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Ignorance of Libertarianism Is the Problem

CJ Werleman opined at AlterNet on "Why Atheist Libertarians Are Part of America's 1 Percent Problem":

In the days running up to Thanksgiving, Walmart urged its workers to donate food to their most in-need colleagues. You know, instead of Walmart having to pay said workers a livable wage. When people ask me what libertarianism looks like, I tell them that. By people I mean atheists, because for some stupid reason, far too many of my non-believer brethren have hitched their wagon to the daftest of all socio-economic theories.

Why is it that those least knowledgeable about libertarianism speak so authoritatively on what libertarianism entails?

The Walmart story does not inherently demonstrate that libertarianism is flawed or daft. It doesn't even demonstrate that Walmart doesn't pay its employees enough. It might mean that, but one photo can speak a thousand words of nonsense. It's plausible that the donation point was established to help employees who've fallen on unexpected hard times. That is consistent with libertarianism, which can be defined as "the belief that each person has the right to live his life as he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. ... In the libertarian view, voluntary agreement is the gold standard of human relationships." There is no reason to assume that excludes compassion.

Werleman continues:

Famed science author and editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer says he became a libertarian after reading Ayn Rand’s tome Atlas Shrugged. Wait, what? That’s the book that continues to inspire college sophomores during the height of their masturbatory careers, typically young Republicans (nee fascists). But unless your name is Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), most people grow out of the, “Screw you, I have mine” economic principles bestowed by the Russian-born philosopher by the time they’re legally old enough to order their first beer.

Atlas Shrugged does not push the idea that "Screw you, I have mine" is an acceptable worldview. (Or "Fuck you, I've got mine", as I described this theory in my response to author John Green's similar misunderstanding.) The idea is better expressed as a rejection of "Screw you, I want yours." An implicit tenet within libertarianism is that people are generally good, both able and willing to cooperate. Werleman demonstrates what appears to be a fear that people are generally awful without the force of government compelling them to be "good".

Atheists like to joke that faith makes a virtue out of not thinking about things, but the belief in libertarianism is an act of faith given libertarianism has not only never been tried before anywhere, but most of the world’s leading economists denounce it as a folly that would exacerbate the central economic challenges we face today—most significantly, wealth disparity.

The assertion that libertarianism has never been tried before does not constitute proof that libertarianism is therefore wrong-headed. Anyway, libertarianism happens every day when two or more people engage in voluntary exchange. The difference is scale. That difference in scale is relevant, of course, and is not meant as proof that libertarianism would work. But to say that it's never been tried is inaccurate.

Without a link, what "leading" economists believe strikes me as little more than an appeal to authority. I'll pass.

When I hear an atheist say he is a libertarian, I know he's given absolutely no thought to it other than the fact that he likes the sound of no foreign wars and no drug laws. The aphorism that libertarians are Republicans with bongs is just about spot-on. Thinking Ron Paul is a genius because he’s anti-war and anti-drug laws is like thinking a Big Mac is good for you because it has lettuce and a pickle.

This is the point at which I think Werleman is trolling. He can't possibly be this ignorant of the topic. Also, Ron Paul is not a libertarian. (The Libertarian Joke Generator is at work.)

Werleman wanders through a few paragraphs about all of the horrible, awful economic consequences of the last 35 years, a time when libertarianism wasn't tried, remember. We're supposed to take it on faith that this is the result of Reagan because of privatization, deregulation, and free trade. These are Reagan's "holy trinity". Sure, I guess, but Werleman provides no evidence to support his assertion that these three resulted in the economic crisis we now face. It's Reagan as bogeyman.

He explains what he thinks a libertarian world would be:

... With libertarianism, property is sacred; all governments are bad; capitalists are noble heroes; unions are evil; and the poor are pampered good-for-nothings.

In order: yes, no, maybe, maybe, and no. Property rights are at the core of a functioning society, starting with one's own person. Libertarians believe that government has legitimate powers but also the opportunity to do evil, which is why its powers must be limited. (Libertarianism is not anarchism.) Capitalists in the pejorative sense Werleman intends are most likely better described as corporatists or crony capitalists. To the extent that unions are voluntary organizations, they need not be evil. Being a pampered good-for-nothing is bad, but it has nothing to do with wealth.

He prefaced that fantasy with this:

Atheists who embrace libertarianism often do so because they believe a governing body represents the same kind of constructed authority they’ve escaped from in regards to religion. This makes sense if one is talking about a totalitarian regime, but our Jeffersonian democracy, despite its quirky flaws, is government by the people for the people, and it was the federal government that essentially built the great American middle-class, the envy of the world. ...

Our Jeffersonian democracy is built on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, including liberty. It is not built on naked majoritarianism or other offensive ideas that glorify the state at the expense of individuals.

He then quotes Robert Reich¹ (from... somewhere):

Robert Reich says that one of the most deceptive ideas embraced by the Ayn Rand-inspired Right is that the free market is natural, and exists outside and beyond government. He writes:

“In reality, the 'free market' is a bunch of rules about 1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); 2) on what terms (equal access to the Internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections?); 3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?); 4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); 5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on. These rules don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t 'intrude' on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t 'free' of rules; the rules define them.”

To say that these rules are human creations that don't exist in nature is semantics for political purpose. These rules are human creations. They exist outside of government, as any cursory understanding of prohibition and black markets demonstrates.

They also exist within government, which libertarians do not dispute as a basic fact. And since libertarians believe that governments have just powers, the issue is about what constitutes a just power. Voluntary exchange does not include fraud, for example, so a rule against fraud can be appropriate. A court system that provides a means for peaceful resolution of disputes can be justifiable. Werleman incorrectly presents the political difference as one of whether or not rules should exist, which is informed by his far-too-common misunderstanding of libertarianism-as-anarchism (or libertarianism-as-fuck-you).

Link via Butterflies & Wheels. ("Never read the comments" definitely applies to that post.)

¹ For perspective I'm not fond of how Robert Reich lets politics creep into his economics in the form of "Screw you, I deserve yours." Is he one of Werleman's leading economists who denounce libertarianism?

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