Libertarianism – A Utopian Ideal?

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Libertarianism – and any sort of more general freedom from government as advocated by anyone with a pro-free market leaning – is opposed both ethically and economically on a number of substantive grounds. The proposition that without government we would have inequality, destitution for the masses, rampant greed, and so on is a familiar charge. A further point of opposition is that libertarianism, and the drive towards it is simply utopian or idealistic and that libertarians are hopeless day dreamers, lacking any awareness of how the world “really” works. It is this objection that we will attempt to answer in this short essay.

There are two different basic guises of the argument that libertarianism is utopian. The first is that a libertarian world will simply never come about; that government is so entrenched in the world and people are so inherently statist that any hope for a libertarian society will founder upon the rocks. In the first place we might as well point out that libertarianism is a normative theory; just because we live in a society overwhelmed by statism does not mean that things should be that way. The current situation may make it harder to achieve but it does not undermine libertarianism as an ethical theory. But if we ignore this we do have to recognise that much of the fight for freedom will be an uphill struggle – as it always has been in history. The present author does not expect a libertarian world to appear within his lifetime. But from a strictly practical point of view this fight is a lot less “utopian” than many other goals such as the fight against poverty or against disease. These things require positive action and endless patience to wait for enough wealth to accumulate in order to provide some alleviation. Indeed even the most popular ideal in the world today – the so-called spread of democracy – requires armed invasions, active peacekeeping, the setup of institutions for which to hold to elections and the willingness of the population to get off their backsides and vote. This is assuming, of course, that such an ideal is genuine and not simply a veneer for power and control over resources. Freedom, however, only requires negative action – the abstinence from violence against the person or property of another person. Every single individual in the world has the physical ability to bring this situation about right now with no effort whatsoever. Freedom could practically be achieved much more quickly than wealth, democracy, inequality, happiness, fulfilment or any other ideal that one could care to mention. This does of course suffer from the drawback that people need a passion for liberty and a willingness to cease their promotion or tacit acceptance of the ruling regimes. Inducing recognition of the illegitimacy of government on a wide scale is a formidable task for libertarians, especially as it is so radical. But what is truly utopian, however, is the belief that the current situation of debt, spending and kicking the can down the road can ever continue. At the birth of social democracy, Western nations had accumulated several generations’ worth of capital that had raised the standard of living by a significant magnitude. This provided a seemingly inexhaustible fund for politicians to bribe voters, showering them with goodies in the form of retirement benefits, welfare payments, nationalised industries, publically owned infrastructure, and so on in return for their votes. Because politicians like to spend and spend without raising current taxes, much of this spending was fuelled by borrowing, with the productivity of accumulated capital enabling tax revenue to service this debt. The borrowing and inflation has benefitted the bookends of society – the poorest who receive the majority of the welfare payments and the very rich whose assets survive the inflation by rising in nominal value – as well as the baby boomer generation, which has received most of the lavish benefits without having to pay for them. The profligate waste disguised a slow but relentless capital consumption until now productivity can no longer provide for the burgeoning level of spending. Governments today are struggling to even service the interest on debt through tax revenues, having to borrow more just to pay down previously accumulated debt. Particularly now as the aforementioned baby boomer generation has begun to retire, leaving behind it a decimated workforce supporting a heavy generation of retirees, this situation is likely to only get worse. There are three possible options available – to default on the entitlements; to default on the debt; or to print enough money to pay for everything. The first option would cause mass social unrest, the second would cause financial markets to collapse and the third would cause hyperinflation of the currency. This is an unpleasant but soon to be necessary choice. It is precisely because the paradigm of social democracy, its welfare state and social justice no longer appear to be working that liberty (and “Austrian” economics) are beginning to be viewed as viable alternatives. As suggested previously, the view (and hope) of the present author is that this will be a relatively bloodless and un-revolutionary process, taking effect through the simple circumvention of government by people who simply want to live their lives and maintain their standard of living. Regardless of their precise knowledge of the virtues of liberty, a libertarian world will come about by people seeking to assert their individuality. That seems a lot less utopian than desperately attempting to prop up the current, zombie-like system.

