First of all, when I say “libertarian,” I mean this in the standard US sense of “economic libertarian” or “free-market libertarian.” “Civil libertarians” and “libertarian socialists” are not the same, and I don’t have any beef with them. So for the rest of this article, when I say “libertarian,” you know what I mean.
Now that that’s out of the way: Libertarians are fucking children who shouldn’t be allowed to speak when adults are having a serious discussion about the economy.
I know you all have at least one libertarian friend. Although he is most likely a white male, I’m not going to dwell on that fact, hilarious though it definitely is, and will instead focus on why all of his cracker arguments are wrong and he looks stupid.
Ha-Joon Chang has argued far more successfully than I can that there is no definable thing called the free market. His most recent books are easily stolen off the internet (ya-har!) and his engaging talks are available on YouTube. I invite you to peruse all of that information at your leisure, but will continue the article with the assumption that your eyes glazed over when I invited you to read an actual economist.
(Still though, watch it.)
Libertarians put a lot of stock in this thing called a “free market,” but it’s never clear what that would actually look like. They claim that people shouldn’t interfere in “the free market” and that its “invisible hand” will sort everything out. But the fact that there is no definable thing called a “free market” raises very real question about libertarianism, predicated as it is upon the idea that “the free market” should be the basis of economics, and therefore the common livelihood of human civilization (a kind of universal law, if you will). This idea that “the free market” is its own justifiable end is based on flagrant misreadings of Adam Smith, a dead white guy who was at least not as stupid as the libertarians. It does not have any basis in reality.
So let’s discuss how the economy works and what a “free market” would actually look like, shall we?
Libertarians and other people who are uncritical of capitalism often charge socialists with wanting to steal from people what they have “earned” “honestly” (even though even the idots over at Time Magazine have wised up to the fact that social mobility is quite limited and people tend to be born into wealth, even if they use those privileges to get wealthier), and these honest earnings are what they claim to be the basis for “the free market.”
It is clear that none of these people have read Marx, as this charge is not new nor is it correct. The Marxist opposition to “private property” is to be distinguished from “personal property.” The former refers something that one profits off of while making others work, the latter does not. The Marxist fixation is on the “means of production” and the control of them by those who work them. “Private property” by contrast, is the opposite, that someone should own the means of production and then hire others to work it for them. You do all the work, I’ll get all the money! The Marxist answer is that the economy should be controlled democratically. We don’t have to be Marxists to see that our current system involves cronyism between the state (controlled by the rich) and corporations and banks.
Libertarians believe that private property is the answer to all problems that exist or could potentially exist (individual liberties being predicated upon ownership of the self). Although very rarely are they aware of or able to rebut arguments distinguishing private from personal property as they ignorantly accuse critics of capitalism of supporting theft by the state, apparently they want us to distinguish between “common” and “public” property. They argue that once something “common” (like a street) enters into the realm of economics, this economic reality ought to be dealt with through privatization.
This is where I begin to suspect that libertarians have not really considered what a truly free market would look like. If a street ought to be privatized on the grounds that it needs economic upkeep, could we not say the same of water? It is theoretically possible (and therefore moral and correct, according to libertarians) for a small group of very rich people to purchase all of the drinkable water on Earth. They would invest in its storage and upkeep, and therefore anyone else who wanted to drink water would indeed be hostage to their demands. So since anything can be privatized, hoarding of all the world’s drinkable water, rather than being an act of terrorism, is simply an expression of someone’s rights within the free market.
Some libertarians may object at this point, but one has to ask: What libertarian principle can you invoke that would make such behavior unlawful? Libertarians often get angry at the idea of welfare, claiming that there is no obligation to take care of others (many support the idea of charity, but not “forced charity;” they seem to think poor people want “charity” because it’s “nice,” not because it’s necessary!). They oppose the minimum wage and unions on the grounds that the state shouldn’t be preventing people from forming whatever sort of business arrangements they want. They would certainly oppose a government forcibly extracting a resource from a private owner because other people (non-owners) needed their property to survive. Therefore, if someone could acquire all the world’s drinkable water with the goal of hoarding it, the criminals would be those who liberated it back for the masses.
Libertarians often claim that in a truly free market, people will be free to negotiate fair wages. But in fact, prior to government intervention in capitalism, people were paid less, children were forced to work, and workers had less rights on the job, so this “negotiation” really just means that those that are already rich can bully the poor more easily. But even for rich people, the idea that deciding everything based on economic competition in “the free market” is the best idea is doubtful: Why is it that people trying to turn a profit by feeding other people have a nasty habit of lying about what they’re actually feeding us, and why does that hated big government keep having to step in and introduce more laws about food sanitation? There’s the real invisible hand of “the free market” for you!
