As I did in the last post, let me start off by outlining the positions I share with libertarians. I agree that the war on drugs has been wasteful of taxpayer dollars and extremely destructive to communities of color. We have created a moral hazard whereby our prisons are run like businesses—the more people we incarcerate, the more some companies profit. We should dismantle the New Jim Crow, whether it is mass incarceration or Voter ID laws. Like libertarians (at least the honest ones), I think we should break up the big monopolies, whether they be Sinclair media, Wall Street investment firms, or telecommunications companies. I give credit to libertarians for wanting to deconstruct America’s empire and for refusing to back down in their denunciations of torture, spying, and the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although I share these positions with libertarians, it is worth underscoring that we arrived at these conclusions based on different assumptions. It is all fine and dandy that libertarians abhor imperialism, but many have adopted this position primarily because they’re deficit hawks. For me there are much better reasons to resist imperialism. I tend to dislike Dow Chemical and Monsanto profiting from the release of chemicals during the Vietnam War that caused numerous health problems for both Americans and Vietnamese. I tend to dislike the numerous foreign interventions the US conducted in Latin America, especially when they overthrew democratically elected regimes (Guatemala in the 1950s or Chile in the 1970s) in order to support American-based corporations like Dole Fruit Company. I tend to dislike unnecessary wars like Iraq that are based on false pretenses and outright lies connecting Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and weapons of mass destruction. What are the other flawed positions that libertarians commonly hold?
Gold Buggism: Have you come across someone on Fox News or Fox Business who is shilling for you to buy gold or reverse mortgages? Chances are, you’re talking to a libertarian snake oil salesman. I’ve written before how the gold standard was one of the major causes of the Great Depression; how it was a rigid and inflexible system; how industrial production began to recover the moment the US and other advanced countries abandoned the gold standard; how prices, growth, and employment are more, not less, stable under fiat currencies managed by central banks; how a poll of 40 of the nation’s top economists showed that none of them advocated a return to the standard; how the gold standard combined with bad policy to spread crippling deflation, etc. And yet the ideal still persists. Old ideas die hard. It persists in large part because of libertarians. Even Milton Friedman, the darling of the right, criticized the gold standard. Keynes called it a “barbarous relic.” If you’re looking for scholarly treatment on this subject, I recommend Barry Eichengreen, Randall Parker, Peter Temin, and Ken Mouré as authorities.
Supply Side economic theory: It is revealing how often appeals to “balance,” “objectivity” and presenting “both sides” can be whittled down to thinly veiled demands that experts present a widely discredited theory as a legitimate perspective in media or in the academy. Most appeals to “both sides” emanate from political conservatives or libertarians who insist on having their simplistic, fantastical theories aired aloud without any scrutiny or criticism. When I explain the characteristics of supply side theory—that it attempts to encourage investment by curbing labor unions, reducing taxes for upper income earners, cutting regulations, and privatizing public goods—I quickly move on to whether it has worked in the way that its adherents have promised. These are things we can measure. The results are in: supply side economics is not an effective way to promote growth, higher standards of living, lower prices, and a reduction in unemployment. The Fox News crowd will whine that any professor who points this out is brainwashing students into accepting radical socialism by actually engaging in analysis and interpretation without assuming that facts can speak for themselves. Yet applying libertarians’ own standard of Enlightenment-based empiricism to test the efficacy of supply side economics is by no means a radical interpretation! It’d be an egregious dereliction of duty as a professor if I did NOT point this out.
