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Saturday, February 24th 2007

How To Explain Libertarianism To The Bleeding Heart

The title is misleading. This is a specific critique of and response to ‘How To Explain Things To Libertarians‘ on Pandagon which was found through Reddit.

The author, Chris Clarke, starts us off by mocking the online recruitment efforts of organized libertarianism. Specifically the ‘World’s Smallest Political Quiz’. Yeah, that thing is stupid. Here’s a less humorous and more dedicated critique of that ridiculous little political affiliation quiz.

On to the critique of Pandagon’s post. Most Libertarians do indeed pragmatize as they get deeper, as the post claims; they try to adapt the political philosophy to the realities of the tyranny of the masses. Apparently Chris’ post isn’t for those who have become less of the “zealot” variety of Libertarian.

The trouble with Chris’ post is that it misses the critical issue. The post overrelies on a sort of utilitarian, end result look at the world.

[C]oncede that some taxes are necessary to pay firefighters, who recognize that their success as business people might just depend on public education to give them a pool of potentially competent employees, and so forth.

Well, the first argument is that the post is assuming it can predict an alternate reality. As if that public school educated successful business man would’ve turned out worse without those education appropriated tax dollars. I point this out, because I’m going to use the same technique later to criticize some of Chris’ points.

All This Photo Did Was Make Me Want That Outfit

The major argument, and where Libertarians should try to keep the debate is that the sentence above assumes that true “zealot” libertarians care about any of these end results. Even a “zealot” can concede that more government spending could make education ‘better.’ But weighing a strong right to property against some strange “right” to education isn’t a contest at all for a libertarian (note: it goes without saying that taxes deny someone the right to property; discussions of appropriations always weigh the right to property against whatever you’re going to spend that government revenue on).

I don’t think this is an example of the unpragmatic nature of Libertarianism, although that is one of its major criticisms. People from a range of personal political philosophies use this sort of reasoning all the time.

Chris reports himself having played the “left wing hippy oddity” as times in his past. It might make an “ass” out of “u” and “me” but I’m going to assume based on that description and indirectly on some of his other posts that Chris has some pretty liberal views towards privacy rights (see: libertarians share ideals with, and can be friends with, everyone on the political spectrum!).

That is a hard position to defend by ‘end-result’ logic. You can’t really…well you can, but it sounds foolish, stand up there and say something to the effect that granting the government complete monitoring authority in our homes, on the internet, on the phone, in private businesses, and out in public places wouldn’t make us safer from violence and accidents. I don’t think you can stand up here and with a straight face claim that privacy promotes commerce or has any tangible utilitarian benefits to an extent to justify its existence. Its strongest justification is almost a natural law one.

My point is this, what you’ve really done is weighed the right to privacy and found it more important than whatever the margin of increased safety you get from giving it up.

Remember that, because for all issues that is how the debate with “zealot” Libertarians needs to be framed.

Chris goes back to predicting alternate realities again,

[P]oints out that, oh, I dunno, the government they decry for limiting suburban construction in the old growth forest also paves the roads that make housing developments in other places possible, or that their popular Free Marketeer blog owes its existence to several decades of government funding of ARPANET.

As if history has strong enough examples to say what a privately funded transport system in this country would look like. Private toll roads and turnpikes, even commercially funded paved city streets could all be a reality if government wasn’t already funding them. There’s a legitimate argument that the reason the government (and not the private sector) stepped into such a role was really simply a “speed” of development thing. But the fact it would’ve taken the commercial sector longer to develop transportation infrastructure is hardly a completely compelling argument against keeping the government out of this contract hiring, road building business when weighed against other libertarian ideals.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m not Chris’ described “zealot,” and I chuckle at the idea there’s not a spot for road building appropriations (to my city councilman: can we get some of these potholes filled?!)

For the point on the internet. I think it is hard to imagine that hooking computers together and creating this ‘series of tubes’ wouldn’t have come about eventually without ARPANET.

The Private Sector Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda (Eventually) Built This ‘Series Of Tubes’

I feel comfortable playing the “would’ve happened” eventually card, because the post goes on to ignore the innovations of the market.

