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Letter to the editor: Why libertarianism is not the answer

I’ll just be frank, I can’t stand libertarians. I know that in theory it sounds reasonable—freedom, liberty, blah blah blah legalized pot. And it’s a simple theory and simple things are nice in this big old confusing world: government is the evil monster that is intruding on our ability to make our own decisions about our lives and who we are as individuals. Thus the solution is to get government out of the picture or stripped down to the bare bones, and presto! the magic of free open markets solves everything from education to discrimination.

Pssh, who really needs laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Libertarian Rand Paul does not think so, or he at least said he did not until his campaign staffers silenced him when they moved into the general election.

Now let’s return to reality. Libertarianism is so impractical and disconnected from the real world that I’m shocked that people can still believe that it is a practical solution to the complex problems we face today.

Yes, I know the benefits of the free markets. I’ve taken my share of economics courses here to see the wonders that they can do. But where do you draw the line between the role of private sector and government? The line that libertarians draw between the role of the government and the private sector is dangerously skewed, in my opinion.

Earlier this month firefighters in Obion County, Tennessee let a couple’s home burn down because they had not paid their dues. The firefighters literally watched the house burn to the ground and only put it out when the fire spread to a neighbor’s house that had paid the dues. The reason for this is that this fire department operates on a pay for fee service, i.e. if one wants fire protection one has to pay the monthly dues. Fire protection was no longer a public good but was now a private service that one had to purchase on the market—a concept straight out of the libertarian playbook. When I first heard this I had to read the story twice to believe it. Is this the society we want? Where is the concern for our fellow citizen?

This is the fundamental flaw with Libertarianism—it is incredibly self-centered. It focuses completely on the individual and ignores the role of the collective. The ideology is built on the notion that relationships are voluntary and contractual. Society does not work that way, nor can it ever truly work that way. From the moment of birth we are effectively compelled into association with others through no choice of our own. We need each other for our survival, whether we like it or not.

Life is a balance. Believe it or not, government intervention and aspects of socialism can be good. I love me some socialized firefighters and government mandated Fluoride in the water. We know that a purely socialist system doesn’t work, but neither does a purely privatized system. There is a happy middle—in the words of Miley why not get the best of both worlds? You do need laws on the book to prevent things like discrimination. Markets are not perfect and they do fail. Government interferences in some markets can be necessary.

Now, I did not write this just because I wanted to ramble on about my dislike for libertarians (even though it did feel good to get out, I must say). I wrote this because I am scared at how many people in my generation think that this ideology is a practical solution to our problems. Society cannot operate the way Facebook does. We cannot pick whom we interact with (accept friend request) or don’t interact with (decline friend request). This big old crazy world is just not that simple. We are all interconnected in this thing we call life, whether we like it or not.

My warning is simple—don’t drink the libertarian Kool-Aid. It might look tasty and simple in an individual serving, but don’t fall for it, even if they tempt you with legalized drugs and buzzwords like freedom and liberty.

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  • H

    HamuelMar 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    I always love how libertarians try and downplay any failure in their system as “you not understanding libertarianism.” I think the same could be said about their understading of having active role in the markets.

  • J

    JoeMar 29, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Well spoken. I wholeheartedly agree.

  • S

    SlackNov 10, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    I see your point previous posters. But take this for example: who are you? Are you one person or part of a family. I prefer to live in a world where I am part of a family. What does this mean? I am indebted to my family members and they are indebted to me. Also known as unconditional love. Can’t exist if you don’t have stake in the ownership of another. Its just mutual ownership, or in other words the basis of a community. I happen to think of myself as simply more than just me, go ahead call me an egoist or selfish for wanting to have some stake in the decisions of those important to me. Most people just call me nice.

    Also, I ain’t motivated by profit. Weird, right? Wealth is no guarantee to happiness and I prefer happiness. That does mean that I need to probably make a profit in something but that ain’t the goal.

    Ya’ll remind me of Solaria. I always thought they sucked.