Ronald Reagan may not have taken the libertarian position on every issue, but for all intents and purposes, we have been operating under the supply side framework since the early-80s, even with two Democratic presidents, who were quite moderate on most issues of political economy. Raising tax rates for upper income earners from 35 to 39.9% is hardly socialist or radical as Republicans would have you believe and let us not forget that Bill Clinton cut welfare, signed NAFTA, and deregulated banks with the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
We have enough evidence to show that the implementation of supply side economics has been ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst. Remember, it was because of deregulation that a lot of investors could not distinguish between the toxic and healthy parts of Collateralized Debt Obligations, which introduced more (not less) uncertainty to an already panicky environment. Noted libertarian, Ayn Rand acolyte, and former FED chair Alan Greenspan severely underestimated the extent of the damage that befell global markets in 2008. A libertarian today might fault deregulation for contributing to monopolization since this necessarily interferes with equal opportunity for business owners and limits consumer choices. But what is the appropriate solution? It lies in the rigorous enforcement of antitrust legislation. Herein lies a contradiction in libertarian thinking. For what else is breaking up monopolies but an interference in the free market that libertarians champion?
On the question of economic performance, supply siders can’t really say much. Growth was higher under the post-WWII, Keynesian paradigm when taxes were higher, labor unions were more powerful, and regulations effectively constrained CEO pay, money in politics, and financial malfeasance. There is no discernible relationship between cutting taxes and employment. To demonstrate this, all you have to do is show a graph of tax rates during the same years as the unemployment rate. Tax rates for upper income earners have followed a downward trajectory, more or less, since JFK's tax cut in the 1960s, but unemployment follows a much shorter cycle.
What cutting taxes does contribute to is greater income inequality and higher deficits, which Republicans use as an excuse to obstruct every Democratic program that requires money, all the while benefiting from an apathetic public that ignores that Republicans were the ones who created the deficits in the first place! Besides, growth itself should not be the end-all-be-all of how we manage an economy. This is twentieth-century thinking. We should also consider factors like peoples’ well-being, sustainability, resource extraction, etc.
Wildly inaccurate predictions about the state of the economy: It’s very difficult to accurately predict the stock market, but libertarians have been particularly ineffective prognosticators. That these hucksters continue to retain their positions of power in media and government suggests that they must be comfortably aligned with business interests for their power cannot possibly rest on any intellectual credibility. Larry Kudlow, Rick Santelli, Arthur Laffer, Bill Fleckenstein at Prudent Bear, all made predictions that were repeatedly off the mark. A lot of this stems from the fact that they have a poor understanding of economics. And they obsess over the wrong things. They fixate on the value of the dollar all the while ignoring employment (sometimes you need to devalue your currency to restore jobs as the 1930s showed). This relates to their anti-intellectual fealty to the Gold Standard. As the economist JW Mason once tweeted after attending an academic conference, rich people may hate inflation more than socialism. For a brief interval around the 2008 financial crisis, I was in contact with a libertarian who had also written about my research topic. Periodically he would send me links from Prudent Bear, all predicting the imminent collapse of the US dollar (this was post 2009, when we were already recovering). He claimed the FED was “papering over” the toxic assets that had contributed to the collapse of Lehman. What a load of crap it was. Since fiscal policy was not up to the task, the FED’s purchase of $4.48 trillion in government assets, while not perfect, was probably one of the wisest things we could have done to ensure a recovery. If the reputation of Marxists was that they accurately predicted 8 out of the last 5 recessions, the same can be said of libertarians. But the whole “printing money” obsession has got to go. A weak dollar has benefits for sectors like tourism and an inflationary economy helps debtors—take a look at the student loan crisis, which exceeds total credit card debt among Americans, and you can see why an inflationary target of 4% makes much more sense than 2%. And yes, “printing money” during a recession actually works. It may be counterintuitive but a lot of concepts in economics are like that. A worldview that is so consistently wrong in its predictive capacity should be cast aside as irreparably faulty. And the moment you point out that some nut job like Fleckenstein or Santelli makes a wildly irresponsible prediction, a respectable libertarian will reply, “well, he’s not really a libertarian.” To which I respond, wow, there sure are a lot of fake libertarians out there!
