The Freedom Bathtub: Why Extreme Libertarianism Isn’t Really Free

The American Political Spectrum

In America, we often think of the political spectrum something like this:

FDR was famous for his role as commander in chief for most of WWII, and also as a major Democratic figurehead. He believed in Keynesian economics – that government spending on things like jobs and safety nets can lead to large economic growth as more people get jobs and people have more money to spend. He created many of the safety nets that poor and elderly people in America depend on today.

And he was relatively socially liberal for his time – pushing for racial desegregation within the government.

Reagan is famous for deregulation, cutting taxes, and cutting non-military government spending. He believed in “trickle down economics” – that if you give the rich more money, they’ll spend it creating jobs, and it will “trickle down” to poor people, helping everyone.

He also was relatively socially conservative for his time – trying to roll back the civil rights advancements brought by JFK/ LBJ in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Clinton and Bush 1 were more moderate. Despite being a Democrat, Clinton ended welfare “as we know it.” And despite being a Republican, Bush dismissed Reagan’s “trickle down economics” as “voodoo economics.”

I like to call people who fall somewhere on this American political spectrum Republocrats.

Clearly there are serious and important political disagreements that occur between Republocrats. But every single President from FDR to Obama has fallen somewhere on this spectrum.

 

Horseshoe Theory

Sociologists, however, tell us this spectrum is incomplete. Instead, they see the landscape of normal political views more like this:

This is known as Horseshoe Theory.

The basic idea is that in order to implement very liberal or very conservative policies – policies outside the normal bounds of what is socially or legally acceptable – you need to do so by force or intimidation.

On the conservative side, this is being branded the “Alternative Right” or “fascism-lite.” Donald Trump’s attempt to intimidate judges into accepting his Muslim-targeting ban is an example of this authoritarian strategy for pursuing “out of bounds” behavior.

Luckily, the checks and balances in America, along with the strength of American institutions, have worked reasonably well in defending against this sort of behavior. So far.

^ “See you in court” = the single least threatening statement one could possibly make to a judge

 

On the left, the “Regressive Left” or “illiberal left” is so insistent on pursuing left-wing policies, that they go beyond being “progressive” and are willing to engage in “regressive” means.

For example, during a recent left-wing college protest, this happened:

 

I should note that this degree of “regressiveness” from the left is quite rare. I’ve spent the last nine years living on liberal college campuses in California, and I have never once witnessed anyone on the left engaging in behavior as regressive and flagrantly un-American as advocating against freedom of speech. While the “Regressive Left” truly is fringe, the same can no longer be said of the Alternative Right, which now controls the Oval Office.

Going even further along the curves, we reach Fascism and Communism. Here, leaders start to forget about the underlying left/ right ideology and act like monarchs, and the curves come together (like a horseshoe). In some descriptions, the ends may even touch in a 1984-ish scenario.

 

Libertarianism

If you do go to a college campus in America, you won’t find anyone who wants to live in 1984. And despite what the media will tell you, you probably won’t find anyone protesting free speech. But if you start talking to freshmen about their views and beliefs, I can basically guarantee you’ll run into this guy:

 

This guy is more or less the textbook definition of a libertarian, and he’s feeling a bit lost in the horseshoe that I drew. He knows that he belongs somewhere along the bottom of the curve, but he’s not sure where. He hears Democrats argue for legal gay marriage and legal marijuana and he runs left, and then he hears Republicans argue for lower taxes and fewer environmental regulations and he runs right.

This guy might simply believe a mix of Democrat and Republican views, in which case I’d call him a Libertarian Republocrat, and I’d group him in with the other Republocrats. Sure, he has a bit of an unusual combination of views, but none of his individual views are particularly abnormal.

He might be particularly concerned about governmental red tape, and no doubt there are too many arbitrary and outdated laws on the books.

