For this first of four blog posts, I will lay out what I regard as some of the most essential philosophical assumptions and precepts that most libertarians hold. I would submit that most college students, once they became aware of all of the implications of libertarianism—especially who benefits and loses under libertarian policies—would find the ideology distasteful and immoral. They need to look at the entirety of the ideology and the historical context in which libertarianism came to be, beyond just a superficial understanding of who withholds judgment on bong hits and acid trips.
Libertarianism is as much a philosophy as it is a political and economic movement. It is often used interchangeably with the term classical liberalism to denote its divergence from modern liberalism on the use of state powers to promote economic security and social justice (outside the US the word liberal usually means limited government). While conservatives and libertarians differ on a handful of key issues, they share most of the same policy goals. This is why noted libertarian and Kentucky senator Rand Paul campaigns and caucuses as a member of the GOP and why the constituencies and demographic makeup of the Republican Party and Libertarian Party are similar.
Centrists, liberals, progressives, leftists, and Marxists have argued for decades that libertarianism is simplistic and flawed, and yet whenever they point to the innumerable examples of disreputable figures who self-identify as libertarians, so-called respectable libertarians will point out that these types, in fact, are not true libertarians. So to stave off any accusation that I am lumping together disparate thinkers into one amorphous group, I will note that within the umbrella of libertarianism there is significant diversity of thought. There are paleolibertarians, anarcho-capitalists, former Republicans, etc. In no particular order, here are the chief characteristics libertarianism:
* the individual (as opposed to the village, nation, or region) is the primary organizational unit and bedrock of society
* To achieve prosperity and happiness, government should promote the maximum amount of individual liberty
* liberty is most often defined as an individual’s right to property, free from government interference
* principles, not outcomes, should determine how one wrestles with a particular issue
* Inequality—whether social, political, or economic—is natural. It follows that any attempt to redress inequality, however well intentioned, causes more harm than good
* Markets operate best and most efficiently when they are “free”; that is, unencumbered by taxes, tariffs, subsidies, monopolies, and regulations.
* Choice in the marketplace is an inherent virtue. Growth and prosperity proliferate under free markets because most humans make rational decisions when faced with meaningful choices.
* freedom of association is critical. A government that makes individuals interact with one another to avoid discrimination is coercive
* The only type of relevant discrimination is one that comes from the state, not from other individuals
The libertarian emphasis on choice is vulnerable to a number of criticisms. Conservatives and libertarians castigated the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) for presumably constraining Americans’ opportunity to choose their preferred insurance policy and doctor (or even the “freedom” to have no insurance policy at all). Let’s leave aside the overall assessment that the main flaw in the ACA was that it did not go far enough: there was no public option, it preserved the for-profit model of health coverage based on rapacious and health insurance companies, Republican politicians did everything within their power to obstruct, tie up in court, or deliberately refuse to implement key components of the law, and a radically conservative, pro-business Supreme Court scuttled key provisions of the law by giving states the choice to opt out of Medicare expansion. The errant assumption on the part of libertarians is that choice, rather than regulation, will bring down insurance premiums or prescription drug prices. The last thing senior citizens want to do is spend hours and hours shuffling through the endless piles of virtual paperwork, looking for the best deal on an insurance policy.
On a broader philosophical level, I often find that this whole emphasis on individual choice is kind of a canard put forth in dishonest ways. We should not fetishize choice as libertarians do when it is so easy to think of ways in which we are bombarded with too many choices (a Satellite TV package with 1,000 channels, almost all of which are execrable, is a great example). Traditionally we are told that alcoholism is a choice, but can we really blame the individual if genetics plays a central role in whether someone is susceptible to addiction? Teachers often tell students that they have a choice about whether they can behave respectfully or defiantly in the classroom, but what if some students grew up in impoverished circumstances in parts of town where lead paint and air pollutants exceeded healthy levels? We now know that lead exposure is correlated to impulse control and crime rates. Should we blame the individual when choices made by city planners limited their ability to succeed?
