Equating Marxism with libertarianism is just plain asking for it.
I sent this off to Robert Locke moments ago:
As a libertarian I took exception to your treatise “Marxism of the Right” and intend to pull it apart, piece by piece. Since you have done this yourself in “How the Left Thinks (Or Does’t)” some two years ago, I expect you to appreciate the effort. Let’s begin, shall we?
“Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual eccentrics often find an attractive political philosophy in libertarianism, the idea that individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics and government. Libertarianism offers its believers a clear conscience to do things society presently restrains, like make more money, have more sex, or take more drugs. It promises a consistent formula for ethics, a rigorous framework for policy analysis, a foundation in American history, and the application of capitalist efficiencies to the whole of society. But while it contains substantial grains of truth, as a whole it is a seductive mistake.”
Starting off one’s argument with a blatant ad hominem smear usually indicates an inherent weakness in the reasoning which will be used in the attempt to support that argument. I’ll grant you that you did not try to claim that the majority of libertarians are ex-socialists, drug users, sexual deviants, et al, but it was clear that you were attempting to cast the people who call themselves libertarians in a negative light based on a minority of their ranks. Every libertarian I’ve met personally could be accused of falling into the foremost two of your categories at a maximum.
“There are many varieties of libertarianism, from natural-law libertarianism (the least crazy) to anarcho-capitalism (the most), and some varieties avoid some of the criticisms below. But many are still subject to most of them, and some of the more successful varieties—I recently heard a respected pundit insist that classical liberalism is libertarianism—enter a gray area where it is not really clear that they are libertarians at all. But because 95 percent of the libertarianism one encounters at cocktail parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill is a kind of commonplace “street” libertarianism, I decline to allow libertarians the sophistical trick of using a vulgar libertarianism to agitate for what they want by defending a refined version of their doctrine when challenged philosophically. We’ve seen Marxists pull that before.”
In the first place, I shouldn’t have to explain to you the necessities of the unprepared argument versus the prepared argument. Every political ideology from Marxism to fascism has a need for a “street” form and a refined form. Even Republicans behave that way, because in the end what constitutes the difference between “street” ideology and refined philosophy is the analogue of the bumper sticker or protest sign versus the abstract essay anthology. You cannot expect libertarians to be able to sit down with everybody they meet and have an hours-long discussion with open, highlighted copies of Anarchy, State, and Utopia and/or The Virtue of Selfishness (in fact, it is unfortunately unreasonable to even expect that proponents of a given ideology even know what its seminal thinkers and works are, but I do think libertarians do better than the average Republican or Democrat in that regard). Because of the nature of modern media, it is necessary for all political views to be crudely condensed into bumper stickers and sound bites. It’s intellectually dishonest to blame libertarians singly for a systemic problem.
“This is no surprise, as libertarianism is basically the Marxism of the Right. If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both selfishness and altruism, to function. Like Marxism, libertarianism offers the fraudulent intellectual security of a complete a priori account of the political good without the effort of empirical investigation. Like Marxism, it aspires, overtly or covertly, to reduce social life to economics. And like Marxism, it has its historical myths and a genius for making its followers feel like an elect unbound by the moral rules of their society.”
Ah, are we neglecting to think about the difference between schools of thought and objective categories of ideas or actions? Yes, yes indeed. First, the parallelism here is specious. Collectivism for the most part can mean only one thing: a school of thought foundational to Marxism and its offshoots communism and socialism. Individualism on the other hand is most often used to discuss a personal virtue that encourages responsibility, not a school of thought. Collectivism has been, in every real world application, involuntary; individualism, voluntary. However, there are things which can be called, categorically, collective concerns. National defense is a collective concern, but it does not require a collectivist government or society to be executed. It simply requires the individual recognition that a nation will not stand if each household responds one at a time to the advance of an invading army. Society does not need collectivism or any of the redistribution by force that it entails, only an individual recognition to meet collective needs.