But maybe he’s not a Republocrat. Perhaps he has a fundamentally different philosophy about the role of government in society. When I talk about Libertarians in the remainder of this piece, I’m not referring to the more moderate Libertarian Republocrats. Instead, I’m referring to more extreme Libertarians who believe something like one of the following:

Libertarian Idea #1: Taxation Is Theft

Each man should have the right to his own body. Your labor is a product of what you do with your body. Therefore, each man should also have the right to the fruits of his labor.

When the government taxes the rich, they’re stealing from them. Even if those taxes go to good purposes – such as saving the lives of those who can’t afford medical care or providing a public education for those who can’t afford private education – the original theft is still wrong.

The government taxing and providing services is morally equivalent to me mugging someone on the street and giving the money to a homeless person who “needs the money more.”

Libertarian Idea #2: Laws (except against murder etcetera) Are Bad

Not “laws can have unpredictable side effects” or “we have too many laws” – but simply “laws are bad.”

Those other arguments against laws are things many Republocrats believe. But the Libertarian more often thinks that unless what you’re doing is directly harming someone or interfering with her property, it shouldn’t be outlawed – full stop. Doing so would be a fundamental affront to freedom, and thus a human rights’ violation.

So while trespassing would still remain illegal, stalking someone or harassing them (even at work) would likely be legal – you’re just exercising your right to free movement and your right to free speech.

After all, with the spread of reputations, the free market will work everything out anyway. Even if it doesn’t, it still isn’t the government’s role to force people at the barrel of a gun (which is what will happen if you disobey the law and resist arrest) to comply with some rules about stalking or workplace sexual harassment. Freedom.

 

These sorts of policies would be enabling for the Alt. Right/ Reg. Left

While the Alt. Right/ Reg. Left tend to act authoritarian when in power, they often act libertarian when out of power. Their protest tactics focus not simply on getting their message across, but even literally drowning out the message of those they’re protesting. Incidentally, this leads to a situation resembling censorship.

A normal interpretation of free speech is that such behavior is not simply exercising your right to free speech, it’s inhibiting others’ right to free speech, and thus not allowed. You can protest outside a private event, but you can’t protest so loud and so long that they’re not able to hold their event.

The libertarian view typically allows that sort of behavior, though.

Some in the Alternative Right want policies that ban Islam or things they associate with Islam, and some in the Regressive Left want policies that ban criticisms of Islam. (If like most Americans you’ve heard more calls for laws that target Muslims than you have for laws that target speech against Islam, that’s because – as mentioned earlier – the Regressive Left is actually a quite unpopular movement, much smaller than the Alternative Right.)

Laws along either of these lines would clearly violate the First Amendment and be horrible precedents for allowable discourse and behavior – not to mention the incredibly large human welfare cost associated with banning people from practicing their religion.

To their credit, libertarians find these sorts of policies repugnant. But libertarian policies would allow for powerful non-government actors and systems to oppress people instead. Consider that before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we saw a lot of things like this:

 

 

Some may claim that targeted individuals can go to other establishments instead. But the reality is often not so simple. When discrimination is widespread (as it often is against targeted minority groups), you might not even be able to find one establishment in your area that’s willing to provide you the service you want.

If you legally have the right to eat wherever you want, but no one will serve you, then you’re not really free. To be clear, laws that forbid businesses from declining service based on race are opposed by libertarians today. After all, these laws break Libertarian Idea #2 – they force people to do specific actions when other actions wouldn’t have resulted in direct, physical harm to anyone.

Libertarians often say the invisible hand of the free market will necessarily weed out companies that discriminate in favor of those who are simply profit maximizing. There are some problems with relying on this invisible hand:

  • The invisible hand can be a jerk: If consumers are bigots and avoid establishments that are not bigoted, then the free market would actually tend to have the opposite effect and select for the more bigoted companies.
  • The invisible hand has been to some shady places: History shows that at times the invisible hand has led to widespread racial discrimination by businesses. Similar behavior could happen in the future.
  • The invisible hand is kinda slow: It sometimes takes a long time for companies that are making bad decisions to go out of business. This is especially true for decisions that only marginally affect profits (such as refusing service to a small minority of customers), and businesses that operate with little competition (such as local stores in small towns). Even if bigoted decisions eventually make companies go out of business from loss of profits, that could take decades.

