Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (1): It’s the economy, stupid

I’ve decided to start a series of posts laying out what I take to be real world problems with the trend among many decent conservative-leaning folk, now disenfranchised with the US’s de facto two-party system, to see “Libertarianism” as a viable alternative to the given possibilities of the left and the right. I should say up front that this series is less about what libertarianism was or should be, historically, and more about why it is that erstwhile right-wingers see it as an ideology with which they want to now identify. I will, of course, be quite keen to learn from any of you who happen across this blog about this particular ideological history, and how it informs our present. I’m just saying, don’t expect a history lesson; my aim is rather the opposite one of trying to understand ourselves and the ideological alternatives that constitute our past and future better, by observing some things of note about our how this particular ideological option functions in today’s political discourse.

Before I mount this soapbox, let me say up front how deeply I sympathize with many of the critical concerns expressed by the new libertarians — specifically,all those which fall under the rubric of “corporatist” politics, in which there is a deep collusion between “Big Government” and “Big Business.” I admire, for example, Ron Paul’s principled stance against things like corporate lobbying; the racist criminal justice system; the excesses and injustices of the US-led (yet global) “military-industrial complex.” I have a sincere respect for those who take these problems, and all others associated with “money in politics,” seriously. This series will, I hope, reflect that affiliation, and be seen by my libertarian friends as an expression of that respect for common conviction and desire for better understanding about serious differences. I couldn’t write an equally-respectful series about Republicans because, even though I know and love many who self-identify that way, that doesn’t change the fact that, ideologically, their sense for the moral problems leftists and libertarians alike are concerned about is virtually non-existent. (All that to say: please, take the “stupid” in the blog title with the intended dosage of salt.)

That total lack of respect I have for contemporary Republican ideology brings me, libertarian friends, to critique numero uno: the main reason not to be a libertarian is because libertarians agree with Republicans that the source of political corruption is “Big Government,” not corporate capitalism. To be sure, libertarians have a lot to say against corporatist corruption and its political influence. But their critique here is ideologically driven by the problem of Big Government: corporatism is a problem first and foremost because it is an aspect of overreaching political structures, not because corporate hegemony (in simply economic terms) is itself an unjust phenomenon. While there are surely many libertarians who do object on grounds of morality or social justice to aspects of corporate-capitalism — e.g., they see the environmental havoc it’s wreaking — nevertheless, ideologically, the source of this immorality is not bad economic policy, but policy itself. In the simplest terms, libertarians today find their moral center in the sensibility that government itself is the root problem. It’s not the fact that what bends our leaders’ ears, and lines their pockets, are inhumane economic agendas (e.g. corporate capitalism); it’s that our policy-makers have any say in the matter, to begin with.

This basic ideological sensibility is why Ron Paul was even allowed on the stage with the outright corporatist candidates. Despite his critical differences from the other Republican candidates (which are indeed real), what Ron Paul devotees who dramatize his “revolutionary” potential systematically fail to notice is that, despite the fact that he names the basic “problem” in a way that is markedly different from other Republicans (namely, he’s explicitly against government-business “collusion”), he is of one mind with the corporatists on the social “solution”: less policy, most crucially of any kind which might impede the “free market.” That is why Paul was allowed to appear stage-right on our TVs: you get all the rhetorical flair of an anti-corporatist agenda (the sincerity of which I’m not doubting), which can then be twisted as “party diversity,” slipping a bit of “moral integrity” onto the ticket betwixt all those greased palms and overtly fake smiles. Yet, practically, his economic position is pro-corporate hegemony. Because, again, Ron Paul style libertarianism, like corporatists of all stripes (including most Democratic and Republican representatives), sees the problem in political, not economic terms. In other words, the problem for these libertarians is political power itself — the right and authority to “make law,” with social Law seen as the inverse of personal Liberty. This notion blinds would-be radicals to the truth that the root problem is not “Law” or “Government” as such,or in the abstract, but the particular form social law and/or governance takes when determined by narrow interests. As Marx and other insightful observers of capital’s inner-workings have taught us, these narrow — shall we say “private?” — interests most often have to do with that root of all evil, the love of money, of one’s own material gain, above all else.

