Libertarianism and its discontents

There have been a few articles in the mainstream media recently denouncing “libertarianism”.  My guess would be that this is occasioned by the primary victory of Rand Paul, son of well-known Congressman Ron Paul.   The elder Paul ran for president and is extremely popular with certain elements of the libertarian community. The issue of Rand Paul in relation to libertarianism has been dealt with elsewhere.   What I want to address is the statist critique of libertarianism and what it means.  When I say statist here, I generally mean the “liberal” or social-democratic critique.  While there is a traditionalist “conservative” criticism of libertarianism, it is rarely, if ever, employed anymore and most self-styled conservatives these days are neoconservatives, who have much the same objections to libertarianism as liberals do, only with perhaps different emphases.

One thing to keep in mind is that statists and libertarians often present entirely different concerns when it comes to politics.  Statists are concerned with outcomes.  They have a picture of what they would like the world to be like, and they will advocate whatever (they believe) will “work” in order to make the world that way.  Libertarians on the other hand are generally concerned with principles.  They (mostly) have one major rule, that they apply to different scenarios in order to determine how they feel about particular issues.  This rule is called the Non Aggression Principle (sometimes called the Zero Aggression Principle).  It basically says that one should not use violence or fraud, except in self defense.  Now libertarians will have arguments among themselves, sometimes heated ones, over what “aggression” constitutes, or what “self defense” constitutes, or how the NAP applies in a particular case.  But in general, they are interested in this principle and its corollaries when they think of politics.  The Libertarian Party even calls itself “The Party of Principle” though it is questionable how well they live up to that, if at all, or if a political party even can live up to that. (Note that this does not apply to Objectivists, they are a whole other thing.  Objectivism, though it claims a certain deontological morality, bases that morality on consequentialist grounds.  Objectivists usually don’t like libertarians much either, and especially when people confuse the two.)

This principle-based approach either confuses or appalls most statists.  This is why they will often accuse libertarians of being contradictory in their approach to what the statist thinks the libertarians desire as an outcome.  Of course the proper libertarian response is “so much the worse for that outcome”.  One libertarian response to, say, taxation is “stealing is wrong, even if it does yield a beneficial outcome” (in fact the consistent libertarian would follow up with “if it requires stealing, it cannot be a beneficial outcome”).  To which the statist will often respond to the effect of “if it works, then it’s not stealing”, i.e. that a just outcome justifies a particular action.  A statist might see a libertarian as childish or “unrealistic” in their approach.  Some of them probably believe that such an approach is inherently contradictory; that is to say that one cannot, in the real world, apply any sort of principle consistently in politics without some sort of compromise.  That an attempt to do so would collapse under its own weight.  They will often follow up with a claim that libertarians therefore don’t really believe the principle they espouse and actually just want to use that as an excuse to unleash the great Satan who will lay waste to civilization promote the interests of “robber baron capitalism” or some such thing.  Since this sort of outcome-based disingenuity is exactly what Republican/Conservative statists do, this final critique seems to the Democrat/Liberal statist to neatly tie things up.  A home run, as it were.  Interestingly enough this creates a sort of circular, sealed system in which you either support one sort of oppression or another, and to ask “could we possibly live without oppression at all?” is considered “juvenile”, to use the exact word of one recent critic.

On the other hand, unfortunately, many libertarians actually *are* vulnerable to this line of criticism.  Libertarians who believe that the government can be used to protect freedom and who believe in the current regime of private property as it has evolved under the state, are indeed caught in a sort of set of contradictions.  Where does the money come from to pay the police officer or soldier?  How did the current legal boundaries of what is property come to exist?  Those who accept centralized banking are even farther into intellectual hot water.  In one recent article Paul Krugman, that sometimes more clever than usual Keynesian, points out, using the “liability cap” on BP’s oil spill, that under a corruptible government existing tort law can always be bent in favor of the wealthy and powerful.  This is true.  If there is a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and there is a government, (or do I repeat myself?) this government will always be corruptible, at some price, by those with money to spare.  Roderick Long, that always more clever than usual anarchist, makes a similar point in an old essay of his that the cost of buying off a government that can give the wealthy favors is always less expensive than the wealthy paying for what they wanted directly.  In large part because it is in the interest of the government to make it so.  What Krugman sort of ignores is that it’s just as easy if not easier for big business to infiltrate and corrupt regulatory regimes (who are by and large staffed by ex-executives from the industries they regulate) as it is for them to pressure congress and the courts on tort violations.  In the BP case, one might ask, where’s the EPA been?  Is anyone anywhere in the government even lifting a finger to go after BP at all?  And one does not have to go back far, to see the recent example of the SEC and the “great banking crisis” of 2008.  So, just as a libertarian statist is being foolish to expect full tort liability to actually get applied against corporations under a corruptible government, so too is a liberal statist being foolish or disingenous to expect regulations to actually get applied to an effective degree against favored corporations under a corruptible government.  There might be some minor fines at most, just as BP might have to pay the (what is for them) chump change of 75 million.  As much or more than the libertarians, the liberals are also plutocrats.  The libertarian can always claim “this is just what happens when you don’t aggress against people” (even though in many cases they end up wrong about that).  But the liberal has no excuse, not operating from strict principles.  And, in the end, when pressed, most of them will backhandedly admit that they are plutocrats, but that they’re the wise and pragmatic plutocrats (which, within the context of the  state, they often are, sadly).

Only the anarchist has the answer to this conundrum.  In a sense, one could say that what it means to be an anarchist is to disagree with the above idea of “if it works, it’s not stealing”.  Unlike minarchist libertarianism, anarchism says specifically that no one has the authority to do anything that everyone else doesn’t have the authority to do.  There is no magic beast called “government” that can save us or destroy us.  The result of this, if widely accepted, is also that there are no magic beasts called “banks” or “corporations” (though there might be organizations that use those words, they would not resemble the formalized institutions we know of today).  An anarchist doesn’t let a bully take over or destroy their neighborhood, no matter what special labels or formulaic ritualised words they try to use to justify it.  Let’s look at the BP example again.
First of all, there would probably not be any oil companies as large as BP under anarchism.  The demand for oil in an anarchist world would likely be a fraction of what it is today, without centralized distribution channels and vast military complexes.  And without a centralized financial system, if one company like BP could form, thousands could, so that smaller market would be much more fragmented.  But assuming there was, and they got permission to drill oil from the people who owned the area of water, they would almost certainly have to put down some sort of insanely massive deposit or accept a very strong insurance policy to get that permission.  At that point, the insurance company would be pretty insistent that they don’t do a shoddy job with the well.  If they did screw up, the insurance would pay for the clean up and restitution or they’d lose their deposit, either of which would almost certainly wipe them out as a company.  If somehow they managed to spill, without any sort of insurance, they would be in very deep, pardon the pun.  There would be no shield called “the government” protecting them from *millions* of justifiable angry anarchists.  Not only would they pay for the cleanup, they’d pay restitution for the damage done by the oil, and they’d get kicked the hell out of there.   If such a company even survived that, they would find it quite difficult to get approval to drill anywhere else.

The anarchist approach to politics is oblique to either left or right wing statism and to minarchist/statist libertarianism.  Within the context of the state, the anarchist may prefer one set of policies to another for various reasons, but always with the understanding that something fundamentally unjust (the state is based in violence) and also nonsensical (the state is a social fiction) is going on.  In some ways just as the liberal statist may see the libertarian statist as somewhat self-contradictory or unrealistic, the anarchist views all statist viewpoints as fantastical, contradictory and/or intellectually dishonest.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory