Why I don't understand libertarians

I’m convinced that reading Ayn Rand at too young an age causes brain damage. For a large part of my life I believed I could have been a libertarian, but my love of liberty made it impossible.

I don’t understand how you can simultaneously believe that the coercive power of democratic government is a potential force for evil that must be reigned in (which I do) and believe that the coercive power of big corporations is a force for good that must be unleashed.

I don’t understand how you simultaneously believe in that the chaos of the Internet is what makes it great (which I do) and believe that deregulating the access monopolies will improve the Internet.

I don’t understand how you can believe the Bill of Rights is the most important part of the Constitution (which I do) and turn our communications, personal information, schools, privacy, and bodies over to entities that are not bound by the first, fourth, or fifth amendments.

I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t believe that an essential function of government is to protect the weak from the strong.

24 thoughts on “Why I don't understand libertarians

  1. Fantastic points, Barry. Especially considering that libertarians would describe the actions of companies like SCO and Microsoft as “unfunded mandates” if they were inflicted by the government.

  2. No corporation has the power of the gun to force you to buy or use any of their products or services. In the long run (actually, a rather very short run) all corporate monopolies will atrophy and die – killed by smaller, smarter, nimbler new competitors. Only the government has a true monopoly. If you doubt this, look back at lists of the largest, most powerful firms by decade. The list changes every ten years, or so – because a corporate monopoly is untenable, unless protected by the power of government. There is always an alternative to buying from a corporation – there is never an alternative to buying from the government.
    This is really very simple, and very basic economics. It is about freedom of choice (corporations have to convince you to buy their product) versus coersion (governments tell you to do what they say, or end up in prison).

  3. Dubious logic. Better to look at the most powerful firm in an industry over time. Changes in technology can undermine the dominance of any given industry within the economy, but even that can’t be counted on. It’s quite possible that Standard Oil (which sold a commodity we still use, a lot) would still be a monopoly if it weren’t for Teddy Roosevelt.

  4. Bottom line… The only people we have to blame for our situation (good or bad) is us. The public drives everything. We put the people in power who make the decisions you don’t like. We buy from the corporations that are killing us. It’s our fault. Trying to blame someone else (the corporations themselves or the gov’t itself) is missing the point and shifting the blame so we can go on being irresponsible.

  5. Well, duh.
    My point is that without its veneer of rationalism, libertarianism (which has driven a lot of our current economic policy) doesn’t make the grade as a political philosophy. We have the power to change that policy as soon as we recognize that the most important issue isn’t getting the government off our backs. It’s getting the corporations off our backs.
    We should also remember that right now, corporations have more political clout than the public these days because of the way campaign financing works. That’s not liberty. It’s tyranny. This is something we can change.
    I don’t believe that the people, in the long run, will prefer the sovereignty of corporations to the sovereignty of their elected government

  6. What I’ve always found rendered libertarianism exceedingly dubious in my eyes is that the people I’ve known who espouse it are the last people I’d ever see volunteering around the neighborhood, taking care of local kids & seniors, cleaning up parks, etc. You know, all those things we shouldn’t have to pay taxes for because local communities can support local needs? Also a disproportionate number of them seemed to be or have been on unemployment.

