Why I am not a Libertarian (Part Two)

What is the most important thing for any political system to deliver? Easy – that people be secure in their persons and property. There is a clear heirarchy of political goods:

Order ——> Law ——> Freedom

What we mean by order is that people aren’t going around stabbing each other or stealing their stuff – i.e. the population is secure in their persons and property. This is the most basic and fundamental freedom, and all other freedoms are meaningless without it. For example, suppose I have the right to say what I want, but you can seize my house for any reason you like. Well, in that case I will say whatever you want me to say, in order that you don’t seize my house. So my formal freedom of speech has been suborned in practice by my lack of control of something more fundamental.

This is not some esoteric point. There are many countries in the world where people do not enjoy these rights. In Cuba, for example, your home and your job are at the whim of the government – you can become unemployed or homeless at the stroke of a pen. This, far more than the secret police, is their best weapon against dissent. And for those primary concern is equality and like to hold up Cuba as some kind of beacon, consider the power relation between the ordinary citizen and the government official who can take away his home and livelihood. That is far greater than the inequality between myself and Roman Abramovich – he can afford a lot more caviar than me, but he can’t throw me out on the street. There is a profound and unjust inequality in a situation where one person has that kind of power over another.

It’s something I take personally. My family is from Iraq, and after the revolution, our property was seized by the government and “redistributed.” It’s an injustice that has stung me since long before I even became politically aware, and it’s a very widespread experience. Yet because large-scale expropriation has not occurred recently in most Western countries, it is something that many Westerners fail to consider or find hard to imagine. They skip straight to the “law” and “freedom” parts, without considering the “order” on which both rest.

And of course the watch-word of libertarians is “freedom,” which they think is the underpinning of society, and from that confusion flows many errors. So we see that many libertarians are sympathetic to mass expropriation. So most libertarians think everyone should be able to kill each other. So all libertarians don’t know what to do with children. Note – libertarians often say that children are a “puzzle” or a “problem.” In fact, the libertarian problem isn’t so much with children, it’s with anyone who’s not able to look after themselves and make their own decisions. Their normal “solution” is to deny these people exist, but this is so obviously true of young children that libertarians just throw up their hands, and try and pretend that the issue of children’s rights is for ivory towers. Errr, guys, if your theory doesn’t know how to cope with a large class of people who have been around since the very dawn of time, I suggest your theory is bullshit. What duties do parents (and society at large) have to their children? Homo habilis had this worked out, but you think it’s too esoteric? C’mon!

Nowhere is the libertarian confusion clearer than in their ideas of a market in government services. This is so lacking in logic, it’s almost comical. What makes markets work well is the presence of some greater force outside the market, able to step in and enforce contracts – i.e. the government. Without that external force, markets work very badly. What is to stop your privately contracted security firm reneging on your contract? What’s to stop them arbitrarily jacking up their fees? What’s to stop a rival security firm demanding protection money? Libertarians like to deny the need for anti-competition laws by claiming that cartels simply can’t happen. Well, think about it – there has always been a market in government services. The only thing stopping you from hiring a private security firm as a pseudo-government is the presence of a monopolistic rival. This is a classic example of how cartels can and do form. Now libertarians may say that it’s not a free market. Well, quite. There’s no way of keeping markets “free” without that external arbiter.

To be fair, not all libertarians are anarcho-capitalists. But minarchists are not much better. They correctly recognise the state as a necessary evil, but then, like Canute, bid it stop where they wish. That’s not how it works, guys. You don’t get to decide how much evil is necessary, it has to be fought from street to street. Unless and until you can convince the broad mass of the people to believe in the principle of small government, minarchism is unstable and vulnerable to overthrow and institution creep. Again, it comes down to the realisation that they prize freedom so much that they take order for granted.

Some of this stuff I can overlook as minor – I do not expect to agree with a movement in all respects, and many of the more serious disagreements are so far off as to be irrelevant. For example, the state is so bloated that it’s easy to find common cause with anyone who wants it much smaller, we’re decades away from worrying about exactly where we would draw the line. Libertarians may be confused about children, but they generally favour sensible school policies anyway. And so on. But their equivocal relationship with property is just too much for me. My property is mine by established title and long use of law, not arbitrary and contradictory ideologies. And here their views can do real damage.

This is not to say I reject libertarianism outright. Anyone serious about small government and a free society should be welcomed, regardless of the -ism that got them to that conclusion. And indeed, the modern politician I most admire was sometimes, albeit incorrectly, called a libertarian. So I am not trying to create unnecessary litmus tests, but simply to set out how and why we disagree. Ultimately, libertarians are radicals who have a vision of creating a new and better society governed by a novel relationship between people and the state. Indeed, they sometimes describe themselves as “classical liberals” – that is to say, people who are ignorant of Edmund Burke. If they understood that the constitution and government of a country cannot be derived from a few abstract principles of “natural right,” and that society is not something that can be endlessly remade, they might reconsider their ideas.

But until that time, I am not a libertarian.

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