Sunday, October 12, 2008

To and Fro: The Failure of Libertarianism

The first book I read on politics and economics was Free to Choose by the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and conservative intellectual heavyweight. This book fundamentally shaped my understanding of how states, individuals, and markets interact and marked the birth of my libertarian journey. From there I read Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Adam Smith, and other leading free-market thinkers. In time, I found myself regurgitating the tired pillars of free-market conservatism:

• Individual liberty is the primary organizing principle of life and politics
• Government is always inefficient and intrusive
• We must decentralize government and deregulate markets
• Markets work better than bureaucracies
• Socialism is inherently evil
• Individuals always act in their best interest

Being a Libertarian allowed me to be different, independent, and maintain an aura of intellectualism. However, I always felt I was trying to support an ideology instead of honestly pursue a coherent political framework. Over the course of a three-year libertarian journey, I slowly (and humbly) came to the conclusion that the central theses of the Libertarian project diverged from my worldview, and my story, at the very beginning.

In my private life, I espoused a philosophy informed by faith and centered on love, service, and responsibility to the other. However, my politics were centered on the primacy of self-interest, markets, and individualism. This dissonance between my personal convictions and my politics was not only unrealistic, but unsustainable. At the bottom of the libertarian project I found an unimaginative, selfish, and empty political worldview.

Libertarianism fails because it is premised on 1) a misguided and wholehearted belief in markets and 2) the centrality of self-interest. On markets, Senator Obama once commented that conservatives have an unhealthy “market fetish,” I agree. Markets are not particularly good at empowering the disenfranchised, equalizing opportunity, protecting the earth, or fairly distributing resources. Markets have no moral compass; they are nothing more than amoral systems of exchange. While markets are great at aggregating information and facilitating the flow of capital, I fail to see how they can form the basis of a politics that aims toward social inclusion, cohesion, and justice.

Second, the libertarian project is based on an ardent individualism and explicit praise of selfishness. Libertarians place autonomy of the self at the center of their philosophy; fairness depends on how free the self is to pursue his or her own self-interest. The libertarian paradigm fundamentally puts the freedom of the ego prior to justice and fairness. All great religions and moral perspectives are founded on an ethic of compassion, of selfless love and service to others. Why then would we develop a political system (libertarianism) that puts the individual before the whole, the self before the other, that sees us as only responsible to pursuing our own interests? The libertarian agenda is void of serious moral consideration or substance; it is selfishness praised.

Libertarianism is an empty, and potentially dangerous, ideology that manages to thrive because it:

1) Convinces people that their selfishness is actually a good thing
2) Has the backing of well-accomplished intellectuals (mostly economists)
3) Appeals to principles of reason
4) Offers a safe alternative for conservatives that don’t like being called Republican

In short, I am thankful for my journey to and from libertarianism; I worry for those who never make it back.


Peter B said...

Dave... some good thoughts here.

I posted a bit of a response on my blog:

Tim said...

My question refers to your thoughts on self-interest. It seems like the main thought here is that "fairness depends on how free the self is to pursue his or her own self-interest." I think this is right, though I also think the sentence should stop after "how free the self is." It seems to me that Libertarianism (and I am no Libertarian, but for the sake of argument) is primarily about individual freedom, but I don't see how this necessarily transitions to "self-interest." Your examples of an ideology (by which I mean the aggregate of your ideas) based on faith to me seem to back up this ideal of freedom. Religiously, Christians have the freedom of choice in all things, a freedom that I think is crucial to the religion. Whether that leads to self-interest or not is another story. I don't personally see the freedom espoused by Libertarianism to be a synonym for self-interest: instead it seems first and foremost about presenting the option For self-interest, or philanthropy, or whatever.

Maybe I should ask about the converse to this situation. If the freedom of the individual leads to self-interest, what leads to empathy/others-interest?

Adam said...

Hmmm...I'm seeing a bit of an overlap here between this post and the last one on businesses...

Dave said...

Thanks for the comments guys-

In response to Tim's comment, I think what frustrates me most is the "Virtue of Selfishness" mindset that Libertarians flout. Sure, individual freedom does not necessarily imply selfishness. However, the extreme emphasis of Libertarians on individual liberty leads to a self-centered view of politics and progress instead of placing value on the good of the whole. They measure governmental performance on how much they are being taxed, not on how many more/less people are educated and healthy. I believe in individual liberty, but it is only a necessary, not sufficient, condition for a thriving society that benefits the whole. Sorry if this didn't fully respond to your post Tim. You are probably right that its unfair to equate the emphasis on individual liberty w/ selfish politics. I guess I would just say it's the idealization and over-emphasis in the Libertarian agenda that strikes me as self-centered.

tom_stuart said...

