Opinion

Libertarianism for dummies

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Max Borders
Editor, The Freeman
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      Max Borders

      Max Borders is editor of The Freeman and author of "Superwealth: Why We Should Stop Worrying about the Gap between Rich and Poor."

There is no denying it. Libertarianism is hot. This has a lot of people on both the left and right nervous. Some of the territory liberals and conservatives believed they had staked out long ago is being taken over by a new center — one that seems to borrow from aspects of each of the dominant partisan tribes. But libertarianism has its own elegant symmetry, as we’ll see.

The two tribes’ anxiety toward libertarianism rears its head in a number of ways. Most critics stitch together libertarian voodoo dolls from scraps of hearsay and Newsweek articles, then needle the dolls to get a reaction. Others say libertarianism is passé — a mere echo of discredited Enlightenment thinking. Still others claim libertarianism is a dogma that could never exist in the “real world.”

This article is intended as a general antidote to these criticisms. But more than that, it’s an invitation. So feel free to bookmark it. Whenever one of your social network “friends” starts in on some rant, you can save time and simply link to this piece.

1. Myth: Libertarianism is about blind faith in market processes.

Libertarianism starts with skepticism about government power, not faith in markets. Because markets are just an abstraction, what we’re really talking about is decentralized people power. We do have faith in people because people can and do solve problems. Governments are people, too, of course. So the most basic question is: which form of organization does a better job of solving problems and making the world a better place — centralized organization or decentralized? In other words, why do libertarians prefer market processes to government power in most areas? Libertarians are skeptical of government power not merely because of Lord Acton’s admonition about “absolute power.” We also think voluntary association is pro-social.

When people work together voluntarily, they:

1) Have better incentives to achieve their goals — both private and common;
2) Don’t coerce each other, they convince each other (and persuasion is better than power);
3) Are the stuff of real economies and real communities, not some political contrivance;
4) Can more easily exit a group or a set of rules in order to try something new;
5) Tend to pay closer attention to those around them — like their family, neighbors and community.

2. Myth: Libertarians think there should be no government.

Some libertarians engage in philosophical debates about the possibility of no government. But most libertarians believe government should be restricted to certain basic things — namely those things that protect you and your neighbor’s life, liberty and property. So what are those things? Courts to settle disputes, enforce contracts and administer justice. A solid national defense should resist adventurism. A police force should protect us, but with limited powers and responsibilities. Any other purported responsibilities of government — like building roads and bridges — should at least be pushed down to the most local level possible. Big plans fail big. Small experiments fail small. Successful small experiments can be replicated after a process of trial and error.