Furthermore, to say that libertarianism has no empirical foundation is a negative only to those who do not understand the meaning of the words (who are also, unfortunately, numerous). The closest any government has come to a libertarian form has been our own during the first three decades after the adoption of the Constitution, and I’d say that worked out pretty well. Marxism makes its claims while trying to hide the fact that every one of its attempts have met some unacceptable degree of total failure, and as such it is truly without any empirical ground to stand on; however the problem libertarianism faces empirically is not that it has been tested and failed, but that it has not been tested at all. One must give it a chance before attempting to cast it in an empirically negative light if one wishes not to look foolish.
I would also point out that I do not think it is wrong to “reduce social life to economics.” If you can make a sound argument for why society would exist without economics, I’d like to hear it, but economics is the real foundation upon which all other human intellectual endeavors rests. “Reducing social life to economics” is really simply looking for the economic motivation for social norms, which necessarily must and do exist.
You go on to speak of historical myths underlying libertarianism, but decline to give any examples of what these myths might be, let alone discrediting them. Before leaving that sentence, you also claim libertarians to have a disregard for social order equal to that of Marxists. Maybe you weren’t paying attention to Marx when he discussed the violent destruction of all established authority. Libertarians, as you should know, approach the problem of balancing social order with personal freedom by thinking in terms of the fewest number of restrictions that absolutely need to be applied to the individual in order to guarantee their safety and the orderly conduct of business. Libertarians believe that no man should be bound by any more than necessary, and I don’t see how that creates any “elect.” In any case, to imply that there is any reasonable comparison between Marxist and libertarian views of social order is clearly absurd.
“The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is not freedom, but one cannot live without it. Prosperity is connected to freedom, in that it makes us free to consume, but it is not the same thing, in that one can be rich but as unfree as a Victorian tycoon’s wife. A family is in fact one of the least free things imaginable, as the emotional satisfactions of it derive from relations that we are either born into without choice or, once they are chosen, entail obligations that we cannot walk away from with ease or justice. But security, prosperity, and family are in fact the bulk of happiness for most real people and the principal issues that concern governments.”
“Libertarians try to get around this fact that freedom is not the only good thing by trying to reduce all other goods to it through the concept of choice, claiming that everything that is good is so because we choose to partake of it. Therefore freedom, by giving us choice, supposedly embraces all other goods. But this violates common sense by denying that anything is good by nature, independently of whether we choose it. Nourishing foods are good for us by nature, not because we choose to eat them. Taken to its logical conclusion, the reduction of the good to the freely chosen means there are no inherently good or bad choices at all, but that a man who chose to spend his life playing tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill.”
It seems that you are confusing philosophy with politics. We all know that philosophy underlies and drives politics, but the opposite is not true. One can say that all political matters are too some degree philosophical, but I would argue that not all philosophical matters are political. There are other good things besides freedom in nature and the philosophies which interpret it. However, freedom is the only political good. The government should not be concerned with anything but justice. It is not the government’s place to be valuing the worth of men’s lives, that’s a philosophical issue, not a political one. It is not by any libertarian doctrine that a fool is made equal to great man, as you claim. The only view libertarianism can take of the matter is that a fool is legally entitled to be a fool as well as all other rights and privileges due any other man. Likewise, the greatest of men should not be impeded on his way, but should also have no greater rights or privileges than any other man. The freedom to choose to do as one wishes, with the exception of harming others, is what government should protect. Bad decisions within that allowance will always bring their own consequences. Men should be allowed to make mistakes.
“Furthermore, the reduction of all goods to individual choices presupposes that all goods are individual. But some, like national security, clean air, or a healthy culture, are inherently collective. It may be possible to privatize some, but only some, and the efforts can be comically inefficient. Do you really want to trace every pollutant in the air back to the factory that emitted it and sue?”
