Libertarianism (by )

I've long been fascinated by libertarianism. Creating social structures that are self-maintaining and do not require central control seems like a noble goal; things that are owned by organisations tend to end up either stifled by conservatism, destroyed by mismanagement, or fall into the hands of the greedy and end up taking advantage of everyone who has to use that service. The blockchain technology behind bitcoin is particularly interesting; it implements a form of democracy that requires no central body to hold elections and tally votes. Anyone can join the community of miners (although the cost of a sizeable vote is getting higher and higher with all these ASICs), and a proposed change will "become law" if you can convince the owners of enough of the mining power it's a good idea. This is vulnerable to somebody having enough money to buy enough mining hardware to dominate the system then being able to dictate their own terms to the world; but, fascinatingly, anybody who owns that much of the mining equipment will now have such a sizeable stake in the Bitcoin economy that it's very much in their economic interest to act in the interests of the Bitcoin economy as a whole - making it not vulnerable to abuse by the greedy; at most, it's vulnerable to abuse by the ideologically driven (somebody who's willing to spend a lot of their money just to destroy the Bitcoin economy).

However, "libertarian" has become a dirty word. A lot of the folks discussing decentralised social structures back when I first starting reading about them in the mid-1990s have turned into complete loons, ending up arguing for the replacement of every social structure by free-market economics, denying climate change, adopting evolutionary-psychology models of genetic competition to explain human mating behaviour in a way that fails to account for human free will and then allows them to justify misogynistic ideas, and so on.

Which is a bit of a shame. Can't we all get back to working out social structures that actually maximise individual liberty, rather than focussing on particular tools for that and elevating them to the status of worshipped idols?

I mean, free market economics is great in many ways. An ideal market will force suppliers to compete for the business of consumers, leading to better services and better prices. But that doesn't mean that abolishing government will lead to a Utopia as organisations scrabble to provide the best healthcare, protection from crime, social services, roads, and so on for the lowest possible price. Suppliers of products and services don't like free markets, as they introduce competition, and have historically shown great ingenuity and determination in disrupting the markets they sell into through anti-competitive practices. They will attempt to make their products hard to compare to those of competitors, lie barefacedly in advertising, use market leadership in one area to weight other markets (eg, Microsoft's use of its operating systems near-monopoly to bundle Web browsers that understood a different dialect of HTML, thereby pressuring the creators of web sites to target them to that widespread browser, thereby causing web sites to not work so well on competing browsers), and so on. Companies like Twitter, Amazon, Google and Facebook have a lot of control over the primary means we use to find out about and compare products and services to buy, so can easily give their own products an edge over their competitors.

Free markets only remain free (as opposed to capture by monopolies) when there's some body capable of setting standards through which comparable products can be fairly compared, enforcing advertising rules, and to stop monopolies. Left to their own devices, they stagnate.

High-profile libertarians seem to fall into a trap of hating government. They seem prone to sliding into extreme right-wing ideology; interpreting "using taxation to fund a welfare system" as "robbing me of resources I earned myself in order to fund people who, despite having the same opportunities as me, did not take them". They decry the compulsory nature of taxation as a removal of their individual liberty to choose to donate to charities or not, while failing to recognise that "were my parents rich enough to properly feed and educate me, provide me with adequate healthcare, and support me while I developed my business idea, rather than requiring me to go into the first job I was capable of as soon as I was educated enough to work at all" is hardly a good criterion for the fair distribution of the individual liberty this is all supposed to be about; they seem to fail to realise that we do not all have the same opportunities. Nothing is a better predictor of an individual's future economic success than the wealth of their parents. I see that as a terrible failing of society, and far more anti-liberal than having to pay taxes.

I suspect it's maybe just a "vocal minority" problem (Wikipedia lists many different forms of libertarianism than the far right wing stuff), but I think it's a shame that the actual search for individual liberty is being steamrollered by people who seem keen to enhance their own liberty at the cost of others'.

1 Comment

  • By John Cowan, Thu 12th Nov 2015 @ 2:03 am

    As the son of a philosopher, I tend to believe that such people suffer primarily for their bad philosophy. Libertarians of this stripe (as you say, there are others) cannot distinguish between natural resources and the products of human hands and minds. They believe that if you can build a fence around America, you then own it, a belief hitherto confined to kings. This is why they tend to have a secret attachment to monarchy, with the landowner as monarch.

    Marxists fall into the equal and opposite error of thinking that factories, like forests, grow out of the ground spontaneously, suitable for being appropriated by whoever can make use of them. Both of them create a false opposition between labor and capital (each of which is helpless without the other), and the rentier laughs at them all the way to the bank.

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