Libertarian Dreams

Freedom is a wonderful thing. We would all like to be as free as possible — free of constraints, free from coercion, free to live our lives in whatever way we wish.

The Libertarian philosophy, as set forth by the Libertarian Party, a political organization in the United States, consistently takes an extreme position with respect to freedom. The Libertarians are so enamored of freedom — worshipful of it, in fact — that they apply the ideology of freedom to any and all questions of social and political philosophy. At no point do they bother checking in with reality to see what consequences their ideology might have in the real world.

Along the way, they grotesquely mis-identify the enemies of freedom. More important, they radically misunderstand the complex interdependencies of the modern world.

In a few areas, the Libertarians come up with the right answers. They support abortion rights, ending imprisonment of drug users, and equal rights for homosexuals (though without specifically mentioning marriage). They favor withdrawing U.S. military forces from overseas. But in other areas, their blind adherence to ideology is more than ludicrous: It’s frightening.

The first sentence of their party platform lays bare their misunderstanding: “As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.”

I’m not at all sure what sacrificing one’s values would entail. Does that mean that you’re forced to change what you believe in? Or does it mean that you’re not able to live according to the beliefs that you have? But that’s a side issue.

The central issue is this: In the modern world, it is simply not possible for any individual to be sovereign over every aspect of his or her own life. It can’t be done. In the neolithic world of our remote ancestors, where the entire human population lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, absolute individual sovereignty might have been more feasible, but I have my doubts about that. Even in a small tribe, complex social negotiations take place. Nobody gets everything they want! If you didn’t get what you wanted, you had a choice: Kill the chief and take over, or leave the tribe. Killing the chief might be feasible, if you were strong and cunning, but if you did that, you’d get personal sovereignty while nobody else had it — not a Libertarian solution, I think. Leaving the tribe, however, was a good way to starve or get eaten by a leopard. Living in a group had advantages, even 100,000 years ago — and you had to make compromises in order to live in a group. You still do.

A little lower down on the page, we get to this: “The world we seek to build is one where individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways, without interference from government or any authoritarian power.” Following your dreams is a wonderful thing! But I’m wondering exactly what they mean by “authoritarian power.” From the context, seemingly they mean something other than government — a private authoritarian power, in other words. The Mafia might be a good example. Shaking down local small businesses, demanding protection money, yeah, that’s a form of private authoritarian power, no question about it. And I’ll oppose it right beside the Libertarians. We’re on the same page there. On the other hand, the only force that can stop organized crime is a strong and effective government.

For Libertarians, government is the main — indeed, the only — enemy of freedom. That is their blindness, and that is why their program and platform represent such a grave danger. To the threats to freedom posed by giant corporations, which are both massive and easy to see, the Libertarians are entirely oblivious.

I’m not a fan of government. Governments are quite often corrupt, inefficient, and tyrannical. But they’re also necessary. Quite aside from protecting the individual freedoms of which we’re all so fond, governments form our only effective line of defense against the endless rapacity of giant corporations.

“We hold,” says the Libertarian platform, “that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.” And a little lower down, “We … hold that where governments exist, they must not violate the rights of any individual: namely … the right to property — accordingly we oppose all government interference with private property, such as confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain….”

The problem with that position is obvious, if you think about it for more than 30 seconds. Let’s talk about zoning laws. Zoning laws are nothing if not “government interference with private property.” I’m told that in some rural areas there are no zoning laws, but all towns and cities have them, and there’s a reason for that. Let’s say you’ve just bought a house in a nice quiet neighborhood and I buy the house next door. I decide to convert my house into a combination saloon and whorehouse. Plus, I’m going to keep goats. Or perhaps I’d like to open a gun shop with an inadequately soundproofed indoor firing range and 24-hour-a-day operation. Or a toxic waste disposal facility where I collect hazardous stuff, but somehow I can’t find a customer to ship it to, so it piles up in the back yard and, you know, leaks a little now and then. Nothing is trickling across the property line, so there’s no visible violation of your property rights, but all of a sudden your kid has this hacking cough, and you’ve got hives, and your wife is getting migraines, all of which happened quite suddenly when the toxic waste came into the neighborhood.

Tell me, Mr. Libertarian — are you ready for zoning laws yet? The point of zoning laws, like so much else in modern society, is that we give up some of our cherished freedoms in order to live with one another in relative peace. Don’t want the guy next door opening up a machine shop in his garage? Okay, but that means you don’t get to open up a machine shop in your garage either.

