An Anti-Libertarian Reader

January 8, 2009

The Gods of Greed

Filed under: Uncategorized — jimmy0d @ 5:59 pm

I’ve previously pointed to the almost religious way in which Libertarians cling to the free-market and in that same spirit I recently stumbled upon a blog called Naked Capitalism. My first thoughts were of more Rothbardian masturbatory stories of the glory of the “free market”. Instead I found an article talking about a new book being pimped in the Gaurdian called “The Gods That Failed: How Blind Faith in Markets Has Cost Us Our Future” in which the author says this:

So if you scrutinize the argument, you’ll see a lot of bold strokes and bright color, more cartoon than a well-detailed portrait. But guess what? The free market ideology is often crudely drawn and similarly suffers under close examination. The libertarian fantasy is that we can do away with government except for things like defense, roads, etc.

Not what I expected from a site named Naked Capitalism.

January 3, 2009

Five Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked

Filed under: bloggers — Tags: — jimmy0d @ 9:00 am

I would like to give a hat tip to the Homosecular Gaytheist for pointing me to a blogger named Thrawn. Thrawn shares our annoyance and frustration with what we see as the self evident failings of libertarianism. So he created a series of posts dismantling the five arguments laid out by Edward Feser on LewRockwell.com.

His Mission Statement:

The more conservative the right wing gets, the more liberal the left. Libertarianism is becoming increasingly popular, especially on the Internet. In my opinion, libertarianism takes both liberal and conservative too far.

Under many forms of the idea, libertarianism is just another word for liberal. A moderate libertarian might argue that people should be left to themselves when their actions do not harm others, and the free market should be maintained. This is generally a good idea.

Unfortunately, some go too far. “Extremist” libertarians, or – anarcho – capitalists as some have taken to calling themselves – claim that government in any form is “evil” or “immoral”. Here, I present responses to some of their most common arguments for this surprisingly popular viewpoint.

1. The Free Market
The Argument Debunked:

The utilitarian argument, the suggestion that a free market and free society best fulfil the goals – prosperity, alleviation of poverty, technological innovation, and so forth.

2. Inviolable Rights
The Argument Debunked:

The natural rights argument, which emphasizes the idea that individuals have inviolable rights to life, liberty, and property that it is morally wrong for anyone, including the state, to violate even for allegedly good reasons (such as taxation for the sake of helping the needy).

3. Cultural Evolution
The Argument Debunked:

The argument from cultural evolution, associated with F.A. Hayek, who held that societies embody cultural traditions which compete with one another in a kind of evolutionary process, the most “fit” traditions – those most conducive to human well-being – being the ones that survive and thrive, driving their rivals into extinction, or at least onto the historical sidelines: hence capitalism’s victory over communism, a culture which respects private property, contract, and the rule of law being superior in cultural evolutionary terms to one which does not.

4. The Social Contract
The Argument Debunked:

The contractarian argument, which (greatly to oversimplify) argues in general that all moral claims rest on a (hypothetical) “social contract” between the individuals comprising society, and in particular that a libertarian society is what rational individuals would contract for. This sort of argument is represented by such libertarian theorists as Jan Narveson and James Buchanan.

5. The Value of Freedom
The Argument Debunked:

The argument from liberty, which claims that freedom per se is intrinsically valuable – valuable for its own sake – and that the best political system is therefore the one that maximizes freedom.

Keep up the good work Thrawn.

December 30, 2008

Religious Capitalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — jimmy0d @ 12:00 pm

Have you ever noticed how Libertarians latch on to Adam Smith’s invisible hand as not just a (incorrect) metaphor but as  gospel truth?  Libertarians of all stripes share a few things in common and their highest principle is “the market is always right“.  From police, to roads, to pollution Libertarians believe that the market always acts so as to produce public goods.  They see the market as a benevolent emperor looking out over the arena and judging the gladiators.  Of course economists, philosophers, and political scientists are quick to point out that the market can and does fail.  Quick to point out the government is a more efficient way to deal with those economies of scale and that the market only produces private goods, not public one.  Yet still they persist that the market is all knowing and can do no wrong.   I wonder who else has noticed this phenomena?

