I first became aware of libertarianism more than twenty years ago when I was in high school. A few years later, at college, I met my first libertarians. Rand Paul’s announcement that he will be seeking the Presidency of the United States got me thinking about it again. I’m not going to talk about Rand Paul. He’s a joke of a politician who stands no chance of being elected president. But, he is a senator who self-identifies as libertarian which, I think, makes him the most prominent libertarian presidential candidate we’ve ever had. I find that to be a relief and troubling. It is both because libertarianism strikes me as one of the dumbest philosophies out there. So, it’s a relief that we’ve never had a libertarian that was a real contender for the highest office. But, it is troubling that libertarians seem to be getting more prominent.
I should clarify that I’m talking about political and economic libertarianism, not metaphysical libertarianism. Metaphysical libertarianism seems silly to me, too, but for completely different reasons. When it comes to political and economic libertarianism, there are so many obvious things wrong with it and no good arguments in favor of it that I often wonder if its supporters are stupid or cynical, hypocritical liars. I know that could be a false dilemma, but in the past twenty years, I have yet to find another realistic possibility.
If any libertarians are reading this, they are probably thinking, “Rand Paul isn’t a libertarian. This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” That’s a big issue with libertarianism. The whole philosophy is a classic example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Every time someone tries to show what is wrong with a libertarian position, the response is, “Well, that’s not what a true libertarian believes.” The result is an ever changing vacuousness. That being said, I’ll do my best to talk about what their belief system seems to be.
At the heart of libertarian philosophy is freedom. Anything that promotes freedom is good and anything that restricts freedom is bad. That’s such a weird thing to have as a basis of a philosophy. Other philosophies have happiness, flourishing, justice and reason as their basis. While none of them are perfect, they are all a lot better than freedom. All of those other things can be considered primary goods, but freedom cannot. At best, it is a contingent good and at worst it is nothing. What I mean by that is that freedom is only good in that it leads to happiness or flourishing or justice or reason. If we were all free, but didn’t get anything out of that freedom, why would any of us care? And if freedom does lead to something else, it is no longer primary. Once something else becomes primary, it is justifiable to limit freedom to improve the new base. But, then it is no longer libertarian.
Another thing that libertarians are obsessed with is individualism. This is another weird one. I know there is the whole myth of rugged individualism that Americans are so proud of. And I know that collectivism was the enemy throughout the second half of the 20th century. But when you look at human nature, one thing we definitely are not is individualistic. There has never been a group of people who failed to form some kind of society. Cutting people off from society has always been one of the worst punishments. Some even consider it a kind of torture. And there has never been a society where people are just expected to fend for themselves. People help each other. Sympathy and empathy are built in. I know that natural does not equal good, but why would we want to shake off our natural inclinations in this case? What’s the benefit? We are happier and healthier when we help others and get help from others, so we should just go with it.
Property is another big thing for libertarians. This one is a bit more understandable, but they just don’t know when to stop. The typical libertarian view of property really comes from John Locke. He said that in the state of nature, all goods were in common. But, once a person mixes their work with a good, it becomes their property and they have exclusive rights to it. In the libertarian view, this means that all taxes are equivalent to stealing. If I worked to earn my money, no one, not even the government, has any right to take it from me. The real problem here is that it relies on a complete misunderstanding of what money is and how money works. In a modern economy, the government makes the money. They put it into circulation and allow people and businesses to use it. It wasn’t magically created by a person’s hard work. And it wasn’t made by a bunch of people getting together and agreeing to use shiny coins and green paper as money (money could be made this way, but not for a society as large and complex as we have now). Given that governments make and distribute the money, they are perfectly justified in taking taxes.
Finally, libertarians hate government and any kind of regulation. Half of what they say is flat out absurd and the other half is completely divorced from reality. We don’t need regulation. If someone makes a bad product and that product hurts people, the market will correct things and put that person out of business. Aside from the shocking callousness of essentially saying that it’s OK if an unsanitary farmer kills a bunch of people because the market will take care of him, they are ignoring reality. Companies make bad and dangerous things all the time and the market does nothing. Look at Exxon, HSBC and RJ Reynolds for a few examples. And then libertarians ignore the fact that markets are only possible with a government and regulations that ensure an equal playing field.
Believe it or not, I’m not just writing this to bash libertarians. People as smart as Robert Nozick have espoused libertarian views. Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize. But every time I look at it, I see nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, of value. I want to know either what I am missing or how such a bad philosophy gets any supporters at all.