You have a very immature view of libertarianism. "Self-interest", while the guiding principle for some, does not rule out acts of philanthropy, the concept of justice, or compassion. Such traits would actually serve one well in a free enterprise system. Additionally, libertarianism (in general) is a political philosophy. It's primary assertion is that the state must be permitted from unjustifiably intruding on the liberties of man. This does not speak to how the individual (with the possible exception of Ayn Rand) should act. People should be free to act how they choose (so long as they do not infringe upon other's rights), not coerced by governments.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed true that the idea of 'self-interest' is central to libertarianism, but I believe it has it's own different manifestation in the marketplace and in society.
In the marketplace self-interest manifests in an economic sense as the driver of the economy, and selfishness is typically rewarded.
Yet self-interest in social issues manifests itself in the form of personal-freedom. You are being selfish only to the extent that you wish to preserve your liberty at all costs. That is the extent of selfishness in social libertarianism, because beyond personal freedom is the recognition of those truths which we hold self-evident.

Perhaps during your libertarian experimentation, you saw the presence of selfishness but did not see how it was manifested differently?

Dave said...

Tom, thanks for the comment. I believe you are confusing Locke's liberalism with libertarianism. However, as I posted above, I realize that:

"Libertarianism doesn’t fail because it is centered on self-interest, it fails because of an overly narrow understanding of freedom that stems from an obsession with and worship of self-interest.

As Amartya Sen forcefully argues, human freedom is both positive and negative. Negative human freedom means freedom from undue aggression, unfair taxation, coercion, censorship, etc., in other words, to NOT have certain things done to you. On the other hand, positive human freedom is freedom to live a life you can value, which requires economic empowerment, basic public health, and primary education. Basic unfreedoms, such as malnutrition, widespread disability caused by preventable disease, illiteracy, and economic exclusion strip people of their ability to live lives they can value, their positive freedom. Can we gather freely and engage in public dialogue if we are debilitated by malnutrition or malaria? Can we gain meaningful employment without basic health provisions or literacy? No matter how free you are from government intervention, there are constitutive components of being human that must also be in place in order for liberal society to thrive.

So libertarianism fails because it does not account for positive human freedoms, for the provision and security of basic human needs. Governments must help people, and their communities, secure both positive and negative freedoms, which the libertarian philosophy is not prepared to accept."

Dave said...

Anonymous, I like the distinction that you make here between society and markets. I do believe in the efficiency of free markets, and where I think libertarianism (often) goes wrong is in the idea that markets are the optimal way of dealing with social problems, of reducing social inequality. Markets do not necessarily reduce inequality, they must be guided.

Many social problems are essentially market failures and need to be corrected for by governments and communities.

A bit of a rant, but working at a Libertarian think tank and surrounding myself of many other libertarians, I did see an externalization of social responsibility to markets that left the self feeling resolved about ignoring social injustices, premised on the belief that "the market will take care of it."

gergenheimer said...

The notion that there is no moral compass to markets is ridiculous. A true free market is composed of millions of free choices by free individuals. To say that there is no moral component to markets and by extension, commerce in general, is to say that human beings have no moral component in the financial decisions they make. This is the thinly-veiled elitism of Socialism laid bare for all to see - markets can't be trusted because the unwashed masses can't be trusted.

Dave said...

Hmm, in regards to that last comment, I beg to differ. Your argument is a classic example of fallacious reasoning; just because the parts of a whole have a certain characteristic, it does not mean the whole have that characteristic. Example, all members of the family are happy, that must mean it is a happy family. Sorry, sir, the logic doesn't hold.

Also, moral people partake in immoral markets all the time. Many "moral" people buy Nikes made by children in sweatshops because of imperfect information, a basic law of economics. Sorry, sir, but morality is always not reflected in price, the primary organizing unit of the market.

Zack said...

Many "moral" people buy Nikes made by children in sweatshops because of imperfect information, a basic law of economics.

Are you saying that sweatshops are immoral? If you look at the economies and labor options of these people, you'll realize that sweatshops are some of the best options that these people have.

Prior to industrialization of the US, many families, children included, worked on farms and in factories. The conditions were horrible, but they didn't have many options.

The people don't work in sweatshops out of force. They do it because they're poor. Sweatshops provide a better income than the few other alternatives they have, prostitution and begging being the primary alternatives.

Yes, the wages are horrible compared to our standards, but if you look at it compared to their alternative, it's much better.