. . . And no, I don’t mean the “Marine Corpse,” as Dear Leader famously said. Perhaps I ought not bust on him too severely; after all, I too have no French, unlike German, which in addition to Austrian is also spoken in Austria. Or something like that. And racism!!
According to these chaps over at Bloomberg, libertarians are “the new communists. No, really. Someone actually got that statement not only published, but put into the headline. Up is the new down!
The quality of reasoning is laid out right up front: “Where communism was adopted, the result was misery, poverty and tyranny. If extremist libertarians ever translated their beliefs into policy, it would lead to the same kinds of catastrophe.” And just what specific catastrophes are we talking about, the “same kind” of which we may expect if we go down the libertarian path? The authors of that article don’t say, so I will trot a few out: Holodomor (3-7 million dead); Great Purge (something along the lines of 750,000 dead); Great Leap Forward (45-60 million dead); Khmer Rouge (25% of gross population slaughtered). Those are just the ones that spring immediately to mind. I haven’t mentioned the death toll in the Gulag (which during the war approached 1% per day, system wide); I haven’t mentioned the execution cellars of the Soviet Civil War; I haven’t mentioned the millions of “kulaks” who were carted off into the taiga and dumped out to freeze or starve where they landed (“special settlers” is what they were called). I haven’t mentioned the Belomor, or the Moscow-Volga canal.
Mind you: Those horrors of human cruelty are what these authors are promising us would necessarily follow if we elected Rand Paul or Ted Cruz to be president. Seriously. That’s what they are representing as the inherent consequences of permitting individual liberty to maintain ascendancy over the demands of collectivism — “would lead to.” Not “might” or “could” lead to, or “might so undermine our ability to act collectively that we could not resist” those outcomes, or even “would awaken the darkest desires of mankind, desires whose logical expressions have been seen in,” or similar dire predictions. No; as night follows the day, so death on the Maoist/Stalinist scale would follow the take-over of the levers of power by the folks who want to . . . destroy exactly those levers.
It’s as if, for these authors, it was Koch Industries which smashed the kulaks as a class, or Sheldon Adelson who marched everyone wearing glasses out into the killing fields, there to put bullets through the bases of their skulls. Do they think it was Hobby Lobby which stripped the Ukraine of foods, literally down to the last stalks of wheat in places, and then forbid the people to leave in search of food? Was it Chick-Fil-A which starved the Chinese peasantry to death in their tens of millions by stealing their food? Do these authors not understand that for each and every one of those catastrophes, it took the massively organized, focused might of the state to accomplish it? Do they really think that it was just lone bureaucrats wandering into villages in the Ukraine in 1932 who demanded all the grain? Bullshit. It was entire teams of grain requisitioners, backed by the Red Army and the NKVD, and their machine guns and executioners, who made it happen. Marshal Tukhachevsky made his bones crushing the Russians peasants in the 1920s, at the head of divisions of the Red Army.
Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that their characterizations of Paul, Cruz, and the Kochs is correct, they cannot show how an emasculated state might accomplish what it took the very utmost effort from the most highly integrated, centralized states in history to achieve.
Having tried their hands at illogic, the authors then proceed to straw men and bogey men. “Radical libertarianism assumes that humans are wired only to be selfish, when in fact cooperation is the height of human evolution. It assumes that societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers, when, in fact, they are fragile ecosystems prone to collapse and easily overwhelmed by free-riders. And it is fanatically rigid in its insistence on a single solution to every problem: Roll back the state!”
Let’s just start shooting at random into the barrel. Selfish and cooperation are not mutually exclusive. That much was pointed out as long ago as the 1770s, by Adam Smith. His insight was that the market is the only social mechanism capable of achieving widespread cooperation without coercion. And it does. History is littered with the wrecks of enterprises which failed to cooperate in the most basic of senses: They failed to provide what their customers wanted, with the result that their customers went elsewhere. Secondly, I’m not aware that libertarianism “assumes” that humans are capable only of selfish motivations. What libertarianism does do is aim towards a system of social order that can work even if that is in fact all that humans have within them. It’s all these pie-in-the-sky collectivist theories which require, in order to work, that people consistently entertain loftier ideals than the purely selfish. Libertarianism aims for a social order that does not depend for its viability the realization of demonstrably false assumptions about how humans behave.
