Liberty and Private Power

This is interesting: over at Crooked Timber, there’s a massive discussion going on about Libertarians and the abuses of private power. It was started by Corey Robin, and has grown to involve a much broader community. Chris Bertram has distilled the conversation as much as possible and produced a link studded post that tracks the arguments.

I think Robin sums up his stance in his most recent post:

While libertarianism may begin as a critique of state coercion in the name of personal liberty, it invariably ends up as an apologia for the absence of freedom in large parts of most people’s lives.

Bertram expands on this a bit:

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

Over at The Mahablog, Maha has an observation about the counter-arguments and those who make them:

I haven’t had a chance to click through all the links to all the arguments and counter-arguments. But we’re basically looking at a discussion among mostly (if not entirely) white men, who mostly work in think tanks and academia. These are not people who have had the personal experience of working for some soul-sucking martinet while being a couple of missed paychecks away from eviction. The Crooked Timber crew “gets it,” but once again I am struck that libertarian theory is mostly embraced by the relatively privileged, for whom genuine oppression is something they’ve only read about in textbooks.

And now, just to keep this from getting too cerebral, here’s what it would sound like if your pets were Libertarian:

  • blotonthelandscape

    Wow, web traffic must be down if you’re baiting the libertarians…

    • Elemenope

      LOL.

  • mikespeir

    You should’ve saved this for tomorrow. I expect there will be fireworks.

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      You’re right, it’s going to explode, and I doubt anything will be achieved beyond loud noises and flashes of light. Libertarians will rush to take offense at a mischaracterisation of their belief system as cold, cruel and distant from the reality of human suffering caused by misfortune rather than laziness. Everybody else will bang their head against the wall trying to point out reality – there’s only so much so many people can do to pull themselves up by their bootstraps before they cannot make any headway. A simple example is the health care debate that has been buzzing recently – I see so many libertarians despise the idea of both the mandate (so much for personal responsibility) and government providing health care. To them, everybody should be making the effort to earn a livable wage and spend their money on the correct insurance option for themselves. Try pointing out that some people are born ill, or become ill through no fault of their own, and can neither work nor pay for insurance, and all you get is an indifferent shrug or a dismissal, then they go back to their superiority complex as they talk about how people who don’t have insurance are making stupid choices they themselves would never make, and they don’t need the government to rescue them from being born with a damaged spine.

      • Custador

        Pretty much. What irritates me when debating libertarians is always the projected attitude that if you’re in a bad situation, it must be your own fault – And conversely, if you’re in a good situation you must have earned it. It’s cobblers. Kids from poor families on the whole do not have the opportunities that kids from rich families do (I accept that there are individual examples of such people making it against the odds, but they’re few and far between), whereas kids from rich families get a lot handed to them on a plate which they have not earned, and in many cases do not merit. In fact, I would argue that any true Libertarian should be in favour of a 100% inheritance tax being implemented immediately, in order to level the playing field somewhat.

        • Elemenope

          In fact, I would argue that any true Libertarian should be in favour of a 100% inheritance tax being implemented immediately, in order to level the playing field somewhat.

          This comes up more than you might imagine in libertarian circles. There is, as you point out, a powerful tension between the notion that you should have rights to dispose of your property as you wish (which naturally includes the dispensation of that property upon the event of your death) and the point that meritocratic systems only function if people have basically equivalent starting positions, which inheritance (and other even more difficult factors) make essentially impossible.

          • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

            It’s interesting that you say this comes up a lot in libertarian circles, and I’m by no means saying I don’t believe you, but I never, ever see it myself. I think that’s what causes a fair bit of the friction and the characterisation of libertarians as hypocrites, sociopaths or Republicans who want to smoke pot – a lot of us don’t ever really come across it from the perspective of something nuanced, but the rantings of passionate ideologues. The face of libertarianism is essentially Ron Paul, a man who quite clearly believes in freedom of choice only if you would make the same choices he would. It’s hard not to develop a cynicism toward libertarianism when that’s their poster child.

