Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On Libertarianism

(Originally posted by Pat in 3/2012)

I feel rather conflicted about this post. I almost don't want to publish it, because I know that so many of our members are libertarians and I'd rather not alienate them. To be fair, some libertarians are more reasonable than others; I'd much sooner support Gary Johnson than Ron Paul. But there really are some very gaping moral flaws in libertarianism, and I fear that the more atheism becomes associated with libertarianism the more damage it will do to our movement. This is probably why atheists give less to charity; many atheists honestly seem to be convinced that the highest morality demands no self-sacrifice and requires only the pursuit of self-interest. How incredibly convenient it would be if that were so! And how incredibly childish and delusional to think that it really is.
I am sympathetic to some libertarian notions; in particular I am rather uncomfortable with the idea of an economy that is centrally planned in every detail. I don't want the government deciding what shoes I must wear, what toothpaste I must use. This is different from regulating labor standards, health and safety, and environmental impact, which I of course support. The point is that the government can't prevent you from buying a product if it's not hurting anyone else. If it is hurting someone else, of course they can regulate it (frankly even libertarians should agree, as I'll discuss more in a moment).
But then, it seems to me that the epitome of central planning (at least after the fall of the USSR) is not any government, but rather a gigadollar corporation like Walmart, which uses its economy of scale to fix prices and wages worldwide. There is no open market here; on Walmart territory you obey Walmart rules, and can be forcibly removed if you don't. You will charge no more for your products than Walmart is willing to pay. You will receive no more pay for your labor than Walmart is willing to offer. (Will Walmart decide what toothpaste you can use? Well, imagine a toothpaste company that refused to sell at Walmart, perhaps in protest of their low wages and price-fixing. How successful would that toothpaste company be? Is it fair to say that it might be competed out of existence by toothpaste companies that are willing to accept Walmart's requirements?)