Societies are “fragile ecosystems prone to collapse,” unless presumably their members are shackled together by, and held in thrall to the power of, a state. Well. Let’s look at some societies which have actually collapsed without armed intervention from outside, and see if we can find some commonalities. There’s the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. There’s the China of pre-1911. There was the Roman Empire of the 5th Century (true, there were the Germanic invasions, but — at the outset at least — they were invited in by the Romans precisely because the provinces were already degenerating into chaos). 1780s France. And of course the Middle East today. What do each of those examples have in common? They were all, each and every last stinkin’ one of them, the product of decrepit tyrannical governmental systems. In marked contrast, the United States of the Civil War remained a functioning society on both sides all the way through. Even as Southern cities starved, there was no plundering, no rampaging mobs of AWOL soldiers. In the North they even had two full federal election cycles (1862 and in 1864 a hotly contested presidential election). Yes there were places, here and there, where bands of irregulars roamed and looted, but those were very limited. The closest that either side got to “collapse” was the draft riots in New York City in July, 1863, and that was specifically a reaction against conscription, than which fewer more quintessentially governmental coercive measures exist.
But let’s explore that “prone to collapse” nonsense a little more. Before 1917, most Americans had little contact with their federal government outside of the local post office. The Interstate Commerce Commission regulated railroads and set freight rates (and by the way, heavily discriminated in favor of Northern goods travelling south, which were allowed to be transported at much lower rates than Southern goods travelling north), and in the early 1900s the regulation of foods and drugs began. Even at the state level, in most of the states the hand of regulation was light indeed. Even things like the “regulation” of Chinese laundries in an attempt to squelch their competition were decidedly local affairs.
And did American society “collapse”? Was it “overwhelmed by free riders”? At the risk of understatement, no and no. How about Britain? At what point prior to government top-down regulation did British society collapse? In the British case there were in fact restrictions under which people labored, but if you look at them you’ll notice that most of them were of private origin, for example a landlord restricting what could be done with property ground-leased to tenants.
Societies even more free-wheeling than Britain and America likewise did not collapse under the burden or their “free riders.” Australia, anyone?
Fanatically rigid about rolling back the state? Here I’ll just observe that many, if not most, of the “problems” to which libertarianism addresses itself are problems which are themselves the creatures of government intervention in citizens’ interactions. As an example, I’m unaware that there is such an animal as a “libertarian” response to or position on college sports and its exploitation of ignorant athletes for the colleges’ own gain. For a libertarian each of the following would be an acceptable resolution, subject only to the caveat that no side held monopoly power over the other or had the ability to coerce participation: (i) the status quo, with athletes going unpaid; (ii) allowing colleges to pay their athletes; (iii) athletes organizing themselves to refuse to work (play) for colleges which did not pay them; or, (iv) the professional sports teams dealing directly with athletes at any age past majority, thereby by-passing the colleges entirely (much as major league baseball does, come to think of it). For a libertarian the objectionable part would be the colleges’ being granted the authority to punish athletes and colleges which elected for responses (ii) or (iii), or governments forbidding the professional teams and the athletes from response (iv).
