08 November 2012

Libertarianism is a Poor Alternative

What is Libertarianism and why is it lacking as a political philosophy? Libertarianism is the combination of socially liberal and fiscally conservative ideals. Libertarians believe that the government should stay as far away from their personal lives and their checkbooks as possible. They believe that personal freedom is the most important value that a political philosophy should have. They don’t believe that anyone is entitled to their earnings. They believe the government should be reduced to the bare necessities (law, fire, roads, defense, education) and everything else left up to the individual to manage for themselves.

In other words, Libertarians are the prime example of how a group of people can have the best, most noble intentions, but actually make things worse with their actions.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I agree with being socially liberal. The government has no place telling me how to treat my body, who I can have sex with, or how to dress. My main problem with Libertarianism is that it bundles this awesome liberal value with a disastrous fiscal mentality.

During this last election, I heard plenty of people vent over how both main candidates are terrible choices. The solution that their compatriots usually offered was to vote Libertarian. It both satisfies the distrust that we all have in our government and comforts us by promising that we’ll be able to take home more money from our jobs. Libertarianism is the saccharine lozenge in the raw throat of the bitter, angry taxpayer. But it’s more sugar than medicine. It tastes good, but it won’t fix the problem.

Apart from simply wanting more money, the four most popular reasons people give for not wanting their hard-earned money to be given to the government for redistribution are: 1) the government will waste it on things they don’t agree with, 2) if people actually worked hard, they wouldn't need a government hand-out, 3) the corruption in the government makes it inefficient at providing for its people, and 4) high tax rates stifle the economy.

The first two reasons are short-sighted and selfish. The third is just short-sighted. The fourth is unsubstantiated.

The whole notion that you have to agree with everything that the government does is bizarre when you think about it. The United States is a country of 300 million people from vastly different cultures and classes. If your criteria for giving money to the government is that it must be spent on something you agree with, then you have unrealistic expectations for a government with a population of this size. One solution would be for you to move somewhere much smaller and more homogeneous. Good luck.

Now, if the government were smaller, had less power and only concerned itself with the bare minimum of responsibilities, it’s very true that a much higher percentage of your tax dollars would be spent on things that you agree with. But that doesn't solve the problem of immense population and diversity. We would still have to address everyone’s diverse needs and the consequences of population density. Libertarianism is not only a small government solution, it is a small community solution.

The Libertarian solution for the Pandora’s Box of “everyone’s diverse needs” is the free market. Because the government won't bother with things like higher education, healthcare, welfare, unemployment, and scientific research, it would be up to the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector to find solutions for these things. There are two huge problems with this idea: 1) the invisible hand is a myth, and 2) privatization fucks things up. Profit incentive dilutes the spirit and goal of many social services, especially when forced to compete. Some things were never meant to make money and thus should never be forced to.

If everyone worked hard, though, they wouldn't need so many social services, right? Wrong. Consider the following: 1) Unexpected job loss, 2) theft, 3) loss of profitability, 4) racial oppression, 5) loss of assets due to disaster, 6) disability, 7) under-employment, or 8) loss of a family’s main provider’s life. In each of these situations, the lack of financial security is beyond an individual’s control. These people need help and the private sector is not going to give it to them. In fact, the private sector will only prey on them further.

In these situations, will a Libertarian say that it is then fair to take their money and then distribute it to those who cannot provide for themselves? In a debate, they’re likely to say no, that’s what charity is for. But charity is also inefficient at locating potential cases and prone to the same corruption that governments are accused of. At least donors get to decide where their money goes, right? On the off-chance that this point is conceded, a Libertarian will also warn that there are too many people who take advantage of social services who don’t deserve them. However, is that reason enough to shut down the whole operation? Make thousands starve to prevent a few from swindling?

Among Libertarians is a uniform distrust for government. Nobody trusts The Man to do anything right. Every politician is a swindling power-hungry rat. Everything that has to do with the government is to be avoided. This is so ingrained in American culture, right down to the second amendment of the Constitution. It was perpetuated during the Red Scare, when all things socialism and communism were demonized.

But there is something wrong with that picture. Not all governments are corrupt. Not all countries fear their governments. Many of the more left-leaning countries are actually happier than America. In fact, here’s a little anecdote: recently, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have been approaching fellow billionaires around the world, asking them to take a pledge stating that they will give away half of their wealth to charity before they die. A bunch of German billionaires refused, citing that a legitimate democracy is more capable of utilizing their money. They would rather have the government raise their taxes so that their wealth could be distributed through those means. It’s a total swap of values. What is going on?

Government corruption is a very complicated thing. It could be a self-fulfilled prophecy in that we assume government will be corrupt and so it is. Or it could be seated in the various laws we have that allow too many different influences to affect our politicians. It may very well be that we aren’t educated enough as a country to vet candidates properly. There could be many reasons, but it is important to understand that corruption can be reduced with the right measures, thus it is not universal and not a strong enough reason to base an entire political philosophy on.

Let’s move past all the reasons why Libertarianism is wrong. Let’s look at why it thinks it’s right. Libertarianism sees itself as the guardian against Socialism, as if it is a bad thing. The argument against Socialism is based on the slippery slope fallacy that if you give the government permission to take an inch, it will take a mile. For example, terms with vague definitions like “greater good” can be warped over time to mean whatever the government feels like. So, if something can be done for the greater good, such as interfering with a market in favor of a certain party, there is nothing to prevent a complete market takeover for the same reason.

However, isn’t this exactly what we’d be avoiding by taking measures to reduce corruption? If the people elect competent representatives who will not overstep their bounds, who understand that they represent people, not corporations, what do we have to worry about? In the eyes of Libertarianism, the only fail-safe is a barrier to the amount of power that the government can have. There is no moderation. But, as I noted earlier, the free market cannot be trusted to take care of itself.

To me, freedom isn’t about implementing the simplest form of self-limiting government that hypothetically runs itself because it is so uncomplicated. Freedom is, and will always be, about staying vigilant, changing with the situation, and educating yourself about the world so that everyone (not just you, you go-getter!) can live in a world that accepts and nurtures them.

So, we are at an impasse. One side says that any concession eventually leads to socialism (the horror!), while the other side says that having no regulations leads to a corporatocracy. Pure Libertarianism is nothing more than Social Darwinism, though. It lacks compassion and foresight. While it is understandable that many people get frustrated and just want to be free from the government completely, they forget to look around them at all the people who depend on it to survive.