I first came into contact with libertarianism through a work I will not name here, because I’ve already given it too much attention. Over time, my initial reservations have turned to outright rejection of this political philosophy.
Libertarians, objectivists, and neo-liberals
Let’s start with a Wikipedia quote:
Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and political freedom […] Libertarians share a skepticism of authority and state power.Wikipedia
This tells us the two most important parts of the philosophy: personal liberty and skepticism of government.
The idea is that each person should be free to do whatever they please, but they are also responsible for their own well-being. Governments are a bad idea, because they oppress individual freedom, simultaneously pushing down the best of us, and pulling up the worst of us.
Now, above, I said I came into contact with libertarianism through a certain book. Actually, this book is inspired by the Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. She actually created a philosophy called objectisivm, which in turn greatly influenced libertarianism (although the latter is the older of the two).
The main difference is that Ayn Rand proposed a philosophy for how to live life, while libertarianism is aimed at politics. The two are very similar. Ayn Rand came to the conclusion that people should all pursue their individual happiness. This would help the greater good. In other words, have as much personal freedom as possible and the world will be a paradise. This approach is referred to as rational egoism.
Neo-liberalism is another philosophy related to the previous two. The biggest difference is that neo-liberalism focuses mostly on freedom in the form of free markets and isn’t as hung up on hating the government as libertarians and objectivists are.
For all intents and purposes, though, my feelings on the three are the same. I’m talking about libertarianism because it is the most extreme form, and I’ve had a run-in with several followers of this cult of selfishness.
As I wrote above, libertarianism focuses on the idea of personal freedom and rational egoism. The idea is that if everybody pursues their own personal happiness, everything will balance itself out, and we will all achieve greatness. All barriers and rules to prevent people from achieving things by working hard should be taken away.
Of course, libertarianism admits criminals exist, so it has the concept of non-violence. Personal freedoms are nice, but you can’t go around stealing or murdering. That would limit the personal freedom of others. So, all violence against others is illegal.
In theory, this sounds pretty good. It seems very rational. That is, until you think about the ramifications.
Why that doesn’t work
There’s a very nasty assumption in this idea of rational egoism. The same assumption that most right-wing philosophies follow, unfortunately. It is this: everybody is born equal and bad luck does not exist. And that assumption is simply not true.
You want an example? Okay, let’s assume person A works hard and makes a lot of money. Person B is lazy, and becomes poor. Fair enough, right?
Now, let’s put in some bad luck. Person A works hard and makes a lot of money. Person B wants to work hard, but has the bad luck of being born with a muscle disease. They can’t work hard, and person B becomes poor. Is that fair?
What if person A is a lazy bum, but his parents were rich? What if person B was born a black person and had fewer chances in life? They could have had an accident and ended up in a wheelchair. And so on, and so forth.
As I said, most right-wing philosophies make this mistake. They assume people are equal and inequality is the result of people’s choices. Everybody who is poor must be a loser, and everybody who is rich is a winner.
I don’t hold with this idea, as you’ve probably already gathered. Of course, I don’t hold with the reverse either, which underpins Marxism and Communism: all inequality is the result of luck or privilege and should be corrected.
Property and Piketty
A second problem is that libertarians drool over free markets, and believe ownership of things is sacred. Taxes? The government is stealing the money that I earned. Free markets are the best way to distribute wealth! It’s all about working hard and making money, right?
Thomas Piketty is a french economist specialized in wealth inequality. He has very neatly put the finger on why this is also not true. The idea is that you can gain exponentially more money from capital (wealth) than from labor (income).
As an example of how this works, I point to the video game Fable 3. In this game you play a hero who starts out with nothing and slowly gains greater fame and wealth. You can acquire wealth in two ways: fight /perform missions (labor), or buy houses and get rent (property). The best strategy to become extremely wealthy is to pour all your wealth into buying houses. Each house you buy gives you more income, which you can spend on buying more houses, until you own all of them. You can also do some missions for a lark, but that’s mostly to fill the time between rent payments.
Okay, but that’s a video game. Well guess what… that’s also how a completely free markets work, combined with making ownership sacred.
If libertarianism were to be introduced tomorrow, you know what I’d do? I’d take out all my savings and buy a tract of land. A strip of land about a meter wide, completely encircling either a city, or some important resource. Then I’d start collecting a toll to cross my land. With the money I earn, I’d rinse and repeat. And once I die? I’d leave it all to my daughter so she can expand on that.
What Piketty warns about, and what is baked in at the core of libertarianism, is inequality that grows exponentially. It’s like a Covid pandemic of ownership, leaving the poor poorer and the rich richer. And it’s what Neo-liberalism is doing in the US, creating a 1% of very rich, and 99% of hard-working people who have zero chance of making even a fraction of what those 1% reap simply from what they own.
