Introduction to Libertarianism (For the Left)

[This is the first article in the left-leaning LBRT101 section of the Guided Study at Liberty HQ]

The Past 12 Years

A foreign policy of war

The past twelve years have seen the US enter numerous new military engagements, many of which show no signs of fading. Iraq and Afghanistan are well known to everyone, but are far from the only ones. Despite strong evidence that the US intervention would not improve our national security − and, in fact, would worsen it − we continued to remain, at both a high human cost − all the lives lost (American and foreign) − and a high financial cost (with conservative estimates at $1.5 trillion). Besides throwing the US into these wars, Bush passed into law the Patriot Act, escalating the level of government invasion of the personal lives of the public. Suddenly, everyone became a suspect in the hopeless War on Terror. How does this square with the respect for individual freedom that Bush is supposed to have?

Unfortunately, Bush’s legacy didn’t end there. Hailed as a supposedly fiscally-conservative president, Bush pushed through the new Medicare Part D bill, which added almost $20 trillion of unfunded liabilities to the US debt [1]. The bill was labeled by former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as “the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s.” And this was not a one-time thing − the debt under Bush soared by $4.9 trillion dollars − an 86% increase over the total debt that the government owed when Bush came into office [2]. Furthermore, the expansionary monetary policy employed by the Federal Reserve under Bush helped to transfer money from the lower and middle classes to the well-connected bankers on Wall Street. Not only that, but it fueled the infamous housing bubble which led to the Great Recession.

Forgotten promises

After Bush packed his bags, in came Obama. With fresh promises to reform US foreign policy, Obama has borne an eerie resemblance to Bush. Obama failed to close Guantanamo as he had promised, despite his presidential power over the military [3]. He did not move to deescalate the war efforts beyond the projections of Bush and even now we have significant forces remaining in the Middle East. Moreover, he has embroiled the US in even more military conflicts which will have negative consequences down the road. This is what the US did in the ’90s. It did not end well. It’s called blowback.

Obama also escalated drone strikes in the Middle East exponentially − drone strikes that kill 45 innocent civilians for every 1 suspected terrorist. That number includes bombing of children. Obama ordered the assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Aulaqi without any pretense of a trial whatsoever, and when pressed to give any evidence of guilt, the Obama administration refused. The American Civil Liberties Union attempted to represent al-Aulaqi, but was denied the right to do so [4]. Soon after the assassination, drone strikes also killed his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. A Yemeni villager named Mohammed spoke to The Washington Post in relation to the drone strikes: “Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans. If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.” Bush’s former director of the CIA and NSA, Michael Hayden, even praised Obama for continuing Bush’s war and intelligence policies [5].

Following in the footsteps of the illogical nationalism he decried, Obama extended the Patriot Act that Democrats had decried for so long, and supplemented it with the power for the US government to indefinitely detain US citizens [6]. Obama has also continued the failing war on drugs as US prisons are overflowing with prisoners for victimless crimes which hurt no one. Not only has the war been a failed fantasy of social manipulators, but it has also fueled drug cartel violence and gang activity. The Prohibition on alcohol failed when it was first tried − why would it succeed with drugs?

It becomes more and more apparent that the two parties do not propose a different approach to handling the world − Bush was hardly conservative, and Obama was hardly liberal. The Obama foreign policy has been an extension of the Bush policy, and the bailouts of big businesses have gone on under both administrations. Markets cannot work when benefits are privatizes to Wall Street cronies and losses are socialized across all of society. Is there some other option available to America?

Libertarianism

Libertarianism has been a political philosophy that has been largely ignored but has gained much steam since 2008. While it might initially appear that libertarians borrow both from the “left” and the “right,” libertarianism is in fact vastly different from both. Libertarianism presents a rigorous, principled approach to political theory. While the two main political parties both ultimately want to use government power to tell people how to live their lives, libertarians consistently champion individual liberty and the peaceful use of private property.

Libertarianism employs a dual approach to political theory − A moral approach and a utilitarian, pragmatic approach. So what does it mean to be a libertarian?

Basics of Libertarian Morals

A total respect for rights

The libertarian stance on morality is fairly simple and intuitively appealing − everyone has the right to his body and property and should be free to use them as he sees fit as long as he does not violate this equal right of others. As such, the extensive government intervention that pervades American society − whether it is “economic” or “social” (which, as we will show, are really two sides of the same coin) − is immoral and violates the basic rights of individuals. As long as I am not violating the rights of others, I ought to be able to do as I please. Forceful government action to restrict free individuals is unjust. Reading about social manipulations of governments in other countries we cringe and shake our heads, but we fail to see that our own government is responsible for actions of the same fundamental nature. Libertarians believe that it is inconsistent to support “economic” freedoms and reject “personal” freedoms (and vice-versa). They are really no different from each other − both involve peaceful actions of individuals, and therefore neither can justifiably be violated by governments. This simple moral rule has extensive implications for public policy.

Pragmatic libertarianism

The libertarian stance on morals is backed by extensive evidence that free individuals acting in free markets achieve the best results. (As a caveat, it must be pointed out that markets in the US are very far from free, as we shall show later.) Government action to intervene in the market is not only ineffective, but also counter-productive. Far from making matters better, we will make the case in consequent articles that government action often leads to worse outcomes than the market, often hurting the very people it was intended to help.