  • C

    CatoNov 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    In agreement with previous comment, I do not understand why everyone is so offended by the fire department instance. Indeed, most supposed counterexamples to the virtues of consistent libertarianism are in fact misinterpretations of fresh crimes committed by the state, exactly as mentioned.

    My problem with the positions of coercionists (colloquially: progressives, conservatives, and their ilk) is that they all must deny the axiom of self-ownership and so condone the use of unprovoked violence. I do not believe that any human being can own a stake in any other, and so no human has any responsibilities to another besides the ones they choose to take on. If you deny this, we are reduced to the status of slaves, more or less only in proportion to the fickle will of the state. The author claims that a flaw of libertarianism is that it is self-centered. It is self-centered in proportion to the degree individuals hold being self-centered to be a virtue, but how is this a flaw? It is entirely natural and proper for humans to have concern primarily for themselves and those they love, rather than for some amorphous collective. No individual ought to be a sacrificial animal for the good “the collective” (read: some subset of the set of individuals whom the sacrificed by definition does not value sufficiently to aid).

    If you must point to Rand Paul to find an objectionable “libertarian,” then your argument is feeble indeed: Truly Paul’s views are deeply flawed, although mostly for reasons other than the one named (his ideas about allowing states to decide on abortion and the like come to mind), and very few libertarians would count him among their ranks. Examine instead Murray Rothbard, late Austrian-school economist and perhaps the most consistent libertarian in recent times. To the extent that I can tell, all of his views were derived from the axiom of self-ownership and its corollary prohibiting aggression, combined with Lockean ideas regarding the acquisition of property. No doubt the author would find many of his conclusions appalling, but they are the only ones consistent with the idea that humans are not slaves and have no right to commit unprovoked violence against others.

    No doubt many of the specific recommendations of the coercionists (e.g. taxation, minimum wage, conscription, preemptive war) would be helpful to some individuals some of the time and even “practical” (the author never defines what this is supposed to mean). Whatever gains are made, however, will be more than outweighed by the cost in blood from depriving individuals through violence of their rights of self-ownership and justly acquired property.

  • R

    RandNov 2, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Nice try with the fire station example in the author’s diatribe against libertarianism, but no cigar. It’s clear that the author has no concept of libertarianism, nor does he want to understand it or how it can be successfully applied in the real world. If the author had bothered to research the story, he would have discovered that it was a city govt service that was offered to homeowners outside the city boundaries for an annual fee, not a libertarian-style fire dept. The home owner in question did not subscribe to the service but when the firefighters came to the house, he offered to pay them on the spot to put out the fire. It was the mayor of the city who ordered the firefighters not to put out the fire. This is not an example of the horrors of libertarianism, but an example of the horrors of unaccountable govt “service”.

    A libertarian-style fire dept relies on making a profit, offering a valuable service, and good PR to stay in business. They don’t have the luxury of stealing other people’s money to run the business and not being accountable to their customers like govt does. If a libertarian-style fire dept had come to a house on fire, the first thing they would have done was check to see if they were a client. If they were, the fire would have been put out. If they were a client of another fire service, they would have put the fire out and billed the other service for their efforts (the mutual aid concept). If the homeowner was not protected by a service, they would ask if he was willing to be billed for the cost and they would put it out. If the person pleaded poverty and couldn’t afford to pay, it would be in the fire service’s best interest to use the situation to build some good will and put the fire out gratis as a training session. To just callously leave the homeowner’s house to burn would generate a lot of ill will in the community, would not gain any new clients for them, and would likely cause several of their clients to jump ship in favor of a competing service.

    The author has exposed himself as a Progressive who is too quick to embrace the mantra that govt is the cure-all for everything, and should look more carefully at how people can do a much better job than the govt when govt keeps its fingers out of the pie. Govt is unaccountable to the public so has no incentive to be frugal with the money it receives, has no incentive to be efficient, and has no incentive to provide good customer service.