Feb 042012
 

Other libertarian bloggers have written about this phenomenon already, that there have been a spate of attack pieces in the media about the follies of libertarianism, probably as a result of Ron Paul’s popularity, but not necessarily. We like to see this sort of stuff, because nobody bothers fighting against an unsuccessful opposing ideology. You don’t tend to see polemics against Nazis these days. If fatuous left-wing commentators are attacking libertarianism, it means we’re winning!

This is not to say there isn’t always anti-libertarian guff from the left wing, because that would be to deny the constant, low-level contempt thrown at us by Rousseauistes whose goal for humanity extends no further than meeting the animal instinct for a full belly. But I digress. To see high-level anti-libertarian guff is rarer, and therefore more meaningful when it shows up. It’s just a shame that our first instinct is to interpret this attention as victory.

***

Exhibit A: George Monbiot, that second-rate St Paul for the Guardian (motto: “Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable”), took on libertarians twice in two weeks. His first piece, “How Freedom Became Tyranny,” might as well have been nicked wholesale from the Brer Fox playbook.

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.

Oh, no, Mr Monbiot, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!

Monbiot’s whole piece leads up to that conclusion with the standard dodgy rhetoric and facetious analogies that are no stranger to any libertarian. We’re argumentative creatures, so it’s tempting to fisk this pile of manure, but if I’ve done it once, I’ve done it a hundred times, and I credit Monbiot with enough sense to know he’s just putting libertarians into their comfort zone with this one. No, this article is merely the set-up. Draw libertarians into making their usual tasty rebuttals about negative freedom, property rights, and the non-aggression axiom, so that you can deliver the blow with this: “Why Libertarians Must Deny Climate Change.”

Look at the libertarian, trapped by his own arguments!

Let us accept the idea that damage to the value of property without the owner’s consent is an unwarranted intrusion upon the owner’s freedoms. What this means is that as soon as libertarians encounter environmental issues, they’re stuffed.

Climate change, industrial pollution, ozone depletion, damage to the physical beauty of the area surrounding people’s homes (and therefore their value), all these, if the libertarians did not possess a shocking set of double standards, would be denounced by them as infringements on other people’s property.

How neatly Monbiot skewers us. Either we care about property rights as a form of freedom, and we reveal ourselves as blinkered anti-science tribalists; or our denial of climate change exposes our devotion to property rights and freedom as a flimsy pretence for poor-hating selfishness. Either way, he’s happy, and we’re “stuffed.” You see, children? Don’t be seduced by the libertarian, after all. The puppet-master has just made him put a bullet through his own foot.

Or not. Good little libertarians have read their Rothbard, unlike Monbiot, so instead of shooting our own feet, we feel like we’ve patted our own backs. Well done to us, anticipating this trap by 30 years! Well done indeed. When the public at large gets round to reading Rothbard too—surely just around the corner, any day now—they’ll see we were right all along.

Exhibit B: Jeffrey Sachs, jumping on the bandwagon, holds forth in the Huffington Post with “Libertarian Illusions.” Unlike Monbiot, Sachs is writing to reinforce the average HuffPo reader’s herd instinct. (Take a look at the article’s tags, too: they’re hilarious.)

You see, children? Don’t be seduced by the libertarian—not because he is wrong, but because he is, like, unenlightened, man. His conscience is less exquisitely sensitive than yours, and in his quest for justice (a fine thing, to be sure), he overlooks the infinitely more spiritual delights of forgiveness.

It’s beguiling to focus one’s activist energies on something as unopposable as liberty (and it is a good thing, to be sure), but… what about all that other stuff, you know? Stuff like compassion, and help for the weak. Those are all good things too, as you already believe: don’t they deserve your energy too? Freedom isn’t the only unassailable good thing.

By taking an extreme view—that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society’s values—libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person’s life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

Most ethical and political systems find the libertarian position abhorrent, indeed preposterous. Most would hold that the government can, should, and indeed must, tax the rich person to save the poor person. That’s because most ethical and political systems hold that liberty is only one value among many important values, and that the value of the indigent’s life takes priority over the liberty of the rich individual.

For all of you philosophers out there (and there are many, you’re all such enlightened thinkers), libertarianism is unethical: it is a rejection of deep spiritualism!

This view is the opposite of Christian charity and Buddhist compassion, according to which moral worth is achieved by helping others.

For the economically-minded, remember that even the great free-market thinkers didn’t think liberty was the finest thing in life! You don’t have to be a Marxist to believe libertarianism is wrong.

The affirmative role of government includes public education, promotion of science and technology, environmental protection, and the provision of infrastructure. Friedman and Hayek both championed a state guarantee of basic needs for all citizens.

And for the political activists, well, you and I both know that government doesn’t have to be the enemy of liberty, any more than it is the enemy of compassion or helping the vulnerable.

Modern history has shown that activist democratic governments, ones that provide public goods and help for the poor, do not really threaten liberty. In Scandinavia, for example, where the governments are much more activist than in the United States, democracy is very vibrant and far less corrupt than in the U.S.

So while it’s tempting to be a libertarian and simplify everything to questions of freedom, the only people who really do this are vulgar materialists whose limited horizons prevent them from joining you in working toward a world of the impossible good. After all:

America has achieved it greatness not through a single-minded ideology but through pragmatism and the wisdom to embrace several important values. A vast majority of Americans today embrace liberty, civic responsibility, and compassion, and seek a government built upon all three. We are the better individuals and a much stronger society for it.

Good little leftists: the libertarian may have one or two ideas, but you were right all along!

***

Do these kind of attacks represent a victory for libertarians? I don’t know. It’s difficult to counter something like Monbiot when your vindicating text is fringe literature most people are never going to read, and with people like Sachs blowing smoke up the enemy’s backside, you need a much bigger prick than Ron Paul to pop that smug self-satisfaction.

This is what I always wonder about libertarianism: we have the tactics to advance, sure, but do we have the strategy to win? Somehow I doubt it. When, as a group, your dearest-held moral values are non-aggression and individual agency, you tend to eschew the Monbiot-Sachs Plan of ambushing your enemies and brainwashing your allies.

  4 Responses to “Then they fight you”

  1. That’s why I find it’s often far simpler not to use the ‘L-word’ when trying to reason with people. The question isn’t “how do libertarians win?” The question is “how do we convince people to acknowledge reality?” It’s not that we need everyone to read Rothbard–though it couldn’t hurt–so much as we need to present the ideas in a way that saps legitimacy from the statist arguments. History is on our side.

    As the public narrative we’re all supposed to believe about the world becomes further and further divorced from the reality people are perceiving first-hand, the argument will win itself.

  2. The “fallacy of the excluded middle” is everywhere, unfortunately. There are some extreme nutters who claim to be libertarians (just as there are for every political viewpoint) – and there are extreme social conservatives (largely in the US) who have a Rothbard / Mises take on economics and therefore get confused (or confuse themselves) with libertarians.

    However, when addressing libertarianism, the popular left press will never look at actual liberal viewpoints, economics or writers because it is so much simpler just to whack the whackos.

  3. Yay! Another success for democracy!

  4. […] from the private sector. This is genius, of course, and exactly the kind of multi-stage thinking the good-guys aren’t very good at. As hrothgar says over at Bella Gerens “we need to present the ideas in a way that saps […]

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