What’s worse (for the Libertarian ideal), this is not a voluntary transaction. The zoning laws in your town were drafted before you were born, and they’ll still be on the books when you’re long gone. If you don’t like the zoning laws, if you want a variance so you can open up a machine shop (or, perhaps, a lovely little day-care center) in your home, you have no choice but to apply to City Hall, where bureaucrats will force you to fill out forms and attend hearings. This type of thing infuriates Libertarians, I’m sure. It infuriates anybody who has to deal with it. But it’s the price we pay for living in modern society.

And what about traffic laws? Individual freedom means, of course, no speed limits, no drivers’ licenses, and no auto insurance. Now, most of us are kind and considerate, and would never consider speeding while driving past a school where children are crossing the street. (Not in crosswalks, of course — there won’t be any crosswalks. The kids can run wherever they want to!) However, there are bound to be a few people who are in a hurry, or are impaired in one way or another. If there are no traffic laws, children will die.

So what happens, in a functioning society, is this: We have traffic laws. We also have government employees who are charged with the enforcement of those traffic laws. If you break the law, you go to jail. On the way, of course, you will pass through a courtroom, where more government employees will be working. When you get to jail, you’ll be watched over by still more government employees.

And guess what? All of these government employees will have to be paid. How will they be paid? You’ll have to pay taxes, that’s how. You’ll have to pay taxes whether you want to or not. If you fail to pay taxes, your wages will be garnished — by government employees. Everybody has to pay taxes, whether they want to or not. Of course, the Libertarians can’t stand this idea. They think taxes are theft. They would rather have children being run down in the street by reckless drivers than be forced to pay taxes. This is why Libertarianism is insane.

But let’s return from the digression and go on with our scrutiny of the party platform. The Libertarians take an extreme view of the Second Amendment: “We affirm the individual right recognized by the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms, and oppose the prosecution of individuals for exercising their rights of self-defense. We oppose all laws at any level of government requiring registration of, or restricting, the ownership, manufacture, or transfer or sale of firearms or ammunition.” Unregistered automatic weapons loaded with armor-piercing bullets? No restrictions. Want to carry your Uzi to high school? Onto the grounds of an elementary school? The Libertarians are fine with that. The government should butt out, right? That’s the Libertarian way.

Or maybe you just got out of that privately operated, for-profit mental hospital, because whoever was paying for your stay can no longer afford it, and now you think it would be a fine thing to carry a sawed-off shotgun under your coat just in case the little green men come after you in their flying saucers. The Libertarians are on your side, dude. In Libertarian Land, psychotics and convicted felons out on bail should all be free to buy firearms without submitting to the indignity of a background check.

Let’s take a look at the Libertarian plank on education: “Education, like any other service, is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality and efficiency with more diversity of choice. Schools should be managed locally to achieve greater accountability and parental involvement. Recognizing that the education of children is inextricably linked to moral values, we would return authority to parents to determine the education of their children, without interference from government. In particular, parents should have control of and responsibility for all funds expended for their children’s education.”

This paragraph is astonishing in its duplicity. “…all funds expended for their children’s education.” And where, precisely, are these funds to come from? From the government, via taxation? Oh, wait, that would be against the Libertarian agenda. You see what’s happening here? The Libertarian Party is trying to appeal to the freedom-loving parents in the charter school movement without openly denying that government ought to pay for the operation of the charter schools through a system of vouchers. Hey, folks, can we have a little intellectual honesty here? If you want education to be provided only and entirely by private schools through the free market, then (a) large corporations will soon gobble up the private schools, which means they won’t be managed locally nor allow significant parental involvement, (b) you’ll certainly have control of all of the funds expended for your children’s education, since all of the funds will be coming out of your own pocket (and good luck paying your mortgage at the same time, or even the grocery bill), and (c) society will be burdened with a large underclass of people who can’t afford to pay for their children’s education at all, which will lead directly to a huge upswing in illiteracy, poverty, and crime.

Here’s a lovely little squib that falls under the heading “Economic Liberty”: “A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner. Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market. The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.”

The first sentence is, quite simply, a lie. In some areas of endeavor, a market allocates resources effectively. In other areas, it doesn’t. If you find this hard to believe, you might want to read up on the history of private fire brigades in the United States. Once upon a time, fires were put out by private companies. But this was so inefficient, and there were so many abuses, that the government nationalized the industry. Today, except in a few rural areas where the tax base wouldn’t support a professional fire department, we enjoy a 100% government monopoly in fire prevention. It allocates resources more efficiently, and there’s no abuse. It’s socialism, and it works, and nobody complains about it.

