220.127.116.11 The Libertarian Dream
The libertarian dream is for everyone to have total freedom of choice, but there are practical problems and it is politically unacceptable.
Libertarianism is an extreme form of individualism, as described above (18.104.22.168), and it can be implemented to different degrees. Robert Nozick’s version of libertarianism is used here for the purposes of argument – it envisages having a minimum State, whose sole function is to protect people and property from harm. Taxation is minimised in such a system, as recommended by Milton Friedman. Its only framework for co-operation is in commercial enterprises, whose objective is to make money.
Libertarianism gives people freedom, but not everyone will have the means to enjoy it. It has many drawbacks:
● People would have to accept the inequality of opportunity which results from the retention of wealth. If health and education are mostly privatised, the wealthy can send their children to better schools, and maintain themselves in better health, than other people. Wealth and privilege become entrenched, in a plutocracy not far removed from feudalism.
● A strong desire to make money is an inherent ingredient of capitalism (3.2.1), and it cannot be denied that capitalism has successfully lifted many people out of poverty, but it requires consumers who are able to purchase goods and services. Libertarians need everyone else: economic reciprocity is essential (22.214.171.124).
● No-one would have any obligation to anyone else. Those in need would have no-one to turn to unless they were lucky enough to have family or friends to help them. Even if wealthy people voluntarily offer help, by giving charity (126.96.36.199), the poor would effectively be in thrall to those who deigned to help them.
● Total individual liberty is incompatible with democracy, as it rejects the idea of deferring to the demands of other people. It does not recognise the value of political governance of public services and benefits.
● Any public infrastructure that is needed would be provided by private enterprise in the libertarian dream, but this is not always practicable (3.2.8). The State plays a vital role in making some projects possible.
● Libertarian deregulation does not guarantee the provision of essential services. When Texas experienced a freak snow storm in February 2021, as reported by the Washington Post, “The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather”. Texas had no resilience because it had cut parts of its power grid away from the rest of the United States to avoid federal regulation. Electricity bills had been lower than in other States, but some people died from cold.
● There is no concept of the common good in libertarian thinking. It is hard to see how the problems of climate change, for example, could be combated without some collective action.
● It might be possible for small groups to avoid paying tax to a government, by living on offshore artificial islands and paying directly for the services they required. This is a concept known as ‘seasteading’, as described in a Prospect Magazine article: The Great Escape. Those involved would need some agreements and shared arrangements among themselves, though – at least some rules of behaviour and a mechanism for paying for shared costs such as maintenance – so they would not be completely free. It doesn’t offer a solution for the whole of a society.
● The only criterion by which something would be available, the only test of its value, would be that someone could make money from it. This is neoliberalism – perfect freedom of choice – but unfettered markets don’t always lead to results which are beneficial to society (3.5.9).
These characteristics make libertarianism look very similar to the idea that ‘might is right’ – and the neoliberal mantra, ‘greed is good’, is an unattractive depiction of human nature and society. A government which only protects the interests of the wealthy (to whom property rights are important), and which doesn’t protect the interests of everybody else, is not politically acceptable to most people.
Paul Krugman’s article, Liz Truss in the Libertarian Wilderness, explained why Britain’s new Prime Minister lost political credibility so rapidly after her disastrous ‘mini-budget’ on 23 September 2022: “Truss staked out a political position that, to a first approximation, has no public support either in Britain or in the United States. So failure was inevitable.” He summarised a 2017 paper by the political scientist Lee Drutman: “most voters like government benefits, a lot. Opposition to social spending comes mainly from voters who believe that spending goes to the wrong people — people who don’t look like them.”
No society has implemented the libertarian dream, although Victorian England came close to it. Charles Dickens was very indignant about the injustices of Victorian society, and about the workhouse in particular, unforgettably depicted in his novel Oliver Twist. The injustices of Victorian society also inspired Karl Marx to try to overthrow capitalism.
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6223b.htm.