How To Not Explain Things To Libertarians
Chris Clarke, at Pandagon, has written a long article about How To Explain Things To Libertarians. As you might expect, as he leads into all of this, he gets some things wrong. The things he gets wrong are the traditional propaganda of the left related to why we need social democracy. For example:
If those donâ€™t work, sometimes these people [ed: Libertarians] are persuaded when itâ€™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.
Well, now, there is some truth to the fact that the owners of industrial corporations were getting very wealthy in that time period. There is also some truth to the fact that people were more likely to die of things like his examples than they are now. There are some inconvenient facts left out, though. Like:
- The US in the late 19th century was not functioning the way a classic liberal would want it to. It was not a capitalist society. Rather, it was corporatist, the government provided all sorts of benefits to corporations and the wealthy, taxed imports fairly heavily and even made the guns of the government available to the corporate owners to coerce their workers. This is hardly the stuff of classic liberal (or libertarian) philosophy, where we advocate an even playing field; i.e. equality of opportunity.
- Another inconvenient fact. Although, by our standards today, the average worker’s life was pretty bad, it was much better than when they had been a subsistence farmer in South Dakota. There is a reason why people left the farm, went to the city and got a job in a factory. They made more money, had more leisure time and lived longer. And they knew it. Does that mean all was sweetness and light? No, but it was better than being a farmer, which was their alternative. And it generated wealth that allowed more people to buy things, increasing the demand for industrial output, increasing the demand for workers, etc. This cycle was wealth creating, farming never could be.
- Those factory workers his heart bleeds for were wealthier than the previous generation. Chris is raising the typical cry of socialists in favor of equality of outcome. I haven’t the time to show why that is unworkable except with totalitarianism, but Hayek did. So, I suggest reading Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” to understand why equality of outcome leads to totalitarianism.
After this quite brilliant beginning where Chris uses a variety of strawmen to show why Libertarians are just absolutist whackos that don’t live in the real world, he then goes on to show you how to “make their heads explode with simple, fact-based declarative sentences.” I thought it would be interesting to see if my head would explode. I’m not actually a Libertarian, but I’m close enough that my head should explode if he’s right.
â€œLibertarianism originated in the philosophy of a left-wing French political philosopher (ed: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) who also influenced Karl Marx.â€
First, it’s quite likely that Clarke is referring to the core Libertarian Party folks. There is some truth to his statement. However, the folks who haunt this site would quibble that American libertarianism traces its historical roots to Adam Smith, David Hume, and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment, with the American Revolutionary philosophers as the midwives of American Individualism. Interesting that Clarke doesn’t know that. Very interesting that Clarke doesn’t know that Rand and Heinlein both counted Jefferson as a far more important influence than Proudhon. Even more interesting that he doesn’t recognize that it is quite possible to pick up good ideas from someone that you generally don’t agree with. Even more interesting that he doesn’t see that Libertarians are individual anarchists who oppose both statism and corporatism, as did, more or less, Proudhon. Especially in his later years.
Alright, so far my head is far from exploding. In fact, I’m finding that Clarke’s “fact-based, declarative sentences” are much more declarative than fact-based. But who knows, maybe it gets better as we move onwards.
Despite the Libertariansâ€™ historically illiterate insistence that socialism is synonymous with totalitarianism, much of current left thought is libertarian at its root, which provides us with the useful sentence:
â€œIâ€™m a libertarian socialist.â€
First, we have plenty of examples of socialism ending in totalitarianism, so the claim that it is otherwise is just that, a claim. Whether we look at the outcome of socialism in Germany or in Russia or in China, it is simply obvious that socialism has ended in totalitarianism any number of obvious times. Moreover, the countries that are currently “social democracies” or “democratic socialist” (France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, etc.) have far less in the way of individual rights than those countries which are more on the individualist side of the coin. His claim that so-called libertarian socialism allows the largest number of people to have the largest input into the policy by which we run the world has two interesting components. First, he appears to be betraying an Internationalist (as opposed to Globalism advocate) position in this. Second, it’s patently false. In Germany and France, for example, policy is set primarily by bureaucrats, not citizens.
More inaccuracy and very little in the way of head exploding. Hmmmmm.
â€œCorporations are governments.â€
Since, by mainstream Libertarian AND Anarchist thinking, a government is defined as the group of people that hold a monopoly on the use of force, that really is quite wrong. His thinking is that corporations are governments because they regulate their workplace. However, a corporation has no monopoly on the use of force. The coercion of a corporate regulation ends at the moment that I choose to leave that job. I won’t bother to defend Guantanamo, although that seems to be what Clarke thinks I will do. Instead, I will point out that the end result of giving government extensive and intrusive power over the economy and individuals, which is what “libertarian socialists” advocate will result in corporations and labor unions having extensive power, through financial influence, over the government. Much of the corporate regulation he decries is a result of the regulation of government, although he seems not to see it. Or the intervention of the government’s judges into the workplace, resulting in corporations needing to regulate the workplace to avoid the costly litigation that government regulation and judgments have resulted in.
Well, it seems that Clarke isn’t able to ask why more than once. To get to a root understanding of an issue, it is almost always necessary to ask why 3, 4, or more times. Head not exploding, having trouble seeing the validity of his points. The fact-based thing seems to be missing still.
A couple of more comments. Those of us who understand what classical liberalism is don’t consider Libertarianism, Indivualist Anarchism and Classical Liberalism to be at all the same. In fact, I don’t know many people in the “libertarian blogosphere” that would agree with Clarke’s assertion that individualist anarchism is now called classical liberalism.
Clarke continuously asserts throughout his polemic, as do his commenters, many things about Libertarians that are not true. He, and they, clearly have never met any of the Friedmans, corresponded with Heinlein, talked with any of the contributors here, or at Catallarchy, and have outright ignored the writings on Coyote Blog, Reason or Cato. In fact, it seems to me that they deliberately seek out the obvious and ludicrous stereotypes, ignore the truly thoughtful thinkers, and then categorize all of libertarian and classic liberal philosophy by those stereotypes. In doing so, they simply make the stereotype of the left come to life, sadly.
Perhaps this will start a real dialogue, although that seems doubtful.
Update: It should be noted that Clarke claims that Libertarians derive their philosophy from Ayn Rand and Heinlein. This is just silly. Clearly he is talking to some stereotypes. Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand) can’t stand Libertarians. Later he rightly identifies some of the important thinkers that underpin the ideas of libertarianism, such as Rothbard, Friedman and von Mises. Interestingly, he totally misses Hayek and Rockwell and ignores folks like Ron Paul who are demonstrating libertarian ideas in a practical manner every day. Worse yet, as I point out above, he completely misses the historical descent from the Enlightenment and American Revolution thinkers. This is what happens when you attack a strawman rather than dealing with the reality.
Update 2: Logan Feree, at Freedom Democrats, has an excellent post on this same topic, How To Explain Things To [Vulgar] Libertarians. He traces the history and development of Individualist Anarchism and Libertarianism nicely and points out, as I did, that Clarke is responding to the stereotype, which he refers to as a vulgar libertarian.