Libertarianism, most simply put, is a set of commitments that emphasize freedoms from interferences on the part of the government. One of the ideals to which libertarianism is committed seems to be a kind of true American ideal: if a person works hard, she will be rewarded for her hard work. This relies on the notion that we live in a meritocracy – in a society where hard work is rewarded proportionately, or nearly proportionately, to one’s efforts. I take it that this is a necessary condition for the success of a broadly libertarian view. But it’s plainly false. That is why political libertarianism has come to confuse me in the last several years. It turns out to be an incoherent position, in practice – though not in theory (sound familiar, Marxists?).
The purpose of this article is to present, as straightforwardly as possible, some of the incoherencies imbedded in what I am calling political libertarianism. If incoherence isn’t a problem for you, you may not find this to be a compelling argument. If it is, then I hope you’ll take this article seriously and propose challenges to my argument by demonstrating that I’ve made a mistake in showing the incoherence in the libertarian position in theory versus the libertarian position in practice.
First off, I would distinguish political libertarianism from social libertarianism. In the former brand of libertarianism, the focus of the view is on government interference in things like markets (broadly construed) and political processes. The latter brand, on the other hand, finds its focus in laws (which present instances of interference) that deal with personal choices – e.g. the choice to consume or not to consume alcohol and/or other drugs, the kind of sex and relationships in which one chooses to engage.
Markets and political processes never can be separated entirely on a theoretical basis from social issues – markets are everywhere, after all. But they can be distinguished in practice. For instance, some people identify themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” – such a person would be economically protectionist, perhaps, and socially libertarian. Alternatively, one might be “socially conservative and fiscally liberal” – that is, an economic libertarian and a social protectionist. One can support policies that are more or less directly tied to markets or that are more or less tied to social issues. That there will always be overlap between the two doesn’t mean that we cannot or do not make these kinds of distinctions. There surely are other ways we could cut this cloth, but the examples here only serve to put on display that we can, if not in principle then at least in practice, distinguish between political libertarianism from social libertarianism.
Again, the focus of this article is political libertarianism – including economic libertarianism. Though I’m mainly concerned with domestic policy here, my conclusions may reasonably extend to foreign policy as well.
I take it that political libertarianism is committed to laissez faire political and economic policies. For instance, the social welfare system in the United States at present presents an in-principle violation of this commitment. Free marketplaces, on the other hand, embody the principle. To take this a step further, government interference in the labor market would violate the free-market principle, while “hands-off” labor-market non-regulation or deregulation embodies it.
The reason political libertarianism is committed to non-interference usually is, as Robert Nozick pointed out in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, grounded in a Lockean commitment that we all have property over ourselves. Because we all own ourselves, we have a right not to be interfered with in a variety of ways. We have a right not to be enslaved, forced into contracts, and the right not to have our freedom restricted directly (locked in our homes, maybe). Because some interference by the government is necessary to minimize interference generally with our persons, a minimal government is justified. According to libertarianism, government exists only to guarantee the security of markets and to prevent citizens from bashing other citizens’ heads – as head bashing would infringe on the bashed-head citizens’ right to self-ownership. So libertarianism is not anarchy. But the role of government stops short of providing for what political philosophers call ‘positive rights’ – that is, rights to things like education, jobs, healthcare, etc.. Let this stand as a general description of political libertarianism (social libertarianism is similarly grounded, of course).
There is nothing incoherent about the position in theory.
In practice, however, we run into a different story. As it turns out, completely free markets are not genuinely free for all participants in those markets, and a lack of interference on the part of the government there and elsewhere turns out to enable interferences on other fronts. One is only genuinely free from interference if one has more purchasing power and a greater degree of cognitive and physical abilities than everyone else in the marketplace. If one is unfortunate enough to be born anywhere not on top of the pile of marketplace participants, one is, to a greater or lesser degree, a victim to the whim of those with greater money, ability, or other sort of market power.
Because one’s options are limited by the circumstances in which one finds oneself – and this is a general fact about the world, not one formulated for markets specifically – very few people are genuinely free to act.
This all may seem obvious, but I’ll describe a realistic scenario to make what I’m saying concrete. Let’s consider two cases. Joe and Shane are both hard workers. They both have an equal desire to work for success (assume that they both consider ‘success’ to mean the same class of achievements). If Joe is born into a poor neighborhood, has no inheritance from his relatives, and has access only to the worst schools in the state, Joe’s options are limited. He has no control over the fact that his options are limited. He can only do the best he’s able with the circumstances in which he finds himself. His chances of attending college (though college surely isn’t the only path to “success,” there is a fact that college graduates compete with more ease than non-graduates) are fantastically small, the chances that his parents have taught him about the bond market are even smaller, and his ability to compete in the employment marketplace is severely limited. All of this is due to no personal shortcoming.
On the contrary, if Joe’s distant relative Shane is born into a wealthy neighborhood, receives an inheritance, attends a blue-ribbon high school, and is taught about investment and savings as he matures in age – his options are vastly different from Joe’s. They are much better than Joe’s, in comparison. Of course, Shane has done nothing to earn the opportunities with which he’s presented. He does not deserve them any more than Joe deserves having been born into circumstances that limit his options in the employment marketplace.
This is, I think, a fair description of many Americans today. Many want to achieve a certain kind of success and are willing to work for it, but they are not free to do so. At least, they do not have the same kind of freedom as a small class of other Americans. Americans generally seem to be committed blindly to the view that “whatever one has, one must have earned.” If we consider this assertion at all carefully, its failure to track reality becomes obvious almost straight away.
If freedom from interference due to self-ownership is the foundational commitment of libertarianism, then a “hands-off” government policy-set clearly is not the answer. It’s actually an incoherent commitment. It’s an in-principle answer, but the principle does not serve its goal in practice. That being the case, the principle either must be amended or we need a more realistic, practical view of fulfilling the demands of the principle in the real world. What this means is that the government must interfere in some ways if it’s to minimize genuine interference and maximize or promote genuine freedom for its citizens in others.
In just the same way as libertarians justify a minimal government to guarantee contracts or to protect citizens from head bashing, it must also step in to promote a genuinely free marketplace for all citizens. That which appears to be government interference may be actually the lesser of two evils – the government can interfere minimally to guarantee a free marketplace, or it can do nothing and guarantee the perpetuation of a non-free marketplace. To stop short, as libertarians do, of putting citizens in a position to participate freely in marketplaces, is to set an arbitrary limit to one’s commitment to a principle of self-ownership.
In terms of policy implications – let’s not jump to conclusions. My argument may not mean that the government needs to ramp up direct social welfare spending. Perhaps it means that it needs to increase funding for education, for basic healthcare marketplace options, or for other non-direct welfare improvements. That is, the goal of whatever policies must implement, according to the foundational beliefs of libertarianism are not libertarian in practice. The policies must be designed to alter the set of freedom-interfering circumstances in which many Americans (i.e. most Americans) are trapped.
If we are really committed to freedom – though one need not be, I suppose – and really interested in non-interference, we need to get real about in-practice libertarianism and see it for what it is: a luxury reserved for those positioned at the top of our marketplaces. If one is not at the top of the marketplace and endorses in-practice libertarianism, one is committed to a political outlook that only serves to worsen one’s situation, vis-à-vis one’s freedom to choose and to participate in the marketplace. Just like Marxism – the theory is nice, but the practice seems not to serve the theory.