6.2.2.3 Libertarianism

The libertarian Utopia is for everyone to have total freedom of choice.  It is a logically self-consistent system of belief.  As described above (6.2.2.1) it can be implemented to different degrees, but Robert Nozick’s version 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 commercial enterprises, whose objective is to make money.

Libertarianism gives people freedom, but not necessarily the means to enjoy it.  It has many drawbacks:

  • People would have to accept the inequalityof 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 (3.5.1.1).
  • 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 help those in need, by giving charity (4.2.4.6), 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 any political governance.
  • Countries benefit by working together to have the benefits of free trade between themselves, as in the example of the EU’s Single Market (3.5.4.5). A pure libertarian, though, rejects the need for agreed standards and rules – like some of those advocating Brexit, as when Priti Patel argued on 4 August 2018 that “It’s time to be brave and choose the open sea once again”.
  • Any public infrastructure that is needed would be provided by private enterprise in the libertarian Utopia, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 unacceptable to most people.  It looks 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 acceptable to most people and is certainly not inclusive.

No society has implemented a pure libertarian vision, 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; this was put in context by Ruth Richardson’s article: Oliver Twist and the workhouse.  The injustices of Victorian society also inspired Karl Marx to try to overthrow capitalism.

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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6223b.htm