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Eight myths about libertarians

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.

It seems the “reformed libertarian” has become a regular feature in left-wing magazines like Salon. Yet all they show is a sad failure to grasp what libertarianism really means, and a curious vindictiveness to go with it. So, here are a few pointers for the editors at leftie rags.

I recently had occasion to write a lengthy column to fisk an anti-libertarian screed on by Richard Eskow, of a leftist think tank Campaign for America’s Future that heavily influences the US Democratic Party. Perhaps it was too closely modeled on the piece it was critiquing, but upon re-reading it I found it lacks clarity.

My fault. Since other journalists, knowing I’m a self-proclaimed libertarian, keep sending me such pieces with snide requests for comment, let me try to remedy that lack. I propose to answer a new article on Salon, by Edwin Lyngar. This time, I’ll do it in point form.

Why I fled libertarianism — and became a liberal,” is what Lyngar calls his piece. It does an excellent job demonstrating that he never really was a libertarian, and still doesn’t understand it. I don’t know much about him, except that he looks dangerously insane in his photograph. (Hey, if he can call libertarians “fucking nuts”, his biker goatee is fair game.)

For context, let me repeat my definition from last time:

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.”

Now, let’s address the myths and misconceptions evident in Lyngar’s petty and vindictive rant.

1. Libertarians are conspiracy theorists

This is Lyngar’s primary charge, and is perhaps the most serious one. The reason is that many conspiracy theorists really are attracted to a political philosophy that distrusts both government and corporate power, and espouses freedom of thought, speech and conscience.

It is, in fact, a major public relations problem for libertarians, because they cannot really fix it without contradicting the principles of freedom they do hold. So all a true libertarian can say if you believe aliens abducted your mother, or politicians are lizard people, is that it’s your problem as long as you don’t force others to act accordingly.

Lyngar’s error is in assuming that because libertarians are tolerant of people with different beliefs, that those beliefs are characteristic of libertarianism. Not so. Just because some libertarians are conspiracy theorists does not imply most are. The same is true for religion, or atheism. Some libertarians are evangelical Christians, and some are rabid atheists. Neither belief is characteristic of libertarians, or required of them.

You’re free to believe what you want, and more importantly, no government ought to restrict your freedom of thought, of expression or conscience, provided that you do not infringe on the commensurate rights of others.

2. Advocating the gold standard is of a kind with conspiracy theories.

One of the reasons that one ought not to suppress conspiracy theories is that a theory is not false simply by virtue of being a conspiracy theory. Some are obvious “hokum”, as Lyngar notes, but others are uncomfortably close to the truth.

Witness the recent revelations about the US National Security Agency, which really did conspire to spy on everyone, without any judicial oversight, and really did go so far as to install malware on thousands of networks to do so.

Witness the complex interaction between legislators, banking regulators, credit ratings agencies, banks, and federal home loan agencies that caused the 2008 economic crisis.

Both of these cases are as close to widespread government-corporate conspiracies as anyone outside of Hollywood dared to imagine.

Perhaps because it sounded crazy and conspiracist, very few people in the economic mainstream were willing to heed the warnings of US congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul when as early as 2001 he predicted exactly how post-dotcom fiscal stimulus and lax monetary policy would result in a housing boom that would inevitably also collapse. Yet, in the mainstream, it is a claim to fame for economists (such as Nuriel Roubini) to have predicted the 2008 crash as late as 2006.

Support of a particular economic theory about monetary policy, public debt, and legal tender, might be wrong, and it might be worth debating, but it is hardly equivalent to believing the 9/11 attack was a false flag operation, or the US government assassinated John F. Kennedy.

3. Libertarians are selfish and cruel.

If you think that selfishness and cruelty are fantastic personal traits, you might be a libertarian,” writes Lyngar. Well, that’s as rude and ad hominem as it is false.