            I think I’m skirting close toward suggesting that nearly all libertarians are extremists, and that’s not quite what I mean, but (and this is clearly anecdotal) just about every single one I’ve come across has at least portrayed themselves to be both extremist and hypocritical. There’s the tension between the need to display one’s libertarian bona fides by railing against government getting involved in anything, but at the same time, maintaining their pet projects and pet hates that are ‘different’.

            • Elemenope

              It’s interesting that you say this comes up a lot in libertarian circles, and I’m by no means saying I don’t believe you, but I never, ever see it myself. I think that’s what causes a fair bit of the friction and the characterisation of libertarians as hypocrites, sociopaths or Republicans who want to smoke pot – a lot of us don’t ever really come across it from the perspective of something nuanced, but the rantings of passionate ideologues.

              Extremism is sexy, it gets airtime, it makes people sit up and pay attention. Nuance tends to be boring to most people, and so it doesn’t really ever capture its rightful market share.

              I used to be a regular member of the commentariat over at Reason Hit & Run, a prominent libertarian blog. The conversation about equal starting position and the relative virtues of an inheritance tax came up at least four times while I was active there. On the other hand, I left when they came down with a wicked case of Obama Derangement Syndrome, and conversations like that stopped happening and it became all about how dem there hurr durr socialists were going to kill America, all day.

              Which in turn points to something that I tend to think is true; people’s tolerance for nuance and compromise is inversely proportional to their perceived position relative to how they think things ought to be. People are generally magnanimous in victory and defensive in defeat.

              The face of libertarianism is essentially Ron Paul, a man who quite clearly believes in freedom of choice only if you would make the same choices he would. It’s hard not to develop a cynicism toward libertarianism when that’s their poster child.

              I’m not entirely sure what you mean by freedom of choice in the context of Paul; he certainly seems to be for freedom of choice in the vast majority of areas. I think where he falls down pretty hard is on abortion (though he is firm in his belief that it should not be a federal issue regardless), and most libertarians would look askance of his immigration position (the standard libertarian position on immigration is a bit complicated but cants towards basically open borders). Besides those two admittedly important issues, he’s practically the poster boy for personal choice.

              Honestly, Gary Johnson is a better “poster boy” for the ideology in an American political context.

            • Paul

              Libertarians vary widely on the idea of a social safety net and who should provide it. Like some Republicans, I see libertarians saying that the families and churches should provide that safety net rather than the government taking money from some folks and giving it to others. Others believe in a safety net provided by the government for those who truly will never be able to care for themselves.

              Their problem with the mandate is simply that forcing people to buy a product – health insurance in this case. Their answer would be that you can choose not to have insurance but that if you don’t then the rest of us are not required to pay for your healthcare needs. I see it as akin to the Florida law on motorcycle helmets. If you don’t want to wear one you have to have a special $10,000 policy for accident injury coverage. Many have cited that this wouldn’t cover a day in ICU or trauma center. The answer back is that in accidents with no helmet you are unlikely to survive. While this is a mandated coverage – as is all auto insurance – you have a choice to ride with a helmet on or to make arrangements for your care in the event of an accident. Auto insurance is mandated on somewhat similar grounds. Driving is a privilege, not a right and if you want to exercise that privilege you have to have a license and insurance.

              There are similar programs out their for health insurance where you have a medical savings account that will cover most of your routine medical expenses teamed with a catastrophic insurance plan with a high deductible. You would need an additional savings account with enough to pay for the deductibles on each of the persons covered by the catastrophic care policy.

              From what I have seen, libertarians cover a much broader spectrum of beliefs than either the democrats or the republicans. I’m sure this has a lot to do with their inability to run a successful national campaign. After his presidential run on the libertarian ticket, Ron Paul decided he would do better as a republican and jumped ship.

