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The idealism of libertarianism

Aaargh. Libertarianism is not about robber barons, people. It's not about selfishness or low taxes. Yes, robber barons may find it useful to espouse libertarian ideals, just as control freaks may find it useful to espouse communist ones. Yes, some people who hate taxes or are selfish bastards may be drawn to libertarianism for narrow reasons. But that's not the core, any more than becoming aparatchniks was what drew lots of people to communism. I've *been* a libertarian, stopping, ironically, only when I started having income worth taxing, I hung out with lots of libertarians in a community on the net for years, and with a few in person, so I claim superior knowledge to anyone who's only had random arguments and not actually been inside, or close to an insider.

Libertarianism, at least at its core and best, and why judge it by less if you don't do that normally? is as much a burning idealism as communism. When you join the Libertarian Party you sign the Non-Coercion Principle, forswearing the initiation of force, or forswearing fraud, and force except in self-defense. A not stellar but classic libertarian science fiction series had an alternate history splitting on a Declaration of Independence which talked about the "unanimous consent of the governed" (the real one lacks 'unanimous'.) Just as it is morally obvious to a communist that people in need should be helped or that goods should be distributed fairly (meaning evenly, to the communist), and obvious to an anarchist that property and capital should be made available to those who can use it, not sequestered in "ownership", it is morally obvious to a libertarian that people should not initiate force against each other (and that this is fair). Not having taxes flows from that (taxes are, ultimately, collected by force) but it's not the point. The point is that people shouldn't be forced, should be left alone if they wish to be, should be free to associate as they choose and to make voluntary contracts. The point is that voluntary association and exchange should be the basis of society, not force.

You can say the idea is impractical; you can argue the ideas are incoherent when looked at critically, but it's no more all about avoiding taxes or social Darwinism than gaming is all about fat smelly cat-piss men or killing imaginary people and taking their imaginary stuff.

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( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
heron61
Nov. 26th, 2007 03:00 am (UTC)
As I mentioned, there are exceptions. I divide libertarianism into right & left libertarianism. Left-libertarianism is pretty much another word for anarchism, which has a long and (sometimes) illustrious history, and today is most often represented by various versions of anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism.

Right-libertarianism is from all the reading I've done largely (or at least originally) a US phenomena started in the 1970s, and while it did not exist during the era of the robber barons, I'm certain they would have been exceptionally happy with it. With its focus on reducing or eliminating taxes, radical property rights, especially regarding land ownership (as opposed to most versions of anarchism, which completely [and IMHO correctly] renounce private ownership of land) and a general emphasis on self-reliance, the resolution of all social problems via private means, and in the extremes a callous and objectivist disregard for the welfare of others, I would claim that it is all about greed and would-be robber barons. The clearest difference between right-libertarianism and almost all other forms of anarchism is its strong support for capitalism, especially unregulated capitalism, which is both directly contrary to most other forms of anarchism, but is also one of the (many) clear indications that the origin of right-libertarianism can be closely tied to the strong conservative turn that US politics tool in the mid to late 1970s.

In any case, I do not believe that left-libertarianism is practical w/o major technological change (it seems to me to be the ideal form of political economy for a post-scarcity world), but I have great sympathy for it. OTOH, right-libertarianism is a right-wing ideology that I find little better than neoconservatism and that I strongly oppose in both our society and in any possible society that I or anyone I care at all about might live in.

Edited at 2007-11-26 03:18 am (UTC)
mindstalk
Nov. 26th, 2007 03:54 am (UTC)
I was talking about "right-libertarians", or US ones; I'd note they themselves can divide up into "left" or "right" depending on the relative emphasis placed on civil liberties vs. tax freedom. I leaned left, as does William Stoddard of the LFS. But still propertarian, not old-anarchist.

"I would claim that it is all about greed and would-be robber barons"

And I claim, as someone who held all those right-libertarian positions with minimal income or expectation of same, that you are *wrong*. I was *there*. People can have ideals you don't like, or whose consequences you don't like, and still be idealistic. Libertarians themselves often grant that the opposing ideal of altruism is attractive -- not all do, especially Objectivists, but many do -- while valuing autonomy and freedom more absolutely. Why is it so hard for the other side to acknowledge freedom as an attractive ideal of its own?

And I'd say "right-libertarianism" has much deeper roots than the 1970s, though the Libertarian Party started then. Roots going past Ayn Rand in the 1940s, Hayek and von Mises in the 1930s, through 19th century English liberalism, into 18th century liberalism -- Locke, the early draft of the Declaration which declared the rights to "life,liberty, and the pursuit of property", Adam Smith's economics -- and arguably into the Levellers of the 17th century. Some libertarians call themselves "classical liberals" and that's not historically empty propaganda. I remember Milton Friedman in his 1962 Capitalism and Freedom insisting that he was a liberal, refusing to surrender the word to the increasingly socialist-influenced meaning in the US; to this day the international use of 'liberal' has as much if not more to do with US libertarianism than US liberalism, with an emphasis on free trade and stable property rights and small government, much like the Liberal Party of 19th century Britain.

