Letter to the editor: Defending libertarianism

I’ll just be frank, markets work. You can thank them for Facebook, condoms, Lil’ Weezy and the fact that you got into Grinnell while thousands of others did not. In case you haven’t already noticed, this opinion is a response to one in last week’s edition entitled “Why Libertarianism is Not the Answer.” That opinion is utterly misguided in so many ways and I will try to iterate a few of them here.

The author initially tries to summarize libertarian philosophy as simply getting “government out of the picture … and presto! the magic of free open markets solves everything from education to discrimination.” In reality, libertarianism isn’t directly anti-government. We concede a number of critical justifications for government—securing property rights, enforcing contracts, protecting the rule of law. We aren’t anarchists and the distinction is critical. Instead, libertarians just oppose government when it creates policy that hinders competition. Government agencies like the Securities and Exchanges Committee—which provides critical information to investors—actually improve corporate transparency, and thus competition, benefitting us all. Others, such as the Grinnell Police Department regulating drunkenness on Mac Field at 2 a.m. on Saturday mornings, are probably unnecessary. And yes, free and open markets can alleviate a host of public problems such as discrimination, for which Gary Becker won the Nobel Prize (nobelprize.org).

And is libertarianism so impractical and disconnected from the real world? I don’t think so. Instead, many confuse consistency with impracticality. Here at Grinnell most of us support policies that advance gay rights, sexual liberty and consumer freedoms (including the freedom to toke up, of course). Many Democrats among us even call themselves “liberals.” But the difference between progressive Democrats and liberals is that the latter (Libertarians) don’t subjectively pick and choose just to care about those issues of liberty that impact them the most. A good reflection on this philosophy is Voltaire’s age-old adage, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The author further argues that “The line that libertarians draw between the role of the government and the private sector is dangerously skewed.” I disagree. In fact, I dare all of you to grab a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left, write down every example in history you can think of where society suffered disastrously from there being too little government. On the right, jot down every example you can think of where people suffered from totalitarianism, fascism, authoritarianism and just plainly too much government. I think even our most advanced history scholars will find the right side much weightier.

The critical flaw of anti-libertarians (aside from the fact that they generally don’t understand markets—“who needs math, anyway, when I can just assume I’m right without thinking too hard?”) is that they aren’t honest. Libertarianism isn’t just self-centered, all of humanity—rather, genes—are self-interested (Dawkins, 1976). Socialism and its varieties pretend that we care more about each other than we actually do. Is the view well-intentioned? Absolutely. Does it work in practice? Doubtful at best. Now this doesn’t mean we need to live in isolation of exclusion. In fact, that is the chief benefit of free and open markets—they efficiently coordinate extremely complex social interaction among groups that might otherwise be inclined to take to the sword. If our progressive friends were more focused on the practical results of their proposed policies instead of just the quality of their intentions they might recognized this. I for one would rather see results (i.e., unemployment lower than 9.6 percent) than just good intentions. I may not care at all about blue collar workers in the rust belt, but I know that if you raise the minimum wage fewer of them will have jobs, despite your intentions.

Sure, it would have been nice if that fire department in Obion, Tenn. would have stopped the flames from engulfing the house of that family that didn’t pay for the program. But this sort of thing happens all the time, and it should. You can’t just walk into Subway and expect to get served a free sandwich. Nor can you expect to just call up Apple and get a free iPhone. What progressives don’t seem to get is that everything has to get paid for in some way—there’s no such thing as a free lunch! Just look at Greece or France. People are literally setting things on fire, breaking windows and sending death threats to civil service because they finally have to pay for all the government handouts they thought they were entitled to just for being alive.

So what’s the point of this opinion piece? Frankly, I’m scared about how many people of my generation are willing to sacrifice liberty when it benefits them and then just assume that those liberties will always remain. In our democracy, where electoral positions frequently change hands, who is to say that our complacency with the government taking away the liberty of Wall Street bankers doesn’t later lead to it taking away our liberty of religion, sexual orientation and privacy when another party takes control? A society that values freedom can’t just pick and choose. Remember a couple years ago when we all detested every infringement on liberty that the Bush Administration put forward? The only difference between then and now is that then it was our liberty, and now it is some other guy’s liberty. A principled view, the Libertarian view, is mature in acknowledging that Washington infringing on our freedoms is detestable in all cases, and even if we accept some intervention in our lives in the name of some supposed general good, we should always remain skeptical both of the intervention’s merits and its underlying principles.

Of course I can sympathize with Grinnell College’s progressives—I admit it’s very easy to be for tax hikes when you’re 20 years old and receive all kinds of benefits from the government without having to pay a dime. But someone—maybe our children who will pay down our debt, maybe our entrepreneurs who create jobs—will have to pay. It certainly is a big old crazy world, and that is exactly why we need a principle of liberty that isn’t subject to the ideological whims of whichever party is in power and that can coordinate our extremely complicated interactions via mutually beneficial exchange through no coercive third-party interference.