The second guise of the argument that libertarianism is utopian is the proposition that non-aggression is counter to human nature and there will always be people who seek to murder, rape and steal. Or, even worse, a free society will just create a society of looters and murderers and the peaceful and harmonious world that libertarians envisage will simply never appear. With government, however, peace is maintained (enforced?) and we have a controlled and orderly redistribution subject to democratic oversight and this is far more in keeping with the nature of humans. First of all, freedom is the raison d’être of human nature and not its antithesis. Undoubtedly it is true that the political means of achieving wealth through theft and redistribution, as well as the abdication of individual responsibility through devotion to a leader, are powerful and attractive propositions that may form part of human nature. But this is simply a part of the universal law of human action that seeks to minimise individual cost and maximise individual benefit. People seek to promote government action because they think it will promote what they want while forcing others to shoulder the burden. They want government to enact their ideas and their plans and for everyone else to march in time. They seldom consider the fact that they may be suffering the costs of implementing somebody else’s plan. As soon as government ceases to serve this function in the opinion of individuals, it will be dropped. It is, therefore, individual freedom and not an automated, robotic adherence to the government that is in keeping with human nature. Second, bearing this in mind, it is far from clear that society would simply disintegrate into murderous chaos if government was abolished instantly. While there may be a transitory period of restlessness, people will soon take steps to privately protect and defend their property, with these private means replacing the monopolistic provision of the state – as happened recently in the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when police were ordered to stand down. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the division of labour and social co-operation would suddenly be obliterated overnight. People engage in these things not only because it is the most productive form of organisation but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the number of people willing to commit private murder and theft would still be in the minority. The majority of people abstain from these acts not because the government is preventing them from doing them but because they are evil. Abolishing the state will not change this view. If any proponent of government was to suggest otherwise then it is permissible to ask him what he would do if government vanished suddenly. Would he be among the looters and plunderers? And if not, why should anyone else? Third, libertarians have never made the claim that the world will be completely eradicated of aggression and we do not assume that, once governments and states are abolished, evil people will suddenly vanish from the face of the Earth. Indeed, libertarians do not even have to prove that a world of liberty will be absolutely flawless and totally free of evil and violent people; it simply has to be better than any other option. What we are firmly opposed to is the legitimisation of aggression when it is carried about by an elite group called the government; that if we recognise acts such as murder and theft as immoral and evil then they shouldn’t be done by anyone. In other words, libertarians oppose the legalisation of aggression under any circumstance, applying simply what resides in everyone’s understanding of basic morality to those who are in government. The fact that illegal acts will still be done is fully acknowledged; but allowing a legitimate channel for the initiation of violence dilutes this basic moral understanding and serves as a vehicle for evil acts such as murder and theft rather than for their prevention. In any case, even if libertarians strove for a world of the complete, de facto eradication of all aggression, private and public, then what would be wrong with that? It is not likely, for example, that rape will ever be completely eradicated whatever legal regime is put in place and any person who sets out to achieve such a total banishment would certainly be “utopian”. But we would hardly dispute the honourable nature of his goal, nor would we castigate his efforts to achieve it. Governments themselves participate in causes even more utopian than this, such as the seemingly endless “War on Drugs”. Doubtless many of us would love to have a world free from substance use but, regardless of the ethics of either drug use or the attempts to prevent it, from a strictly practical point of view it is hopeless to attempt to regulate with the force of law what people desire to put into their own bodies.

Libertarianism will never create a perfect world; but it will create a world that is most in step with the fact that humans think, feel, desire, choose and act as individuals. Undoubtedly, according to some “higher” ideal, the human race is flawed but any practical and sensible political theory has to account for humans as they are, warts and all. It is for this reason that libertarianism, as opposed to its statist and collectivist rivals, is one of the least utopian theories.

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The False Dilemma

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Current, conventional thinking about social, political and economic subjects typically narrows the options available to a set of policies advocated by two, may be three political parties or scarcely dissimilar ideologies. Consequently any genuine radical or lateral thinking about these topics is abandoned and it is assumed and accepted that the fundamental questions of the state, the government, and of tackling the biggest societal problems of the day are already settled. Seldom are alternatives to these entrenched matters – such as whether the state should have any positive role at all in anything – given the light of day, let alone the opportunity of being debated. This phenomenon, which presents a distinct challenge to libertarians, is known as the “false dilemma” – the illusion that the only choice is between a very constricted range of possible options, preserving the status quo in favour of the state and its cronies while at the same time bestowing the illusion of control on a gullible electorate.

