Libertarianism

The discovery most shocking to me during the past year has been the size of the libertarian movement in this nation. As a member of the far left, I see the potential for good within government. Libertarians do not see this and generally believe in only enough government necessary to secure order and property rights. Government, from a democratic point of view, should be the voice of the people, libertarians see government as the tyranny of the majority against the minority.

My personal view, along with many others on the left, is that government, contrary to our democratic aspirations, is largely under the control of the wealthy elite. This overweight of power exercised by the wealthy elite, I had always assumed, would be anathema to the broad mass of Americans which are not members of the wealthy elite. Within the libertarian movement, however, this is not the case. The libertarian movement is an effort to restrain democratic forces. While libertarians want freedom in all areas of life, they are particularly protective of property rights. Democratic efforts to spread the wealth are resisted by the libertarian minded, who fail to recognize, or have little regard, for the reality that it is the system of people which enables wealth accumulation. All people, from across the classes, have participated in wealth creation, even the unemployed participate as they exert downward pressure on wages which benefits the private commercial sector, at least in the short run.

It is difficult to grapple with the idea that people obtain wealth or property based solely on their own merit and based on this belief are then entitled to an outsized portion of the national product. An individual living alone on an isolated island, regardless of effort, would never accumulate much more than a hut and a stack of wood. It is the community, through historical institutional development, physical asset development, along with current work efforts, which builds wealth.

The lower and middle classes simply want a livable share of the national product, something, given market based pricing, which can only be achieved through the democratic process. In order to prevent this, libertarians try to thwart the democratic will, not necessarily in a mean spirited fashion, but simply through a failure to recognize the system’s vital role in the creation of wealth.

Market valuations, vital to the libertarian free market model, should be qualified to recognize the failure of the market value model to appropriately price labor, goods and services. Market value does not adequately value the potential of a human life, nor does the final price of a good or service account for the full cost of production. Much cost of production is socialized: this includes pollution created during the production process, community disinvestment inherent to the dynamic capitalist model, and the moral cost associated with an economic model which elevates the love of consumption over the love of fellow human beings.

The basic libertarian creed is that people ought to be free to do as they please so long as they impose no harm on others. Few people on the left or the right would disagree with this notion. We all want to be free. Within libertarianism, however, there seems to be a failure to recognize when one person’s freedom imposes harm, or a loss of freedom, on others. One person’s freedom often represents another’s oppression.

When corporate executives freely decide to disinvest in urban and rural communities, harm in the form of blight, decreased property values, decreased employment, decreased wages, and increased criminality are imposed on those left behind. Freedom for capital to flow elsewhere has imposed harm and a loss of freedom on others. This reflects the tyranny of the minority–private commercial ownership interests–against the majority.

One person’s libertarian inspired maskless appearance at social or public gatherings during the pandemic enabled the additional spread of the virus and imposed death on some people caught-up in the additional spread. The insistence on the freedom to appear maskless imposed a loss of freedom on others to live.

When Elon Musk opened his California Tesla manufacturing facility in violation of democratically elected County officials’ mandate to do otherwise, this anti-democratic move was applauded by many libertarians. Not only did Musk overthrow the democratic will, he also put his worker’s lives at risk for what is arguably nonessential production. He elevated his personal vision above that of his employees and the democratic vision expressed through the state. His personal freedom created harm to others.

At this point in the argument, libertarians, in a somewhat diversionary fashion, often resort to the argument that we live in a republic, not a democracy, which will be considered, but does not provide moral justification for individual behavior which does harm to others. Experts seem to agree that we live in something perhaps adequately described as a democratic republic, somewhere between republican and democratic forms of government. This seems fair. Our representative democracy, or democratic republicanism, is less democratic than more direct forms of democracy and was explicitly designed to achieve a more stable society with an eye towards preservation of the status quo while providing influence to the broader public. Preservation of the status quo is another way to express preservation of property rights.

This form of governance elevates property rights over the welfare of the bottom third or so who struggle mightily in the economic realm. Some might be tempted at this point to argue that anyone can prosper in a free market system. This reasoning simply defies all historical evidence which points to the conclusion that poverty and hardship at one end of the economic spectrum is necessary in order to provide price stability which is necessary in a monetary economy, and which enables prosperity at the other end of the economic spectrum. In other words, some people are relegated to low wage or no-wage conditions in order to prevent inflationary pressures–a prerequisite to a stable free market economy. This preserves property values, and demonstrates the elevation of property rights over the welfare of those within the bottom third or so who struggle within the economic realm.

Somehow, because the Bill of Rights provides for great individual freedom, and due to its stature apparently equal to that of holy scripture, it follows that people must always and everywhere exercise this freedom. Which is kind-of like saying that because a car can travel at 150 mph, then the car should be driven at that speed through a residential neighborhood. Because you can do something, does not mean that you should do it, or that you should be legally able to do so. There is within the republican form of governance, nothing which prevents the creation of structures which enhance greater democratic control. One need not insist on less bridled behavior simply because one lives under a modified republican form.

For those who economically struggle within our Nation, democratic guidance of economic forces is the path towards freedom. Without democratic restraint of large private sector powers, we would live under private sector corporate tyranny which would consist of kingly CEO’s and knighted management with private armies which charge tolls as we travel across corporate borders. This private government governing structure would lack wage, labor, and other protections.

While this would represent liberty for the few, the vast majority of us would be subject to the will of the private powerful few. Elected government is the only mechanism through which the people can restrain private sector power. Although government is currently captured by this private power, this is no argument to eliminate government, but is rather an argument for the capture of government by the people to enable their freedom.

We have been conditioned in this Nation to think of ourselves as a democracy. We seldom hear U.S. politicians refer to our American Republic, but rather they incessantly refer to our American democracy. Perhaps this provides cover for the system. Perhaps, from their perspective atop the hierarchy, the system seems democratic, as those with capital, or with the support of capital, seem to freely participate in the governing of the Nation. For those of us within the base of the hierarchy, without capital, it all seems rather undemocratic as capital has an outsized voice in the management of the system. So here, I agree with the libertarians, we live in a republic, less so a democracy, although it is still far too democratic for many libertarians, and not democratic enough from my own point of view.

The problem is not the libertarian creed that we should be free to do as we please so long as we do no harm to others, assuredly most of us can agree on this basic principle. The problem lies in the failure to recognize when one person’s freedom imposes on another’s freedom. Without democratic restraint, the asset owning minority will tyrannize the majority and we will be left in a world where “might makes right”, democracy fades, and we will move towards a private sector authoritarian model with little democratic restraint–perhaps we are closer to this state of being than we currently recognize.

Comments are welcomed, civility is requested.