Harvey Cox writes at The Atlantic (of all places) an article entitled The Market as God

A FEW years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages. Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice, vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling vocabulary. Instead I was surprised to discover that most of the concepts I ran across were quite familiar.

The East Asians’ troubles, votaries argue, derive from their heretical deviation from free-market orthodoxy — they were practitioners of “crony capitalism,” of “ethnocapitalism,” of “statist capitalism,” not of the one true faith. The East Asian financial panics, the Russian debt repudiations, the Brazilian economic turmoil, and the U.S. stock market’s $1.5 trillion “correction” momentarily shook belief in the new dispensation. But faith is strengthened by adversity, and the Market God is emerging renewed from its trial by financial “contagion.” Since the argument from design no longer proves its existence, it is fast becoming a postmodern deity — believed in despite the evidence. Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

At the apex of any theological system, of course, is its doctrine of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by The Market, which I capitalize to signify both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk. Different faiths have, of course, different views of the divine attributes. In Christianity, God has sometimes been defined as omnipotent (possessing all power), omniscient (having all knowledge), and omnipresent (existing everywhere). Most Christian theologies, it is true, hedge a bit. They teach that these qualities of the divinity are indeed there, but are hidden from human eyes both by human sin and by the transcendence of the divine itself. In “light inaccessible” they are, as the old hymn puts it, “hid from our eyes.” Likewise, although The Market, we are assured, possesses these divine attributes, they are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith. “Further along,” as another old gospel song says, “we’ll understand why.”

Normon Soloman of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting writes in his article, Renouncing Sins Against the Corporate Faith:

During his much-ballyhooed speech, the president asserted that “all investment is an act of faith.” With that spirit, a righteous form of business fundamentalism is firmly in place. The great god of capitalism is always due enormous tribute. Yet wicked people get most of the blame when things go wrong. “The American system of enterprise has not failed us,” Bush proclaimed. “Some dishonest individuals have failed our system.”

Corporate theology about “the free enterprise system” readily acknowledges bad apples while steadfastly denying that the barrels are rotten. After all, every large-scale racket needs enforceable rules. Rigid conservatives may take their faith to an extreme. (“Let’s hold people responsible — not institutions,” a recent Wall Street Journal column urged.) But pro-corporate institutional reform is on the mainstream agenda, as media responses to Bush’s sermon on Wall Street made clear.

Jonathan Tasini at the Huffington Post asks Do Democrats Have The Courage To Buck The “Free Market?”

The threat to a progressive agenda is not the lack of hugs and soaring rhetoric. Rather, the challenge is pretty clear: Will Democrats be willing to break from the false worship of the twins gods of the so-called “free market” and so-called “free trade”? This worship has made Democrats quiver, tremble and crumble in the face of policies that have been devastating to our country and the world for the past several decades, and made them incapable of advancing ideas and proposals that people so desperately need.

Here’s an interesting piece on the growth of Free Market Theology from the St. Petersburg Times

As a result, economic advisers have tended to act as cheerleaders of the status quo economic model. In addition, politicians and business people, who also believed in the infallibility of the existing system, made one bad economic decision after another. They had blind faith in the virtue of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” — that market mechanisms would somehow automatically correct their foolish decisions. In practice, however, the cult of the free market turned into a bacchanalia of greed, negligence, irresponsibility and deceit.

And for a laugh; not all Libertarians shy away from the concept of free market theology. Lew Rockwell, the master of libertarian Agitprop himself, writes at Mises.org about the Faith of Entrepreneurs.

He is right that understanding economics does not require faith, but there are actions undertaken by market actors themselves that require faith (and Mises would not disagree with this)—immense faith, faith that moves mountains and raises up civilizations. If we accept the interesting description of faith by St. Paul (“evidence of things unseen”) we can understand entrepreneurship and capitalist investment as acts of faith.