[S]ometimes these people are persuaded when it’s pointed out to them that back in the late 19th century, the US essentially was the Libertarian state they now advocate, and a very few people got very wealthy while the rest of us died of food poisoning or coal mine collapses or shirtwaist factory fires.

For the labor conditions of the 19th and early 20th century, this era’s industry really started this country on the road to the peak of its economic power. Not to mention all that the private sector brought us in innovation over this period, where government research funding, etc. was non-existent.

Chris tries to assign intent to libertarians, as a criticism,

Or even worse, [the libertarians] manifestly hold the welfare of others as far less important than their own profit and comfort.

More rhetoric than sound critical debate technique. He even goes on to give an antecedal story as an example. That plays well for the public debate, but shouldn’t in a post trying to ‘reason’ someone to a conclusion.

Now we get to the real problems. The post tries to criticize the history of libertarianism,

Libertarian Cranial Detonation Technique #1: Mentioning Libertarian history.

“Libertarianism originated in the philosophy of a left-wing French political philosopher who also influenced Karl Marx.”

The French Philosopher in question is, as some of you have guessed (and with whose description a few of you are no doubt ready to quibble), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who famously penned the Libertarians’ Sekrit Motto, “Property is Theft.”

A ridiculous notion to tie all of libertarian thought to Proudhon and his compatriots like Dejacue. It is semantics they were the first to use the term ‘libertarian’ (obviously in French though). Their contribution is minor, certainly had little influence on the most prominent American libertarian founders, and is overshadowed by the contributions of others to classical liberalism.

The true criticism however is…who cares? Modern libertarian thought has little to do with Proudhon’s anarchism.

Finally, Chris commits the ultimate liberal sin…confusing equality of action to equality of condition.

Libertarian Cranial Detonation Technique #3: Mentioning Libertarianism’s blindspot.

Somehow, Libertarians never seem to object to restrictions of Liberty done by The Boss. “You can always get another job,” they say, as if that answers anything, as if the class of people who can leave a job blithely isn’t the same class that’s most likely to be able to pick up and move away from a conventional, state-based dictatorship. And as corporations extend their control to people outside their employ, with DRM and increasingly prevalent, shameless propaganda and their own armed forces and even co-optation of the nominal forms of governmental authority, the truth of our next useful sentence becomes ever more manifestly clear, that sentence being:

“Corporations are governments.”

Chris claims libertarians can’t (okay, he says he hasn’t seen them do it so far) counter this criticism without changing the subject.

First and foremost, the liberal confusion, and you get this all time, is somehow the the right to do something and the ability to do something are comparable. If you don’t have the ability then you don’t have the right?

Of course not!

Call it playing into Chris’ criticism of the heartlessness of libertarianism, but the fact that you don’t have the means to get up and leave that tyrannical job is pointless. You have the right to, if you’re able, and that is what is important and that is the only thing requiring protection.

Corporations aren’t government. The very bright and prominent and important line is when my involvement with corporations no longer is nominally voluntary. I never understood how liberals like Chris fail to grasp this simple, cohesive, and important point.

They ignore it or write off as something arbitrary and outside the pragmatic workings of the world.

Well, it isn’t. If you don’t like a DRM scheme, don’t buy music from that company. If a cabal controls the market and you can’t find that song without that encoded DRM, well, you’ve got no “right” to such, but my advice is work to fix that. Petitions, boycotts, maybe even a music business of your own. That publicly funded education you received should help you. The corporations work to maximize profits.

But really the entire paragraph above isn’t even necessary, it isn’t even a part of the defense. You don’t have a “right” to many of the things Chris listed. I mean freedom from “DRM” and from “shameless propaganda”? Trying to embody those as rights or the existence of those “horrors” as an attack on liberty is an insult to true inherent and important rights.

Liberty is the ideal of a basic set of rights. You can contractually wave your rights for something like employment (they say you can’t look at pornography at your new job). If you don’t want to, don’t take the job. If you’re in that situation you have the right to leave it. The fact you might not have the means to is irrelevant.

Anyway, the true criticisms of libertarianism is that it is impragmatic, uncompromising but not that it has some deficit in logic. It is truly the issue positions of liberals and conservatives which are illogical and inconsistent. Criticisms of the deductive reasoning and logic used to come to the libertarian positions, especially from liberals and conservatives, just fall absolutely flat.