Libertarianism and the Freedom Myth

Recently I read an article by  libertarian writer Chris Rossini entitled “Avoiding the ‘God-Complex’ Trap”. It was published in the “Ron Paul Liberty Report”. Ron Paul is kind-of the present day grandfather of U.S. libertarian thought. He is a former U.S. Representative from Texas, and the father of Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul, another highly recognized libertarian voice.

While I know very little about Rossini’s full set of beliefs–libertarianism, like any ideology, is as nuanced as the  people who think about the topic–it is the general libertarian belief that government, beyond a very minimal level, represents a drift towards totalitarianism. This is where the libertarian argument falls apart.

Libertarianism started-out as a liberal, anti-state socialist and   anti-capitalist movement. It took a  free market pro-capitalism, pro-property rights direction in the U.S. during the 1950-1960’s. Today U.S. libertarianism is best described as  liberal on social issues and conservative on economic issues, although liberal in the classical sense of the term.  It is hard not to be attracted to the libertarian message.   Most of us want  freedom from social restraint and government oversight. 

The problem, unfortunately, is one person’s freedom is often  another’s restraint. Libertarians believe people should  be free to do as they please so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. Most of us undoubtedly agree with this belief. Where the libertarians fall short, however, is in the recognition of when others get hurt. Drive through any old, industrial, midwestern city, and you will see the scars imposed on communities by free individuals who  freely made economic decisions which destroyed these communities. That  is libertarianism. These freely made economic decisions  resulted in massive disinvestment,  caused mass wage reduction, unemployment, poverty, abandonment, lost property values, inspired crime, sent people to prison, and drove up the cost of government. Are we to feel good about this because actors at the top of industry freely chose this path? 

Wall Streeters may want to operate with a degree of  leverage which far exceeds that appropriate for the safety and soundness of the financial system. But when it all implodes, it is the little guy who ends up living in a tent under an urban bridge perhaps at risk of losing his or her family. There is no freedom there, and people get hurt. A person’s freedom to bear arms will inevitably result in a troubled person’s ability to attain such arms who may then engage in mass slaughter. Personal freedom to own guns has  resulted  in another’s lost freedoms to live.  Freedom to appear maskless in public during the global health pandemic has undoubtedly cost people their lives. Again, one person’s freedom has caused another’s loss of freedom. Freedom to build on a picturesque lakeshore imposes on another’s freedom to view this lakeshore untarnished by human hands–again, lost freedom. Turns out, libertarianism views freedom through a very self-interested lens.

Even the premises of the capitalist model, the preferred model of  libertarians, oppress those who disagree with its premises. The capitalist beast, having spread its tentacles throughout most of the globe,  consuming most of what lies in its path, imposes a set values on those communities through which it journeys: competition, greed, and lust for material consumption. For most, some level of adoption of these values is necessary for survival in the capitalist context. This is an oppressive situation imposed by libertarians thinkers on those who reject such values.

A notable strength in Rossini’s argument lies in his emphasis that beliefs precede actions. Without a change in beliefs, the imposition of an ideology will amount to a fascist undertaking, or in Rossini’s words, “creeping totalitarianism”. He exhorts his readers to not weary in their quest for a libertarian world and to not get discouraged that immediate change is not forthcoming because beliefs have to change before real change is possible. Undoubtedly this analysis is correct, unfortunately, libertarianism, like all ideologies, has an oppressive aspect.

Rossini believes we are drifting towards totalitarianism. One definition of totalitarianism is : “a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.” Has not capitalism become a form of “centralized” governing  which requires  “subservience to the state.”:  “state”, herein defined as the state-corporate-ideological  apparatus which runs our lives?

How are we to decide on policies which maximize the freedom of a society? Through the vote, informed by the knowledge that one person’s freedom is often another’s oppression, and not informed through a misguided belief that extreme individual freedom will make us more free. Freedom must be viewed through the communal lens with careful attention paid to various harmful consequences that are often imposed on  the broader community by individual action. Where individual actions do not impose harm on others, then, of course, freedom should exist!