Collective concerns are answered by the coordination of individuals to do the right thing. National security has been well taken care of by volunteers on many occasions, and in fact when service has been forced on the unwilling, such as in the Vietnam era, the effects have been profoundly awful. And as for the example you cite with pollution, rather than think of things in terms of litigation, what if it were required for manufacturing businesses were required to make their emissions a matter of clear public record? Consumers could effect change by buying products produced in ways which meet what they think should be the standards. Personally, I think most of the noise made about macroecological problems is just so much hype from neotribal luddites. They can go off and live in the jungle for all I care, but I don’t want them undoing all scientific progress just because they can lobby the government with sky-is-falling (or ozone-is-thinning) fearmongering. However, I’m digressing. The point here is that the idea of the collective good is flawed. There can be no collective anything without individuals. The individual is the irreducible prime of social concerns. Is there anything so valuable that men must be forced to act in a given manner? It is one thing to say that men cannot do something, it is quite another to say that they must do something. That is compulsion. That is tyranny. That is slavery. Because of this, to libertarians that is unacceptable.
“Libertarians rightly concede that one’s freedom must end at the point at which it starts to impinge upon another person’s, but they radically underestimate how easily this happens. So even if the libertarian principle of “an it harm none, do as thou wilt,” is true, it does not license the behavior libertarians claim. Consider pornography: libertarians say it should be permitted because if someone doesn’t like it, he can choose not to view it. But what he can’t do is choose not to live in a culture that has been vulgarized by it.”
Honestly when I read that paragraph I laughed out loud. Let’s hold all humanity accountable for my own personal distaste! I find you all GUILTY of being offensive to my personal sensibilities! That’s insane. If we somehow passed laws against everything that could possibly offend somebody by its very existence, somewhere, being enjoyed by somebody else who happens to be part of the rest of humanity, we would end up living in some Taliban-esque police state where every subjective thing is laid upon by morality police and destroyed. And what of the people who find that offensive? Oh no! I repeat, that is insane, and such an argument so far outside of any reasonable view of human order undermines your rational credibility.
“Libertarians in real life rarely live up to their own theory but tend to indulge in the pleasant parts while declining to live up to the difficult portions. They flout the drug laws but continue to collect government benefits they consider illegitimate. This is not just an accidental failing of libertarianism’s believers but an intrinsic temptation of the doctrine that sets it up to fail whenever tried, just like Marxism.”
Ah, I see. We’re hypocrites by trying to get back what we have paid into the system. When we’re no longer taxed to support these services, we’ll stop using them (because they won’t be there anymore, but we won’t care, because we’ll have our damn money to do it ourselves if we want, or do something else). I think that’s fair, don’t you?
“Libertarians need to be asked some hard questions. What if a free society needed to draft its citizens in order to remain free? What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners? What if it needed to force its citizens to become sufficiently educated to sustain a free society? What if it needed to deprive landowners of the freedom to refuse to sell their property as a precondition for giving everyone freedom of movement on highways? What if it needed to deprive citizens of the freedom to import cheap foreign labor in order to keep out poor foreigners who would vote for socialistic wealth redistribution?”
Perhaps if a society needs to draft its citizens in order to defend itself, it is because those citizens don’t believe that society is worth defending. You know that during the Second World War (for which the draft was redundant) many men who were declared unfit for duty committed suicide because they could not join in the fight? Now THAT demonstrates the health and value of a society. What if the government had no ability to deny private companies the right to pursue oil where-ever they wished? That would solve the problem of reliance on foreign oil just as well. What if the government removed restrictions on the education of children so that families could choose public schools or homeschooling? Homeschooling is still illegal in some states, and even in those where it is legal it is administratively discouraged and frowned upon by society at large, but yet so many of every year’s top five in national spelling bees are homeschoolers… I can go through any example, in the end, it’s about how one approaches problems. You are trying to find solutions by forcing people to do things, which has worked some times and has failed other times. Libertarians approach the search for solutions to problems by finding how people can be freed from social, political, and legal limitations which are preventing them from succeeding in their own individual struggle to improve and achieve. Many times nobody knows whether these solutions will work or fail because there is no precedent. No government has approached given its citizens as much freedom as the libertarian ideal entails.
“In each of these cases, less freedom today is the price of more tomorrow. Total freedom today would just be a way of running down accumulated social capital and storing up problems for the future. So even if libertarianism is true in some ultimate sense, this does not prove that the libertarian policy choice is the right one today on any particular question.”