Immigration: This topic deserves much more consideration than I am able to give it here. But libertarian economist Dave Brat running on an anti-immigrant platform that successfully primaried Eric Cantor? Gimme a break. If libertarians clearly stand for eliminating barriers to trade for the benefit of the vaunted consumer who can make rational choices, they would immediately recognize that this involves not just the free exchange of goods across borders, but laborers, too.
Civil Rights: Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist believed that Plessy v. Ferguson, an infamous Supreme Court decision that condoned segregation during the Jim Crow era, was decided correctly. The implication was that Brown v. Board, which overturned Plessy, was not settled law. Ask a libertarian which side they’d take when African American college students organized sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, demanding equal access and equal accommodation at Woolworth’s lunch counter. I’ll give you a hint…their ideological sympathies do not lie with the students. They’d rather support the racist business owners because any attempt to regulate their business, no matter how righteous, how imperative, how majoritarian, is ultimately an infringement on their “liberty.” I wonder if the African American students at Woolworth’s would be satisfied with the facile, glib rejoinder that they had the “liberty” to seek out another business that would serve them.
Ask a libertarian how they feel about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They might reply with Barry Goldwater’s famous phrase, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” I know, how dare we use the power of the federal government to demand that private businesses, which cannot be separated from the public dollars that support the police departments that protect them and the roads that enable access to them, provide equal accommodations without discrimination! As I like to say, 80-90% of the time in US history, when a person advocates limited government, they are really expressing racial anxieties. This was certainly the case with white southerners in the antebellum era who opposed federal support for internal improvements. They were really concerned about a northern president who might one day use broad constitutional to wipe out their “peculiar institution.” If history doesn’t repeat but rhymes, we might say that white southerners sang a similar tune one hundred years later when they opposed FDR’s New Deal, or when they signed the Southern Manifesto and found Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of “states’ rights,” “law and order” and “tough on crime” as more respectable ways of saying that they wished to impeach Earl Warren or enshrine segregation.
Labor Rights: Ask a libertarian how they feel about Lochner v. New York (1905). Some might follow Justices Roberts and Scalia in viewing this decision as judicial overreach and a problematic assertion of a court providing extra (substantive) protection of property rights in the form of contracts, beyond what the Constitution already stated. But others would find in Lochner a desirable outcome for it protected a small business against regulation. Lochner was the infamous 5-4 Supreme Court case that struck down as unconstitutional legislation from New York mandating maximum work hours for bakeries. It put forth the dubious theory of “liberty of contract” whereby workers who were dissatisfied with a contract offered by one employer had the “liberty” to walk down the street and seek out a better contract with another employer.
This theory seems plausible on the surface but immediately breaks down under the slightest bit of critical thinking. There is a reason that Lochner, like Plessy, has a pejorative connotation. An employer offering $11/hour would not differ greatly from the same business down the street offering $11.50. It is surprising that an intellectual movement founded upon praising open competition would miss this reality about competitive businesses. In addition, many industrial workers in the Lochner era were immigrants, many of them from Asia, Mexico, and southern and eastern Europe, who often did not speak or write English very well, and thus would have easily lent their names to exploitative contracts. These contracts were sacrosanct according to advocates of “substantive due process,” which meant that they superseded the regulations passed by democratically elected state legislatures (hence the libertarian propensity to favor property over democracy). Liberty of contract was a fictitious right; one concocted by union-busing business owners. Industrial workers were not asking for this right and in any case, it would have been very unlikely to result in a better contract. What they were asking for was what labor organizer John Mitchell called “industrial liberty.” Freedom for Mitchell meant more than merely choosing the field of one’s employment. True liberty came from workers’ wages, the ability to care for their family if any of them got sick, and the ability to educate one’s children. No amount of “choice” could grant this. This is why labor historians refer to liberty of contract as the liberty to work under a bridge. Do you really want the liberty to work a 16-hour day? Though it reached its decision by contorting the First Amendment rather than the Fourteenth Amendment, the Roberts Court, in the recent Janus case, has confirmed that it stands by the anti-unionism of the Lochner Era.
