Where has the time gone
28 July 2017 00:33 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The hilariously misunderstood libertarian

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

It is hard to generalise about libertarians, by their very nature. But if you’re going to try to “expose their contradictions and faulty logic”, at least get their principles right. On the other hand, getting it badly wrong does offer an opportunity to debunk many myths and misconceptions about libertarianism on the political left.

Libertarians are hypocrites, writes Richard Eskow, because they believe in “fanciful theories that have never predicted real-world behaviour”, because history shows that “selfishness” only makes things worse for everybody, and because while they believe in free markets, they are the first to clamour for government protection.

Eskow is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, the left-leaning counterweight to the more centrist Democratic Leadership Council in the US Democratic Party. He wrote this critique of libertarianism for AlterNet, a great font of left-wing paranoia, which of late has been proudly republished by Salon.com.

Libertarians, to my mind, are people who advocate freedom. In particular, they believe in both socio-political and economic freedom. How exactly this is to be achieved is a matter of robust debate among libertarians themselves, but for the most part, they seek a small government dedicated to upholding laws protecting life and property, freedom from coercive regulations, and low taxes to fund this minimal state.

At the risk of over-generalising, this contrasts with conservatives who are inclined to economic freedom but frown on social liberty, and left-liberals who are into social freedom but support economic socialism. Both liberals and conservatives have a tendency to increase the size and scope of government: the former in support of socialist objectives and environmental regulation, and the latter in support of warlike imperial ambition and big business interests.

Eskow proposes a list of questions, as convoluted as they are misinformed, that can demonstrate your favourite libertarian to be a hypocrite. Unselfconsciously, he adds: “That’s no reason not to work with them on areas where they’re in agreement with people like me.”

Declaring the validity of an argument to be dependent on whether you agree is itself rather hypocritical, and appealing to “people like me” sounds rather bigoted.

Eskow thinks libertarianism is funded by the Koch brothers and other corporate interests, which some of it undoubtedly is. But that kind of paranoia is no more relevant than whether his own brand of politics is funded by high rollers like George Soros. There’s money and self-dealing across the political spectrum. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” is no more sinister than the “vast left-wing conspiracy”, and libertarianism is a good deal less sinister than both.

His appeal to the selfish motives of libertarians is an unjustified generalisation and does not address the substantive justifiability of a principle. If he thinks libertarians are greedy for wanting to keep the money they earn, would he accept that welfare statists are greedy for wanting to steal it? If his appeal to selfish motives were valid, we could only trust those who want things that are bad for them. I’m not sure I see why that would be smart. Eskow’s argument does not distinguish between rich and poor libertarians, and it cannot distinguish between self-interest and the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. As a point of rhetoric, it is superficial and unenlightening.

He says that some who claim to advocate libertarian principles are quick to seek government protection. That is true. But it is also true for those who advocate conservative and liberal principles. If they actively advocate protectionism, they are no libertarians. If they merely take advantage of it when it is available to them, there is no contradiction.

Libertarians might want a level playing field, but they can’t make it so. Few investors will refuse government subsidies or exclusive licences on principle, because if they do so, their less scrupulous competitors will eat their lunch. If a government benefit is available, one might respect someone who forgoes it on principle, but you can’t honestly blame someone who doesn’t. Blame the government that created them. Libertarians favour freedom for business, but oppose political cronyism. Free market theory is not about big business or protectionism. On the contrary, it depends on equality before the law and letting businesses that do not serve a market fail.

Libertarians also pay tax, quite against their own political principles. Would Eskow expect them to stand on principle and evade taxation? Does he expect libertarians to abstain from doing business, just because the terms of trade set by taxes, tariffs, subsidies, regulations and licensing policy do not accord with their preferred principles? Playing on an unlevel playing field does not make it hypocritical to observe that the playing field ought to be level.

The same is true for the trite observation that many industries and technologies were developed by governments. Are libertarians supposed to forswear the use of the Internet, or Teflon, because of who developed it? Does Eskow mean to say that people wouldn’t have developed any of the things governments threw money at, usually motivated by a desire to count, tax and control domestic citizens, and kill foreign enemies?

Eskow invokes Ayn Rand to caricature libertarians as “selfish”, but ignores the many arguably more influential writers such as Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises, who advocate economic freedom.

He says that libertarians claim such selfishness make things better for everyone, when in reality it makes things worse. But a typical libertarians definition of economic freedom explicitly acknowledges the right to give property away. “Individuals have economic freedom when property they acquire without the use of force, fraud, or theft is protected from physical invasions by others and they are free to use, exchange, or give their property as long as their actions do not violate the identical rights of others. An index of economic freedom should measure the extent to which rightly acquired property is protected and individuals are engaged in voluntary transactions.”