The proof of these policies is in their success in application. If they are never tried, one cannot say whether they are really effective or ineffective. Earlier you claimed that libertarianism has no empirical worth, but you’re stopping short of fulfilling the testing phase which proves or disproves the hypothesis. You have no evidence you are right and we are wrong because you will not give the policy a chance to succeed or fail. You are obstructing potential human progress for the sake of your own personal taste or moral view, which is what this is really about in the end. You personally do not want people to be free to marry others of the same sex or watch porn or whatever. It makes you uncomfortable. Well boo-hoo, that’s not harm, that’s a matter of taste. That doesn’t give you any right to dictate what people can and cannot do.
“Furthermore, if limiting freedom today may prolong it tomorrow, then limiting freedom tomorrow may prolong it the day after and so on, so the right amount of freedom may in fact be limited freedom in perpetuity. But if limited freedom is the right choice, then libertarianism, which makes freedom an absolute, is simply wrong. If all we want is limited freedom, then mere liberalism will do, or even better, a Burkean conservatism that reveres traditional liberties. There is no need to embrace outright libertarianism just because we want a healthy portion of freedom, and the alternative to libertarianism is not the USSR, it is America’s traditional liberties.”
Finding ways every day to limit freedom in the name of the good of the people or their future is exactly the sort behavior that caused all of this mess (modern American government and its perennial ignorance of the 10th Amendment) in the first place. Also, please enlighten me as to how libertarianism deviates from the principles of America’s truly traditional liberties? Spare me the anachronism of how 18th century society would view gay marriage. In principle there is nothing against it, although the common morality did and continues to lag behind the purity of principle.
“Libertarianism’s abstract and absolutist view of freedom leads to bizarre conclusions. Like slavery, libertarianism would have to allow one to sell oneself into it. (It has been possible at certain times in history to do just that by assuming debts one could not repay.) And libertarianism degenerates into outright idiocy when confronted with the problem of children, whom it treats like adults, supporting the abolition of compulsory education and all child-specific laws, like those against child labor and child sex. It likewise cannot handle the insane and the senile.”
Slavery is an involuntary thing, the proper term for any student of history for those who sell themselves is indentured servant. If somebody wishes to do this, who are others to deny him? It is a matter between consenting adults, like so many things you moralists oppose simply because they make you nervous. As for children, wouldn’t you agree that public education has done them more harm than good? Those who wish to learn will learn, those who do not wish to learn do not learn. That is the case whether one is required to be in school or not. I was homeschooled, and my mother didn’t teach me so much as she said here’s the book, read it and answer the questions. By the time I came to high school and I had to take biology and other classes which required labs (which I did at a private school which supported homeschoolers in this capacity) in a classroom environment, I would end a semester with a 104% average after having to endure being singled out by the teacher who would say, “This next question is for everybody but Adam.” That’s because I didn’t need that teacher. I could teach myself. Children don’t need compulsory education from the goddamn government, they just need their parents to teach them how to learn. Also, personally, I hated those damn labor laws. I wanted to get a job at age 10, and I could have handled one too, but nooooo. Thank you government, you protected me from assuming responsibility too early in life. I’m sure glad the government gets to interfere in such matters.
As for the insane, if they are do anybody harm, then that is covered under the libertarian view and they will be incarcerated just as any sane person would be. If they do nobody any harm, it’s not the government’s business. If they have family it’s their business, and if they are so unlucky as to be insane and have no family, que sera. That’s life. It doesn’t mean the government should force me to pay for their food and housing. I’m sure some people will still get their kicks out of setting up private charities to provide that anyway, so it’s not as though all recourse is going to dry up just because the government isn’t trying to pry altruism out of its citizens.
“Libertarians argue that radical permissiveness, like legalizing drugs, would not shred a libertarian society because drug users who caused trouble would be disciplined by the threat of losing their jobs or homes if current laws that make it difficult to fire or evict people were abolished. They claim a “natural order” of reasonable behavior would emerge. But there is no actual empirical proof that this would happen. Furthermore, this means libertarianism is an all-or-nothing proposition: if society continues to protect people from the consequences of their actions in any way, libertarianism regarding specific freedoms is illegitimate. And since society does so protect people, libertarianism is an illegitimate moral position until the Great Libertarian Revolution has occurred.”