December 23, 2008

Capitalist Fools

Filed under: Uncategorized — jimmy0d @ 12:00 pm

Nobel Prize Winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz wrote a piece in Vanity Faire recently that sum up the failure of laissez-faire economics and here it is for your reading convieninece.

Behind the debate over remaking U.S. financial policy will be a debate over who’s to blame. It’s crucial to get the history right, writes a Nobel-laureate economist, identifying five key mistakes—under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II—and one national delusion.

There will come a moment when the most urgent threats posed by the credit crisis have eased and the larger task before us will be to chart a direction for the economic steps ahead. This will be a dangerous moment. Behind the debates over future policy is a debate over history—a debate over the causes of our current situation. The battle for the past will determine the battle for the present. So it’s crucial to get the history straight.

What were the critical decisions that led to the crisis? Mistakes were made at every fork in the road—we had what engineers call a “system failure,” when not a single decision but a cascade of decisions produce a tragic result. Let’s look at five key moments.

No. 1: Firing the Chairman
In 1987 the Reagan administration decided to remove Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and appoint Alan Greenspan in his place. Volcker had done what central bankers are supposed to do. On his watch, inflation had been brought down from more than 11 percent to under 4 percent. In the world of central banking, that should have earned him a grade of A+++ and assured his re-appointment. But Volcker also understood that financial markets need to be regulated. Reagan wanted someone who did not believe any such thing, and he found him in a devotee of the objectivist philosopher and free-market zealot Ayn Rand.

Greenspan played a double role. The Fed controls the money spigot, and in the early years of this decade, he turned it on full force. But the Fed is also a regulator. If you appoint an anti-regulator as your enforcer, you know what kind of enforcement you’ll get. A flood of liquidity combined with the failed levees of regulation proved disastrous.

Greenspan presided over not one but two financial bubbles. After the high-tech bubble popped, in 2000–2001, he helped inflate the housing bubble. The first responsibility of a central bank should be to maintain the stability of the financial system. If banks lend on the basis of artificially high asset prices, the result can be a meltdown—as we are seeing now, and as Greenspan should have known. He had many of the tools he needed to cope with the situation. To deal with the high-tech bubble, he could have increased margin requirements (the amount of cash people need to put down to buy stock). To deflate the housing bubble, he could have curbed predatory lending to low-income households and prohibited other insidious practices (the no-documentation—or “liar”—loans, the interest-only loans, and so on). This would have gone a long way toward protecting us. If he didn’t have the tools, he could have gone to Congress and asked for them.

Of course, the current problems with our financial system are not solely the result of bad lending. The banks have made mega-bets with one another through complicated instruments such as derivatives, credit-default swaps, and so forth. With these, one party pays another if certain events happen—for instance, if Bear Stearns goes bankrupt, or if the dollar soars. These instruments were originally created to help manage risk—but they can also be used to gamble. Thus, if you felt confident that the dollar was going to fall, you could make a big bet accordingly, and if the dollar indeed fell, your profits would soar. The problem is that, with this complicated intertwining of bets of great magnitude, no one could be sure of the financial position of anyone else—or even of one’s own position. Not surprisingly, the credit markets froze.

Here too Greenspan played a role. When I was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, during the Clinton administration, I served on a committee of all the major federal financial regulators, a group that included Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Even then, it was clear that derivatives posed a danger. We didn’t put it as memorably as Warren Buffett—who saw derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction”—but we took his point. And yet, for all the risk, the deregulators in charge of the financial system—at the Fed, at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and elsewhere—decided to do nothing, worried that any action might interfere with “innovation” in the financial system. But innovation, like “change,” has no inherent value. It can be bad (the “liar” loans are a good example) as well as good.