There are strains of libertarian thought – perhaps most notably Ayn Rand’s objectivism – that explicitly celebrate selfishness. If you take the time to read what she meant, it would be clear in what sense it can be considered a virtue, and libertarians certainly won’t judge you for being selfish with what belongs to you.

But there is nothing in libertarianism that requires anyone to be selfish in the sense Lyngar understands it.

Economic freedom, in the classic definition quoted by James Gwartney and Robert Lawson in the 1996 Economic Freedom of the World Report, means this: “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.”

The right to give away your property, or keep it, as you see fit, only translates to “selfishnesss and cruelty” in the dark recesses of a bitter and twisted, or sadly uninformed, mind.

Moreover, Lyngar contrasts this with the notion that the government is “supposed to help”. By that, he means that government ought to have the right to expropriate your property by force, only to give it away on your behalf. That is the same right, in a lesser degree, that slave-owners claimed over the fruits of their chattels’ labour. It can also be described as “selfish” on the part of the recipients of this largesse – who include not only the needy poor, but also for-profit companies and non-profit organisations of all kinds, that benefit financially from subsidies, grants and loan guarantees. Equally, it could be considered “cruel” towards those who worked hard to earn that money in the first place.

In short, Lyngar is very confused about the character of libertarians. Many are profoundly generous, but just don’t think it very charitable if it is required by law. If it conflicted with his idea of libertarianism to “think about real people, like my neighbors and people less lucky than me”, or he thought libertarians do “want those people to starve to death”, Lyngar hasn’t the faintest clue what libertarianism is.

4. Libertarians are intolerant racists.

It is true that some racists are attracted to libertarian notions of individual liberty and private property, because they think it gives them an excuse to discriminate against whomever they wish, on grounds of freedom of association or trespass law. However, racism is not a libertarian principle, and in fact, flatly contradicts it.

Libertarianism grants equal freedom to everyone, no matter their race, sex, gender, nationality or religion. As Lyngar does notice: “They are generally supportive of the gay community, completely behind marijuana legalization and are often against ill-considered foreign wars.”

Why would libertarians oppose foreign wars if they are cruel and bigoted racists? Why would they be supportive about sexual orientation but intolerant of race? He doesn’t even try to square this circle, which is a shortcoming of his analysis, not a valid criticism of libertarianism.

In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that even if libertarian self-interest were defined harshly as “selfish greed”, that it would preclude racism. Harry Binswanger, an Ayn Rand objectivist writing in Forbes magazine, recently made exactly that argument: if your racism trumps your economic self-interest, you are not a libertarian. He makes a good case that “selfish greed wipes out racism”.

5. Libertarians are Ayn Rand objectivists.

Many libertarians came to the belief that individual liberty – both social and economic freedom – is the best organising principle for a productive and prosperous society by reading Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s philosophical treatise disguised as a ponderous novel. It is an emotionally appealing introduction, especially if you’re a young student infused with revolutionary zeal.

Many others, however, found her philosophy of “objectivism” to be rather grating and somewhat cultish, and prefer their libertarianism expressed in the words of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Frédéric Bastiat, Henry Hazlitt or Murray Rothbard.

Lyngar probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who they were, or how they differed. After all, anything that makes libertarians a varied and dynamic community, nuanced in their views and often debating their differences, doesn’t fit his simplistic caricature.

6. Libertarians defend big business.

Confusing free market capitalism for crony-capitalist corruption is perhaps the most pervasive misconception about libertarianism, and Lyngar duly falls into the trap.

Libertarians view companies as groups of people who agree to cooperate in pursuit of goals that they cannot achieve separately. They welcome such cooperation, no matter on what scale it occurs, since they view human cooperation and the division of labour as fundamental to economic progress.

The only proviso a libertarian would have is that companies operate on a level playing field in which customers voluntarily transact with them. They would oppose any group that benefits from theft, fraud, legal advantages that others do not enjoy, or a corrupt relationship with politicians.

Because libertarians are well aware that larger companies are more likely to seek such a corrupt relationship and lobby for protectionism, they are more likely to defend the competitive nature and entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses than they are to defend big business.