We’ve been over this empiricism thing before. There is no proof because it’s never been done. That doesn’t make it empirically invalid, it makes it empirically untested, and it makes you a fool for not understanding what you’re talking about (or worse, you understand and you are deliberately trying to mislead).
Why should society protect people from the consequences of their actions? What will men learn from if they do something stupid and society says, in all of its collective bullshit glory, “There, there; no harm done. We’ll make it all better.” That’s certainly not how you raise children. If a child does something wrong, you make sure that he understands what he’s done wrong, even to the point of exaggerating the consequences to impress upon the child the importance of that principle which is the bane of the welfare state: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. OH NO!!! If people can do something bad and get away with it, they’ll keep doing it. That’s human nature.
“And is society really wrong to protect people against the negative consequences of some of their free choices? While it is obviously fair to let people enjoy the benefits of their wise choices and suffer the costs of their stupid ones, decent societies set limits on both these outcomes. People are allowed to become millionaires, but they are taxed. They are allowed to go broke, but they are not then forced to starve. They are deprived of the most extreme benefits of freedom in order to spare us the most extreme costs. The libertopian alternative would be perhaps a more glittering society, but also a crueler one.”
Oh spare me the Dickensian emotional appeal bullshit. As long as the successful are penalized for their success, and the layabouts are rewarded with free food and shelter, you will see the middle class continue to thin and the underclass expand.
“Empirically, most people don’t actually want absolute freedom, which is why democracies don’t elect libertarian governments. Irony of ironies, people don’t choose absolute freedom. But this refutes libertarianism by its own premise, as libertarianism defines the good as the freely chosen, yet people do not choose it. Paradoxically, people exercise their freedom not to be libertarians.”
You just don’t get what empiricism is do you? First of all, libertarianism has existed as real political movement for only a paltry couple of decades, and it’s having a hard time moving against the deadlock of brainwashing (I will vote x because I have always voted x) mixed with practical concerns (I have to vote x because although I support y it will never win because nobody else will vote for it even if they believe in it also) which make up the current two party system. Libertarianism does have a broad, centrist appeal, but everybody is afraid that voting for a 3rd party candidate will only allow the candidate from the party they hate to win, so they vote for the more ‘popular’ candidate from the party can tolerate. A professor of mine once said that “libertarians are what all good republicans would be if they had the guts” or something to that effect. I suffer from it to some degree myself. I voted for Bush even though I knew Michael Badnarik was a better man, but I couldn’t stand the idea of that traitor Kerry as C in C. But I voted for a lot of libertarians in local elections. That’s where political change starts, where it’s less risky.
“The political corollary of this is that since no electorate will support libertarianism, a libertarian government could never be achieved democratically but would have to be imposed by some kind of authoritarian state, which rather puts the lie to libertarians’ claim that under any other philosophy, busybodies who claim to know what’s best for other people impose their values on the rest of us. Libertarianism itself is based on the conviction that it is the one true political philosophy and all others are false. It entails imposing a certain kind of society, with all its attendant pluses and minuses, which the inhabitants thereof will not be free to opt out of except by leaving.”
This is just as much speculation as any other concept of libertarian government, which has never been actually tried, except that it is made significantly less credible if not entirely impossible by being intrinsically contradictive in principle.
“And if libertarians ever do acquire power, we may expect a farrago of bizarre policies. Many support abolition of government-issued money in favor of that minted by private banks. But this has already been tried, in various epochs, and doesn’t lead to any wonderful paradise of freedom but only to an explosion of fraud and currency debasement followed by the concentration of financial power in those few banks that survive the inevitable shaking-out. Many other libertarian schemes similarly founder on the empirical record.”
I would say that in the “epochs” you are referencing here, these were not private banks in any modern sense, but quasi-government if not wholly government organizations of the ancient and medieval periods. You’re comparing apples to oranges across stretches of time which would cast considerable doubt on the validity of your relationship by themselves. You’ll have to do better than that, and provide specific examples.