No. 2: Tearing Down the Walls
The deregulation philosophy would pay unwelcome dividends for years to come. In November 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act—the culmination of a $300 million lobbying effort by the banking and financial-services industries, and spearheaded in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm. Glass-Steagall had long separated commercial banks (which lend money) and investment banks (which organize the sale of bonds and equities); it had been enacted in the aftermath of the Great Depression and was meant to curb the excesses of that era, including grave conflicts of interest. For instance, without separation, if a company whose shares had been issued by an investment bank, with its strong endorsement, got into trouble, wouldn’t its commercial arm, if it had one, feel pressure to lend it money, perhaps unwisely? An ensuing spiral of bad judgment is not hard to foresee. I had opposed repeal of Glass-Steagall. The proponents said, in effect, Trust us: we will create Chinese walls to make sure that the problems of the past do not recur. As an economist, I certainly possessed a healthy degree of trust, trust in the power of economic incentives to bend human behavior toward self-interest—toward short-term self-interest, at any rate, rather than Tocqueville’s “self interest rightly understood.”

The most important consequence of the repeal of Glass-Steagall was indirect—it lay in the way repeal changed an entire culture. Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people’s money very conservatively. It is with this understanding that the government agrees to pick up the tab should they fail. Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people’s money—people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns. When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top. There was a demand for the kind of high returns that could be obtained only through high leverage and big risktaking.

There were other important steps down the deregulatory path. One was the decision in April 2004 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, at a meeting attended by virtually no one and largely overlooked at the time, to allow big investment banks to increase their debt-to-capital ratio (from 12:1 to 30:1, or higher) so that they could buy more mortgage-backed securities, inflating the housing bubble in the process. In agreeing to this measure, the S.E.C. argued for the virtues of self-regulation: the peculiar notion that banks can effectively police themselves. Self-regulation is preposterous, as even Alan Greenspan now concedes, and as a practical matter it can’t, in any case, identify systemic risks—the kinds of risks that arise when, for instance, the models used by each of the banks to manage their portfolios tell all the banks to sell some security all at once.

As we stripped back the old regulations, we did nothing to address the new challenges posed by 21st-century markets. The most important challenge was that posed by derivatives. In 1998 the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born, had called for such regulation—a concern that took on urgency after the Fed, in that same year, engineered the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund whose trillion-dollar-plus failure threatened global financial markets. But Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, his deputy, Larry Summers, and Greenspan were adamant—and successful—in their opposition. Nothing was done.

No. 3: Applying the Leeches
Then along came the Bush tax cuts, enacted first on June 7, 2001, with a follow-on installment two years later. The president and his advisers seemed to believe that tax cuts, especially for upper-income Americans and corporations, were a cure-all for any economic disease—the modern-day equivalent of leeches. The tax cuts played a pivotal role in shaping the background conditions of the current crisis. Because they did very little to stimulate the economy, real stimulation was left to the Fed, which took up the task with unprecedented low-interest rates and liquidity. The war in Iraq made matters worse, because it led to soaring oil prices. With America so dependent on oil imports, we had to spend several hundred billion more to purchase oil—money that otherwise would have been spent on American goods. Normally this would have led to an economic slowdown, as it had in the 1970s. But the Fed met the challenge in the most myopic way imaginable. The flood of liquidity made money readily available in mortgage markets, even to those who would normally not be able to borrow. And, yes, this succeeded in forestalling an economic downturn; America’s household saving rate plummeted to zero. But it should have been clear that we were living on borrowed money and borrowed time.

The cut in the tax rate on capital gains contributed to the crisis in another way. It was a decision that turned on values: those who speculated (read: gambled) and won were taxed more lightly than wage earners who simply worked hard. But more than that, the decision encouraged leveraging, because interest was tax-deductible. If, for instance, you borrowed a million to buy a home or took a $100,000 home-equity loan to buy stock, the interest would be fully deductible every year. Any capital gains you made were taxed lightly—and at some possibly remote day in the future. The Bush administration was providing an open invitation to excessive borrowing and lending—not that American consumers needed any more encouragement.