      • TrickQuestion

        Even if you have insurance, it’s not a guarantee.
        You get sick, you miss work. You get less money. You can’t afford to go to the doctor, even with insurance because of the less money. So, to get back to work, to get the money you need to get to the doctor, you need money you’re not making while out of work.
        It’s not an easy thing to overcome, to say the least.

  • Lurker111

    Love the one with the fish and the filter.

  • Elemenope

    I tend to think, after reading all that, that the real problem underlying everything is that ideologies are held captive by the moments in which they were made.

    Libertarianism as a coherent ideology is very young; perhaps only 120 or so, and really only 70 or so of that with any rigorous academic defense (with Hayek and Nozick). While they do reach back to older ideas for inspiration and justification, libertarianism is best understood as a direct reaction to socialism–not what FOX News idiots call socialism, but actual honest-to-goodness socialism–which in the form it was being responded to was only slightly older, and was the new and popular economic flavor on the block, so to speak. Hayek in particular probably should be understood on that basis, and most of his important work was critical theory showing the fundamental unworkability of price and wage controls that were very much in vogue at the time due to socialist (as well as, it should be hastily noted, Keynesian, which is NOT socialist) economic theory.

    This problem of context echoes through most of the rest of the observations of the piece. Of course Hayek and Rothbard are going to find unions coercive. They were living at a time when the reality of management v. labor was one of actual plentiful combat on both sides, of Union thugs enforcing strike lines with violence, and management-hired Pinkerton thugs trying to break them with violence. That conflict was messy enough in the US; in many places it was much worse. Of course the primary concern for liberty was the actions of the state; they lived through a period that gave rise to states of enormous and grotesque power, of the fascists in Germany and Italy and communists in Russia. It’s no accident that Hayek was Austrian, and a veteran of WWI, it colored his thinking about the terrifying nature of the state and its ability to coerce individuals into all kinds of manifest stupidity. Likewise, Rand was a refugee from the USSR. It is never too blunt a point to make that people’s beliefs (whether social, economic, political, or metaphysical) derive primarily from their own personal experiences and generally resonate with them. At a time when, all things considered, employers were simply way less scary than the state, treating the state is going to be the lynchpin of one’s critical theory.

    Now things are a little different, and it remains to be seen whether libertarianism is an agile enough, flexible enough theory to acclimate to the world as it is. I will say, in its defense, that as a critical standpoint it is still quite fruitful, an important ideological counterbalance to breathless (and all-too-often, thoughtless) liberal enthusiasm for “making things better”. If there is one point to get out of libertarianism in this milieu, it is that, as Heinlein put it, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. All regulations impose costs, and all systemic changes have unintended consequences. Aim for a living wage, and end up fighting price inflation. Aim for full employment, and the labor market becomes too inflexible to respond to changing demand. Give workers more leverage in employment (e.g. make it harder to fire them) and business deadweight loss increases sharply. This is NOT to say that one shouldn’t aim for a living wage, or a higher rate of employment, or more employee rights and protections. It is only to say that all these putatively good things have costs which may be non-obvious, but are all too real. It is NOT sufficient to say, as liberals tend to, that because they are “good” things they should simply be done. It is best to go into policy changes with both eyes open and know just who bears the costs of the changes, especially since it often ends up being the people that the intent was to originally help.

  • Elemenope

    And if there’s one thing that kinda pisses me off (because it echoes a particularly insulting yet popular modern meme), it’s this:

    I haven’t had a chance to click through all the links to all the arguments and counter-arguments. But we’re basically looking at a discussion among mostly (if not entirely) white men, who mostly work in think tanks and academia. These are not people who have had the personal experience of working for some soul-sucking martinet while being a couple of missed paychecks away from eviction. The Crooked Timber crew “gets it,” but once again I am struck that libertarian theory is mostly embraced by the relatively privileged, for whom genuine oppression is something they’ve only read about in textbooks.

