an ideological smokescreen for an effort to remove all legal protection for average people and change the rules of the economy to redistribute wealth from working people to the super-rich.

      Someone always exercises coercion. Someone always gets his rights trampled. Someone always finds a way to game the system. If you spend all your time and energy preaching about a pie-in-the-sky utopia that will never exist, you’ll neglect realistic things you can do to minimize coercion and system-gaming, and to promote a more just society. The libertarian argument, as paid for by the Koch brothers and others, is that only rules matter, not results. Then the donors fund advocacy groups, propaganda, lobbying, and bribery to change the rules so that they get more of the results. That’s where well-meaning libertarians like you come in. They are the unwitting foot soldiers in the battle to change the rules in ways that are against their own interests and against the interests of most people.

      When I worked for libertarian groups on Capitol Hill in Washington, the people in them were largely indistinguishable from those in other political organizations. There were a few idealists, but mostly the people were careerists and climbers who would just as glibly have argued for socialist ideas if they thought it would get them more money, power, and status.

      My moment of truth came when I worked for the organization that later became Dick Armey’s “FreedomWorks.” I was assigned to write a policy paper giving the libertarian case for laws to establish exclusive territories for beer distributors, with each distributor having a legal monopoly in its own territory. I realized that we were being paid to craft libertarian-sounding arguments that would serve the interests of our donors. Not all of libertarian writing is like that, but a lot of it is. Even if you read Ludwig von Mises, who was honest but misguided, you can see that he had utter contempt for average working people and either no sympathy with or no clue about the problems they have in a society ruled by and for the rich. Rothbard, who I met a few times, was undeniably brilliant, but he lived in his own a priori version of reality that had no connection to the actual world.

      (( they are, for some reason or another, unable to help themselves ))

      All of us are, in some situations, unable to help ourselves. That’s why we need government. Properly-functioning government is rare, but not impossible like a libertarian society.

  3. …Again, a fascinating view into a world unknown to me. 🙂

    • Hi, LP —

      Thanks. The unknown is always fascinating. That’s part of what drives us forward. 🙂

  4. >That might be true sometimes, but not in this case. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that the U.S. government is a libertarian institution. And the U.S. government is not an aberration. It is the norm. In fact, as bad as it is right now, it’s better than the norm.

    You know what? We’re better than North Korea and China. So we’re the best.

    Better is subjective. Just like good. But whatever. You seem to know what’s best for us.

    >Experiences

    People want power, control, and benefits for themselves. This is news?

    Maybe we should remove the methods for which they gain these.

    • By your reasoning, if I’m better than Dick Cheney, then I’m the best. But I doubt that conclusion very much.

      As for removing the methods by which people gain power, good luck in your quest to change fundamental traits of human society. Seriously: if you can do it, then I’ll happily run naked through Central Park singing your praises. In winter.

      • And so would I! But you won’t like it. 🙂

  5. Businesses and Corps DON’t take advantage of ignorance NOW? As long as we keep dumbing down education and turning kids over to Gov. public schools we will have MORE of this. Also, it seems you present this case with absence of ALL laws. We are a country of laws. But they should come from the people. NOT unelected bureaucrats who stomp on individuals rights. A true Libertarian, believes in Constitutional laws, AND individuals rights. And all of this sprinkled with large doses of common sense. I have actually been around LARGE groups of people and no violence broke out. According to you, that does not happen. People do gain power, but as long as they do not break the law, they can strive to be all they can be. Libertarianism does NOT equal lawlessness and chaos.

    • You’re welcome to rant, but you don’t seem to have read the blog post or advanced a coherent argument against any of its points.

  6. Palmer is in the trap of magical thinking here, the thing is accusing libertarians of doing. He points out the flaws in human behavior that lead people to make bad decisions, but what option is there other than the two options of
    1) free markets?
    or
    2) a centralized monopoly on all these bad decisions with a socially approved authorization to use violence against competing methods of solving these problems?
    There is no third option. To believe so is to imagine an entity that cannot exist. And this is only an exercise in frustration.

    • John,

      Thank you for a reasoned comment and a real argument, even though I think you miss a couple of points.

      I’m not sure why you believe I’ve engaged in “magical thinking,” but I do think that you pose a false dilemma.

      Your statement is clouded by just a little bit of rhetoric (that’s fine, we’re writing polemics), so let me restate more clearly what I think you mean. There are only two options for organizing society: (1) Free markets, interpreted as people doing whatever they want, with no rules governing their behavior; and (2) an institutionalized definition of some really bad, oppressive rules combined with a centralized organization for enforcing those rules.

      I do deny that those are the only two options. An analogous argument for handling childrens’ misbehavior is that there are only two options: (1) don’t punish them at all, or (2) beat them senseless with a baseball bat. There are a lot of more reasonable solutions in between those two.

