The hypocrisy of libertarians

I first became interested in politics through reading books by libertarians. I read books by Richard Maybury, who amongst other things, believed that America should never have got involved with WW1 and WW2, that Medicare and Social Security are unconstitutional, and that heroin should be legal. However wacky his ideas may seem in retrospect, his writing style was concise and easy to understand. His ideas resonated with me at the time, because I went to quite a rough school where I believed most people didn’t want to work hard, so the thought of a welfare state bailing them out seemed unbearable. I believed in a social Darwinist paradise, where everyone succeeded or failed on their own merits. I also believed that freedom was the most important principle, even if it came at the expense of equality, order or social cohesion.

Aged 16, I changed schools to a better one. It was at my new school that I realised my libertarianism had been mistaken. For the first time, I met other people who described themselves as libertarians. But they weren’t consistent in their belief in freedom. They wanted the state to enforce cultural norms to promote a strong national identity, not allowing minorities to visibly express their own distinct way of life. They advocated an extremely tough law and order stance, even with evidence showing that high incarceration rates do not necessarily reduce crime. They also wanted more government spending on things that would benefit them, such as more education investment or subsidised trains. I realised many so-called libertarians were simply conservative nationalists, who only called themselves libertarians to appeal to young people.

The reality is that pure libertarianism isn’t liberating at all. People won’t be free if the government doesn’t provide certain social goods. People won’t be free to get any job they want if the government won’t provide a decent education to everyone. Freedom to move is restricted if the country’s transportation system is poor. A certain degree of regulation is actually liberating because it gives businesses certainty they won’t be discriminated against. That’s the purpose of the European Single Market- to provide a level playing field for all European businesses by subjecting them to the same rules. Most importantly, conjectured notions of freedom mean nothing to those stuck in poverty, which will increase dramatically in the absence of any social security system.

Now I haven’t completely renounced my libertarian views. A healthy scepticism of the state is good, because both historically speaking and even today, the biggest oppressor of humanity is government. Even in liberal democracies, civil liberties are violated far too often. Outside the developed world, the state is frequently responsible for brutal repression and mass murder. Governments have a legal monopoly on violence, which means they are uniquely dangerous and must be held to account. I also think a scepticism of government economic intervention is good. Government spending is often wasteful and inefficient, even as markets are far from perfect either. For the most part, government ownership of industry is less preferable to a highly competitive and well-regulated private market. Libertarian economic thinking is particularly useful when understanding monetary policy; artificially low interest rates, quantitive easing and fractional reserve banking frequently lead to credit bubbles, which when burst, cause immense damage.

Overall on most issues, I still lean in a libertarian direction. I’m often opposed to government attempts to change personal behaviour, even if much of that behaviour is bad, i.e eating too much, smoking, taking drugs, having unprotected sex with multiple people etc… I don’t like the government getting involved in lots of foreign conflicts. I still think protecting individual liberty and private property rights is crucial for any society to flourish. But the doctrinaire libertarian orthodoxy of my teenage years has been thoroughly renounced. Partly because as a general rule, I no longer indulge in utopian thinking. But mostly because individuals are most free when they are healthy, well educated, and secure from deprivation. A strong safety net allows people to take risks, thereby enhancing the dynamic economy libertarians purport to champion. There’s nothing wrong with advocating entrepreneurialism and a can-do spirit. But sometimes, we need a little bit of help along the way.

One Comment

  1. Very well put, Owen. I have found that most libertarians are attracted to the idea because their natural inclinations are those of the spoiled and selfish. They want no regulation because they don’t want anyone to prevent them doing precisely what they want, which is all too often to break societal rules, cheat and mistreat those who work for them or depend on them. We have regulations, as you rightly say, in order to have a level playing field upon which as few as possible are oppressed, exploited or harmed in some way. . Libertarianism is a selfish creed. Ayn Rand inveighed for years about social security, but when she reached the age she could draw on it did she stand on “ principle” and say “no”. No, of course not. She accepted the money alright! It’s all blah and self-serving hypocrisy. Yup, you guessed it, I do not like libertarianism and believe Epicurus would have been shocked had he known that libertarians would claim him to be their forerunner.

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