By like token, a libertarian is not distressed at sky-high rents in places like San Francisco or Silicon Valley. How much rent someone is willing to pay for any particular-sized space on this earth does not concern a libertarian. What does distress a libertarian is the extent to which these sky-high rents can be charged just because of governmental action which prevents would-be landlords from coming in to build additional housing stock. If that works out to be a few, some, or a whole bunch of people that does not concern the libertarian; the prevailing rent at the point that people aren’t willing to spend the money to build more housing is what it is. The statist solution so beloved of people like our two authors is to forbid landlords from charging more than $X for Y square feet. The long-term outcome of that is well-illustrated in New York City. Don’t let people charge what they can, and fewer people will build housing. With less housing getting built, the older existing housing ages past the point at which you might expect it to be removed from the housing stock and replaced with something more suitable and up-to-date, and maintenance gets skimped on, so it physically deteriorates faster than it otherwise would, and remains out-of-date while doing so. Begin mandating upgrades and maintenance so that people don’t get “forced to live in squalor,” as our authors would likely phrase it, and landlords get to where it is cheaper for them to shut the place entirely and get out of the business. So you have vacant buildings. Which get taken over by squatters, drug-dealers, and other people extruded by the above-board residential housing market. The next step is to come in and condemn the buildings and raze them. Well, what next? Oh, that’s right: Let’s build . . . government housing! How has that worked out, again? Thomas Sowell has written on the dynamic from the economist’s perspective; P. J. O’Rourke has written about it from how it looks on the ground to the people who live in those places.
From straw men and bogey men, the authors then proceed to outright falsehood. “Communism failed in three strikingly similar ways.” Since the word “similar” in that sentence is nonsense unless you read in the phrase “to libertarianism’s failings,” I’m going to adopt that reading. And what three failings does communism share with libertarianism?
First: “It [communism] believed that humans should be willing cogs serving the proletariat.” Ummmmm . . . guys: That position is the diametric opposite of libertarianism, which holds that no person is inherently a cog serving anyone else, and should not be compelled to the service of anyone else in the absence of his free choice to do so.
Second: “It assumed that societies could be run top-down like machines.” Again, the diametric opposite of what libertarianism actually believes. In fact, libertarianism specifically asserts that top-down organization of anything is likely to produce less-desirable outcomes than available alternatives because of the information-aggregation problem. Hayek wrote extensively about exactly that.
Third: “And it, too, was fanatically rigid in its insistence on an all-encompassing ideology, leading to totalitarianism.” The first half of that statement is true; the second is actually diametrically opposed not only to what libertarianism seeks but to actual communist theory. Communism held — however naively — the belief that upon the realization of communism the state would “wither” away. We all know that’s not how it worked, and that’s not how its adherents when they took over their first country (Russia) intended it to work. It’s why you see reference to “Leninism-Marxism” in their writings. The Soviet state that was erected on the corpses of the Russian people was in that respect at least the antithesis of communist doctrine. Since our quibble is with the authors’ mischaracterizations of libertarianism, though, let’s concentrate on whether human liberty is an “all-encompassing ideology.” Well, to the extent that humans’ moral agency is considered to be an inherent attribute of humanity, I guess you can say it’s “all-encompassing.” But that’s not the point: The point is the question whether libertarianism is prescriptive, as communism was and is. In fact it’s exactly the opposite, and it’s that opposition to prescription which means that it cannot lead to totalitarianism because the achievement of totalitarianism requires coercion of all.
So would a libertarian world be paradise on earth? Most likely not. Would it produce 100,000,000 or more corpses in less than 75 years (from 1917 to 1989), and untold brute misery and oppression for the survivors? Absolutely not.
From straw men and lies, our authors next proceed to garden-variety libel. The authors think they’re being clever by pointing out that the ideal of libertarianism “can’t be applied across a functioning society.” What an insight, guys! Who could’ve seen that? Libertarianism does not assume that it can be applied in its purity. I’m not aware of anyone who self-identifies as a libertarian, or even who is commonly understood to be a libertarian, maintaining that all governmental coercive power can be done away with. Libertarianism explicitly recognizes, in fact, the necessity for coercive power (i) to prevent fraud (by which is meant the use of deception to obtain consent where it would not otherwise be granted), and (ii) to protect the physical lives and property of the people. Beyond that, I’m still waiting for any such person to take a public position that does not recognize that “complete” (as in theoretically pure) liberty can never be achieved, but rather only asymptotically approached. The authors describe Somalia as being the sort of failed state where “libertarianism finds its fullest actual expression.” Errrrmmmmm . . . guys, Somalia is what happens under anarchy, in which the prevention of frauds and the protection of life and property no longer exists. With libertarianism it has nothing at all in common.
