18 June 2013

A flimsy argument against libertarianism

A lot of people are getting worked up over a column Michael Lind wrote for Slate earlier this month. Lind offends people in two ways. First, he opposes libertarianism -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Second, he makes what strikes even this sympathetic readers as a dumb argument. Simply put, he argues that libertarianism doesn't work because there are no libertarian countries in the world. In Lind's own words: "If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?"

On one level, I understand the idea behind the question. Given how libertarians have made the case so often for their ideals, why has no country chosen a libertarian course? Lind's own answer, on this level, is that people understand that libertarianism comes with a trade-off: you get more economic freedom (whether you personally can take advantage of it or not) at the expense (or maybe just the risk) of reduced quality of life. But this is really an argument for why libertarians lose elections, when they actually run. Let's agree that elections are subjective. Elections no more prove that libertarianism doesn't work than they would prove that Marxism doesn't work. Marxists can give you plenty of reasons why that assumption is false. Meanwhile, Lind goes on to use the example of Marxism for his own purposes.

Lind recalls that for much of the 20th century Marxists could maintain some degree of credibility by pointing to the supposed successes of countries governed by "really-existing socialism." The mere existence of professedly socialist or communist countries proved that Marxism or Leninism was minimally viable in a way that libertarianism, Lind contends, hasn't yet proven itself to be. Libertarians can't point to "actually-existing libertarianism" anywhere. This is a dumb argument because all "actually-existing socialism" ever proved was that certain kinds of socialists were capable of taking power and holding it for a while. Lind presses forward, however, to make the comparison even dumber.

Libertarians have often proclaimed that the economic failure of Marxism-Leninism discredits not only all forms of socialism but also moderate social-democratic liberalism. But think about this for a moment. If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world? Communism was tried and failed. Libertarianism has never even been tried on the scale of a modern nation-state, even a small one, anywhere in the world.

If Communism is discredited by failure, how can something that's never been given a chance to fail be discredited? So far, libertarianism's only failures, as mentioned already, have been political. The most Lind can show otherwise is that some countries ranked by libertarian think-tanks as having more "economic freedom" than the U.S. (while not being considered truly libertarian) have lower quality of life in some categories. Lind implies that "economic freedom" automatically means that the state spends a lower percentage of GDP on education, health care, hence the poor quality-of-life results in someplace like Mauritius. Leaving other factors that may shape quality-of-life in that small nation, Lind implies a correlation between government spending and literacy or infant mortality, but I suspect that the amount of money thrown at a problem isn't the only factor in its persistence in some cases.

In the end, Lind falls back on his "if it's so great why hasn't anyone tried it?" argument, suggesting that your average voter may know by a hunch what Mauritius seems to prove. The analogy with the electoral fortunes of Marxists remain valid, however. Does the failure of Marxists to win elections in the United States prove that Marxism is tyranny? Of course not. Likewise, all the electoral failures of libertarianism prove is that people don't want it. In both cases, ideologues can argue that objective conditions generate false consciousness. If workers vote for capitalism, the Marxist argues, it proves that they don't know their own best interests or even understand their objective situation. Libertarians can say the same thing. In fact, they can go further. Just as the American Maoists you see in college towns will tell you that the American working class is more-or-less bribed into acquiescence in the capitalist order with the plunder of the planet provided by imperialism, so a libertarian can say that too many Americans are too dependent on the dole to see how they and everyone else could do better with more economic liberty, or how living on the dole is ultimately unsustainable and will leave them more helpless than ever eventually. Ideology requires a change in consciousness among the people before systems can change, though ideologues often have tried to do things bass ackwards by using state power to engineer human souls. None of this is a defense of libertarianism, as there remain plenty of reasons for nations not to want it.  But it remains an objective fact that the failure of countries to go libertarian proves only that libertarianism is unpopular, not that libertarianism isn't viable.

Lind has developed his one viable conclusion elsewhere, warning that libertarians themselves recognize that their ideology is incompatible with democracy -- with political liberty, that is. That should be a strong enough argument against libertarianism, since just as libertarians themselves say that political liberty can't endure without economic liberty, so the reverse ought to be true.  In other words, if libertarianism is a perpetual veto upon the will of the people, how free will enterprise be, eventually?


Anonymous said...

I would say that the reason there is no libertarian government/state in the world is quite simply that libertarianism, by its nature, does not lend itself to strong government beyond a local level. A weak government won't survive. Therefore, it is possible that short-lived libertarian government could arise, but it wouldn't last long.

How many would be willing to accept that they are losers when, in an all libertarian society, they realize someone has to be on the bottom and that someone is them. They measure a man's worth by his success and unless every individual is involved in a unique business, there will be competition. In a competition, someone wins and everyone else is either second place, "also ran" or the loser. How many, when faced with the truth that they are the loser will continue to support that social structure?

Anonymous said...

I really think that the only viable political/economic/social system would have to meet certain requirements, the least of which are:
1) Everyone has an equal voice in creating the rules.
2) Everyone plays by the rules.

The problem is that far too often, those who make the rules refuse to play by the rules.

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that there is a much sounder argument against a libertarian government, which is libertarianism itself. They believe government should have no control over business. They feel government should not demand taxes. They insist government services could and should be privatized. Basically, when it comes down to it, in their view government serves no function at all. So what would be the point of a libertarian government?

Samuel Wilson said...

Responding to all, libertarianism assumes that each person accepts responsibility for succeeding or failing in life. The libertarian citizen is too principled or proud to "live off" other people's money and therefore will not demand a welfare state or taxation with the purpose of redistributing wealth. He sees the function of government as part referee and part policeman, presumably ensuring fair dealing in commerce (i.e. no force or fraud) and definitely protecting property from theft. The flaw in the idea -- not counting the ineradicable human desire to keep or be kept alive -- is the assumption that people will agree on what "fair dealing" is without an act of political will (automatically suspect among libertarians) defining it. If people don't automatically agree, and they don't trust a political definition, how is fair dealing possible?

Anonymous said...

Of course, what is even flimsier are the arguments in favor of libertarianism.