Robert Kuttner, in an article written for the American Prospect, persuasively argued that the libertarian worldview ignores the ways in which governments can create more freedom. For all their complex theorizing about freedom, libertarians overlook the instances in which:
A young person from a poor family who does not need to incur crippling debt to attend university is a freer person. A low-income mother who cannot afford to pay the doctor attains a new degree of freedom when she and her children are covered by Medicaid. A worker who might be compelled to choose between his job and his physical safety becomes freer if government health and safety regulations are enforced. The employee of a big-box store who can take paid family leave when a child gets sick is freer than one whose entire life is at the whim of the boss; likewise a worker with a union contract that provides protection from arbitrary dismissal or theft of wages. An elderly person saved from destitution by a government-organized Social Security pension has a lot more liberty than one bagging groceries at age 80 to make ends meet, or one choosing between supper and filling a prescription.
Public Safety and Public Health: Because libertarians harbor a reflexive antipathy to the Progressive Era and the German welfare state model, they have absolutely nothing of substance to offer on questions of public health and public safety. My guess is that most libertarians despise trial lawyers, arguing that their presumably frivolous lawsuits ultimately damage the consumer in the form of higher prices. Yet without trial lawyers, we would have never discovered that Du Pont manufactured and distributed Teflon products that contained the highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical known as C8, despite knowing about C8’s danger. Du Pont was one of the “merchants of death” exposed by the Nye Committee Report, which brought to light some of the weapons manufacturers and other firms that stood to benefit from US entry into WWI.
Climate Denialism: Even worse than having nothing substantive to offer, libertarians have deliberately manufactured doubt and uncertainty about the harmful consequences of human-caused climate change. Bromides about technology and innovation won’t save us, especially if they don’t involve any serious examination of our lifestyle. This topic deserves its own post since I regard human-caused climate change as perhaps the most important issue of our time. Suffice to say that one of the best accounts of the history of denialism was written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt. The two authors show that conservative and libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute, reinforced by the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, recapitulated the arguments of tobacco companies when it came to climate denialism. Here’s an idiotic, anti-learning, anti-intellectual, and anti-knowledge article written by the neo-Confederate Ludwig Von Mises Institute (LVMI) on the topic of climate change. Reason Magazine, an organ managed by the Reason Foundation, which lists oil and chemical magnate, David Koch, as one of its trustees and officers, promulgated the denialism of James Delingpole. It did not matter that five different independent investigations came to the conclusion that climate scientists at the University of East Anglia did not manipulate data as Delingpole alleged. Generously funded by nearly unlimited dollars from fossil fuel companies and a well lubricated and interconnected web of right-wing think tanks and media outlets, the denialist movement exacted considerable damage. The so-called “Climategate” scandal led to a precipitous drop in Americans’ beliefs about the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change. Libertarians, for all their concern about freedom and opportunity, never seem to consider that future generations may also want the same freedoms and opportunities that can only be achieved by a more long-term, sustainable capitalism. Funny how the short-term profits of the Koch Brothers trump any concern for the future of humanity.
Support for Authoritarian Regimes like Pincohet and Apartheid South Africa: Many of the “The Chicago Boys,” a group of Latin American economists educated at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of Milton Friedman, worked under the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. On September 11, 1973 (notice the date), the American CIA backed the coup d’etat that installed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, replacing leftist Salvador Allende, who was democratically elected. Pinochet’s authoritarian regime went on to torture tens of thousands of prisoners, drove an estimated 200,000 Chileans into exile, and executed some 3,000 victims in what has been described as a “political genocide.” For libertarians to have supported such a brutal dictatorship makes for a MAJOR contradiction since libertarians are supposed to stand for individual liberty! That libertarians supported Pinochet’s Chile and Apartheid South Africa provides compelling evidence that subservience to American corporations and business interests overruled any philosophical concerns about an individual’s right to be free from coercion and tyranny.
For the next post in this series, click here.