Recently, I had the opportunity to read an article on Salon magazine. It put forward 11 interesting questions to identify the hypocrites in libertarians but more subtly demeaning libertarianism as a whole. I have provided my response below to each of those questions asked not just as a libertarian but as normal person who found glaring gaps in the author’s reasoning. Given below are the questions and responses but I will suggest the reader to read the aforementioned article first for the context. Apologize for the length of this piece.
Are unions, political parties, elections, and social movements like Occupy examples of “spontaneous order”—and if not, why not?
The author seems to understand that spontaneous order is the phenomenon of any reality that arises when no one is bound by any form of value system. But the spontaneous order propagated by libertarians is the reality that results out of every single human being conducting all of their affairs without use of force but through mutual consent and cooperation. Once you understand this fundamental difference in how spontaneous order is understood by the libertarians and the author, a lot of the questions asked below are answered easily.
Firstly, political parties and elections, both are elements that support a political system. In world history, every form of political system has one common characteristic, few holding power over the many, this includes democracy too. This forces some people to indulge in actions which is against their self-interest, for the sake of people they may not even know. Non-compliance with such democratic decisions results in incarceration and other forms of punishment under the threat of violence. So, yes a political system in itself which tries to regulate anything more than protection of life and property and contract enforcement is against libertarian philosophy. So, by today’s status quo, political parties and elections are not a resultant of spontaneous order because they force the will of the majority over the rest.
Secondly, social movements cannot be generalized to be a result of spontaneous order or not. There are certain social movements which are aimed at liberating the individual from social oppression such as the Renaissance in the medieval times while there are others which condemn humanity to the ethics of a barbarian such as Sati (now a crime) and Caste system in India. Any social movement that stands by the principal of non-violence and doesn’t restrict an individual to conduct his/her own affairs without inflicting conscious damage to the life or property of others is acceptable. Occupy movements were peaceful protests against corporates who used the political system to their advantage at the cost of their investors and depositors. This was a breach of trust and am sure would have violated some or many parts of the contract between various firms and individuals. In fact, it was the government itself that by virtue of its fractional reserve system that enabled these banks to super-leverage their deposits to many hundredfold. So, to conclude, not all social movements are a resultant of spontaneous order since some of them wouldn’t be valid under the libertarian understanding of the phrase ‘spontaneous order’.
Is a libertarian willing to admit that production is the result of many forces, each of which should be recognized and rewarded?
A libertarian will accept this statement to the letter any day. But the conflict of ideas arises while we try to identify these producers. In the production of any good, be it a physical product like cars, planes, computers or an abstract product like academic research, financial products etc. In each case there are two kinds of agents, the producers and the enablers. Our primary mistake is to consider the enablers also as producers. Producers are those who directly take the input, process it and produce the output. These could be the firms, self-employed entrepreneurs, university personnel etc. The identification of this group and rewarding of its members is always straightforward and controversial only in the distribution of profits. But the identification of enablers is not easy because they hail from multiple levels in terms of the magnitude of impact they have on these producers by virtue of the relationship between them. Some examples, are judiciary who enforce contracts, family who provide moral support, friends who provide informal advice in both professional and personal issues, traffic cop who helps me to reach office sooner by preventing traffic jam etc. The difficulty arises when one wants to recognize and reward not just the producers but the enablers as well. Alas, the identification of enablers is a subjective exercise and not just libertarians but even people who believe in other ideas do not have consensus. Given that, yes libertarians agree to the question posed provided the clear distinction made between producers and enablers.
Is our libertarian willing to acknowledge that workers who bargain for their services, individually and collectively, are also employing market forces?
Yes. But only as long as they only bargain for enforcement of their contract with the employees. The unions of today have gone beyond asking for contract enforcement to sporadic and vicious agitations affecting the productivity of the firm. Bargaining is a process of discussion under mutual respect. Shutting down a factory and stopping anyone from operating it, not letting the organization hire new people when the agitating personnel have their employment terminated in accordance with the contract, destruction of the firm’s property etc. are not considered as bargaining and these are the activities indulged in by unions across the globe and these are the reasons for which unions are denounced. Cloaking destructive and anti-social activities under the non-malicious term of ‘bargaining’ is wrong in itself. As long as bargaining is done based on the terms of contract and conducted through non-coercive means, it is employing market forces and hence acknowledgeable by libertarians.
Is our libertarian willing to admit that a “free market” needs regulation?
A free market can exist under only one condition. Protection of private property. Only this needs regulation. When market transactions are based on mutual consent and non-coercive means, this regulation arises on its own and hence becoming a form of self-regulation. But such a perfect scenario is not possible and hence we need some other form of regulation. The disagreement arises in deciding who should be regulating? Should it be the government? Or civil society? This is where the actual difference of opinion lies and since the question asked above is a different one, I will conclude by saying that I as a libertarian am willing to admit that a free market needs regulation provided we agree upon the definition and preconditions of a free market, regulation of what and by whom.