Let’s look at another example, this time something fanciful. Let’s suppose that you live in a town in a desert region, where water is scarce. The only readily available source of water is a nearby mountain reservoir owned by a private individual. (Private property: inviolable.) This individual charges an exorbitant price per gallon for water, by which means he accumulates great wealth. A group of citizens band together and buy a tank truck to bring in water from elsewhere (a free market solution), but of course the truck is expensive, as is fuel, and it’s a long drive. The owner of the reservoir, seeing competition, lowers his prices temporarily, undercutting the price the tank truck crew can afford to charge for water. They are unable to repay the bank loan with which they bought the truck, so the bank repossesses the truck. The reservoir owner then raises his price again. As an added fillip, he refuses to sell any water at all to the former tank truck crew unless their daughters consent to have entirely voluntary sexual encounters with him. Hey, it’s a free market! He can offer his merchandise in exchange for whatever valuable considerations he likes. You don’t have to buy water from the guy if you don’t want to.

This anecdote, while perhaps a bit far-fetched, illustrates one of the inherent problems of the free market. The free market works well when there are numerous buyers and numerous sellers competing for a slice of the market. When there is only one seller, or only one buyer, the free market works very badly.

For a more modern example, one that everybody is familiar with, we might consider the fine print on credit card contracts. You have a choice among several credit card companies — but how can you possibly tell what all that fine print means, let alone how arbitrarily the company will apply its rules? Answer: You can’t.

The Libertarians want credit card companies to be able to offer whatever ruinous contracts they like, without regulation. The Libertarian ideology blandly assumes that if six credit card companies are offering ruinous contracts, the free market will induce one of them to offer a better contract, because they’ll get more customers that way. But what if they can gain greater profit (though not quite so many customers) by making their contract even more rapacious? Without government regulation, that possibility can’t be prevented.

Starting in the late 19th century, the U.S. government undertook numerous steps to manage trade. The problem they faced was this: For the first time in history, owing to the operation of the railroads, long-distance anonymous marketing became feasible. The consumer buying milk in Chicago was not buying it from the farmer who owned the cow. The farmer sold the milk to a distributor, who then sold it to a retailer, who sold it to the consumer. What all too often happened (and this is historical fact — you can look it up) was that the distributor adulterated the milk with other white substances that were more profitable. Some distributors, in an attempt to give milk a longer shelf life, added preservatives such as formaldehyde, which did indeed keep the milk from spoiling, but also reduced its nutritional value to zero. Babies who were fed this milk died of malnutrition in disconcerting numbers.

The free market failed to work because the buyer had no way of knowing what was in the bottle. In order for the free market to work, the buyer must have ready access to whatever information the seller has about the quality of the product on offer. If the seller knows a product is defective, but doesn’t tell the buyer, the free market cannot possibly work as intended. It is the role of the government, then, through strongly enforced regulations, to make sure products are adequately tested and accurately labelled, so that customers know what they’re buying.

In response to the dead baby problem and similar issues with canned meat and other products that were being shipped across state lines, the federal government created the Food and Drug Administration. This agency’s mandate is to do precisely what the Libertarians despise. They control and manage trade.

The Libertarian platform plank on the environment is stunning in its obtuse disregard for human nature. Let’s go through it one line at a time.

“We support a clean and healthy environment and sensible use of our natural resources.” Okay so far. But how, pray tell, is that “sensible use” to be achieved? “Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources.” As a cursory reading of any decent newspaper will soon assure you, conservation groups and private landowners are often at odds in this area. Why? Because the vested interest of private landowners is quite often not in maintaining natural resources, but in exploiting them for personal economic gain.

“Pollution and misuse of resources cause damage to our ecosystem.” Okay, that’s certainly the case. “Governments, unlike private businesses, are unaccountable for such damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection.” Whaaat? Did they really say that private businesses are accountable for environmental damage? Strip out the double negative and that’s exactly what they said. Can we talk about Bhopal? About the Gulf oil disaster? About strip mining? About clear-cutting of forests?

“Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights in resources like land, water, air, and wildlife.” One trouble with this plank statement is that it says “a clear definition” is required, but it doesn’t provide one. And what, precisely, are “individual rights in … wildlife”? Does that mean no restrictions on hunting? How exactly will unrestricted hunting protect the environment?

A deeper problem is lurking here. In fact, protecting the environment requires a clear definition not of individual rights but of our common rights as a society. The Libertarians know nothing about common rights. The individual is their only concern.

“Free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems.” This statement is no more than naked worship of the free market and property rights. I can’t even think of a reasonable example of how that might work. What we more than occasionally learn about technological innovations is that they’re even worse environmentally than the old-fashioned technologies that they replaced. Atomic power plants melting down, genetically modified crops cross-breeding with other crops due to wind-borne pollen, and who knows what will be coming down the pipe next year?

