by Benjamin Marks, Economics.org.au editor-in-chief
WARNING: libertarianism is a political philosophy only!
Libertarianism is not: (1) a morality; (2) a blind defence of anything calling itself a “business”; (3) a preference for chaos, destruction and liberty at the cost of safety; (4) an opinion of human nature; (5) lack of respect for law and humanity; (6) a return to helplessness and refusal to accept progress; (7) arm-chair theorising and ignoring practical matters. Because these seven areas often have certain terms associated with them, in the next paragraph I list synonyms for these seven areas to be clear and comprehensive.
Libertarianism is often confused with these seven examples of what libertarianism is not: (1) libertinism, i.e., hedonism, vice, sin, immorality; (2) mercantilism, i.e., business receiving government allowances, exemptions, handouts, privileges; (3) chaos, i.e., instability, uncertainty, preference for liberty over safety and security; (4) idealism, romanticism, utopianism, i.e., faith in humanity, markets, progress, technology, money, barter; (5) the law of the jungle, i.e., survival of the fittest, every man for himself, dog-eat-dog, unbridled selfishness; (6) pacifism, primitivism, self-sufficiency, i.e., claiming that just because libertarians don’t want government to provide something that therefore they don’t want anyone to; (7) theorising at the expense of practising, not participating in the public debate, i.e., mere arm-chair theorising. Now, a quick paragraph or three on each on how they differ from libertarianism:
- Libertinism — Just because libertarians believe those who sell drugs should not be prevented by government from doing so, it doesn’t mean we’re going to buy it. If libertarians wanted to buy everything that is consensually offered for voluntary consumption, we’d all be broke. Nor does it mean that we approve of them, at least not any more than the Australian government can be said to approve of what I am saying simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t ban it. As Ludwig von Mises said:
[O]nce the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs … If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The naive advocates of government interference with consumption delude themselves when they neglect what they disdainfully call the philosophical aspect of the problem. They unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters.
Moreover, it is government that fosters immorality. By increasing the supply of money, for example, it decreases the incentive to save for the future and do things that are not for instant gratification. And we haven’t even gone through the fact that government, by definition, rests on immorality; if any mere citizen were to act the way government does, then even government would label them criminal and immoral.
- Mercantilism — Just because libertarians defend the voluntary nature of business transactions, it doesn’t mean we’re fooled into supporting so-called “business” that receives handouts and allowances from the government. If it did, libertarians would be members of one or both of the major political parties. Libertarians are not only against welfare for the disadvantaged; we’re against corporate welfare too. As preaching and practising capitalist Neville Kennard said:
Those who ask for and take a grant or handout from government I call “corporate dole-bludgers” … Business in Australia, including many large companies who should know better and who don’t need to be on the dole, accept government money. How pathetic! Why don’t they say to government, “No thanks, we don’t need it or want it. Leave us alone, get off our backs and out of our pockets. Laissez nous faire!”
- Chaos — Stability is not necessarily a good thing. The Soviet Union was considered stable. The RBA tries to keep one measure stable, and as a result other measures become very unstable, like the purchasing power of money, the liquidity of banks, etc. As Bruno Leoni said:
The Romans accepted and applied a concept of the certainty of the law that could be described as meaning that the law was never to be subjected to sudden and unpredictable changes. Moreover, the law was never to be submitted, as a rule, to the arbitrary will or to the arbitrary power of any legislative assembly or of any one person, including senators or other prominent magistrates of the state. This is the long-run concept, or, if you prefer, the Roman concept, of the certainty of the law.
The libertarianism is chaos argument is quite a similar line of argument to the so-big-it-can’t-fail one that has by now, I should think, been even popularly discredited.
- Idealism, Romanticism, Utopianism — Libertarianism is a political philosophy that rests, not on a belief about the goodness of human nature, but on a belief that if someone’s actions are shown to be inconsistent with the principles they espouse, then that action is not defensible. Libertarianism does not necessarily entail any belief in the likelihood of libertarian ideas winning out (see the section in the middle column of Economics.org.au titled “BUT ANARCHISM WILL NEVER BE ACCEPTED!”). Libertarians do not believe that all men are angels; and, unlike all other groups, we don’t believe that men in government are angels either. It is critics of libertarianism who are the crackpots … the crackpot realists. As Murray Rothbard said:
The libertarian is … eminently realistic because he alone understands fully the nature of the State and its thrust for power. In contrast, it is the seemingly far more realistic conservative believer in “limited government” who is the truly impractical utopian. This conservative keeps repeating the litany that the central government should be severely limited by a constitution. Yet, at the same time that he rails against the corruption of the original Constitution and the widening of federal power since 1789, the conservative fails to draw the proper lesson from that degeneration. The idea of a strictly limited constitutional State was a noble experiment that failed, even under the most favorable and propitious circumstances. If it failed then, why should a similar experiment fare any better now? No, it is the conservative laissez-fairist, the man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making power into the hands of the central government andthen says, “Limit yourself”; it is he who is truly the impractical utopian.
Emphatically, the editor of Economics.org.au is the furthest thing in the world from an idealist, a romantic or a utopian. He is the author of Mencken’s Conservatism and “Grounding Political Debate.” The lack of any attention that those two brilliant pieces has received confirms his point of view. See also number 7 below.
- Law of the jungle — Rothbard disposed of that one here. An excerpt:
To apply the principle of the “survival of the fittest” to both the jungle and the market is to ignore the basic question: Fitness for what? The “fit” in the jungle are those most adept at the exercise of brute force. The “fit” on the market are those most adept in the service of society. The jungle is a brutish place where some seize from others and all live at the starvation level; the market is a peaceful and productive place where all serve themselves and others at the same time and live at infinitely higher levels of consumption. On the market, the charitable can provide aid, a luxury that cannot exist in the jungle.
- Pacifism, primitivism, self-sufficiency — As Hans-Hermann Hoppe said:
[I]t does not follow from the fact that the state provides roads and schools that only the state can provide such goods … From the fact that monkeys can ride bikes it does not follow that only monkeys can ride bikes … [I]mmediately following, it must be recalled that the state is an institution that can legislate and tax; and hence, that state agents have little incentive to produce efficiently. State roads and schools will only be more costly and their quality lower. For there is always a tendency for state agents to use up as many resources as possible doing whatever they do but actually work as little as possible doing it.
On how the market may provide for what government currently does, please navigate the section in the right column titled, “IF GOVERNMENT DOESN’T, WHO WILL”
- Theorising at the expense of practising, not participating in the public debate — Pericles said, there is no “incompatibility between words and deeds” and therefore “the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.” Similarly, Clarence Philbrook said: “The gravity of the potential effect of error in policy, and the immensity of the scope for growth and ripening of intellect toward power to grapple with the problems involved in discerning good policy, render merely ludicrous the widespread impatience toward ‘arm-chair theorizing’.” Philbrook again, “Of course the man least demonstrably ineffectual is he who advises others to do what he knows they will do without his advice.” Similarly, Bob Howard said, “You can’t change public opinion by telling people what they already agree with.” Therefore, the unpopularity of anarchism is no argument against advocating it, and even no argument against espousing it and participating in the public debate that way, especially when you acknowledge the long-term nature of ideological influence, which Hayek explores here. A common criticism of libertarianism is that although it is correct in theory it does not or would not work in practice. As Murray Rothbard said, “If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory.” Critics provide proof of that theory is insufficient by avoiding the use of it; critics are unable to defend their own criticism.
So, if any of this article has corrected at least part of what you thought of libertarianism, then maybe you should have a little more patience in coming to terms with other areas of libertarianism you are critical of.
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