The Question Michael Lind Just Won’t Answer

Last year at Salon Michael Lind asked “The question libertarians just can’t answer” (June 4): “Why are there no libertarian countries?… If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it?”

He got some answers — the best of them from us free market libertarians of the left, who consider ourselves critics of corporate capitalism. Roderick Long wrote (“The Myth of 19th-Century Laissez-Faire: Who Benefits Today?,”):

The question is silly because the libertarian answer is obvious: Libertarianism is great for ordinary people, but not for the power elites that control countries and determine what policies they implement, and who don’t welcome seeing their privileged status subjected to free-market competition. And ordinary people don’t agitate for libertarian policies because most of them are not familiar with the full case for libertarianism’s benefits, in large part because the education system is controlled by the aforementioned elites.

Lind’s question is analogous to ones that might have been asked a few centuries ago: If religious toleration, or equality for women, or the abolition of slavery are so great, why haven’t any countries tried them? All such questions amount to asking: If liberation from oppression is so great for the oppressed, why haven’t their oppressors embraced it?

My own response (“The Only Thing Dumber Than Libertarianism’s Critics are its Right-Wing Defenders,” C4SS, June 22, 2013) was that Lind would

be answered by an equally profound silence if he challenged advocates of social and economic justice to name one country without economic exploitation by a privileged class. Every country in the world has an interventionist state. Every country in the world has class exploitation. Every country in history with a state, since states first arose, has also had classes and economic exploitation. The correlation is one hundred percent.

Lind wasn’t satisfied with our answers (“Libertarians: Still a Cult,” Salon, June 11).

An unscientific survey of the blogosphere turns up a number of libertarians claiming in response to my essay that, because libertarianism is anti-statist, to ask for an example of a real-world libertarian state shows a failure to understand libertarianism. But if the libertarian ideal is a stateless society, then libertarianism is merely a different name for utopian anarchism and deserves to be similarly ignored.

But Lind is no less utopian than us “utopian anarchists.” As I pointed out in response to his original challenge, Lind frames the question as if the historical range of political systems reflected a collective judgement in which “we,” “society,” or a “nation” decided what would be the best way of organizing things in the common interest. “We” tried that other thing and it didn’t work, then “we” tried this and it worked better. But this is naive, ahistorical nonsense.

In the Gospel, the chief priests, scribes and elders came to Jesus and demanded to know by what authority he preached to the people. Jesus, in response, said “I will also ask you one thing; and answer me.”

So to Michael Lind I pose a counter-question: Show me one single state, in all of human history, that wasn’t controlled by an economic ruling class and used to enforce their economic exploitation of and extraction of rents from the working or productive classes in the society it ruled? Show me one state that wasn’t an instrument of extraction on behalf of patrician landowners, the owners of slave-worked latifundia, feudal lords, capitalist corporations and banks, or — as in the USSR — the state bureaucracy itself. Show me one state whose primary purpose hasn’t been to enforce the artificial property rights and artificial scarcities that enable a propertied ruling class to live at the expense of everyone else.

To repeat what I and other left-libertarians said in response to Lind’s original article, a libertarian state is a contradiction in terms. The state came into existence, for the last 5000 years or so of our 200,000 year history as homo sapiens, in areas with productive enough agriculture for a ruling class to skim rents off the top. That’s what states do. No one can find a state in human history without a ruling class in charge of it, either. So Lind’s argument proves too much.

But perhaps Lind agrees with slavery apologist John Calhoun, and sees state-enforced class rule as a good thing: “There never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”

In fairness to Lind, I doubt this. I don’t think it’s even a question that appears on his radar. For Lind, left-wing libertarian critiques of the state and of corporate capitalism don’t even exist.

The weak logic and bad scholarship that suffuse libertarian responses to my article tend to reinforce me in my view that, if they were not paid so well to churn out anti-government propaganda by plutocrats like the Koch brothers and various self-interested corporations, libertarians would play no greater role in public debate than do the followers of Lyndon LaRouche or L. Ron Hubbard.

Lind makes no secret of the fact that, in his view, high-overhead managerial capitalism is natural and inevitable. Ideally it should be accompanied by Progressive/New Deal/Social Democratic modifications to make it more palatable. But any criticism of centralization, hierarchy or bureaucracy of such is inherently right-wing. I criticized his unstated assumptions at length here.

But the fact remains that, if anyone is guilty of “weak logic and bad scholarship” or an unwillingness to answer questions directly, it’s Lind himself.

It’s time for Michael Lind to put up or shut up.

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