My fellow LSE student Chris Rogers has received a bit of attention lately for his article, “A Conservative’s Critique of Libertarianism”. Unfortunately, he has gotten quite a lot wrong in his piece, most glaringly, his assertion that libertarians are idealistic to the point of ignoring pragmatic compromise. The post’s description of libertarians is simplistic at best, and in his further denigration of libertarian thought he fails to appreciate the great harm wrought by the modern state, looking only at the bright side of government and almighty tradition.
Libertarians are vehement and extreme idealists, almost to a man and a woman they’re pollyanna, they pride themselves in holding fast to their principles in the face of every problem that exists in the real world. They don’t see the universe, they see a poorly articulated utopian society and no transitional method to get there. They rage against current society because they can, and most Libertarians are ideological immoralists.
If the complete abolition of the state, as favored by anarchists, or its reduction to a Nozickian minimum, the choice of staunch libertarians, is the end goal, then policies proposed by political libertarians today are anything but quixotic. They are rightly unwilling to accept the incredible harms wrought by the modern state as necessary for the smooth functioning of society. We do not “rage” against society, we question the necessity of the current state. While proponents of state power often conflate society with the state, and governance with government, libertarians correctly see the two as separate.
Rogers cites the London riots as an example of the dangers of turning away from the rule of law, or humans acting without state control. While the damage wrought by the London riots is indeed awful, regrettably for his argument, libertarians consider the protection of private property one the chief duties of the state.
Far from scorning the law, libertarians value societal rules which protect property rights and facilitate market exchanges. They realize that in many cases, the laws best suited to this purpose are not the result of deals between powerful office-seeking politicians, but are instead “discovered” as communities arrive at standards which work for them. When governments, particularly those far from the community being governed, establish laws, they often reduce peace and order, instead of ensuring it, because community norms differ from the imposed legal standards. Drug prohibition is a fantastic example of a violence-causing, market distorting law imposed by legislation, prosecuted in a racially charged fashion.
Libertarians are also quick to realize that state action often undermines the rule of law. When a state breaks its founding compact and spies upon its own people, or allows financial institutions to launder drug money with a slap on the wrist, people lose faith in the objectivity of law. Libertarians criticize these state actions, as well as property destroying riots.
The article places importance upon standards of national culture in the face of immigration and multiculturalism. Libertarians fail to see anything so valuable about national culture which would legitimize the use of force, or taxpayer dollars, to perpetuate it upon unwilling participants. In a free society, cultural norms shift over time as sentiments and standards change in a vibrant process of creative destruction. Cultures mix and combine to create new exciting foods, music, and literature, and this process ought to be celebrated, not curtailed with subsidies for state approved national foods or indigenous film quotas, a la France. Individuals have rights, states and cultures, not so much. If states have any rights, they extend only so far as they protect the rights of the individual, and these rights are not violated by the presence of people born on the other side of lines penned on maps.
Interestingly, Rogers spurns open boarders immediately before pivoting to attack libertarian solutions to poverty. Perhaps he is only concerned with poverty inside his own nation, but this does nothing to dispel the fact that national boarders and immigration control trap untold millions in abject poverty under the rule of governments that fail to provide even the basic services offered by Nozick’s minimal state. If however, conservatives are willing to bite this bullet and refuse entry to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, libertarians pragmatically propose systems of welfare which maximize autonomy, and avoid the poverty traps engendered by modern welfare. Libertarians often endorse negative income taxes and minimum incomes, instead of market distorting minimum wages which increase unemployment. These solutions utterly demolish the assertion that libertarians are uncompromising idealists. As well, they recognize the ways in which state regulation harms the worst off in society, creating barriers to entry that protect market leaders at the expense of consumers and possible competitors. The licensing of everything from taxis to barbers drives up the cost of these services by limiting their supply, all in the name of protecting the public. The state, and its current war on poverty, does little to actually raise the living standards of the worst off.
Unlike David Cameron, libertarians do not believe that the state needs to police the internet, to take choices and responsibility away from the family by filtering websites deemed pornographic or immoral. A demand, by some, for this sort of filtering already exists, and entrepreneurs have responded with a host of web filtering products. In this, and most other sectors, the state has no business mandating a single choice for all. When it comes to public goods, like national defense, libertarians accept the need for some sort of collective defense, but object to its use in foreign adventures, particularly when military intervention terrorizes foreign civilian populations and creates more enemies than it quashes.
To end, libertarians are not raving utopians, but conscientious objectors to the excesses of the modern state. Towards this goal, they propose innovative policy solutions to unchain our markets reduce the scope of government. They are willing to make compromises, happily accepting the taxation of currently illegal drugs over the violent imprisonment of peaceful “offenders”. They oppose interventionist foreign policies that create new enemies and violate the self determination of other peoples. Libertarians accept that modern states provide some form of welfare, but want aid to maximize the autonomy of the recipients. They care about the spontaneous order that is society, while endorsing a state of limited power.
At this point I’m going to concede that it is time to call the government, someone get an investigator, a straw man has been killed!