For empirical evidence that economic freedom really does produce the greatest good for the greatest number, one need look no further than the data compiled by the Economic Freedom of the World Index, from which that definition comes.

But Eskow is not done yet. “At no time or place in human history has there been a working libertarian society which provided its people with the kinds of outcomes libertarians claim it will provide,” he writes.

To the extent that there have been few large-scale real-world examples of libertarian societies, he may be right. Conversely, however, there have been many socialist societies, and as many dramatic failures. Economic freedom is a matter of degree. It is clearly correlated with economic prosperity, for both rich and poor. He falsely claims a lack of empirical evidence of the success of economic freedom. Undermining his argument even further, there is a host of empirical evidence that absence of freedom leads to failure.

As examples of the failures of libertarian principles, Eskow repeatedly resorts to examples of force, fraud, or theft. As the definition of economic freedom makes clear, such actions run directly contrary to libertarian principles. They explicitly and always argue that force, fraud and theft ought to be morally and legally wrong. So why cite them as examples of libertarian hypocrisy? Because you can’t find any other examples, perhaps?

He also says that libertarians believe in theories that have never predicted real-world behaviour, but he is wrong both in principle and in fact. The purpose of economic theory is not to predict, in any scientific sense, the future. Human action is voluntary, and by its subjective nature is unpredictable. Nobody can know better than you what motivates you, or how you’d choose between a range of different options. This is why central planning and technocracy fails.

Having said that, though libertarian economics doesn’t claim to be able to make quantitative or individual predictions, it is surprisingly good at aggregate predictions. The economist Ludwig von Mises refused a job at a bank in 1929, warning: “A great crash is coming, and I don't want my name in any way connected with it.” The bank, one of Europe's biggest, collapsed in 1931.

Ron Paul, the retired US congressman and former presidential candidate that did more than most to popularise libertarian ideas, appeared before Congress to warn that an influx of easy money in the aftermath of the dot-com crash would lead to a housing bubble, which would inevitably collapse too. Some economists make a big deal of having anticipated the 2008 crash in 2007, or 2006. Ron Paul described in eerie detail how the 2008 crash would unfold as early as 2001.

As I wrote a few years ago, don’t blame those who saw it coming.

So, Eskow’s major premises all seem to be wrong, or beside the point.

He’s still not done, however. He says that the libertarian appeal to “spontaneous order” does not apply to, say, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, or labour unions. Again, a libertarian would be surprised at this.

Libertarians welcome unions and believe they can be of great service to employees in their negotiations with employers. Freedom of association and contract is a key tenet of libertarianism. What they object to is the use of force. They dispute the virtues of socialism. It is only when unions make dubious claims about their achievements, enjoy special legal rights, make membership compulsory, or promote socialist ideas, that free market advocates object.

Libertarian are perfectly willing to acknowledge, in Eskow’s words, “that workers who bargain for their services, individually and collectively, are also employing market forces.” Witness my own view on unions, for example.

Popular movements are also not against libertarian principles. In fact, historical uprisings such as the French and American revolutions are often invoked by advocates of freedom against the oppression by colonial powers, wealthy aristocrats, or tyrannical states. When Occupy Wall Street happened, prominent libertarians appealed to them because they recognised that while popular anger was often misdirected, the concerns were the same as those of libertarians.

It is true, as Eskow says, that many libertarians are distrustful of democracy. The reason is not the exercise of individual freedom that a vote represents, but the danger that the coercive power that the majority so acquires can be used to infringe the rights of individuals. Socialism is no less evil because a majority voted for it. Individual opinion is the final arbiter of what is right or wrong for that individual, but popular opinion is no arbiter of what is right or wrong in the general case.

Libertarians usually distrust popular elections as much as they distrust the governments that are established by them, but accept democracy as Winston Churchill described it in a speech to the British House of Commons in 1947: “Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Finally, Eskow makes a curious statement, namely that “libertarians will [say] that government has only two valid functions: to protect the national security and enforce intellectual property laws.”

That’s news to me. The libertarians I’ve read are more concerned with the right to life and physical property. Both war and intellectual property are controversial questions among libertarians, and are often up for serious debate. In fact, many are against intellectual property, considering it to be an unjustifiable monopoly granted by a protectionist state. Many are anti-war pacifists, and some wonder why anyone would think governments are better at common defence than they are at anything else.

Eskow tries to attack libertarians for being hypocrites, but by drawing crude and often inaccurate caricatures of libertarian thought, he exposes only his own “contradictions and faulty logic.” DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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