  7. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a mild libertarian, though I’m far more aligned with socialism as a dominant political view. For example, I’m Canadian and I don’t want to give up our health care system, although there are many ways in which it could benefit from actual competition.
    Just a data point: The same libertarian who wants to free corporations from monopoly regulation (I am not one) also wants corporations to pay all their taxes and not receive tax incentives to move into a local market.
    Dinah, knowing some libertarians heavily involved in community programs, I’d suggest your exposure is not representative of the political philosophy at large (I know many conservatives and liberals who likewise do not participate in such community activities as you describe. such behaviour is typical of a certain subset of humans that transcend political beliefs). It’s not that they think there’s no value in social programs, just that they think there’s no value in everyone having to pay for social programs they disagree with.
    For instance, why should a rabid pacifist’s taxes fund the army? Why should a pro-choicer’s taxes support Christian programs aimed at educating children that abstinance is the One True Path?
    If you got to pick and choose how your taxes were spent, instead of throwing them into a large pool outside of your control, wouldn’t you better be able to forward the social programs and philosophies that have meaning to you?
    There are some reasonably sound arguments that competition and the free market ultimately results in better ends for consumers at large. The real problem with all those arguments is that they typically ignore the shakeout period in which a lot of people get hurt by unsafe products or screwed over by unscrupulous merchants or otherwise damaged by the free market before the safe trusted brand can appear.
    The government in its current form provides a consistant (though arguably often medicore) level of service and product, but in turn, when you have an entity defining what “good” is in any given market, making it difficult or impossible for anyone new or original to break into the market, stagnation is the likeliest of results.

  8. In almost all cases, liberty and equality are opposed to one another. Libertarianism is the farthest thing from the original goal of the founders of our republic. Take a look at the Constitution, the most important passages are all explicitly intended to reduce the power of the majority – the trading of liberty for equality.

  9. I’m not sure that majority rule and liberty are the same thing. The Constitution limits the strict rule of the majority in order to protect the liberty of individual citizens. I also don’t think there is a conflict between liberty and equality before the law.
    There can be a conflict between individual liberty and the common good. But that conflict is so dynamic that it’s unclear you can resolve it in a constituion. For the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job of striking that balance.

  10. One of the main roots of libertarianism was the Abolitionist movement. William Lloyd Garrison used the concept of “self-ownership” to attack slavery in the 1850’s. Libertarians use this same concept along with ideals from John Locke and Prof. Robert Nozick concerning personal consent of the individual. But the main point is that people own their own body. And if they own their own body, they own what they produce with it — which means that taxation can only be voluntary. Even the 13th Amendment (ending slavery) states that “involuntary servitude” is prohibited. Remember, Thomas Jefferson promised to rid the nation of all federal taxes if he were elected President. And he kept his promise. There were no federal taxes up to the Civil War. If you want an aggression-free society, it will have to be more in tune with the founders of this nation. Liberty for all.

  11. “Take a look at the Constitution, the most important passages are all explicitly intended to reduce the power of the majority – the trading of liberty for equality.”
    That’s ridiculous, because ultimate equality is socialism, and the founders were far more afraid of that than “too much freedom,” if there is such a thing.
    One thing that anti-libertarians cannot get around is the fact that corporations do not force consumers to purchase their products. That is why I cannot understand all these people who complain that the corporations strongarm the consumers. Exactly how? By offering prices that are higher than they would be with more competition? Even in such an extreme scenario, the consumers spend ONLY as much money as they think it advantageous of them to. I.e., when the make the purchase, even as they whine about how high the prices are, still see it as advantageous and beneficial to them to purchase the products, else they would not have done it. That is the simple fact, even so-called “monopolies” must sell their products at a price where consumers are willing to buy them. This is not coercion. You can call it unfair, unjust, or even unethical, but to call it coercion is outright ridiculous. If a corporation were to monopolize the gum market and to sell gum at $30 a stick, would they get any business? No. Can any of you anti-libertarians tell me why?

  12. Monopolies can charge more than competitive companies. I learned this in econ 101 from Michael Boskin, who was head of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors (not exactly a socialist).
    The bigger problem is the coercive power of corporations. If your livelihood and your children’s healthcare depend on a corporation, you’re not exactly a free agent. If all your communications services and news come from government-sanctioned oligopolies, how free are you? If your entire downtown is moved into a big concrete box on the edge of town, what kind of market choice do you have?
    I’m not saying that we should substitute government tyranny for corporate tyranny — only that we’re currently out of balance.