So, I agree with you, libertarians, that we should all be about getting “money out of politics” — because it rigs elections, because it bends policy toward private interests, etc. But we need to have more, and better, discussion, about why “money in politics” is such a corrupting force to begin with, and how best to deal with it. I’m afraid that as long as you mislocate the problem in law and social order itself, the rest of us have no concrete (nor indeed any logical) reason to trust that your way of regulating society — that is, by freeing “the market” from any legal form of public accountability and social constraint — won’t just pour water on the root and help that corporate flower bloom even bigger.

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5 thoughts on “Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (1): It’s the economy, stupid

  1. This basic ideological sensibility is why Ron Paul was even allowed on the stage with the outright corporatist candidates.

    I think it has more to do with Paul’s cultural conservatism than his economic policies. Even so, conservatives (and some right-libertarians too) tend to think of their policies as being more “free market” than liberals because conservative tend to favor less direct interventions into the economy. For example, conservatives think abolishing welfare (but not the interventionist policies that welfare is designed to amend) to be a free-market reform. So conservatives (and some right-libertarians) favor weakening regulatory restraints on existing forms of state privilege, rather than the state privileges themselves, as if that has anything to do with reducing the degree of government intervention in the economy.

    Libertarians agree with Republicans that the source of political corruption is “Big Government,” not corporate capitalism.

    I’d say they are one in the same. Big business and big government are dependent upon one another to function, at least according to left-libertarians like Charles Johnson, just as the landlords were components of the feudal regimes in Europe. You might be interested to read Kevin Carson’s essay “The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand” to understand just how much corporations rely on direct and indirect state subsidies to maintain their rather obsolete business models.

    As far as the immediate priorities that would be needed for dismantling big government and big business, there is probably more in common with liberals (or at least anti-authoritarian liberals) than conservatives, particularly where it concerns intellectual property laws, corporate privileges, the military-industrial complex, and the police state.

    Anyhow, I appreciate your thoughtful blog post.

  2. Justin — thanks for your reply; you’ve nuanced my account here considerably. On your first point, I totally agree Paul’s cultural conservatism played a big role in whatever level of viability he had as a candidate. At least, I know that’s part of the appeal for many of the “new libertarians” I’m talking about. I still tend to think that’s not the key issue in why he made it as far as he did on a Republican ticket, but I think that’s less a reflection of any lack of significance about his conservative appeal, and more a reflection of how much pull the corporatist agenda has on setting the ticket!

    Your point about the conservative approach to “reducing gov’t intervention” is well taken. I’m admittedly no expert, but I’m doing my homework as I can, and your insight is appreciated. I mean, for me, I’d want to challenge the conceptual framework in which we’d even talk about basic welfare programs as “state privilege” or “intervention” to begin with — as if sustaining social services are beyond the remit of the political task — but hey, I’m a leftist!

    Regarding your second point — I’m certainly aware that, in our corporate capitalist system, corporations are indeed heavily dependent on gov’t control. I’ve read enough Chomsky to know that the history of “free market capitalism” in the US and UK has been one in which the powerful operate by the principle that “market discipline” is good for the other guy, but not for them. R&D is heavily funded w/ public subsidies, etc. But the point I was making — which is that libertarians tend to agree w/ conservatives of all stripes that the problems we face are basically political (“government intervention”), not economic (capitalism itself) — is of course reinforced by the link you provide.