 

How Libertarian Economics Decreases Freedom

Libertarianism leaves a bit of a “power void,” which enables oppressors to oppress, similar to if they held legal power. But the power void also enables oppressive systems to emerge, even when no one is acting in bad faith and all agreements are consensual.

Consider what happens under capitalism when there are no or very few worker protections or safety nets. In order to survive, people need food, which means they need to work. If there’s a glut of people looking for work in a specific job, employers can get away with paying incredibly small wages for work that is both harsh and dangerous.

In fact, the supply and demand of basic economics means that the invisible hand of the economy will likely select against companies that pay any more than this, and all companies that survive will pay low wages. Here’s why:

Luckily, the smartest, most innovative leaders also tend to be the most caring people, so this situation never happens in real life. Instead, the companies that remain profitable in the long run are the innovative companies that also always happen to treat their employees decently.

Oh, wait, not quite.

During the Industrial Revolution, factory workers often worked 16 hour days, 6 days a week, in dangerous conditions that could lead to loss of limbs, and still didn’t earn enough to escape poverty.

Imagine if I held a gun to your head and told you that you had to work in a factory – either one I owned or one my competitor owned. Even though you had the “freedom” to choose which factory to work in, this clearly would not represent true freedom. You would be under duress, and choose to work no matter what. As a result, my competitor and I could pay very low wages and demand long hours.

This is essentially the situation that industrial workers living hand to mouth faced with employment (and that people living hand to mouth face today). Even though no one was holding them at gunpoint, there was a power dynamic that gave them a raw deal. Sure, these workers were free to choose to work for any factory they wanted, but the game was rigged, and the “agreements” they had for work were exploitative. The fact that the factory owners made huge profits off these workers was irrelevant to their pay, as the workers had no choice but to work for cheap. The way to “unrig” the game is to provide enough protections or a safety net so that contract negotiations are not exploitative.

While the free market is great at optimizing the price of products and labor given supply and demand, it is not great at optimizing for human values – not unless we take certain governmental actions to align the economy to our values.

What ultimately stopped the brutal economic systems of the Industrial Revolution in America was government intervention. Workers’ rights limited the workday and regulated health risks, and safety nets such as minimum wage and Social Security kept many people out of poverty. Perhaps a more market based safety net like basic income would have been a better way to solve this problem than the patchwork of different programs and regulations that we got, but the patchwork was a huge step up from nothing.

 

Anarchy*

Anarchy’s relationship to Libertarianism is like that of an older brother. Libertarianism looks up to Anarchy and thinks that Anarchy’s “too cool for school” attitude is cool, but that Anarchy takes it a bit too far at times. The Alt. Right/ Reg. Left twins are in a similar situation with their Big Brother and his habit for manipulating people. The older brothers hate each other even more than the younger ones do. Which is interesting considering that Anarchy often accidentally does his sworn enemy’s bidding for him.

In an authoritarian state, people live in fear of running afoul of the party or of breaking some rule. The government can also exploit or ruin them for basically no reason. In a state of anarchy, people live in fear of pissing off the wrong person and being killed. Likewise, even if they’re doing nothing wrong, they can be mugged.

Freedom to do action X requires people to feel security that if they pursue X they will ultimately be okay. Neither anarchy nor authoritarianism can provide that security, except for the few people who wind up at the top.

Anarchists will likely respond, “Sure, there may be consequences if you pursue X, but at least in a state of anarchy you’re still free to choose to do it.” And I suppose that is technically true – though the consequences could include death. The same is also technically true in an authoritarian state. You still can choose to disobey the government, you’d just have to face the consequences, again possibly death.