In the UK the “false dilemma” is playing itself out in such a way as to completely obliterate one of the basic truths (understood by Austro-Libertarians) that all humans can flourish and co-exist peacefully. Those on the ideological right such as supporters of the Conservative Party believe that business should be helped in order to boost economic growth, while cuts should be made to welfare and to public services in order reduce the government “deficit” (a much overused term given that the overall debt and not the deficit is the real problem) and to slim down the cash cow that the benefits system has become to the allegedly lazy and unproductive. Those of the ideological left believe that a strong welfare state, heavy taxes on the wealthy and increased government spending are needed to end the scourge of poverty. Both of these ideologies contain kernels of truth and genuine, honourable concerns that make their particular preoccupations seem plausible. It is true, for instance, that business needs to flourish if there is to be any economic progress at all, and that government needs to reduce its profligate borrowing, taxing and wasting with all due haste. On the other hand, it does not seem fair that a society should allegedly produce vast wealth for a few while leaving others to languish in stagnating poverty, nor is it necessarily true that wealth creation is “top-down”. The continuing result of this for UK politics seems to be that political action is becoming a choice, or a very false dilemma, between two broadly defined groups of people in society – a choice between those who are “rich” and those who are “poor”.

This impression is exacerbated by the fact that the political parties whose rhetoric represents these ideologies never achieve their aims, or never really carry them out. “Austerity” is proving not to boost economic growth nor help the plight of the poor simply because government spending is not, in fact, decreasing. Bank bailouts and cartelisation of businesses will not do the same either as they simply perpetuate malinvestment and economic waste. They do, however, save the politically connected rich from the consequences of their actions while leaving everyone else to foot the bill. On the other side, increased government spending and a burgeoning welfare state only siphon funds from the productive sector to be consumed and wasted by government. Both sides, therefore, in failing to ever be able to achieve their stated aims provide plenty of ammunition for the opposition, ammunition that is fuelling this apparent basic choice between “rich” and “poor”.

If we are ever to have any hope of recovery from the current economic malaise we must seek for a repudiation of this false choice and a restoration of the understanding that both economically and ethically the rich and poor can prosper side by side. At the heart of the problem, the false axiom accepted by each ideology, is the notion that government must help somebody in order to create a better society. There is curious mixture of economic and ethical arguments that are used in order for each side to select whom government should help and to whom it should deny the same. Take, for example, the supporters of big business. They will say that it is right to use taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks in order to avoid a complete financial meltdown. Conveniently “their chums” in the city will reap fat rewards from doing so. But they then deny this very same method – the diversion of taxpayers’ money – to welfare programmes to help the poor because people should work for what they earn without leeching from the productive and the so-called “benefits scroungers” should get off their backsides and find a job. In other words they are using primarily economic arguments to justify bank bailouts while using ethical ones to deny welfare spending. Their “lefty” opponents will argue that throwing cash at the rich who made mistakes is unjust and that they should be left to foot the bill for their own mistakes. Yet they then state that welfare spending is needed to eliminate poverty and fuel growth from the “bottom up”. So they too, deny the flowing of taxpayer’s cash to certain groups based on ethical grounds but then promote it to others based on economic grounds. Each side, will of course, pepper their ethical arguments with economic ones and vice versa – the right, for example, will, as we have said, argue that welfare spending needs to be cut in order to reduce government outlays, and the left will argue that alleviating poverty is a just and noble cause. But the main thrust of each side’s opinion cannot be denied.

If we unscramble all of this and look at the ethical and economic arguments separately we will find that there are no grounds whatsoever for any state involvement. If it is unjust to violently confiscate tax revenue from innocent citizens to fund the lifestyle of bamboozling bankers then it is equally unjust to do the same to fund the lifestyles of those who are poorer. The difference is one of degree rather than of kind. Nobody, whether he is a prince or a pauper, a saint or a sadist, or a capitalist or a labourer has the right to wrestle away the property of other people for his own benefit. And from the economic side, bailing out bad business will simply perpetuate the moral hazards and malinvestments that need to be eliminated, while continuously funding the poor through welfare spending will only exacerbate poverty as it makes being poor relatively more attractive, reducing any incentive for people to do more to lift themselves out of that position, while squeezing the role of benevolence and charity for the genuinely needy. Furthermore, government would do a lot more for the poor if it stopped interfering in wealth creation in the first place with all of its burdensome laws and regulations that make the exercise impossible but for a few large and politically connected corporate favourites.

The real choice is not between “rich” and “poor”, “left” or “right”, “Conservative” or “Labour” “employer” and “employee”, and whatever other faux selection that the establishment throws at us. The real choice we have to face is, on the one hand, whether we want to continue with a political and economic system that, whomever’s interests the particular delegates of the day purport to promote, will only result in a parasitic existence for the politically connected at the expense of the stagnation of the standard of living for the rest of us. Or, on the other hand, we could choose a system where nobody has the violently enforceable right to live at the expense of everyone else and that everyone is free to trade and produce whatever he wants with his property, a system that will raise the standard of living for everyone and not just a select few. Only by considering radical options and overcoming the assumption and acceptance that the fundamentals of our society are beyond debate can we hope to build a world that is both truly just and economically prosperous.

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