Let Them Eat Cake: The Poverty of Libertarianism

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The GOP's ill-fated strategy to defund Obamacare via a government shutdown ended in a political defeat for the Republicans. But the Libertarian Party was happy:

"Elected Republicans in the House can stimulate the productive private sector by slowing down Big Government," said Geoffrey J. Neale, chair of the Libertarian National Committee.

"Why?" Neale asked. "Because a government-sector slowdown equals a private-sector growth speedup of small businesses and jobs. Americans should welcome a government slowdown -- and fear the opposite: allowing politicians to continue irresponsible, reckless government overspending."

This is nonsense. The government shutdown cost the economy $24 billion.

Ok, you might say: this is just a politician, a libertarian one, spouting off. Democrat and Republican politicians routinely spin events. So let's take it straight from the horse's mouth. This is the definition of libertarianism as defined by the preeminent libertarian think-tank, the Cato Institute:

Libertarianism is the belief that each person has the right to live his life as he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person's right to life, liberty, and property. In the libertarian view, voluntary agreement is the gold standard of human relationships. If there is no good reason to forbid something (a good reason being that it violates the rights of others), it should be allowed. Force should be reserved for prohibiting or punishing those who themselves use force, such as murderers, robbers, rapists, kidnappers, and defrauders (who practice a kind of theft). Most people live their own lives by that code of ethics. Libertarians believe that that code should be applied consistently, even to the actions of governments, which should be restricted to protecting people from violations of their rights. Governments should not use their powers to censor speech, conscript the young, prohibit voluntary exchanges, steal or "redistribute" property, or interfere in the lives of individuals who are otherwise minding their own business.

This is written at such a high level of abstraction as to be almost entirely unhelpful. Is there any rational political movement who does not support punishing the crimes listed? Of course not. Except in the most extreme cases, does anyone really want the government to censor speech? Are you in favor of the government stealing property? Or interfering with a person who is minding their own business? This sure makes libertarianism sound nice.

But let's turn to some specific policy proposals -- i.e., what would the world look like if libertarians ran it? (I do not want to be accused of attacking a strawman version of libertarianism, which is libertarians favorite riposte to those who critique them).

High-frequency trading? Not a problem. The housing market failure, a major cause of the Great Recession? The government's fault.

Environmental regulation?

Environmental goods and services, to the greatest extent possible, should be treated like other goods and services in the marketplace. People should be free to secure their preferences about the consumption of environmental goods such as clean air or clean water regardless of whether some scientists think such preferences are legitimate or not.

Global warming? We have "ample time" to figure it out. Tax and budget policy? "Cato's economic research explores the benefits of lower taxes, a significantly reduced federal budget, and less government involvement in market processes." Public schools? Do I even need to say that Cato thinks private schools are the answer. The USDA? Let's abolish it.

The problem with many of these positions is that they are simply incorrect diagnoses of the issues or reflect an unrealistic understanding of how the world works.


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9 comments
DUMBGOP
DUMBGOP

Libertarians are to anarchists what nudists are to naked people. One just has a better vocabulary and with few less maltav cocktails.

leesamarie
leesamarie

yeah. nevermind that the GOP has been strangling government for the last thirty years and private businesses are not doing well at all, except for the uberwealthy who pay their employees so little they have to be on food stamps. libertarians are such shallow thinkers.

lawsamz
lawsamz

Let them eat cake is attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette who upon hearing the cries of the poor that they did not have bread, she supposedly said, let the people eat the more expensive cake. Of course, this uncaring common came from the ruling elite.  And it is the ruling elite that classical liberals oppose. The ruling elite always attempt to take control of  the state apparatus, and use its guns and power to take advantage of the lower and middle class. This is the reason for having a night-watchman government. A small/limited government cannot give a selfish governmentalist  the power to control and abuse the people. Somehow, the modern progressive liberal has forgotten this story. Maybe they should read what the true liberals actually wrote. Maybe then they would understand the meaning of liberty and why people (self-governing) should run the country and not the state apparatus.


nedtb51
nedtb51

At its worst, Libertarianism is an excuse for selfishness; at its best it's push back against some government that's become an overreach and is self-sustaining once it gets into the budget. War on drugs is the best; environmental and tax policy is the worst.

SarahBelham
SarahBelham

"Libertarianism is the belief that each rich straight white man has the right to live his life as he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of other rich straight white men who agree with him. Fuck everyone else. P.S. 420 BLAZE IT."

Fixed that for ya, Cato Institute.

GubmintIsntEvil
GubmintIsntEvil

Libertarianism ceases to make any sense whatsoever if you think about it for more than 30 seconds.

McMahon
McMahon

I agree that their view on drugs is more enlightened than the establishment who want us to continue funding the doomed to fail, and failing, war on drugs.

Anse
Anse

The problem with American libertarians is that their movement has too many connections to the John Birch Society and other nativist/racist nationalists. You have some media outlets, like Reason.com, which offer pretty reasonable and rational views on the issues, but a great many self-described libertarians are just crazy white people. It's no accident that Ron Paul's old newsletter was often filled with anti-minority screeds, and charges of racism hounded his many campaigns. My understanding is that there came a point in the libertarian movement when they were afraid too many libertine, dope-smoking hippies were becoming overly attracted to the ideology, so they decided to change course and reach out to the redneck element. Whatever the case, libertarianism is a dead-end once the pragmatic needs of government become apparent. 

fritz
fritz

@lawsamz 

Why would government size have any bearing on it being a selfish government? And maybe "people" "self-governing" would be just a short-sighted and selfish as today.

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