Let Them Eat Cake: The Poverty of Libertarianism

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. Here's the head of the CFTC on high-frequency trading which, according to Cato, the market is doing just fine regulating on its own:

What about the high frequency cheetah traders? They have the machines of dreams that travel from zero to Captain Kirk in milliseconds. By the way, my warm and fuzzy feeling for our fine furry friends is a bit blunted. They now remind me more of World's Scariest Animal Attacks. Those cheetahs are a problem predator issue much larger than ever imagined.

To say that Fannie and Freddie were one of the main causes of the Great Recession is just inane. It's as if libertarians cannot believe that an unregulated market which packaged the mortgage-backed securities -- which they knew were junk -- and the predatory lenders simply played no role.

In fairness, the USDA does engage in corporate welfare because senators from farming states refuse to end the subsidies to large, corporate farms where most Americans get their food from. (We can't all afford to be Whole Food locavores). It's a bad, indefensible policy. So kudos to libertarians for that.

But the USDA also inspects food so that we don't get salmonella poisoning and the like. Simply abolishing the USDA is the easy answer -- here again, libertarians don't want to confront the reality of their policy choices.

The same holds true for the libertarian policy on environmental regulation: let the "free market" work. Do libertarians not understand that an average person does not have the "bargaining power" to "consume" clean air or water? Air pollution disproportionately affects low-income Americans. Environmental racism is nails on a chalkboard to libertarians, but that does not mean that poor people aren't usually squeezed into living in undesirable areas -- how many smokestacks are in Georgetown?

Libertarians economic agenda is closely aligned with the discredited Laffer/trickle-down economic policies of the past 30 years that resulted in an explosion in income inequality, continual shocks and recessions to the economy, market bubbles and the deregulation that eventually exploded the economy in 2008. But, I guess the answer is to place an order of "ostrich" if you're a libertarian.

I will grant libertarians that their views on corporate welfare, drug policy, gay marriage, abortion deserve sincere consideration (although, especially on drug policy, they are, again, too simplistic).

IIn the final analysis, libertarianism is a sophistic political philosophy -- at first blush, seductive, but upon further inspection, it would result in a society where the income inequality would be analogous to a banana republic, a non-existent to paper-thin social safety net, where people allegedly get what they deserve (meritocracy!), pollution goes unregulated and the "free market" (i.e., greed) reigns. Libertarians dream of a utopia, in practice libertarianism would bring about a dystopia.

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