What is a government?
Next point: the libertarian hatred of government. As stated, neo-liberals have less hatred of governments, but even there the idea is that a government is small and should only facilitate free markets. In other words, operate the government like a business. And, like I wrote above, I dislike the idea of completely free markets.
I’ve had discussions with a libertarian, who was very angry at the concept of a government. He’d been born in a certain country, and because of that he had to pay taxes. How could that government simply claim ownership of land? Then force all born there to pay money?
It seems to have some merit at first glance, but if you think about it, it’s mostly horseshit. You see, you’re usually born in a hospital, or at least aided by a medical professional. That despised government organized that. It uses taxes to pay for the required care, and the hospital, and the roads to the hospital. That’s what taxes are for: paying for stuff everybody needs and uses.
It all comes down to what exactly you think a government is. To me, the government is a democratic way for people to work together, aimed at protecting the people in the country, who each get a vote in how that country is run. That government is responsible for making the playing field as equal as possible for the citizens. In my opinion, it should actively work to reduce the effect of the inequality and bad luck that are beyond our control, but still plague us. From racism to disease to bad parents, the government should help give you a chance to make something of your life, if you work at it.
To a libertarian, that seems not to be true. But exactly what is their alternative?
Omnipotence, cheating, and banding together
The libertarians I talked to and read were fully convinced it should all be down to individuals to take care of things. You want healthcare? Get a contract. You want roads? Pay toll for them. And so on.
That notion, unfortunately, rests on another three assumptions, all of which are false.
The first false assumption is that you as an individual are capable of taking care of everything you might need. You need to know enough about healthcare to separate bad from good contracts. In a libertarian world, there is no government to forbid charlatans. You also need to know about chemistry, food, pollution, and just about anything in the world. In fact, you need to be omnipotent enough to see that a certain clause in a contract allows the other party to dump a toxic chemical upstream from your water supply that you buy with another contract. It’s not humanly possible to oversee all of it, all the time. You’d basically turn life into a contest to see who is best at fucking other people over with contracts.
The second false assumption is the same one as before: everybody is on equal footing. Imagine my example from above, where somebody owns a strip of land around a city and demands toll from all the citizens. As such a citizen, you have no power. You need to cross the city boundary, if only to buy fuel, to get water, or whatever. You can be omnipotent, and still not get a good contract. The power difference means you are screwed. Any inequality anywhere will quickly escalate to greater inequality.
The third assumption is that somehow, you can actually make everybody follow your great non-violence and ownership rules. You can disband the government, but how long before a group of people decide to work together again? Five minutes? Of course, by disbanding government, you’re also disbanding the police. So, how long before a group of people decides to band together and rob and oppress everybody else? A few days, maybe, probably less. Of course, in libertarian fantasy land, as a rich free-spirited individual, you can hire police! To which I ask: how long until those free-lance police realize that they could just take all your money and oppress you?
If you toss the idea of working together overboard in favor of egoism, you’ll inevitably end up with petty warlords and violence. For example, when the government of China collapsed at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no libertarian heaven, but warlords quickly took over.
When you look at who identifies as Libertarian, you see something interesting. It’s a predominantly white male group and they are wealthier than average. After reading the above, you can understand why that is.
The assumptions I wrote down are all about privilege. Who is most likely to think that their lot in life is the result of merit, the poor black man in jail or the rich white man in a mansion? I think the latter. That’s also the same person who might be convinced that they can easily fend for themselves and thrive. They’re already doing that, are they not? They might feel taxes are theft, and that of course they have the right to all that they own. The government is stealing their hard-earned money and giving it to those loser poor people.
Privilege can make a person blind to the advantages they’ve been given, and make them feel that inferior people are taking advantage. If only they could unchain their personal superiority. That toxic idea can make it seem that a philosophy like libertarianism is a good idea. While in fact, the more you see a country like the US veer toward libertarianism and neo-liberalism, the greater the inequality becomes. With all the related issues of violence, decreasing lifespan, and despair.
And that’s why I detest libertarianism, neo-liberalism, and objectivism in general.
They are philosophies pushing inequality in the guise of equality. They promote selfishness as a virtue, and proclaim working together a sin. Ownership and gaming the system are merits in their selfish world. They want to unchain their privilege from the yoke of all those ‘communists’ and expand it to become richer at the cost those less privileged. Exactly what they’ve been doing in the US – and elsewhere.
It’s a story that white privileged men tell themselves to justify keeping systemic racism going, while making themselves feel superior to everybody else, and to justify enjoying more privilege.
The irony is of course that I am a white privileged man myself, and I profit from the system as it exists. Still, that doesn’t mean I want to actively make it worse. Quite the opposite actually. Elections are coming up here in a few months, and guess what I won’t be voting…