Libertarianism: a crazy idea?

I’ve always considered myself basically libertarian. Recently I read Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz. Published in 1997 — it might seem an artifact from a distant past.

And Boaz starts off saying libertarianism is (was) resonating with more and more people. But lately, it’s mostly become a dark perversion of itself, the word “freedom” fetishized by a deranged political right that no longer even believes in democracy. Their idea of “freedom” is to refuse mask wearing and vaccination, and allowing anyone to buy military assault weapons.

Actually violating libertarianism’s core idea of freedom to act as one chooses — provided no one else is harmed. Today’s vocal “freedom” lovers exposing others to potential infection (and shooting) certainly harms them.

Libertarianism assumes we have natural rights to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Where do they come from? The Declaration of Independence said the “creator.” But nonesuch exists. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously called the idea of natural rights “nonsense on stilts.”

But imagine a world with just one person, John. Obviously John is free to act as he pleases. Then Sue shows up. By what right could Sue interfere with John’s liberty? That is the real question posed by the concept of natural rights. Not what’s the basis for John’s rights, but rather what’s the basis for anyone trumping them? If John’s rights are somehow debatable, surely that’s more true of a right to negate them. And this is always the issue regarding natural rights — not what justifies them, but what can justify their denial.

Boaz stressed the centrality of property rights. All liberty really equates to the right to own and enjoy the use of property. Without that, there isn’t much of anything you can freely do; making freedom meaningless.

Proudhon declared “property is theft,” and some indeed deem the whole idea of property problematic because some have more and others less. Romanticizing an imagined utopia where there is no “property” and everything is shared in common. A friend of mine thinks the solution to inequality and poverty is simple, with no need for economic growth. Humanity as a whole has enough wealth. Just (!) distribute it more equally.

But recall John and Sue. Similarly, the issue isn’t John’s right to his property, but the right of anyone else — Sue, the government, “society” — to dispossess John and grab control of his property.

Some (like my friend) do try to justify that by invoking some supposed greater good. Perhaps even John’s own good. But consider the arrogance of thinking you know what’s best for other people. Libertarianism is a stance of humility vis-a-vis other people. Unlike the “nanny state,” libertarians recognize that people differ in their wants and needs and what serves them; of which they themselves are the best judges. Furthermore, when government involves itself in so many matters, putting them all in the public square, that’s a recipe for conflict. A public square so thick with issues is a key cause of our political polarization.

Boaz argues that much government activity exceeds enumerated constitutional powers. He omits mention of the power to regulate interstate commerce, which has been interpreted quite broadly to cover all that. But anyhow, hasn’t this horse long ago left the barn? Making Boaz’s libertarianism seem a quaint if not irrelevant idea?

And government’s growth wasn’t usurpation. Voters have mostly welcomed government action, sold as improving lives and preventing harms. Even under Reagan and Thatcher, governments actually grew.

True, eliminating this or that government program or regulatory scheme would always harm some people. A full libertarian rollback would entail much harm. But — that harm would be dwarfed by the benefits in terms of greater overall societal wealth, enjoyed by most citizens. Simply put, less restriction on economic activity means more scope for wealth creation. But that foregone boon is invisible to the public when thinking about government activity.

Here’s a small example. Governments require licenses for innumerable professions, not just doctors and lawyers, but hairdressers, real estate agents, interior decorators, cosmetologists, and a zillion others. Sure, all justified to protect the public, and without licensing there would be horror stories. But the true main impetus for such licensing is that those professions want to stifle competition, and enlist government to do it for them. Eliminating the licensing would open up vast opportunities for more people to earn money and innovate to provide services to consumers, who would benefit from wider choices and lower prices. All that would far outweigh the occasional horror stories.

And here’s a bigger case in point: drug prohibition. Does it prevent harms from drug use? Maybe the tiniest bit. But even if it stopped all drug use, that benefit would still be dwarfed by the vast incalculable harm drug prohibition visits upon society. All the lives destroyed by incarceration, neighborhoods shattered by violence, all the corruption. America’s drug war creates murderous criminality in other countries too (a big cause of our immigration problems).

Imagine if we just stopped making drugs illegal. All those harms would go away. That would be a libertarian approach. Maybe not so crazy after all.

One Response to “Libertarianism: a crazy idea?”

  1. Lee Says:

    > libertarianism’s core idea of freedom to act as one chooses — provided no one else is harmed.

    Freedom to act as one chooses does not include the right to exploit desperate people, right? (E.g., overcharging a dying person for emergency medical services, “indebted to the company store” and other forms of indentured servitude, taking advantage of widows and orphans, …) So, the big question is what counts as desperation?

    Many progressives argue that unless there is a sound safety net, the poorest among us become the desperately poor, who “freely” choose all sorts of desperate solutions that the better off would never take. (Payday loans, anyone?) Would libertarians join progressives to work for a sound safety net so that that kind of harm isn’t perpetrated on our fellow citizens?

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