      Part of the problem is the vague and elastic idea of “free markets.” Does it mean no rules? That’s how Wall Street and a lot of large corporations interpret it, and I would guess that we both reject that alternative.

      Does it mean only rules against aggressive violence, coercion, and fraud? The problem is that knowing when aggressive violence, coercion, and fraud have occurred depends on prior definition of rules — sometimes very specifically — by government. So a government that has only rules against aggressive violence, coercion, and fraud must have additional rules to define those things: the idea is internally inconsistent. On this point, I would refer you to my niece, who is only 24 and in medical school but has written about this point better than I have: Why Do We Need Government? and Libertarianism Isn’t Free.

      In my view, there is a lot of space between “no rules” and the kind of two-fisted totalitarianism toward which we seem to be headed. Natural law gives us only general advice: treat people honestly and fairly, as you, yourself would like to be treated. John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, makes an additional suggestion: Imagine that you didn’t know what your social status, money resources, or abilities were going to be: You might be one of the fortunate few, or you might be an inner-city child with an 85 IQ living in a rat-infested hovel. What kind of rules would you want to see in that society? It seems to me that most reasonable people would reward ability and effort, especially when they contribute to society, but would at the same time not want to treat too badly those who are at the bottom of the social pyramid.

      A related issue that I think underlies a lot of libertarian arguments is the philosophical divide between “deontology” (rules-based morality) and “utilitarianism” (good-based morality). Most libertarians see moral and political norms as deontological: They think we should follow certain rules regardless of the consequences: I might characterize this, a bit unfairly, as “Let the Heavens fall, but protect the rich at all cost.” In that respect, libertarians are very much like Biblical fundamentalists who insist that, for example, homosexuality is wrong and should be punished severely, no matter what seems reasonable or what the effects are on human happiness. But libertarianism can also be seen as a utilitarian theory, which is how I saw it: Everyone’s happiness counts, and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Subject to those constraints, then law, policy, and social organization should seek to maximize human happiness.

  7. I’ve taken the same road as you and now find myself quite a leftist. I home school my kids and the more we study history together the more I see how less regulated societies are not freer, more prosperous ones. Historically, they benefit a particular class of people, usually white males (in western societies). What libertarianism, in its altruistic view of humanity, tends to ignore is how societies have always (and always will) create a hierarchy, whether that is a governmental hierarchy or one that occurs naturally over time. The latter tends to result in the richest/strongest/most powerful who assume control. You see this even at a tribal/communal level. It has been the federal government who has protected the individual throughout the history of our nation. Yes, it can be said that it was the individuals who ignite the fire, but it is always the central government who ultimately enforces it, whether it is child labor (which was a huge issue during the McKinley/Bryan race), civil rights, our working conditions. The free market does not answer these problems. For instance, libertarians will often argue that in a free market segregation would have eventually did out in its own. They argue that patrons would stop consuming from those businesses which discriminate, ultimately forcing the business to change its policies or close their doors. This just isn’t true, because there are enough haters out there to support the discriminatory practices of businesses. We’ve seen this today in how much money bigoted businesses raise in support when they are being challenged by the legal system. There is double speak in the libertarian ideology when they say they support the rights of businesses to discriminate, especially if it has to do with religion, buy then say in a libertarian society your freedom cannot negatively affect the freedom of someone else. You can’t have it both ways. I’d it weren’t for affirmative action, we’d still have colleges and universities with blatantly discriminatory admission practices. If it weren’t for child labor laws, were still have a large population of children working instead of going to school. And we all know businesses would pay less than minimum wage if they legally could. Generally speaking, they always do the least they have to do. Now, I also realize they’re is still a lot of corruption that goes on–the lobbying and buying of votes. No one in their right mind would support a central government absent of the ability of the people to control it and hold it accountable. This is why most people are tired of government and why they turn anarchist in their views. However, it isn’t really the government being innately evil as much as it is the way we have structured it.

    • Gina, thanks for such a thoughtful comment. You make excellent points. Also, I admire any parent who chooses to home school. That’s a great blessing for your children. It requires more work and dedication than most parents are willing to invest.

      Politics is clearer when we realize that humans are imperfect people, so we cannot create a perfect society. Imperfect societies unfairly privilege some people at the expense of others. Therefore, our challenge is to minimize unfairness, maximize human happiness, and try to remedy whatever unfairness we still can’t eliminate. We will often fail, but we must always keep trying.

  8. I agree with you that over the past 70 years regulations have been curtailed to the elite economically and politically. This is why I am a libertarian to strip away the bad government that has been put in place and put a federal framework for state and local governments to work inside of. Just because the system is rigged now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for more and create something better.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that libertarianism is a fine ideal, as long as we remember that it’s an ideal and not a statement of fact. We need to adapt it to the situation, the culture, and the population. Politics is the art of the possible, hopefully guided by what is morally desirable.


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