No. 4: Faking the Numbers
Meanwhile, on July 30, 2002, in the wake of a series of major scandals—notably the collapse of WorldCom and Enron—Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The scandals had involved every major American accounting firm, most of our banks, and some of our premier companies, and made it clear that we had serious problems with our accounting system. Accounting is a sleep-inducing topic for most people, but if you can’t have faith in a company’s numbers, then you can’t have faith in anything about a company at all. Unfortunately, in the negotiations over what became Sarbanes-Oxley a decision was made not to deal with what many, including the respected former head of the S.E.C. Arthur Levitt, believed to be a fundamental underlying problem: stock options. Stock options have been defended as providing healthy incentives toward good management, but in fact they are “incentive pay” in name only. If a company does well, the C.E.O. gets great rewards in the form of stock options; if a company does poorly, the compensation is almost as substantial but is bestowed in other ways. This is bad enough. But a collateral problem with stock options is that they provide incentives for bad accounting: top management has every incentive to provide distorted information in order to pump up share prices.

The incentive structure of the rating agencies also proved perverse. Agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s are paid by the very people they are supposed to grade. As a result, they’ve had every reason to give companies high ratings, in a financial version of what college professors know as grade inflation. The rating agencies, like the investment banks that were paying them, believed in financial alchemy—that F-rated toxic mortgages could be converted into products that were safe enough to be held by commercial banks and pension funds. We had seen this same failure of the rating agencies during the East Asia crisis of the 1990s: high ratings facilitated a rush of money into the region, and then a sudden reversal in the ratings brought devastation. But the financial overseers paid no attention.

No. 5: Letting It Bleed
The final turning point came with the passage of a bailout package on October 3, 2008—that is, with the administration’s response to the crisis itself. We will be feeling the consequences for years to come. Both the administration and the Fed had long been driven by wishful thinking, hoping that the bad news was just a blip, and that a return to growth was just around the corner. As America’s banks faced collapse, the administration veered from one course of action to another. Some institutions (Bear Stearns, A.I.G., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) were bailed out. Lehman Brothers was not. Some shareholders got something back. Others did not.

The original proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a three-page document that would have provided $700 billion for the secretary to spend at his sole discretion, without oversight or judicial review, was an act of extraordinary arrogance. He sold the program as necessary to restore confidence. But it didn’t address the underlying reasons for the loss of confidence. The banks had made too many bad loans. There were big holes in their balance sheets. No one knew what was truth and what was fiction. The bailout package was like a massive transfusion to a patient suffering from internal bleeding—and nothing was being done about the source of the problem, namely all those foreclosures. Valuable time was wasted as Paulson pushed his own plan, “cash for trash,” buying up the bad assets and putting the risk onto American taxpayers. When he finally abandoned it, providing banks with money they needed, he did it in a way that not only cheated America’s taxpayers but failed to ensure that the banks would use the money to re-start lending. He even allowed the banks to pour out money to their shareholders as taxpayers were pouring money into the banks.

The other problem not addressed involved the looming weaknesses in the economy. The economy had been sustained by excessive borrowing. That game was up. As consumption contracted, exports kept the economy going, but with the dollar strengthening and Europe and the rest of the world declining, it was hard to see how that could continue. Meanwhile, states faced massive drop-offs in revenues—they would have to cut back on expenditures. Without quick action by government, the economy faced a downturn. And even if banks had lent wisely—which they hadn’t—the downturn was sure to mean an increase in bad debts, further weakening the struggling financial sector.

The administration talked about confidence building, but what it delivered was actually a confidence trick. If the administration had really wanted to restore confidence in the financial system, it would have begun by addressing the underlying problems—the flawed incentive structures and the inadequate regulatory system.

Was there any single decision which, had it been reversed, would have changed the course of history? Every decision—including decisions not to do something, as many of our bad economic decisions have been—is a consequence of prior decisions, an interlinked web stretching from the distant past into the future. You’ll hear some on the right point to certain actions by the government itself—such as the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to make mortgage money available in low-income neighborhoods. (Defaults on C.R.A. lending were actually much lower than on other lending.) There has been much finger-pointing at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two huge mortgage lenders, which were originally government-owned. But in fact they came late to the subprime game, and their problem was similar to that of the private sector: their C.E.O.’s had the same perverse incentive to indulge in gambling.