"the resolution of all social problems via private means,"

Or, equivalently, the resolution of all social problems via voluntary means, without recourse to the use of force save in immediate self-defense. "Taxation is theft!" isn't a rhetorical gimmick but an honest heartfelt belief, that taking the fruits of someone's labors from them at gunpoint is *wrong*. Clearly, obviously, wrong, just as someone else finds the prospect of someone dying because they can't afford food or medical care to be wrong. And they could talk about the callous disregard for the freedom of others exhibited by communists of whatever stripe.

I think one reason Ken MacLeod keeps receiving the Prometheus Award is that he gets it: he understands the appeal, even if he doesn't agree, and can portray it sympathetically. As befits someone who was convinced to value freedom of speech by British right-libertarians, and who tries to defends free markets to Iain Banks.

Edited at 2007-11-26 04:04 am (UTC)
pompe
Nov. 26th, 2007 06:32 am (UTC)
Taking the fruits of someone's labors away is a rather vague statement. It is argued by socialists that's exactly what capitalism does, constantly, to the majority of the population. Taxation isn't stealing, it is - by such logic - compensating for an unfair distribution of wealth and profit.
mindstalk
Nov. 26th, 2007 07:18 am (UTC)
Sure, and we could get into the defense of private property at the point of a gun. But my intention isn't to defend libertarianism from all comers -- I'm a US liberal/social democrat/into mixed economies myself these days -- but to get people to see how it can be an attractive philosophy without being all about greed or wannabe robber barons. I'd say it's no less idealistic and appealing than socialism, really.

I think it's flawed, but then, I think that of the pure idealism of socialism as well. Cf. "mixed economies".

Now, if you want to make fun of individual libertarians for not being able to distinguish between socialism and mixed economies, go ahead. :) I'd also make fun of socialists who can't see the utility of markets[1], which I think you might be able to join me on, given what you've said of your politics.

[1] Especially given that Marx wrote one of the brightest paeans to capitalism!
heron61
Nov. 26th, 2007 09:32 am (UTC)
People can have ideals you don't like, or whose consequences you don't like, and still be idealistic.

For me, this is identical to a passionate and ideologically based defense of pre-anesthesia surgical techniques. The fact is that in modern industrial societies, the sorts of voluntary measures right-libertarians advocate work at best poorly, and often not at all. Examples from the 2nd half of the 19th century, in both Britain and the US are far too numerous to list (one obvious one being the elimination of cholera and the creation of a safe water system). State-controlled or mandated measures for things like public health, safety, law enforcement, and suchlike work, other options simply and provably don't. My problem is that I'm left with deciding that right-libertarians are either greedheads who don't care about the fact that their ideology would cause mass suffering or people too ignorant to realize that the lessons have been learned and that these very lessons are the reason for the current way of doing things in the first world. I guess I'm guilty of attributing to malice what should have been put down to ignorance.

And I'd say "right-libertarianism" has much deeper roots than the 1970s, though the Libertarian Party started then.

While much of what I know of the origins of right-libertarianism comes through the anarchist community, the histories of it that I have seen very much show it to be an offshoot of anarchism, which is why I consider it to still be (a highly variant) anarchist, or at least anarchist-derived ideology, and so I discuss it along with anarchism.

I think one reason Ken MacLeod keeps receiving the Prometheus Award is that he gets it: he understands the appeal, even if he doesn't agree, and can portray it sympathetically. As befits someone who was convinced to value freedom of speech by British right-libertarians, and who tries to defends free markets to Iain Banks.

I will also defend free markets. They seem an excellent way to distribute scarce consumer and luxury goods. However, they are provably a horrific way to distribute absolute necessities. Whether its food for the starving or (more commonly, especially in the US) medicine for the desperately ill, the value someone places on an immediate necessity is vast and so people in immediate need are open to massive abuse. OTOH, no one is going to die w/o a new DVD, a gold ring, or even an ipod, and so for consumer goods free market economics offers a perfectly reasonable way to distribute goods and services, so long as there are sufficient laws against fraud, deceptive sales practices, unsafe products, and similar problems.

mindstalk
Nov. 26th, 2007 04:03 am (UTC)
Also, while I'm not sure how old full anarcho-capitalism could be said to be, most "right-libertarians" aren't anarchist. I think many more would call themselves minarchist, giving defense and police powers to the state, funded (reluctantly) by minimal levels of taxation. Private law enforcement and fully taxless states, or statelessness, is an extreme position; most just envision approximating such things.
mindstalk
Nov. 26th, 2007 04:23 am (UTC)
Non-Coercion Principle
Yeah, they're still at it. "To validate my membership, I certify that I do not advocate the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals."

So, channeling my teenage self, the challenge would be: if you disagree with this, then where? What justifies initiating force for you? What political or social goals are you willing to kill someone over? Are you willing to force someone to work at gunpoint, or to storm someone's granary and risk being killed because they aren't contributing to the public library or school, or because someone else is starving? Because that really is what it boils down to, no hyperbole.