Some libertarians will claim that just as they’re not pro-union, they’re not “pro-corporation.” Indeed, most libertarians I know keep insisting on their support for “entrepreneurs.” But this is not a legal distinction they’d be able to enforce. If they passed some law against corporations and unions, what would it even look like? “We forbid people from working together for common economic goals.” Hardly in line with their espoused values of mutualism and free economic choice! “We want a free market, not big business.” So you’re going to tell people how big they can build their business?
As noted in that link above, one of the reasons why smarter libertarians distance themselves from corporations is because they’re fully aware of the phenomenon of corporatism, by which corporations and the government work hand in hand. But there isn’t just one “government” in the world, and “government” doesn’t just take one form. What makes the person in charge “the government”? If one rich family owns everything, do they only become the government if they enlist a parliament and standing army? I suppose one could argue to libertarians that Saudi Arabia is the property of the House of Saud (whose shrewd business sense put them in charge of it!), and that if these owners (the family’s name is right there in the country! it’s plainly theirs!) wanted to kick off the looter population, they would be within their rights. Right now, the House of Saud benevolently allows these non-members of the family to stay on their land (which they own) and parasitically take money from their oil profits, and all they ask in return is that they live under rules that they (the rightful owners!) set to keep the peace. If these looters don’t like it, they can fuck off! Libertarians would look silly indeed criticizing the government of Saudi Arabia, since that country does not belong to a “Saudi people” (and anyway, as we learned above, libertarians don’t believe in public property, so they’d look silly defending “popular sovereignty” as a concept in the first place!), it belongs to a royal family, and they can do with their property what they want! They are if anything too tolerant. The entire legal population of Saudi Arabia is the royal family, everyone else should be treated like foreigners (because they are living off the kindness of the owners of the land), the same way servants are treated as employees (not residents) at mansions. If they were to turn Saudi Arabia into a republic, they would be thieves who owed the rightful owners for property damages. This might all sound crazy, but this is pretty much what happened to Haiti, and that’s why Haiti is such a mess.
Speaking of religious nutjobs, since many libertarians I know are also atheist-secularists, I am curious what force is meant to prevent rich religious people from forcing their religion into the sector of the economy that they control (again, particularly worrisome if they obtain a monopoly)? If money itself is equal to legitimacy in a society ruled by “the free market,” and we know that many religious nutjobs are loaded, is the only hope for secularism that the sum total of money held by secularists and atheists is greater than the sum total of money held by religious fanatics? How would a country bought by a rich Christian nutjob be better than a dictatorship headed by a Christian nutjob? According to libertarians though, the former is proof of why the state is bad but the latter cannot be assailed because the free market allowed it! Corporations themselves are run very similarly to governments If a monopoly exists on everything (and of course, if the government doesn’t interfere in “the free market,” there can be no anti-monopoly laws, since people would have theoretically infinite rights to private property, provided it is “honestly” acquired by purchase or investment) how is this different from a totalitarian state controlling the resources (libertarians themselves often compare the state to a monopoly)?
Libertarians often claim to oppose US wars (and nobody is more opposed to US wars than me, so I certainly agree with their anti-war stance), but how can they vilify mercenaries? If the US government hires mercenaries (like say, Blackwater) to go bomb foreign countries, how is this different to our current army (which is not a conscript army)? If a war is fought for US economic interests (which one can argue that they all are), isn’t this just defense of property? The only reason the corporations can’t just hire mercenaries themselves is those pesky big government laws. If those are gotten rid of and we just have “the free market”, who stops rich people from hiring thugs to kill people? And if it’s proven that rich people “own” the US in a literal sense, will libertarians stop being down on government, since it’s been legally paid for (those lobbies bought those politicians and this country fair and square!)?
I don’t mean to defend the government, or unions, or the communist party. I defend the right of living human beings to not be poor, while libertarians deny such a right exists, while positing in opposition a right to be rich. Our opposing views reveal that one of us is concerned enough with those who suffer to invent a right, and one is concerned that those who already aren’t suffering aren’t enjoying themselves enough to invent a right. It should be obvious why I find the other side troubling.
I am leaving this open, as I have no doubt that no matter how intellectually bankrupt an ideology libertarianism is, there is some dedicated fanatic out there willing to attempt to answer these questions. Leave a link to your angry blog entry in the comments, so we can all read your explanation about how you don’t live in a fantasy world and you’re not just trying to protect the existing privileges of white males and rich people.