    So, not only am I aware that, historically speaking, an unfettered, truly “free market” system has never been practiced (as Polanyi laid out in his classic, The Great Transformation). I also actually agree with Polanyi that that historical fact points to a real, necessary interdependence of government and economy. I believe that it’s an essential part of the political task for governing authorities to regulate (i.e, “order”) the economic structures within which their populations live. So the problem for me isn’t “socialism” (i.e., a regulated economy), but a capitalist context in which the balance of power has shifted to such a degree that regulation (and, generally, social policy) is no longer subject to democratic control, but shifts toward the narrow interests of those with the most capital. So, you and I probably disagree about that, but I think my original comment holds: libertarians agree w/ Republicans that the problem w/ the economy isn’t the system itself (free market capitalism), but the system’s “regulation” by governmental agencies. I disagree that de-regulation will lead to real economic freedom — at least, not a real freedom, not one worth having. As Chomsky discusses here, even Adam Smith said that under conditions of perfect liberty free markets would lead to perfect equality … but human beings do not live in a world in which “perfect liberty” is or will be realized. So, for me, the necessary interdependence of government and economy is ultimately grounded in a philosophical/theological insight into human nature and history, in which the market-systems we create and use will never be, on their own, a means of “freedom” — they always requires some forms of public accountability and democratic regulation.

    And, to bring it all back together, this goes back to my point about the actual consequences of Paul’s economic vision: if implemented, it would actually reinforce corporate hegemeony, because there’d be no means by which the public could hold it accountable for just business practices and exercise any public restraint!

    At any rate, I honestly appreciate the discussion.

    • I’d want to challenge the conceptual framework in which we’d even talk about basic welfare programs as “state privilege” or “intervention” to begin with.

      Just to be clear, I don’t consider welfare a form of government intervention. If anything, it could be considered (depending on how it’s put into practice) a form of counter-intervention meant to stabilize various forms of existing interventions. (Of course, those counter-interventionist measures will likely have unintended consequences of their own.) So I would not consider all regulations or laws a form of intervention or state privilege, particularly because I see that the use of force must be regulated for a free market to exist in the first place.

      But the point I was making — which is that libertarians tend to agree w/ conservatives of all stripes that the problems we face are basically political (“government intervention”), not economic (capitalism itself) — is of course reinforced by the link you provide.

      The article was sort of limited in topic. Maybe you could elaborate a bit more which problems in particular you are thinking of. Another article by the same author discusses what he calls thick and thin libertarianism. He argues convincingly, I think, that there are certain cultural practices like tolerance (or bigotry) that libertarians should commit to uphold (or oppose) for much they same reason that libertarians uphold (or oppose) certain political practices.

      I believe that it’s an essential part of the political task for governing authorities to regulate (i.e, “order”) the economic structures within which their populations live. So the problem for me isn’t “socialism” (i.e., a regulated economy), but a capitalist context in which the balance of power has shifted to such a degree that regulation (and, generally, social policy) is no longer subject to democratic control.

      The crux of the matter seems to be whether free markets (which would include labor unions, cooperatives, charities, fraternal societies, safety rating agencies, and consumer unions) or democratic governments are more accountable in providing ordinary people relief from private forms of power.

      I disagree that de-regulation will lead to real economic freedom.

      I agree that it depends on what kind of deregulation takes place. Removing regulations meant to act as a brake on existing forms of special privileges would increase the scope of government intervention. I support doing away with special privileges that governments supply and private interests demand. My thinking is that there is always going to be a demand for special privileges; it depends on whether politicians have the authority to grant them is what matters.

      As Chomsky discusses here, even Adam Smith said that under conditions of perfect liberty free markets would lead to perfect equality

      Slightly off topic, but I don’t understand how perfect liberty could bring about perfect (material?) equality.

      Well, thanks again for the interesting discussion. That’s all I have to share for now. Take care!

      • All very interesting — thanks for the further nuance. As you recall, I didn’t claim to be diagnosing all stripes of “libertarianism” with any kind of historical expertise, and your version (if it is indeed calling for market systems which include the sorts of public organisations you mention — unions etc) seems to me to be much more amenable to my own concerns about economic accountability, than the sort of idelogical motivations I’m trying to diagnose with the conservative “new libertarians.”

        I”ll try to look at the other article you mention soon, and respond to at least that central issue (free market systems vs. democractic control) when I can…. Thanks again for giving me Ideas and resources to think about.

  3. Pingback: Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (2): Aurora, Ice T, and the “Right to Bear Arms” | FOUR WINDS

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