Hey, remember leaded gas? There was a technological innovation. Do you suppose the gas companies stopped adding lead voluntarily? No, that was a government regulation, wasn’t it?

“We realize that our planet’s climate is constantly changing, but environmental advocates and social pressure are the most effective means of changing public behavior.” In other words, let’s not place any restrictions on the release of greenhouse gases. Let’s not have any fuel emissions standards or any mileage standards. Let’s leave it all up to people guilt-tripping their neighbors about owning a gas-guzzling SUV. Yeah, that’s working really well, isn’t it?

This is what’s wrong with Libertarianism. It starts from an ideology, and it never checks in with the real world to find out how well that ideology is going to work.

Here’s the Libertarian agenda with respect to health care: “We favor restoring and reviving a free market health care system. We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want, the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care, including end-of-life decisions.” I’m with them on end-of-life decisions and choice of medicines. Sometimes they get it right. But as is all too glaringly apparent to anybody who doesn’t have their head stuck so far up their ass that they can see Milwaukee, the freedom to determine the level of health insurance you want is not at all the same thing as the ability to purchase the level of health insurance you want.

If you can’t afford health insurance at today’s prices, the Libertarians don’t care. Or rather, they may care as individuals, but they feel this is a problem that can and will be solved by the free market. They’re utterly convinced of this. The fact that the free market hasn’t solved the problem so far — I’m sure they have an explanation for that, probably one involving government interference in the market. Let’s see, how would that work? If the Insurance Commission would only stop reining in those ruinously high rates, insurance companies would have less paperwork, so the rates would drop. Does anybody but the Libertarians believe that?

What this plank seems to be implying, without saying it out loud, is that the Libertarians want to get rid of Medicare entirely. They want health care to be provided only by private entities. Medicare is provided mostly to the elderly, of course, and there’s a reason for that: It’s because the elderly tend to get really, really sick. Most of them could never afford private care for cancer, heart bypass operations, and so on. The lucky ones would die quickly; others would have to sell their homes — and here in California, a heart valve replacement can easily cost as much as a four-bedroom house. One operation and your life savings are toast. So let’s imagine eighty-year-old homeless people trying to survive on the street, thanks to the enlightened benevolence of the Libertarian Party. What the Libertarians are advocating here is the wholesale murder, through inaction, of millions of old people.

Yeah, how’s that free market ideology working for you now?

And of course the government requires hospital emergency rooms to treat patients whether or not the patient has insurance, or can afford to pay. Presumably the Libertarians would do away with that requirement as well. They haven’t said so, but it certainly interferes with the hospital owner’s rights. Given that there are millions of uninsured people right now in the U.S., in what is largely still a free-market health care system, we can anticipate that if hospitals were free to turn away the uninsured, there would be a rapid increase in (a) communicable diseases, (b) infant mortality, and (c) people who lost their jobs because they were too sick to work, resulting in increased levels of poverty and homelessness.

One more little observation about their plank on Economic Liberty, and then we’ll call it a night. At first glance, this seems unarguably true: “Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market.” But wait — what about child labor laws? Does a parent have the right to offer the labor of their eight-year-old son or daughter twelve hours a day, six days of week, in a poorly ventilated sweatshop? Looking down a little further, under the heading “Labor Markets,” we find this: “We support repeal of all laws which impede the ability of any person to find employment.” That’s “any person,” not “any adult.”

Do I think the Libertarians actually favor the repeal of child labor laws? That’s a tough question. They clearly favor the right of employers to force workers to work arbitrarily long hours for substandard wages. Or, okay, “force” is the wrong word. In Libertarian Land, nobody is forced to do anything. However, Libertarians certainly favor the right of employers to offer work only to workers who are willing to labor for arbitrarily long hours, for substandard wages, in unsafe working conditions. That’s quite clear.

In the free market, if you don’t like the job being offered by Company A, you go across the street and work for Company B. Problem solved. Except, it doesn’t work that way in the real world, for several reasons. First, the bosses of Company A and Company B may have a little informal agreement about wages and such things. Second, Company B may not be hiring. Third, there may not be a Company B; Company A may be the only employer in town who has work of the type that you know how to do. This used to be the case in the mining industry, for instance. It may still be.

My suspicion is that the Libertarians don’t have a position on child labor because they’ve never had to think it through. Thanks to the committed socialists of the 19th century, who finally managed to get child labor outlawed, the Libertarians have the freedom not to be inconvenienced by having to ponder the depths of depravity to which employers will sink, given half a chance.

And that’s fortunate, because they’re just no darn good at pondering much of anything.

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