The truth is most of the individual mistakes boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal. Looking back at that belief during hearings this fall on Capitol Hill, Alan Greenspan said out loud, “I have found a flaw.” Congressman Henry Waxman pushed him, responding, “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right; it was not working.” “Absolutely, precisely,” Greenspan said. The embrace by America—and much of the rest of the world—of this flawed economic philosophy made it inevitable that we would eventually arrive at the place we are today.

December 18, 2008

Thank You and Welcome

Filed under: Uncategorized — jimmy0d @ 12:00 pm

First I would like to thank the BarefootBum for linking to me and giving me so much new traffic.

I would like to announce that the missionthis site  has changed slightly since my first post.  Living up to the name of this blog I will be devoting my time primarily to finding and archiving great resources, rants, and critiques against libertarianism.  This does not mean that I will be adding no original content, just that original content will not make up the bulk of my posts.

December 17, 2008

This Will Come in Handy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — jimmy0d @ 5:51 pm

September 24, 2008

Addendum to Previous Post

Filed under: Anti-Libertarians, Links — Tags: — jimmy0d @ 5:46 pm

In my previous post I presented a bevy of articles with the theme “Why I am not a Libertarian”.  Since that time a few links have come to my attention and so I’m adding them as an addendum to last week’s post.  First up is a simple but cute little attack on our subject matter from the Pansexual Peace Party entitled, of course, Why I am not a Libertarian.  On a more serious note we have a very recent blog post by Roy Edroso of Alicublog and the Village Voice entitled “Why I am not a Libertarian and Neither are You“.

As well as the previous critiques that all come from a liberal or moral perspective I present two examinations of the problem of libertarianism from a conservative point of view.  First we have “The Libertarian Lie” by the infamous Jonah Golderg of The National Review.  A more recent take on the subject is Libertarianism: A Home for Conservatives?” by Robert Locke of the American Conservative.

September 17, 2008

Why Are They Not Libertarians?

Filed under: Anti-Libertarians, Links — Tags: , , — jimmy0d @ 4:12 am

Instead of taking our cue from Bertrand Russell we’ll be looking into why others have rejected Libertarianism. Of course those who find other systems superior reject it; but we’re going to be looking at blog posts, articles, and pages that specifically address the issue of why they are not libertarians. So without further adue here are those that answer that simplest of questions.

Why I Am Not a Libertarian from Daylight Atheism
Part I: The Dilemma of the Commons
Part II: Positive & Negative Liberty
Part III: Opportunity & Obligation

Why I Am NOT a Libertarian

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

Why I Am Not a Libertarian from The Ethical Spectacle

Why I Am Not a Libertarian from a student at the University of Wisconisn

Why I Am Not A Libertarian from the Chesterbelloc Mandate

Why I Am Not A Libertarian

Why I Am not a Libertarian by No Right Turn

Why is Libertarianism Wrong?

What’s the matter with Libertarinism?

and  I’m Still Not a Libertarian

September 10, 2008

Reasonable Thought on Unreasonable Ideas

Filed under: Anti-Libertarians, Philosophy — Tags: , , — jimmy0d @ 12:31 pm

Philosophy Etcetera is the home of philosopher Richard Chappell and is not only an indispensible resource for philosophy students and practicing philosohers on the web but also a thorn in the side of the irrational ideology of libertarianism.  So I present to you a sampling of posts that clearly and distinctly severe this new faith at the knees.  Enjoy and don’t forget the hate mail.