“A major reason for this is that libertarianism has a naïve view of economics that seems to have stopped paying attention to the actual history of capitalism around 1880. There is not the space here to refute simplistic laissez faire, but note for now that the second-richest nation in the world, Japan, has one of the most regulated economies, while nations in which government has essentially lost control over economic life, like Russia, are hardly economic paradises. Legitimate criticism of over-regulation does not entail going to the opposite extreme.”
Ah 1880. One decade before anti-trust laws. Let’s regulate business! That sounds like a good idea! Oops! The Great Depression happened! Sure that was just a coincidence indicating that we have to regulate things even more! Oops! Carter-era recession! Quick Ronnie, figure out that by taxing and regulating businesses less, the economy will improve! Ugh. We pay attention. The thinking and results of its application have been sickening ever since the government decided it would dictate how business could and could not be run, and in the end what drives growth (not New Deal socialist delaying actions and mitigations of normal market cycles, but real growth) has always been the same principle: the market will find its own way to succeed if it’s allowed the freedom to do so. Sometimes that will lead to downturns, but growth as a trend will be unstoppable. Also, you don’t know your facts. Japan, according to nationmaster.com, is not the second richest either in the realm of per capita GDP (13th), absolute GDP (3rd), or purchasing power parity per capita (9th). In fact (pun intended) I don’t think so much as one example (when you have deigned to give them) in your article has stood up to any close inspection for accuracy or validity. Not a good track record.
“Libertarian naïveté extends to politics. They often confuse the absence of government impingement upon freedom with freedom as such. But without a sufficiently strong state, individual freedom falls prey to other more powerful individuals. A weak state and a freedom-respecting state are not the same thing, as shown by many a chaotic Third-World tyranny.”
Which is why no libertarian points to the third world and says, yes, this is what we want. That’s ridiculous. It’s important that the state be able to fill its only legitimate role by protecting its citizens from internal and external threats. Any state, libertarian or not in name, which fails to do so cannot be considered effectively libertarian in fact.
“Libertarians are also naïve about the range and perversity of human desires they propose to unleash. They can imagine nothing more threatening than a bit of Sunday-afternoon sadomasochism, followed by some recreational drug use and work on Monday. They assume that if people are given freedom, they will gravitate towards essentially bourgeois lives, but this takes for granted things like the deferral of gratification that were pounded into them as children without their being free to refuse. They forget that for much of the population, preaching maximum freedom merely results in drunkenness, drugs, failure to hold a job, and pregnancy out of wedlock. Society is dependent upon inculcated self-restraint if it is not to slide into barbarism, and libertarians attack this self-restraint. Ironically, this often results in internal restraints being replaced by the external restraints of police and prison, resulting in less freedom, not more.”
No, no, no, NO. You have everything entirely wrong. I dare you, sir, to find any “libertarian” who attacks or criticizes self-restraint. Self-restraint and personal responsibility are the core of a functional libertarian state. It is undue government restraint which is the enemy concept. People by nature are orderly, as evidenced by the fact that no anarchy has existed for any extended length of time and by the fact that more or less every inch of the planet is ruled by some form of human government, good or bad, and always has been.
“This contempt for self-restraint is emblematic of a deeper problem: libertarianism has a lot to say about freedom but little about learning to handle it. Freedom without judgment is dangerous at best, useless at worst. Yet libertarianism is philosophically incapable of evolving a theory of how to use freedom well because of its root dogma that all free choices are equal, which it cannot abandon except at the cost of admitting that there are other goods than freedom. Conservatives should know better.”
Your closing argument has already been addressed in the paragraph I wrote on the difference between philosophy and politics, and likewise the difference between philosophical goods and political goods. Political systems are merely a means of creating and applying laws. All things men are free to choose should necessarily be equal under the law, just as men themselves should be. That doesn’t make their choices equally good, just equally legal. It is not up to a political view (libertarianism) to determine or judge the value of men’s choices. Nature does that. If somebody does something wrong, they will know it by the result they will have to live, but then you were arguing that society should protect individuals from their choices, so that is why you cannot understand the system or the value of its principles.
Go peddle your slippery slope to the police/welfare/nanny state to somebody else. Or better yet, don’t.
Yours Sincerely in Opposition,
Adam N. Dalke, MCDST