Moreover, this central plan, like Stalin's, is an autocratic one, on which a select few control the entire system and tilt it in their own favor. You think Walmart does not surveil you, cannot coerce you? What are those cameras and security guards for? Sure, they're not as powerful as the US government—right now—but don't you think that they could be, if the government were not holding them in check? Do you really think that they have your best interests at heart, just because their commercials say so?
If you are willing to accept these rules because it is "Walmart's property", then why not accept that the land you live on is owned by the US government? (In that case, they wouldn't even have to obey laws, right? They could just do whatever they want on their property! Wait, I thought you wanted less government power!) That land was stolen from Native Americans, you say? True enough, but then... didn't Walmart also benefit from the same theft? Why do things you'd otherwise allow suddenly become tyrannical simply because the person doing them was democratically elected? (In Ron Paul's case, acts that are wrong at the federal level suddenly become permissible when committed at the state level! For him, even slavery is not so bad, and what we should have done is paid off the slaveowners for their rightfully-owned property!) Why would the thought that someone is making his decisions purely out of a desire to make money make you more likely to trust them?
The best argument I could see against this conclusion is that Walmart is not allowed to kill you, which, in certain cases, the government is. But then, on whose authority is this rule enforced? The US government. If it weren't enforced, would they kill people? Why not? Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) does; the East India Company did. Also, is Walmart really never authorized to kill you? Is it not the case that someone who waved around an automatic weapon at Walmart could be gunned down by Walmart security? This is a rare enough case, sure; but so is the case where the US government can kill you. If you are in the process of murdering people, or if you are threatening to murder people, or in some jurisdictions if you have done so in the past, the US government can kill you. That's pretty much it though; they can't kill you just because you broke a traffic law, or didn't pay your taxes. (I once heard a libertarian argue that taxes are a “death threat”; I found myself wondering which tax code they were reading, or what chemical they had just ingested.) It's certainly not as if they can simply pick you up off the street and take you away as they please. In Stalin's USSR they could, and did. But in the US, there would be public inquiry, and the people responsible would be arrested. The politicians who ordered the action would be imprisoned; those who failed to prevent it would be humiliated and likely impeached. This wouldn't save you of course, but that's always true. No one has yet devised an effective means of preventing crime as opposed to punishing it once it happens.
The system's not perfect, of course; and guilty men go free while innocent ones are imprisoned. (And yes, I can say “men” because the vast majority of criminals and the vast majority of prisoners—and, indeed, the vast majority of corporate executives and the vast majority of politicians—are male. Is this society, biology, or both? Probably both, but in what degree I cannot say.) But it's really quite good, and much better than what exists in most places. Honestly the main defects in the US court system are due to the private component—civil lawyers and defense attorneys. Prosecutors and judges do their jobs exceptionally well, and really do seem to be motivated primarily by a sense of justice. There may be some selfishness involved, but nowhere near the level of crass profit-seeking that someone like Sam Bernstein or Johnnie Cochrane displays on a regular basis. At least prosecutors don't directly make more money based on how often they win cases, and it's illegal to bribe a judge. (As for civil lawyers... is there anything else you can do with a civil lawyer, besides bribing them?)
And what does "Walmart's property" mean anyway? How can a social construction claim rights against living, breathing human beings? If a factory or a supermarket is the property of some particular person (or a group of people who actually sat down and agreed to share it), that's one thing; but this is not what a publicly-traded corporation is. Most of the people who own chunks of Walmart don't even care that they do; they bought them only to sell them off later for cash. Those few shareholders who actually do run the company did virtually nothing to actually make the company in the first place; Sam Walton is dead, as are most of the company's founders. The corporation continues to exist because the law makes it so; it goes on living long after everyone with rightful claim to its ownership is gone. Sure, you can make excuses about gifts and contracts and the like; but the fact remains that when someone inherits something, they receive free wealth they did nothing to create, thereby undermining the entire justification of the “mixed labor” account of ownership. A CEO passing his company to his son is every bit as nepotistic as a President picking his cousin as Secretary of Defense. (And let's face it: We are all heirs. I owe most of what I am to people as far back as Faraday, even Bacon.) Even if I were to concede the issue and allow for such things, we still need to ask whether the original wealth really is rightfully-owned property—or if it was instead earned by violence, coercion or deception, which would again undermine its entire justification.
Invariably, libertarians ignore this final step; for them possession really is nine tenths of the law. Otherwise it would be libertarians demanding reparations for slavery, calling for any corporation which made profits through regulatory capture to pay it back, insisting that communities destroyed by gang violence be repaired at public expense, and demanding strict enforcement of environmental regulations. In all these cases, the truly libertarian answer is obvious: You don't let violence and coercion win, you fight back. (Indeed, it seems to me that it is people called “liberal” or even “socialist” who most understand what liberty really means. Real freedom is the substantive freedom to do and not the purely formal freedom to not be banned from doing. You are not banned from making a Dyson Sphere; so why haven't you, you lazy oaf?)
And if you insist on “negative rights” and say that no one is ever under any obligation to ever help anyone ever (it amazes me that a position so extreme, so outright fundamentalist, is actually taken seriously in our society, especially by rationalists), then it seems to me the rest of us should just starve you to death. We won't give you food, sell you food, share food with you, or do anything that would in any way assist you in getting food. In fact, if someone steals your food, we won't do anything to stop them. Maybe they're in the wrong, but our hands are clean, and that's all that matters, right? Also, you can't go into the forest and forage for yourself, that's someone else's property. If you are a homeowner, I guess you can grow vegetables on your own land. Of course, we won't sell you or give you any materials to help with that, and you might have wanted to plant them awhile ago....
What? This would be wrong, you say? It's unfair for you to die in this way? Well, it's pretty much exactly how we treat the 2 billion or so people who live in poverty worldwide. So either, A) it isn't wrong, and we should actually do this, so you'll all die and we won't have to listen to you whine about Medicare, B) there's a violation of negative liberty in there somewhere which is really hard to see, or C) negative liberty is not the only thing that matters in morality. Choose a lane! And you'll probably want to choose one in which you yourself don't die of starvation, in which case, well... the same rules have to apply to people in poverty. Insofar as I'm not allowed to starve you by refusing to sell you food, you're not allowed to starve people in Africa by refusing to support development aid. Insofar as I'm not allowed to let a thief run away with your sandwich, you're not allowed to complain about taxes that pay for police. Paying taxes to provide for development aid and police instead of working at soup kitchens and acting like Batman is just being efficient. The government has an economy of scale, so I pay them to do it instead of trying to do it myself. You can even think of them as a corporation if you want (fees for services rendered, services like national defense, infrastructure, law enforcement, firefighting), if the big bad word “government” scares you too much. Being punished for tax evasion is just like being punished for not paying your bills. You didn't agree to these services beforehand? Oh you didn't, did you? Have you voted lately? We do live in something resembling a democracy you know. Nor is it clear how one could simply “opt out” of, say, national defense. “No thanks, I won't be needing the Navy.” It's a package deal, and once the vote is passed, it applies to everyone. When corporations do similar things (e.g. “company policy”), you're fine with it; but if it's the government, suddenly it's wrong.
This is a big one, honestly. You'd think it wouldn't be—that people could see that doing X is good or bad independent of whether we call it “government”; but libertarians don't. None of them, frankly, even the relatively reasonable ones. Witness the absurdity of “prison privatization”, which makes about as much sense as “circle squaring”. Instead of using taxes to hire people to run prisons, we're, uh... using taxes to hire people to run prisons? We just won't call it “government” and we'll move it to a different budget item; then somehow it will cost less, right? If you want to take health benefits away from prison guards in order to save money (What is wrong with you?), at least have the guts to say it out loud. Don't pretend that you're somehow privatizing a fundamentally government function. Schools could be privatized; mail service could be privatized; roads could be privatized (not that I'm recommending it; but it could be done). Prisons? No. Prisons cannot be privatized.
Atheists who aren't libertarians need to speak out; we need to show people that you don't have to believe in selfishness in order to stop believing in God. And Americans in general must finally admit that working for profit is not the same thing as working for liberty. Until we do, our liberty will continue to be eroded.

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