Libertarianism and Strawmen

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Libertarianism has had a prominent position in America for my whole life. It goes by many names: free-market capitalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, monetarism, freedom, limited government, supply-side economics, and on and on. People who use these labels may protest that they are not all the same thing (I’ll address that in a little bit), but they have certain key libertarian things in common. The two most important features are faith in markets and suspicion of governments. They trust the invisible hand more than real, live planners. They also believe that personal autonomy is really important, that merit determines outcomes, and things like that. They are typically on the right of the political spectrum, but there are some lefty, anarchist libertarians.

Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize the year after I was born. My earliest political and economic memories come from the Reagan era. I think the first direct expression of libertarian thought I remember was Reagan saying, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” A friend in high school showed me a “taxes are extortion” article. I had a friend in college who was a disciple of Ayn Rand and got me to read most of her books (that’s not too hard, I’ll read almost anything you put in front of me). One of my professors described himself as a classical liberal. He was an excellent teacher, but really into John Locke and Adam Smith, among others.

I am not a libertarian. The above paragraph is there to help assure everyone that, even though I am not a libertarian, I have taken their views very seriously throughout my life. I’m going to take Nobel prize winners, presidents, and professors seriously. When smart people believe things that I don’t, I study those things. I generally start from an assumption that I would believe it, too, if I could understand it like they do. So, I read, a lot. Besides the aforementioned Friedman and Rand, I read Locke and Smith and Nozick and Hayek and countless issues of The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. I’ve even read Grover Nordquist and the Tuttle Twins (I don’t recommend either). I learned about game theory, social psychology, economics, and politics in an effort to understand. To this point, I haven’t gotten there. In fact, the more I learn about libertarianism, the more absurd it seems.

This has created two problems for me. The minor problem has been figuring out how to reconcile the simultaneous thoughts that someone is intelligent and that person holds demonstrably false beliefs. I mostly treat it like the existence of Yankees fans. I just don’t understand it, but it’s not important enough to worry about. It’s not just a libertarian phenomenon, after all. The major problem can’t be dismissed so easily.

The major problem is that I’ve come to recognize libertarianism as one of the largest contributing factors in many (if not most) of modern society’s problems and I can’t figure out a good way to combat it. Libertarian deregulation has caused needless death and destruction from storms and the 2008 financial crisis. Libertarian myths about people receiving the outcomes they deserve help prop up racism, sexism, and all kinds of bigotry. Libertarian desire to shrink the tax base has cause myriad harms, but that’s a more detailed discussion for another time. I think you get the idea.

It may seem strange, that I can’t figure out a good way to combat libertarianism. If so much of it is absurd, just point out the absurdities, right? Well, one of the most cherished libertarian principles is that markets regulate themselves better than government regulators. To put it simply, we don’t need elevator inspectors because purchasers will make smart decisions. If an elevator company makes shoddy equipment, that company will go under, leaving only the high quality, safe elevators for everyone to use. Setting aside the question of how many people have to die in horrific elevator accidents before the market catches up, anyone who pays any attention can see that markets do not self-regulate in any beneficial way. Just look at Flint’s water or the Cayuhoga river fires. The simple reason for these market failures is that purchasers are not always (or even usually) rational decision makers. When quality, safety, price, profit, and coolness are vying for our attention, quality and safety don’t fare well. Add some basic power differentials and things like that, and the entire theory of market self-regulation is absurd.

I, and many others, have pointed out these absurdities, yet Libertarians persist in their beliefs. My best guess as to the reason is that Libertarians are hunting for the “True Scotsman” which allows them to deny any counterexample given (I told you I’d address this later). Whenever we point to a Libertarian failure, they say that it wasn’t really Libertarian. They say that since pure Libertarian values have never been put into practice, we can’t know whether they are absurd or not. That’s an informal fallacy, of course, but it can be awfully persuasive.

So, the only other strategy I have for debunking Libertarianism is to attack it at the theoretical level, and that’s where my title comes in. In all my years of studying Libertarianism, I’ve never come across an argument that was coherent and robust enough to be worth attacking. Whenever I start, I feel guilty of committing the Straw Man fallacy, and I stop. Even when trying to construct the best Libertarian argument I can, it’s never strong enough to withstand the logic of a five-year-old’s “Why?” questions. I’m stuck.

So, I guess there are only three ways to go from here. One is for someone to show me what mistake (or mistakes) I’ve made so I can accept Libertarianism. The second is to show me a coherent and robust argument for Libertarianism that I could refute. The third is to find someone more comfortable with marketing and persuasion than I am to fight the battle for me. I’m open to any of them if anyone is willing to help me.

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2 Comments to "Libertarianism and Strawmen"

  1. May 15, 2021 - 11:51 am | Permalink

    Hi Gene.

    A thought-provoking article, for sure. I share some of your experiences (I have a degree in Economics and I briefly studied Game Theory as part of a keen interest in online poker for a few years) and I share your thoughts on Libertarianism too.

    Another reason that the markets don’t always regulate themselves is that monopoly situations can, and do, arise – if you only have one supplier of elevators then your options become very limited, especially if there are substantial barriers to entry for any new elevator companies.

    Richie

  2. May 28, 2021 - 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I tend to think of libertarianism as a kind of duncamentalism.

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