    Being a person who has worked (and does work) for a soul-sucking martinet and continuously experiences being a paycheck or two away from eviction, I take umbrage at the notion that libertarianism is somehow simply a sop to rich people in order to give a patina of respectability for greed. It isn’t, and it is supremely obnoxious to reduce libertarians to rich people and their useful idiots. It ranks right up there with “Somalia is a libertarian paradise” and “Libertarians are just Republicans who want to smoke pot” as the dumbest persistent meme about the people who find some value in the ideology.

    Any ideology can be reduced to its least able defenders or stupidest arguments, and any ideology can be pilloried by its obvious defects. Libertarianism in its historical incarnations seems pretty blind to the problem of private coercion. This does not mean that libertarians are employer’s toadies. Liberalism tends to be quite blind to the systemic implications of regulation, this does not mean that liberals hunger for a state-run economy. Conservatives place insufficient value on the agility of institutions to respond to emergent events, that doesn’t make conservatives all reactionaries reaching back to an imagined idyllic past. And yet all these caricatures are in trade when it comes to pillorying one’s ideological adversaries.

    • trj

      Also, there’s the problem that as an ideology get politicized and its ideas turned into practical politics it often becomes more difficult to determine what the ideology comprises, other than some general guidelines.

      I don’t have in incisive view into US politics, but it appears to me that libertarianism is usually used as a simplistic appellation for small government, low taxes, and no socialized healthcare. Or even simpler, as a synonym for egotism and hypocritical, anti-social attitude.

      • Elemenope

        True. I tend to think this is because people, in a political context, seize onto labels primarily because of their appreciation of the practical policy consequences of the labeled ideology, rather than because of the underlying ideas (of which they are usually only barely aware). If someone told them that opposing the ACA was a libertarian position, they’d be happy to call themselves libertarian for the purposes of indicating their opposition to the ACA, and not because they know or care about any of the other things that being a libertarian might normally indicate.

  • Troutbane

    In my experience, devout libertarians, just as any other ideology that can have zealots, often miss the hypocrisy of their own (the individual’s) beliefs in comparison to their claimed idea. For example, I have a very strict libertarian friend who hates bicycles on the road and thinks they should be illegal. When you sit down with him over a beer, point out the nature of the public road system, the source of funding for roads and subsidies for the gas moving his own vehicle, and personal freedoms to choose the transportation they wish, he gets angry. I would love to meet the libertarian who truly was raised and educated and made themselves without public benefits of some kind that they rail against and seek to overthrow.

    • Elemenope

      For example, I have a very strict libertarian friend who hates bicycles on the road and thinks they should be illegal.

      Wha…?!

      • trj

        Doesn’t sound very libertarian. Quite the opposite.

      • Brian K

        This is pretty amazingly ridiculous. Breathtaking, almost.

        Which brings up another point…even given your rather epic summary of “libertarianism” (KUDOS!), and acknowledging that the philosophy should not be reduced to its stereotypical, least able defenders…libertarianism does have a tendency…a tendency mind you…to appeal to rather…sociopathic…individuals with powerful egoism. Interestingly enough, I honestly believe the private automobile actively and perniciously encourages these same psychological tendencies. Think about it, you are giving a pudgy middle aged cubicle dweller 150 horsepower, cocooning him in a sound deadening web of steel and plastics…thuis just breeds sociopathic attitudes…and behavior.

        Note…I drive. I am a pudgy cubicle dweller. I sometimes yell at fellow drivers….yet as an avid cyclist I see the results of our favorite reactionary transportaiton technology.

        • Elemenope

          libertarianism does have a tendency…a tendency mind you…to appeal to rather…sociopathic…individuals with powerful egoism.

          Well, yeah. I think that it would be strange that an ideology that can be used to justify a particular form of sociopathy and egoism wouldn’t attract people with those personality features. Juts like liberalism tends to attract insane utopians at the fringes, and conservatives tend to attract various unpleasant reactionaries.