Substansive Freedom

One of the major criticisms of libertarianism that I keep coming back to is their impoverished conception of freedom as mere non-interference. A “freedom from” only has substantive worth insofar as it gives rise to a complementary “freedom to”. It’s the latter that really matters, and I can’t see how anyone who has reflected upon the matter could possibly deny this. If you tie me up, that’s bad because it stops me from doing the things I want. If untying me wouldn’t change any of that, then it wouldn’t do me any good. And if I could continue to do all the things I wanted despite being tied up, then it wouldn’t really be much of a harm. What matters, in either case, is what opportunities are open to me. Whether I’ve been “interfered” with is of secondary (and derivative) importance.

Self Ownership

…self-ownership is a merely ‘formal’ notion that does not guarantee any substantive freedom or power over one’s own life. As Kymlicka asks, “how can I be said to own myself if I may do nothing without the permission of others?” (p.122) But the poor and disadvantaged face the same problem within a capitalist system, and right-wingers are unconcerned by their lack of substantive freedom. Thus they have no grounds on which to complain against this egalitarian dystopia, for it violates no rights that capitalism doesn’t.

But we should reject both systems, if what we really value is substantive self-determination. Our aim should be to enable as many people as possible to live the lives they want to live. We should ensure access to education, healthcare, and basic human needs like food and shelter, since all of these are essential prerequisites to any form of freedom worth having.

Original Appropriation

The problem for the libertarian here is that any such appropriation necessarily violates the liberty of others, for it prevents them from making use of what they previously had free access to. (As previously noted, the enforcement of property rights involves physical coercion, and thus conflicts with others’ freedom from interference.) For example, if I appropriate the only local food source, and refuse anyone else access to it, then my actions have clearly harmed them — indeed, a consistent libertarian ought to say that I have violated their rights.

Political Fictions

I’ve just been reading Jeremy Bentham’s rather good refutation of natural law/rights. A major problem for the whole ‘natural law’ approach to morality & politics is that there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that any such laws exist. They’re mere inventions, made up to support the prejudices of their advocate. Despite their supposed ‘self-evidence’, such ‘laws’ end up conflicting with those proposed by others. As Bentham notes, “the systems are as numerous as authors”.

The whole approach seems to involve a confusion of physical (natural) and human laws. Natural laws cannot be broken, they simply describe the way our universe works – there are no normative notions involved, for they do not allow themselves to be broken. “If there were a law of nature which directed all men toward their common good, [human] laws would be useless… it would be kindling a torch to add light to the sun.”

The notion of natural rights is similarly incoherent: “nonsense on stilts”, according to Bentham. “Right is with me the child of law… A natural right is a son that never had a father”

Taxation is not Theft

A third justification for taxation is communitarian in nature. Wealth is not created in isolation, it is as much a product of society as it is the individual. After all, society provides the enabling conditions for the individual to flourish — your success would not be possible were it not for the opportune conditions of the society one works within, and the actions of your fellow citizens. Thus the community might rightfully claim “dues” on wealth that is created within the safety of its confines. Wealth is a social product — a fact which the atomistic view (common to liberalism and libertarianism) leads us to overlook.

These latter arguments take us beyond the theoretical apparatus of libertarianism, but, given the inadequacy of the theory, that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, I think the libertarian has framed the debate in a very misleading fashion. They treat property as if it were a natural (pre-political) right, emerging from the ‘state of nature’, with which government may not interfere. But natural rights are a political fiction — “nonsense on stilts”, as Bentham put it. We have no reason to think that such bizarre entities exist.

Freedom and Constraint

This impoverished view fails to recognise that the whole point of being free from some constraint is to enable us to achieve some goal. What matters is that options be open to us; if removing constraints will enable more options, then we can indeed be made more free by their removal. But it is the ‘enabling’ that matters, not the ‘removing’. If I am stuck in the desert with no water in sight, then I am not free to drink, even if no-one else is around to obstruct me. Natural conditions can obstruct the fulfillment of my desires just as badly as humanly-imposed constraints.

