Libertarianism for dummies

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman
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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.

3. Myth: Libertarians are selfish.

Some libertarians are selfish, but libertarians are no more likely to be selfish than non-libertarians. You see, libertarians don’t think compassion is something you leave at the voting booth. And if it’s compulsory, it’s not really compassion at all, is it? Self-interest is certainly a part of our worldview. To deny one’s natural inclinations toward pursuing happiness is just kooky asceticism (unless, of course, asceticism somehow makes you happy.) We also know prosperity is the result of “selfish” people going about their business — trucking, bartering and trading.

But people have selfless instincts, too. So how should people manifest those instincts, by actively looking after our neighbors or by watching MSNBC and bitching about the rich? Libertarians are charitable to the extent that human beings are charitable. We happen to think individuals are better at making decisions about charity than central authorities. In fact, we consider it morally lazy to conflate higher taxes and forced redistribution with compassion. And we consider it strange to justify coercion by appeal to compassion. Think about it: Would it be morally justified for me to walk up to a man on the street and hold him up at gunpoint if I planned to give his money to charity? If not, what does a mob of voters and a corruptible legislature add to this story?

4. Myth: Libertarians don’t care if poor people (especially children) starve and sick people die.

In the interests of some grand compromise, most libertarians would tolerate some sort of minimum income or safety net — but it would look nothing like the monstrous entitlement system we have today. I don’t want to be flippant. I’m using strong language because today’s entitlement state is truly monstrous. It creates a dependent underclass — i.e., folks essentially paid to be poor. Bizarrely, it forces younger, poorer people to pay for the pensions (Social Security) and healthcare of rich people in Boca Raton. And it corrupts/crowds out the philanthropic sector. Helping the poor with welfare is like putting out a fire with sweet crude.

5. Myth: Libertarians think people should be able to do whatever they want.

No. Libertarians think people should be able to do whatever they want as long as: they don’t harm others or others’ property; they are not contractually bound to forego certain activities; and their own freely chosen moral systems don’t proscribe it. On the latter: I know quite a few Mormon libertarians. They swear off caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. (These are some of my favorite vices!) But most Mormons don’t see it as the state’s responsibility to take care of my body or my spirit. It’s mine. By Mormon lights, I have to choose the straight and narrow for it to matter. Moral practice is both a private and social affair, to be sure. But “social” doesn’t extend to state power. It’s about the free formation of moral communities. What other kind of morality is there but the kind one chooses? State-enforced “good” has always ended up in varying degrees being on the wrong side of history — from the Inquisition to the Great Leap Forward. That is why, for libertarians, tolerance is a prime virtue.

6. Myth: Libertarians have a narrow “don’t tread on me” ethos.

Well, this isn’t a complete myth. Let’s just say it’s a myth of omission — that is, only part of the story. It’s true that in our guts we don’t want anyone to tell us what to do. We don’t think anyone should decide what we may put into our bodies, how to spend our money, or how to live our lives. We don’t want to be used as slave labor for all or part of the year. I guess we could be accused of sounding like most teenagers — only with a big caveat about personal responsibility.

But if we look at the whole libertarian ethos, we can see a corollary to the Gadsden flag motto: “Don’t tread on others.” In other words, Rabbi Hillel the Elder had it right more than 2,000 years ago when he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” On the other side of the world (at probably the exact same time) Lao-Tzu warned: “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished. … The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.” It’s not that hard to understand why. If more people adhered to the “don’t tread” principle as a matter of ethics and of policy, there would be less treading-upon in the world. Far from being based in some Enlightenment fancy or tea party slogan, libertarianism is rooted in ancient truths about how people can achieve social harmony and prosperity.

7. Myth: Libertarians are corporate apologists.

To quote Bugs Bunny: “Eh, he don’t know me very well, do he?”

Libertarians and classical liberals from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, James Madison to James Buchanan, and Frederic Bastiat to Friedrich Hayek have been warning us about corporations since there were corporations. It’s not that corporations are evil per se, however. Companies are just people cooperating for common goals. Bad things happen when corporations collude with the state against the people. When you hear the words “crony capitalism,” there is a 95 percent chance that’s coming from the mouth of a libertarian. That’s because liberals, conservatives and populists cannot so easily distance themselves from it. The left has had its Solyndras. The right has had its Halliburtons. Both tribes have had their banksters. And libertarians have had enough. We believe cronyism will destroy this Republic as surely as it destroyed Rome.

8. Myth: Libertarians agree on everything.

Here’s a mini top ten list of things about which libertarians are fairly divided:

1.) Immigration
2.) Austrian or Chicago economics
3.) Abortion
4.) Origin of rights
5.) The status of children and teenagers
6.) War and pacifism
7.) Strategy of reform
8.) Tactics of reform
9.) Whether to compromise
10.) Intellectual property rights

9. Myth: Libertarianism is untried and would never work.

I have two responses to this myth: The first is: “So you think this is working?” The second is: History has shown that, by degrees, the freer the people, the happier and more prosperous they are. I can say all of this with confidence because there is a strong correlation between freedom and prosperity. Just look at examples in the Fraser and Heritage economic freedom indices.

Now, if we thought something wouldn’t work because it was untried, we would not have most of the good things we enjoy today. Try telling Tim Berners-Lee circa 1988 that the Internet would never work: A fully decentralized information network used by billions of free people around the world without central control? My God, it’s untried!

10. Myth: Libertarianism is a “materialistic” worldview.

Saved this one for last. In fact, one of my friends skewered this turkey in his new book with great finesse: “‘Materialist values’ is a vague term, but if — as seems to be the case — [E.J.] Dionne thinks the chief justification for capitalism is that it generates lots of stuff for consumers, he’s mistaken,” writes Donald Boudreaux.

While capitalism emphatically does improve material living standards, all the great champions of economic freedom (a.k.a. capitalism) ultimately justify this system because only it affords true dignity to individuals — the dignity that is denied by interventionist systems which arbitrarily diminish each person’s freedom to choose. For “Progressives” such as Mr. Dionne not to share the value of freedom is fine. But it’s rather cheeky to accuse, with one breath, proponents of capitalism of being unduly focused on material goods, and with the next breath to insist that a major problem with capitalism is that some people get fewer material goods than do other people.

Professor Boudreaux nails it. What we do with what’s left of our freedom may be materialistic, may be intellectual, and may even be spiritual. But it is not materialism that grounds our worldview. It is rather the powerful and ennobling idea that people are creative beings who should have the maximum possible latitude to pursue diverse conceptions of happiness and the good.

But, but …

I can hear all the “buts” now. People should ask themselves three fundamental questions before launching into any critique of libertarianism:

1.) In your heart, do you prefer persuasion and cooperation over power and coercion? If no, then read no further. If yes …

2.) In forming your opinions about the role of government — whatever they are — have you exhausted every other means of achieving some good end before turning to state coercion? If no, then try being more creative and entrepreneurial before rashly turning to power. If yes …

3.) Are you even a little closer to understanding the libertarian worldview than you were before?

Max Borders is author of the forthcoming “Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.” Contact him if you want a reminder when the book is out.