          What I object to is the tendency to project what an ideology attracts at the fringes with either what it actually is or how best the average exponent of that ideology is characterized. Particular ideologies are going to be better than average fits for particular varieties of nutball, but that doesn’t really reflect on the worth of ideology itself; anything taken to extremes or applied outside the constraints of reality is going to get silly pretty quickly, no matter how valuable the underlying idea.

          • Brian K

            Well…just as I reacted on another board (not our own discussion board, LOL) to a rather simplistic dismissal of “anarchism” as meaning nothing BUT selfishness. Absent the reality that there is no such unified “thing” as anarchism, this posting misses some of the fundamental points behind the ideological thought experiment, which is more a dislike of coercion than Randian selfishness per se.

            Not that I “believe” in anarchism…I just think it is an interesting filter through which to view politics and the claims of politicians.

            • Elemenope

              I just think it is an interesting filter through which to view politics and the claims of politicians.

              Much like the If-this-guy-or-gal-were-just-sitting-at-a-bar-spouting-this-stuff-how-would-I-take-it test.

              Of course, by that standard, pretty much nobody in politics passes.

  • Paul

    I forget where I got this but this is a concise and cynical definition of democrats, republicans and libertarians. THIS IS HUMOR, NOT MY ACTUAL BELIEF SYSTEM
    Democrats believe that to achieve anything government has to do it.
    Republicans believe that individuals can do anything but if it involves drugs, sex or having a good time it should be made illegal and you should go to jail for it.
    Libertarians believe people can do anything they want except get a libertarian elected.

    My own feelings about all the political parties in the US are that no matter how noble and well intended any individual, group or party is that achieving power will mean selling out to some degree to the rich and powerful, be they individuals, groups such as AARP, NRA, unions or industries to both attain political office and then to keep that position of power and priviledge. There are examples in both of the main parties and if the libertarians even become a dominant force, they will have them too.

    None of the parties are able to resist the inherant corruption of power. The powerful have learned to contribute to both campaigns so that whoever wins they will have a seat at the table. Right now the republican talk radio hand puppets point out broken promises made by Obama when he was running for office. The next time a republican gets into the white house there will be similar voices at CNN and MSNBC pointing out that president’s failures.

    To get political power where it belongs – in the hands of the voters – we would have to eliminate campaign contributions from anyone who is not a registered voter for that office. No Pacs, no K street lobbyists, no oil companies, no military contractors and no political parties. Indeed the whole primary system needs to be tossed out along with the electoral college so that people cast votes that mean something and the politicians are accountable only to their voters and that any other “campaign contributions” would be treated as what they are – bribes.

    The corruption is so deeply ingrained that most people don’t even see it as bribery or as something that needs to be stamped out.

    Thus endeth my rant

  • vasaroti

    Given Rand Paul’s idiotic attitude toward half the human race (women,) I don’t know why we’re even discussing individual freedom and Libertarianism in the same thread.

    Seems to me that the idea that women can’t be trusted to manage their own bodies is kinda more significant than any views on taxes and commerce.

    • Elemenope

      How did Rand Paul get roped into a conversation about libertarianism? He’s way more straight-up conservative (in the modern, stupid sense) than his father, and his “libertarianism” seems mostly to be restricted to economic issues and some civil liberties.

      Seems to me that the idea that women can’t be trusted to manage their own bodies…

      I have nearly zero respect for the pro-life position (especially as it cashes out politically), but even I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they are motivated primarily by a distrust of women to “manage their bodies”. Their concern seems to be rather straightforwardly about fetuses, and they seem merely dangerously unconcerned with (and intentionally obtuse about) the effect that that focus has upon women. I don’t think it’s a good idea to assign motives to people, unconcerned with whether the assignment is accurate, simply to dismiss them and their ideas.

      And not for nothing, but to frame it in the way you’re framing it is to buy into their favored attack on pro-choice intentions, which is that pro-choicers are utterly *unconcerned* with the fetus’ life and only care about the woman’s convenience, about “bodily maintenance”.