Libertarian vs. Utilitarian Justice

Libertarians hold that the free market is inherently just, and redistributive taxation violates people’s property rights. Utilitarians, by contrast, are fundamentally concerned with the promotion of human welfare. They hold that society ought to be organized in whatever fashion would best achieve this end potentially justifying massive redistribution of wealth to the needy. The two theories also differ significantly in their temporal perspectives. Libertarian entitlement theory understands justice to be a purely historical matter: whether a distribution is just depends on how it came about. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is purely forward-looking: justice is determined by what would have the best consequences for all concerned.

Voluntary Exchange

Perhaps most important is how we understand coercion. In the libertarian (non-welfare) state, poor people are effectively forced to labour. There are no reasonable alternatives (given that starving to death is the only alternative that would be open to many, and that clearly is not a reasonable one!). This desperation will weaken their bargaining power, so it would seem a mistake to say that they’re in any position to give “voluntary consent” for their employment contracts. There’s nothing “voluntary” about it — they have no other options. If you’re stuck down a well, and I offer to throw you a rope in exchange for everything you own, you have no real choice but to accept. This would not be a just transfer.

Forced Labor

Now, I do think he’s quite right that taxation isn’t really voluntary. We have no reasonable alternatives: if we want to live in modern society, then we’re forced to pay taxes. But the same is true of the proletariat’s work. If he wants to live in modern society then he is forced to labour. It’s no different, and the consistent libertarian ought to concede this

Institutional Rights

We have no reason to believe in such entities as “natural rights” — they are at once metaphysically mysterious and ethically inadequate. Moreover, it would be fetishistic to care about such entities fundamentally and for their own sakes. What really matters are people, and rights are only important insofar as they benefit real people.

Enabling Humanity

I think that substantive freedom – that is, enabling people to achieve their goals and live the sorts of lives they want to live – is the central politico-moral value that our modern pluralistic society ought to promote.

One advantage of it is that it is so obviously desirable. It’s difficult to imagine anyone rejecting this value. It is universally applicable: no matter your personal values or goals in life, substantive freedom will help you achieve them.

Negative freedom, or freedom from coercive interference, is similarly desirable, though more weakly so. Substantive freedom includes and builds upon negative freedom. There are different sorts of constraints that may impede us in our life pursuits. There are things that get in our way (“positive” constraints) and needed things that we lack (“negative” constraints). These may be “internal” to our selves, or else concerning the “external” world. They may be traceable back to the agency of other humans, or not. But whatever their nature and origin, the result is the same: an obstruction to our endeavours in life. We should like to overcome as many such obstacles as possible. Negative freedom has value in that it protects us against positive external constraints that originate from the agency of others. But clearly that is just one part of the picture, and substantive freedom will require us to take a broader perspective, recognizing – and hopefully alleviating – the other obstacles that hamper us in the pursuit of our goals.

September 6, 2008

Inaugural Post and the Shape of Things to Come

Filed under: General — jimmy0d @ 3:34 am

Welcome to the department of counter-propoganda.  In the last five to ten years libertarianism and it’s bastard children have grown in popularity as alienation and greed overtake the better angels of our nature.  Selfishness has replaced virtue, madlib thinking has replaced ethics, and instead of reasoning truth this new fauxlosophy is all ad-hoc rationalizations of predatory capitalism.

To understand this new age barbarism we must look at the “luminaries” of this ideology.  We have social darwinists like Murray Rothbard.  Self-important economists like Milton Friedman (and son David), Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.  Would be cult leaders Ayn Rand and Stefan Molyneaux.  Failed philosophers such as Robert Nozick,Benjamin Tucker, and Max Stirner.  All the way to loud mouthed malcontents from Ron Paul to Francois Tremblay.

So here I am standing up against the moral bankrupt and intellectually vapid movements of right-libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, market anarchy, and rabid individualism.  For my first few posts I will be re-printing arguments other have made and then I hope to take apart the self-righteous preenings of Stefan Molyneux and then dive headlong into a philosophical critique of this fatalistic fad.

So until then check out the links to the side and don’t spare the hate-mail.

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