We give you the choice to buy gas-guzzling automobiles while ignoring the importance of oil in our catastrophic decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Several decades ago in California, we used to give people the choice to sit in “smoking” or “non-smoking” sections of restaurants. I’m glad we no longer have that choice. Among those who fought tooth and nail alongside greedy and morally repugnant tobacco companies against sensible regulations were libertarians. Given America’s obesity epidemic, I fully support taxes on sodas and categorically reject the characterization that this tax constitutes a “nanny state.” In countless instances, we see that choice is an illusion. A fraud. Why would we want the choice to poison ourselves? That’s not freedom. Quite the opposite. Platitudes about choice and free will seem obsolete when apps and Big Data, stored and manipulated by Silicon Valley tech gurus (many of whom, ironically enough, are libertarians), now determine choices for us.
Is inequality natural, immutable, and inevitable, as libertarians contend? This sounds like the discredited pseudoscience known as Social Darwinism. No one denies that there is a tremendous variation of talent and work ethic among human populations. But disparities in outcomes among races often result from deliberate government policy. Even race itself is a social construct. The examples are too numerous to mention here. Just think of how Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants to the United States in the late-19th century, while having pale skin, were not considered “white” by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon ruling class. The same is true of economic inequality. Tax cuts and deregulation did a lot more to bring about the uptick in economic inequality we have seen since the 1980s than peoples’ propensity to work.
Separating the state and market, moreover, is an arbitrary, artificial construction characteristic of eighteenth and nineteenth century Enlightenment thinking. Whether we are talking about corporations in the early statehood of New York, as Brian Murphy’s work does, or today’s political economy, the boundaries between public and private are often so thin as to be indistinguishable. It’s impossible to separate markets from the governments that shape them. Outside of purely theoretical exercises, we cannot envision a market that is divorced from the armed forces, a court system that decides the manner in which it will protect private property, monetary authorities that determine the value of currencies and exchange rates, subsidies to transportation, energy, and agricultural sectors, public treasuries that demand and collect taxes, religious values that influence norms and customs, etc. Even when the state is not acting as an influential historical agent—and many historians within the subfield known as American Political Development (APD) did make this point—there is no doubt that the state established powerful boundaries between which society and markets developed. It is not so much a question of whether the American state is weak or strong, but a question of what segments of the population benefit from government largesse
To more fully understand libertarianism and its implications for policy, it is helpful to think about the historical context in which libertarianism came to be. While today’s libertarians can plausibly trace their intellectual lineage to Enlightenment era philosophers like John Locke, William Blackstone, Adam Smith, and David Hume, modern libertarianism was, in fact, a mid-20th century creation. Much like the legal philosophy of originalism, modern libertarianism formed as a backlash to the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement. Both ideologies were, and are, reactionary in nature. Austrian thinkers Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises are usually credited as the intellectual godfathers of today’s libertarians. An Austrian economist is one who promotes a libertarian point of view. Hayek worried that New Deal-style programs would lead to totalitarianism and put us all on a “road to serfdom” to use the phrase of his influential 1944 book.
As FDR’s landslide 1936 reelection attests, New Deal programs were highly popular with the American public. Federally-guaranteed deposit insurance in the form of FDIC reduced the likelihood of crippling bank runs; social security cushioned seniors from descending into poverty; the SEC prevented insider trading; Glass-Steagall separated the rules governing investment banking and commercial banking; the Wagner Act recognized the legality of labor unions; the FHA and GI Bill helped Americans buy homes; the AAA subsidized farmers. While far from perfect on questions of Jim Crow and white supremacy, the New Deal effectively created an entire middle class. Any reasonable person would look at this history and see that these were significant steps in the right directions and foundations upon which to build further gains. Libertarians don’t want you to know this history. They want you to think that these programs represented an irreversible form of tyranny; a serious assault on private enterprise and everything that made America great. Make no mistake: this is the perspective of wealthy business owners. So by embracing libertarian principles today, people should be aware that they are adopting the preferred policies of entrenched robber barons who didn’t want to pay income taxes; who didn’t want to recognize labor unions; who didn’t want to contribute to retirement pensions, etc.