  13. To coerce there must be “physical force.” Check your pocket dictionary. Companies in a free society do not coerce. Some might intimidate (the bad ones), but rarely is anyone physically assaulted. However, if you look at the history of the State in order to discover how many people died directly or indirectly due to government during the 20th Century, the estimates are approx. 1/4 billion human lives. Companies, especially those in the medical industry, have saved millions of lives through newly-created medicines and modern medical equipment. There is no comparison. Government kills, businesses save lives. Even Michael Douglas in the movie “Wall Street,” where he played the evil archetypal businessman, committed the crime of “lying” to his business partner. Nobody was killed; no tanks smashing into buildings, no massive firefights, and no bombing of innocent people in foreign countries. And yet politicians lie everyday and nobody seems to care. Libertarians merely seek to have an aggression-free society where everybody has “free choice” and “consent.” However, you cannot have such liberty co-existing with coercive government, at least not for long. If you want a civilized society, it needs to be a voluntary society. And yes, in a free society, anybody can have any type of financial system they want — Communism, National Socialism (fascism), mixed economy or free-market capitalism — just as long as each person consents to it and has the personal authority (self-government) to “opt” out at any time. Liberty for all.

  14. To coerce there must be “physical force.” Check your pocket dictionary.
    Try the American Heritage dictionary, or the OED, or the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate. From dictionary.com:

    1. To force to act or think in a certain way by use of pressure, threats, or intimidation; compel.
    2. To dominate, restrain, or control forcibly: coerced the strikers into compliance. See Synonyms at force .

    The example in the second definition is especially apt. Early in the twentieth century, companies hired other companies to kill strikers. Or, sometimes, they got the government to do it for them. Eventually they learned that the threat of depriving them of their livelihood was enough to nip most organizing efforts in the bud–especially once the law made most jobs reasonably safe and minimally compensated.
    “Pressure, threats and intimidation” sounds like a (Microsoft/AOL/WalMart/Clear Channel/pre-Teddy Roosevelt Standard Oil/pre-Judge Green AT&T) business plan. Or the name of the RIAA’s law firm.
    Under the system you describe, a person’s degree of liberty would be in direct proportion to the amount of money they had. I would be willing to accept a little regulatory friction in the market to achieve greater human liberty. What surprises me is that more libertarians aren’t.

  15. It’s a pleasure to spar with you, Barry. I love discussions. It sharpens the minds. Now let’s talk about coercion. You are correct. Coercion also means threats, usually the type that indicates possible physical aggression. So I erred on that one. But libertarians do use the term aggression or the threat of aggression as inappropriate behavior. And yes some criminal industrialists did use force against strikers who had every right under “Freedom of Association” to organize. And, of course, government police/troops mowed down strikers. The number of people hurt during this time was relatively small compared to the hundreds of millions mowed down by governmental action –political persecution, torture, genocide and war. However, I have experienced threats by labor union members as a student and at other times. So far, I have had no trouble with companies. By the way, do you own a business that has employees? Do they have a union? Just wondering. I’m a realtor days and a writer at night.
    As for regulations, I take the ACLU approach (I’ve worked with them in Monterey) concerning free speech. They go after the smallest infraction of the First Amendment since they understand “government-creep” well. They know that once the government gets a toehold, they will continue to push the envelope. Government is like a cancer without a cure. Regulations are the same. The first one might sound fine, but then it goes way beyond the pale. Study some of the regulations. You will discover that most regulations are pushed by industries. They are either trying to hurt competitors or gouge the public. Take the laws against giving away dairy products in California. I have researched it. In fact, my sister’s company ran afoul of it. The price support law states that it is illegal to give away any dairy product to charity or sell it below cost. Thousands of gallons of milk are dumped annually because the dairies often produce too much milk in the summer. Who created these laws? The milk industry created them back in the 1940s. There are thousands of insane laws like these.
    And as for individual liberty and the rich, remember this: the wealthy have little need for freedom, they can buy it! The poor have a greater need for freedom; they cannot afford it at rich man’s prices. Liberty for all.

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