Libertarians defend the natural rights of everyone, whether “capitalist elite” or not. They never “justify the excesses” of anyone, whether “capitalist elite” or not.

Lyngar notes with approval that: “Libertarians were (rightly) furious when our government bailed out the banks,” but then adds: “but they fought hardest against help for ordinary Americans… isn’t government supposed to help? Isn’t that the lesson of the Great Depression?”

It doesn’t occur to him that libertarians are merely consistent. They disapprove of theft, fraud, and cronyism, no matter who does it. They oppose redistribution in favour of anyone. Lyngar is free to make an argument that banks are somehow less deserving of government help than, say, pension funds or health insurers, but the onus is on him to explain the contradiction, instead of assuming that it is a flaw of libertarian principle.

As for the lesson of the Great Depression, it is far from clear that the New Deal was both morally justified and practically effective. An excellent revision of the mainstream economic opinion on this period is the history by Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man. Paul Krugman thought it was crap, and I can’t think of higher praise.

7. Libertarians don’t care about the poor.

Self-proclaimed “liberals” like Lyngar suppose that because libertarians distinguish between mugging and charity, and don’t see government as the solution to all the world’s problems, that they don’t care about the plight of the poor.

This is very far from the truth. The rich don’t need any help from libertarians. The poor do, and there is a wealth of literature in which libertarians discuss the causes of and solutions to poverty. All the best libertarian economic theory, from Bastiat to Von Mises, emerged in times of economic hardship, when widespread poverty was an overriding concern.

Henry Hazlitt wrote a book, entitled The Conquest of Poverty (and the selfish, greedy bastards at the Mises Institute made it available free of charge).

Libertarians have written articles such as State Splendor and Public Poverty: From Rome to Washington, and The State Causes the Poverty It Later Claims to Solve.

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto devoted a book to the question of why poverty persists in some countries, while free-market capitalism has vanquished it in others.

Libertarians, everybody knows, care about the rich to the utter neglect of the poor and vulnerable. But everybody is wrong,” writes Matt Zwolinsky, associate philosophy professor at the University of San Diego, in a piece entitled How libertarianism helps the poor. He started a website called Bleeding Heart Libertarians to elaborate on this idea.

The poor would have more in a libertarian society,” writes Mary Ruwart, an author on ethics in a free society. (Direct link, if subscribing to her newsletter to receive the password “libertyworks” is too much to ask.)

Arnold Kling at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank, writes that the libertarian approach to poverty is not to “leave them in the gutter”, and even admits that he’d be willing “to give up a little bit of freedom in order to see a meaningful reduction in poverty,” but that he believes government programmes do more harm than good.

It doesn’t even occur to people like Lyngar that libertarians might oppose government policies intended to address the plight of the poor not only because they would infringe on the rights of others, but because they are not good solutions. In his analysis, that liberal politics has good intentions is sufficient to earn his loyalty.

But good intentions imply nothing about the consequences. Accusing libertarians of not caring about the poor is a false and vindictive attack. Someone who claims to have been a libertarian ought to know better.

8. Libertarianism is unnatural.

Now where have I heard that phrasing before? Wait, don’t tell me. It was when my best friend came out as gay. A bigot told me it was unnatural. And Lyngar calls libertarians “crazy” for their “unquestioning religious fervor”!

His conclusion: “Libertarianism is unnatural, and the size of the federal government is almost irrelevant. The real question is: what does society need and how do we pay for it?”

That’s a rhetorical question, of course. He’s already answered it by saying the size of the government doesn’t matter to him. In his view, we pay for whatever society claims to need (wasn’t there something wrong with “greed”?) by a welfare state that steals from the rich to give to the poor (wasn’t there something wrong… but I repeat myself).

Any other answer that achieves the same goal, but without violating personal liberty by the use of force, is wrong, Lyngar feels. That is his “unquestioning” belief laid bare.

It just goes to prove that he never was a libertarian to begin with. DM