It can help if you sweep many social goals together, so that you're storming someone's granary for not contributing fairly to the general welfare, but I don't think you can honestly invoke that without also considering what the general contributions are actually spent on. Defense and feeding the starving, defensible; expensive monuments to leaders, not so much.

I basically stopped being libertarian when I accepted that yes, something are worth collectively mugging people for, or that forcing everyone to put 1/3 of their labor toward useful social goals isn't unfair, and that a shared environment means unitary or dyadic actions which don't affect others aren't always possible, and thus collective decisions must sometimes be made. But I can still feel that tug and appeal of "Don't force people."
pompe
Nov. 26th, 2007 06:15 am (UTC)
Re: Non-Coercion Principle
There's always force. Many libertarians for some reason focus on the force of the state, but not the force of our social conditioning, the force of blood bonds, the force of religion, the force of tradition, the force of dependence, the force of fear, the force of desperation... ...but it may be a cultural issue what we consider to be the worst offenders to individual liberty. But it isn't always so neat the alternative forces, say, wealth, religion and families are more enlightened than the state is.
mindstalk
Nov. 26th, 2007 07:22 am (UTC)
Re: Non-Coercion Principle
Glib response: most of those other forces don't kill you outright.

Not so glib: see other response, about how I'm just trying to show that a reasonable and good person can be libertarian, at least as much as reasonable and good people can be other things like socialist.
pompe
Nov. 26th, 2007 08:05 am (UTC)
Re: Non-Coercion Principle
Unless your nation practices killing citizens, chances are considerably higher your family will kill you than your local state representative. Especially if you happen to be female or a child.

But to the point. I do not doubt a person can be "good" and be a libertarian. If a libertarian or any other follower of an extremist ideology, be that radical environmentalism, communism or ultranationalism, can truly be "reasonable" to the commonly accepted and yet very vague sense of what is perceived to be reasonable would be, I'm not so sure.

I mean, I did military service with a fascist. National socialist probably would be even more accurate. I liked and respected him as a person and a friend, ans still do, but there's no way I can think of his political beliefs as "reasonable". I can understand them, and I can understand why he believed in them, but that doesn't make them reasonable. Another of my friends was and is hard-core Christian, baptist. I can understand and respect his beliefs too. But they aren't reasonable, because it isn't based upon a reasonable, rational, pragmatic assessment of how the world works and how people work.
heron61
Nov. 26th, 2007 09:46 am (UTC)
Re: Non-Coercion Principle
When unemployment is very high and there is little or no social safety net, the force of saying to an employee do x unreasonable deed or accept y unreasonable working condition or be fired is essentially the same as saying do x unreasonable deed or accept y unreasonable working condition or I will harm you (by firing you and causing you to possibly starve). So, while right-libertarians happily say that governments "forcing" people to pay taxes is wrong, most have see absolutely nothing wrong with the above scenario.

I find that level of hypocrisy to be sufficiently high that I feel no need to give further thought to libertarian ideology. For me, it's deeply and essentially hypocritical, and comes down to its origins as an anarchist philosophy.

In more standard (ie left) anarchy, the essentially point is not forcing people to do things, which means not forcing them with either guns or false choices like "work in my unsafe mine or starve". Libertarianism kept the part about not forcing people with guns, but abandoned the left-anarchist dedication to collectivism and interdependence. Traditional anarchists distrust governments and large businesses equally and combine this with a more general distrust of capitalism, because it is a system based on economic force - I deeply understand and sympathize with that sort of distrust, but do not share it. Right-libertarians distrust governments but have utterly abandoned their distrust of large business or capitalism, and so their alleged rejection of force is to me nothing more than a decision to be intellectually dishonest by claiming they reject all force because they merely reject to most obvious sort.

I basically stopped being libertarian when I accepted that yes, something are worth collectively mugging people for, or that forcing everyone to put 1/3 of their labor toward useful social goals isn't unfair, and that a shared environment means unitary or dyadic actions which don't affect others aren't always possible, and thus collective decisions must sometimes be made. But I can still feel that tug and appeal of "Don't force people."

For me, that's why my very brief flirtation with anarchism ended. However, I simply do not see right-libertarianism as an ideology that rejects force.
mindstalk
Nov. 26th, 2007 07:51 am (UTC)
Oh, and on top of the freedom issue, lots of libertarians honestly believe everyone[1] would be better off in their ideal world, too. More jobs, cheaper products, more innovation, cheaper doctors, more and cheaper drugs. (More and cheaper *other* drugs, too.) Plus the absence of migration barriers and of corrupt foreign policy due to the absence of any foreign policy...

Again, you can completely disagree with their predictions, but I think you suffer from misplaced cynicism if you assume they're insincere, especially rank-and-file party-member Libertarians. Cynical hypocritical selfish exploiters of ideals should be Republican, where they might have a chance at actual power, or LP party leaders, where they might get to embezzle campaign funds and feel important in a small pond.

[1] Except for DEA agents, prison guards, tax collectors, and such.
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