Does our libertarian believe in democracy? If yes, explain what’s wrong with governments that regulate.
Not all libertarians believe in democracy because as explained in Q.1, it imposes the will of the majority over that of the minority. Those few who believe, do so because as of today it is the best of the worst, all the other major forms of political system had thrived on more oppressive principles. And also in the hope that with enough people starting to believe in a freer society, democracy itself might be the non-violent means of revolution in creating a freer society. And given the different strata within the libertarian philosophy itself, most who believe in democracy are those who believe in a limited government, a government that provides only the essential services to people such as judiciary, security and access to infrastructures such as medical facilities. The more conservative forms of libertarianism denounce the system of democracy itself where some have to suffer at the cost of others for no cause of their doing. The main issue lies not with the government that regulate but what the government regulates. More the government regulation curtails social and economic freedom beyond the essential protection of life and property, weaker the libertarian support for the same.
Does our libertarian use wealth that wouldn’t exist without government in order to preach against the role of government?
The author takes the example of Internet to support his claim with respect to the question posed above. The author knowingly or unknowingly has forgotten to mention that all government activities or projects are ‘public-funded’. The government took the tax payers money and delivered a product. I do not see why anyone should have any obligation to the contribution of the government beyond the time of delivery of the product to the public. Moreover, the government, in this case DARPA, did not develop internet for well-being or betterment of the civil society, it was done to hold the edge in war. Every single scientific discovery or invention done by the military of a nation especially the USA does not see the light of the day for years from their moment of discovery or invention. The government withholds patenting of such progress at the cost of human development. Imagine the development the world could have achieved if the internet technology were made available to the public from the very beginning. What about the opportunity cost to the nation and the rest of humanity by such actions by the government? Would millions of people have died in Japan if not the similarly public-funded government’s Los Alamos project on nuclear bombs? Who is to say such technologies wouldn’t have arrived if not for the government? The proliferation of modern progress has happened outside the government and is taken for granted, while sporadic government contribution to progress are hailed as black swans. Did Google happen because of government? Did Apple happen because of government? Did Space X happen because of government? These are larger questions which needs to be answered by the non-libertarian camp to have a meaningful debate on public funded government research or public-funded-public-research with government as conduit via agencies such as National Science Foundation etc.
Does our libertarian reject any and all government protection for his intellectual property?
Many of the libertarians are against the concept of IPR and the rest who believe see it as a form of private property which would be protected anyway under a limited government which many libertarians support. So the answer to this question is both yes and no.
Does our libertarian recognize that democracy is a form of marketplace?
Democracy is not a form of market place for reasons explained previously unless the author believes that it is acceptable to use coercion in market transactions.
Does our libertarian recognize that large corporations are a threat to our freedoms?
Yes, but only because such corporations have grown so large because of legislative support from government which enabled them to gain edge over other competitors or by increasing the entry barrier for new entrants. So, the accusation of large corporation starts from the government itself and the libertarians are very well against corporations that grow big with the help of government regulations. There is no large corporation that has not benefited from government regulations in dominating the market.
Does he think that Rand was off the mark on this one, or does he agree that historical figures like King and Gandhi were “parasites”?
Rand was not off the mark because King and Gandhi lived and did what they did to uphold their principles. If the author had read the works of Ayn Rand, he would have found characters that sacrificed material comforts and wealth to uphold their principles. Rand simply says that any action of a man is driven by self-interest, an interest that could be based on tangible or intangible ends. Hence, any claim of living for others is a misconception at best and deception at worst. Both King and Gandhi fought for the freedom of the individual which is the core philosophy of Rand, so I do not see any ambiguity. If Rand had called them parasites, then it is she who is at mistake and not her philosophy.
If you believe in the free market, why weren’t you willing to accept as final the judgment against libertarianism rendered decades ago in the free and unfettered marketplace of ideas?
There is no final judgment in the marketplace for ideas since one can never know when the circumstances will lead to a renewed interest for that idea. There was a time when libertarianism was very dormant and now because of excessive government regulation, people looking for a solution have re-discovered it. By the author’s logic, Copernicus should have conceded defeat to Helios-centric model of solar system, Communists should have conceded defeat after Soviet’s fall and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Besides, it is extremely ignorant to call the market place of ideas as free and unfettered given the extent of state sponsored education that almost never showed the nation state’s founding philosophy in bad light. History, the repository of ideas has almost always been directed by the State to promote nationalism at the cost of truth. The author need only read USA public school history textbook account of economic history of various depressions and recessions, wars, diplomatic and non-diplomatic interventions etc. to realize the truth.