But hist! Our authors know precisely how a “President [Ron/Rand] Paul” would govern, or a Secretary [of the Treasury, presumably] Norquist would deal with the Internal Revenue Service. He would “eliminate progressive taxation, so that the already wealthy could exponentially compound their advantage, as the programs that sustain a prosperous middle class are gutted.” Apparently the United States did not have a prosperous middle class before the 16th Amendment, nor did anyone arrive at Castle Garden or Ellis Island carrying literally his entire store of worldly possessions in a suitcase, and thereafter climb to prosperity (and in many cases outright wealth) in his own lifetime. And sure as hell none of his children did. A “Koch domestic policy” would “obliterate environmental standards for clean air and water, so that polluters could externalize all their costs onto other people.”
Now, Gentle Reader might question this claimed degree of omniscience. Gentle Reader might want to see some actual examples of those named persons’ having done things, or said things, which would support attribution of such objectives to them. The expectation is heightened by the authors’ reference to “[t]he public record of extreme statements by the likes of Cruz, Norquist, and the Pauls” as leaving no doubt on the point. Well, Gentle Reader is just going to have to take it on faith from these authors, because specifics there are none. The authors tax the Pauls, the Norquists, and the Kochs of the world with “calling for the evisceration of government.” I’m still waiting for a single example of such “radical libertarianism” from the mouths of any of them.
Further illustrating the fact that these authors haven’t been paying attention is their conflation of societal evolution and the growth of government. “It [something the authors call ‘true citizenship’] is based on a reasonable conception of human nature that recognizes we must cooperate to be able to compete at higher levels. True citizenship means changing policy to adapt to changes in circumstance. Sometimes government isn’t the answer. Sometimes it is.” I’ll just remind the authors that the United States went from an overwhelmingly agrarian, dispersed population to a highly urbanized, industrialized, polyglot continental empire in slightly over 125 years. From 1776 to 1901 was that short. Old men in 1901 could remember in their youths meeting old men who were alive to hear the news from Philadelphia. Was government action absent from that process? Not at all. In many instances it was precisely government action which facilitated that process, such as by granting railroads the power of eminent domain, or the Homestead Act. The railroads are admittedly hard to square with “pure” libertarianism, but then I’m still waiting to hear of the first libertarian purist in either public life or private prominence. And quite a bit of government action back then took the form of providing land for people to buy. No one was forcibly re-settled, nor was anyone restricted in where he might settle, nor was anyone forbidden to feed himself and his family on the land settled. The Northwest Ordinance required that public land be surveyed before it was sold, but I can’t see any aspect in which a libertarian, be he ever so pure, could take exception to that.
No one forced the American steel industry to upgrade its furnaces. No one mandated that the Pullman company build cars of a particular specification, with certain amenities. We didn’t have a Coast Guard or a Corps of Engineers to instruct the riverboat builders on minimum or maximum draft, nor were the captains instructed on where they may or may not land. No one came along and forbade the new construction of wooden ships after a certain point, nor was the shift from sail to steam power a result of government mandate. Even in the uproar following Sinclair’s The Jungle, it emerged that a great deal of what was being submitted as mandatory by the government was already being done by the larger meat packers. Why? Because for them it was worth it. If ever there were a counter-example to these two authors’ musings, it is the history of the American Republic during those 125 years.
To return to the article’s title, if you want to argue with libertarianism, either on its own merits or as a viable/non-viable alternative to any other system of government, by all means do so. But at least be honest about what it does and does not seek, and for God’s sake don’t so twist current facts and widely-known history to lie about it and equate it with communism, either in its theory or practice.
Pay no attention to those corpses.