The biggest difference between fascism/ communism and anarchy can probably be described as this:

Almost invariably, a state of anarchy will lead to an authoritarian state, as the biggest bully who claims the most power will eventually declare himself the ruler.

*I’m talking about a state of anarchy as it’s colloquially understood, meaning “a state of disorder due to no government,” and not the fringe political philosophy of “anarchism” that’s based on rejecting hierarchy.

 

Putting It All Together: The Freedom Bathtub

Considering the lack of freedom experienced under anarchy and extreme libertarianism, we find a different picture than the political horseshoe. The horseshoe deals with governments that vary in control from “moderate” to “extreme” amounts. It does not consider governments that contain very small amounts of control.

Let’s look at the general political spectrum from no government control to total government control (on the horizontal axis). On the vertical axis, we have typical freedom of individuals. Here, we’re ignoring the left/ right axis completely. This time it resembles a bathtub.

Government size is a balancing act: in some cases, larger government decreases freedom, while in other cases, it preserves freedom.

Libertarians often lament that libertarianism has never been tried. But on both racial issues and economic issues, America actually has tried policies that are quite libertarian – to absolutely horrible results for the common man (and common woman).

 

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Daniel Eth

3 Comments

  1. I commend the author for a thoughtful discussion which includes libertarianism as an ideology to be reckoned with. Too often, commentators assume that world of ideas is limited to conservatives and liberals (and their more extreme variants). The real world is more complex, and libertarianism deserves consideration is any serious treatment.

    But like a tourist who spends a weekend in a foreign country and returns home a self-professed expert, the author’s understanding of libertariansim is sadly shallow. I could give many examples, but I’ll limit my comment to one: his description of the plight of workers during the Industrial Revolution. He writes: “Imagine if I held a gun to your head and told you that you had to work in a factory – either one I owned or one my competitor owned. Even though you had the ‘freedom’ to choose which factory to work in, this clearly would not represent true freedom.”

    The problem with his analysis is that the author assumes that choosing between one awful place of employment and another was the only choice people had. It as if factories just magically appeared. Of course, that’s not what happened.

    Before the Industrial Revolution, most people lived in the countryside in semi-feudalistic subsistence conditions. When capitalism gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, that development did not force people to choose between one awful factory and another. Instead, it gave the opportunity to choose between remaining in the countryside and seeking seek work in the cities. Factories (as awful as they are by contemporary standards) provided a significant improvement in standard of living, as measured, not only by financial condition, but also by life expectancy and diet.

    This is not to say that work in a 19th century factory was any bed of roses. It’s also not to detract from the important role that labor unions played in improving working conditions. It is merely to point out that the Industrial Revolution marked a great advance in the human condition. The clearest proof lies in comparing the status of ordinary people in countries like Great Britain, which underwent an Industrial Revolution, and that of those in countries like Czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire which did not (until centuries later).

    In the debate over the reasons for the gap between rich and poor, the great contribution of libertarianism has been to recognize that it has been freedom that the “haves” have, and it is freedom that the “have-nots” have not.

    • Capitalism was obviously a step up from semi-feudalism. I just think that regulated capitalism could have been (and turned out to be) better than the less regulated capitalism.

      For people who grew up in the city, moving to the countryside and becoming a farmer typically wasn’t a real choice they had, even if theoretically they could have done that.

      I’m not criticizing factory owners – their actions in creating factories tended to help their workers. I’m criticizing the system that emerged, where people had bad options (bad compared to what they could have been with different governmental action, not bad compared to what came before).

      Whether the early Industrial Revolution provided an improvement in standard of living is an open question. What’s not an open question is that societal wealth skyrocketed. So when wealth increased rapidly and yet so many people were still trapped at the bottom without real options, that indicates that governments could have done a lot more to use the newfound societal wealth to empower individuals.

      I’m also a little confused because your main criticism seemed to be that I don’t understand libertarianism, but then your one example was about the Industrial Revolution, not about libertarian philosophy.

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