Government intervention distorts markets in favor of big businesses

Economic intervention in the US at the moment is strongly characterized by what is known as “corporatism,” “crony capitalism,” or “political capitalism.” What this means is that we do not in fact have a free market, but a government which intervenes in the market to distort it in ways which specifically benefit the largest businesses. Many regulations passed under the pretense of helping those worse off are in fact used to prop up the power of companies and corporations which would not be as large in the free market − or wouldn’t exist at all. One example of gloated companies is found in the military-industrial complex. Another is many Wall Street banks which are made artificially large by active government intervention that shields them from the costs of their actions − actions which the free market would in fact punish. Examples of corporatism abound all across US history.

Besides problems with corporatism, government action is prone to what is known in economics as “unintended consequences.” French economist Frédéric Bastiat famously said

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

What this means is that it is unwise to only look at the direct, “seen” results of government action. Instead, the consequent “unseen” effects must always be taken into consideration, lest they overshadow the supposed initial benefit of the action. Government intervention, whether it be in the social sphere or the economic sphere, almost inevitably has unintended consequences. One example was the popular “Cash for Clunkers”. This program provided a $4,500 rebate for older cars that would be traded in for newer ones. The older cars then had to be rendered unusable. This program resulted in a temporary jump in sales. The problem, however, is that it took 700,000 cars out of the used-car market. This decrease in the supply led to used car prices shooting up − meaning higher car prices for the very poorest members of society − those who were most unable to afford cars in the first place. Furthermore, the program largely front-loaded car sales. That is, it took all the sales that would have happened anyway within a window of time and caused them to happen a little earlier.

Profit-loss accounting is vital to resource allocation

In the coming articles, we hope to show why a very large part of government programs are bound to fail. One of the fundamental reasons behind this is that the market operates through the profit-loss mechanism [7]: If a business makes a profit, that means that the customers value the product more than the costs of making the product. By following profit, entrepreneurs go on to produce end-products that consumers value more than the costs of making the product. If, on the other hand, a business loses money over a long period of time, this means that the customers do not want such products to be produced. The entrepreneur goes out of business and stops wasting resources on goods that society (loosely speaking) does not desire.

Government doesn’t have such a mechanism, because it doesn’t have a profit-loss mechanism. This means government doesn’t have a rational way to price goods, which in turn leads to economic distortion and misallocations. We will later show mechanisms in the market which prevent firms from misbehaving.

What is NOT required to be a libertarian

While it’s useful to define what a libertarian is, it’s also useful to look at what are not preconditions for being a libertarian. These are popular myths that often discourage people from striving for freedom against a government which violates rights.

  • Conspiracy Theorist – You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to be a libertarian. This means that you don’t have to be a 9/11 truther or believe that evil space lizards rule the world (they’re not lizards, they’re salamanders - get it right!). Engage in such theorizing at your own risk.
  • Founder Worshipper – Conservatives often like quoting the Founding Fathers of the US. For some of them (not all), it appears that anything that the Founders said must have been the be all and end all of truth. Libertarians don’t buy this view, and we keep a healthy skepticism about everything the Founders have written. That being said, libertarians do often respect some of the Founders for specific thoughts that coincide with libertarianism. After all, their ideas have had a profound historical effect on the American system. However, the reason for the respect is an agreement on the actual issues, not American mythology.
  • Selfish – Some people wrongly believe that to be libertarian you have to be selfish (in the popular sense of the word). This is patently false. Libertarians actively fight for the rights of all − whether they be the voiceless millions against which America wages war abroad, or victims of police abuse at home. Let’s also not forget Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, free and open for the world.
  • In agreement with all libertarians ever - Though libertarianism is characterized by consistency and principle, there are areas of disagreement even among prominent libertarian figures. You don’t have to agree with every conclusion of every libertarian ever to be a libertarian. For example, many libertarians disagree with a good chunk of the views, conclusions, and methodology of Ayn Rand. Not only this, but there are healthy debates within the ideology about delicate topics such as abortion, precise levels of immigration, intellectual property, and morality vs. utilitarianism.
Conclusion

The libertarian position is that individuals should be free in their actions as long as they do not violate the rights of others. This is seemingly simple, yet deep upon exploration, and it has numerous (and often surprising!) implications for public policy. Readers new to the position will likely have numerous questions about many topics. Many points in libertarian theory were mentioned in this article and are likely a tangle in the minds go the reader. We hope to address these issues over the course of the articles to follow − we believe we have satisfactory and innovative positions on all of them. I beg the readers to first give libertarian theory a chance before rejecting it outright. If interested in specific topics, you may jump across articles, use the search function, or ask in the forums. I must, however, add a word of caution − libertarian theory is a comprehensive bundle. It may be sometimes difficult to grasp a more advanced concept before understanding a more basic one that comes before it.

That being said, let’s begin exploring libertarianism.

-Wheylous

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Notes:

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4 thoughts on “Introduction to Libertarianism (For the Left)

  1. z1235 01/22/2013 at 05:45 Reply

    Good work!

  2. RJ Miller 01/27/2013 at 23:36 Reply

    I can tell your blog is now making headway just by the fact that I rediscovered it via Twitter long after your post in the DA forums.

    Keep it up!

    • wheylous 01/28/2013 at 08:53 Reply

      Hey, thanks for the compliment! I’m glad you’re finding it useful! May I ask where you found it on Twitter?

      Also, the DA is the Daily Anarchist, right?

  3. [...] Voluntaryist Reader has a good introduction to Libertarianism, and links to further [...]

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