      • vasaroti

        It’s not just Rand Paul, his father Ron Paul has a long history of being anti-abortion, and using terms like Nazis. gas chambers, and mass murder to describe women who, for a wide range of health and financial reasons, decide they must terminate a pregnancy. Like it or not, these two men are the “face of libertarianism” in America today. Libertarians are supporting them. If there is any pressure on Ron Paul from libertarians to adhere to more traditional libertarian ideology on women’s rights, the news media sure isn’t reporting it.
        Again, I just want to point out that in supporting Ron Paul with enough gusto to win a fair number of delegates for him, libertarians seem completely willing to ignore their own platform:
        http://www.dehnbase.org/lpus/library/platform/wraa.html I’d also like to point out that they “condemn state-funded abortions.” So, if you don’t have health insurance for whatever reason, and you have one of the various medical conditions that make pregnancy a risk, and your birth control fails, or you go to the ER with severe pain and learn you have an ectopic pregnancy that requires immediate surgery to save your life, who pays for the necessary, life-saving medical care, if not the state?

        I’m not even going to get into the libertarian rejection of laws that mandate women receive equal pay for equal work, as the arguments against this are so absurd. I’d need to see a country that was run successfully on libertarian principles before I’d even pay any attention to libertarianism. It certainly could not be implemented in any US state. I just see it as Ayn Rand’s personal reaction to the oppression she experienced in the Soviet Union, and just like the fine-sounding ideas in Das Kapital, it utterly fails to deal with real life, and substitutes new tyrannies for the old ones.

  • Raymond

    Every Libertarian I have debated talks out of both sides of his/her mouth, and has as much intellectual credibility as a goddamned rock. Democrats, almost the entire party’s platform being swamped and overturned due to Bluedogs, the New Democratic Coalition, and the DLC, so that we now have ‘conservative’ Democrats, WTF??The Progressives are hardly lefties, and to me they go with what works for the highest number of people, and on issue polls citizens time and again vote for Progressive ideas, which just means their more practical versus ideological. They have no tax and spend mindset, or big gov’t actions will fix everything that ills us. The aforementioned 3 groups have poisoned the Democratic Party leaving only the Progressive Democrats worthy of being elected, as they truly represent as many people as they can and are all inclusive of all types of citizens.
    Republicans are selfishly insane and live on the fringe and are concerned only with their power and status.
    Libertarians are, as someone already said, are just a reaction to socialism of an earlier time in history. As for the healthcare mandate their opposition is just dumb since everybody already insured pays for those without health insurance and that is partly why premiums are so high, as companies must keep their high profits which means care must be denied to some. Right now there is an implied mandate that pays for the uninsured, at much higher costs going to the ERs of the country, not to mention if they are sick enough to be admitted to a hospital.
    There was guy at a Tea Party rally in DC(google it on youtube)that had/still has Parkinson’s who had a sign on they didn’t like and some(very healthy and obviously doing well at the time) ended up tossing dollar bills at him and yelling “Here, go buy some healthcare.” Seems many Libertarians are also Tpartiers(correct me if I’m wrong).
    It’s hardly an accident that most poor folks are not anywhere out there holding rallies and protesting as they are barely holding their own economically anyway and are in fear of losing the little bit they have.
    Last point, if churches and charities had been able to care for the elderly and the poor and the ill and disabled, the gov’t would not have had to address the problem of poverty and its associated difficulties in the firstplace. The Libertarian notion that says well you’re just not pulling tightly enough on your bootstraps and not trying hard enough or working hard enough and that’s why you’re poor is a fantasy. Libertarians are privileged and most likely have never felt the oppression of deciding on rent or food for their families while working 2 or 3 jobs to pay their way.
    My having lived under the tyranny of the SC childcare system(of abuse) and living in orphanages as a kid tells me I know a little about being poor and understanding those around me who were also poor just barely scraping out a living. It seemed in those times occasionally just holding your own was all that was possible, and that you were living a life built on a house of cards, not having anything, but still afraid it could get worse at any time. Tell me that doesn’t temper your spirit.


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