Of all the political movements out there, the Libertarians have the coolest rhetoric. No matter what the issue is, they get to talk about Freedom vs. Tyranny and quote all that rousing stuff the Founders said about King George.
It’s also the perfect belief system for a young male (and maybe, by now, young females too). You don’t need knowledge or experience of any specific situations, you just need to understand the One Big Idea That Solves Everything: Other than a small and appropriately humbled military and judicial establishment, government is bad. Protect life, protect property, enforce contracts — and leave everything else to the market.
I should know. Thirty-five years ago, I was a 19-year-old libertarian, and I learned all the arguments. Now I’m a progressive — a liberal, whatever — and these days even I have to shake my head at how often I’m tempted to quote Marx.
What happened? Well, I suppose I could stroke my white beard and pontificate vaguely about the benefits of 35 years of experience. But I’m thinking that a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires me to be a little more specific.
When you escape a sweeping worldview like Libertarianism, you usually don’t find an equally sweeping critique right away. A broad reframing may come later, but the transformation starts with a few things that stick in your craw and refuse to let themselves be swallowed.
For example, when I was leaving fundamentalist Christianity, one of the first things that bothered me was the genealogy of Jesus. The Bible contains two irreconcilable ones (in Matthew and Luke); they can’t both be the “gospel Truth”. Now, decades later, that issue is nowhere near the top of my why-I’m-not-a-fundamentalist list.
So let me start with some specific, simple things before I launch into more abstract philosophy.
Plague. I recommend that anyone thinking about becoming a Libertarian read The Great Influenza by John Barry. It doesn’t say a word about political philosophy, but it does compare how various American cities handled the Spanish Flu of 1918, which globally killed more people than World War I. The cities that did best were the ones that aggressively quarantined, shut down public meeting places, imposed hygiene standards, and in general behaved like tyrants.
As you read, try to imagine a Libertarian approach to a serious plague. I don’t think there is one. Maybe most people would respond to sensible leadership, but public health is one of those areas where a few people with the freedom to pursue screwy ideas can mess up everybody.
Global warming. There’s a reason why small-government candidates deny global warming: Denial is the only answer they have. Global warming is a collective problem, and there is no individualistic solution to it. Even market-based approaches like cap-and-trade require a massive government intervention to create the market that attacks the problem.
Property. Now let’s get to that more serious reframing.
I had to live outside the Libertarian worldview for many years before I began to grasp the deeper problem with it: property. Every property system in history (and all the ones I’ve been able to imagine) are unjust. So a government that establishes a property system, defends it, and then stops is an agent of injustice.
Libertarians tend to take property as a given, as if it were natural or existed prior to any government. But defining what can be owned, what owning it means, and keeping track of who owns what — that’s a government intervention in the economy that dwarfs all other government interventions. You see, ownership is a social thing, not an individual thing. I can claim I own something, but what makes my ownership real is that the rest of you don’t own it. My ownership isn’t something I do, it’s something we do.
[Aside: This is why it's completely false to say that government programs primarily benefit the poor. Property is a creation of government, so the primary beneficiaries of government are the people who own things -- the rich.]
Property and Labor. It’s worthwhile to go back and read the justifications of property that were given in the early days of capitalism. The most famous and influential such justification was in John Locke’s 1690 classic The Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke admits that both reason and Christian revelation say that God gave the world to all people in common.
But I shall endeavour to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.
Locke argues that we individually own our bodies, and so we own our labor. So when our labor gets mingled with physical objects, we develop a special claim on those objects. The person who gathers apples in a wild forest, Locke says, owns those apples.
The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. … Though the water running in the fountain be every one’s, yet who can doubt, but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour hath taken it out of the hands of nature, where it was common, and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself.
But Locke attaches a condition to this justification: It only works if your appropriation doesn’t prevent the next person from doing the same.
No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst
And that’s where the whole thing breaks down. Today, a baby abandoned in a dumpster has as valid a moral claim to the Earth as anybody else. But as that child grows it will find that in fact everything of value has already been claimed. Locke’s metaphorical water is all in private pitchers now, and the common river is dry.
When that individual tries to mingle labor with physical objects, he or she will be rebuffed at every turn. Gather apples? The orchard belongs to someone else. Hunt or fish? The forest and the lake are private property.
The industrial economy is in the same condition. You can’t go down to the Ford plant and start working on your new car. You have to be hired first. You need an owner’s permission before your labor can start to create property for you. If no owner will give you that permission, then you could starve.
Access to the means of production. In Locke’s hunter-gatherer state of Nature, only laziness could keep an able-bodied person poor, because the means of production — Nature — was just sitting there waiting for human labor to turn it into property.
Today’s economic environment is very different, but our intuitions haven’t kept up. Our anxiety today isn’t that there won’t be enough goods in the world, and it isn’t fear that our own laziness will prevent us from working to produce those goods. Our fear is that the owners of the means of production won’t grant us access, so we will never have the opportunity to apply our labor.
I meet very few able-bodied adults whose first choice is to sit around demanding a handout. But I meet a lot who want a job and can’t find one. I also meet young people who would be happy to study whatever subject and train in whatever skill would get them a decent job. I am frustrated that I can’t tell them what subject or what skill that is.
Justice. A Libertarian government that simply maintained this property system would be enforcing a great injustice. Access to the means of production should be a human birthright. Everyone ought to have the chance to turn his or her labor into products that he or she could own.
What’s more, everyone should get the benefit of the increased productivity of society. No individual created that productivity single-handedly. No individual has a right to siphon it off.
But instead, our society has a class of owners, and everyone else participates in the bounty of the Earth and the wealth of human progress only by their permission. Increasingly, they maneuver into a position that allows them to drive a hard bargain for that permission. And so higher productivity means higher unemployment, and the average person’s standard of living decreases even as total wealth increases.
The role of government. I anticipate this objection: “You want to go back to being hunter-gatherers. We’ll all starve.”
Not at all. I want a modern economy. But a lassez-faire economy that takes the property system as given is unjust. It is the proper role of government to balance that injustice, to provide many paths of access to the means of production, and to compensate those who are still shut out.
To prevent government from doing so, in today’s world, is no way to champion freedom. Quite the opposite, it’s tyrannical.