There’s also a jaw-dropping arrogance in assuming that private industry will always do the best job at solving complex programs. Appointing (not electing) a businessman as president* is a libertarian point of view. Running public colleges like a business is a libertarian point of view. Libertarians ignore the numerous historical examples of government not acting as a deterrent to economic growth, but an enabler of it. How else would one look at subsidies to the railroads, the Morrill Land Grant Act, the Homestead Act, the Newlands Act, and putting a man on the moon? You sometimes need government to spread risk, to jumpstart certain industries that might otherwise flounder, and to insist on a certain long-term investment thinking that Wall Street, with its emphasis on the next quarter’s profits, seems incapable of doing.
The most glaring flaw in libertarian thinking lies in its rather absolutist defense of individual property rights, which necessarily precludes all other valid forms of liberty: the liberty derived from labor rights and collective bargaining; women’s rights; environmental rights; public education; civil rights and freedom from discrimination; the liberty of future generations when it comes to human-caused climate change. Even when these latter rights are supported by huge majorities of the population, thus giving them legitimacy in any society that calls itself democratic, libertarians will cry “coercion,” “theft,” “tyranny,” and “rent-seeking” as if to delegitimize them. A democratically elected state legislature passes regulations to allow for clean air, clean water, and public health? Libertarians will say that these interfere with the “free market” and the natural, inalienable right to property. The libertarian vision of liberty is thus, narrow, traditional, and backwards. It cements the status quo of pre-existing power structures by protecting those who have already accumulated property (i.e. white men). This is unhealthy and immoral since we already live in an era of unmistakable wealth and income inequality. And besides, why should people today have advantages merely because their father, grandfather, or great grandfather just happened to be at the right place at the right time? Whenever someone launches into an abstruse discourse about liberty, a sensible question to ask is: who benefits from your vision of liberty? If the answer is invariably propertied white men, you need to reconceptualize your vision of liberty.
Over a decade of college-level teaching, especially with the help of Eric Foner’s well acclaimed Give Me Liberty! textbook in the US survey course, has helped me understand that there are multiple visions of liberty. Two sides in a controversy can use the term “liberty” and mean very opposite things. Here are a few examples: 1. A slave owner uses the term “liberty” as his right to property but the slave views liberty as autonomy and freedom; 2. An industrial worker uses the term “liberty” to mean a minimum wage, health care, etc, but the business owner emphasizes liberty of contract; 3. At Woolworth's lunch counter, an African American customer wants freedom from discrimination and civil rights but the business owner’s concept of liberty is freedom from what he views as excessive taxation and regulation (or the right to discriminate); 4. Exxon Mobil wants the “liberty” to pollute and maintain proprietary trade secrets but young people today want the liberty to have access to clean air and water. In each of these cases, which are based on real historical examples, the libertarian ends up siding with the interests of a very small segment of the population, against the wishes of the majority.
When faced with a conflict between democracy and property, libertarians will almost always choose the side of property. Thus, it makes more sense to find the roots of modern libertarianism not in Locke, Smith, and Blackstone, but in John C. Calhoun and Roger B. Taney. These latter men enshrined the property rights of southern slave owners against democratic majorities that threatened to use the state’s power of taxation and regulation to threaten this property. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Taney accepted Calhoun’s absolutist defense of property rights based on the 5th Amendment, declaring that this liberty overruled the nearly 80-year precedent of Congress regulating the practice of slavery in the western territories. As we shall see in subsequent posts in this series, this proto-libertarian thinking was a tyranny of the minority that appealed especially to those who harbored deep racial anxieties.
For the next post in this series, click here.