6.2.2.3 Libertarianism

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6223.htm)

The libertarian Utopia is to have total freedom of choice, but it cannot work for society as a whole:

  • Everyone would have to be willing 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 (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.
  • 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 could be said to have come 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 in an article entitled Oliver Twist and the workhouse.  The perceived injustices of Victorian society also inspired Karl Marx to try to overthrow capitalism.

Total liberty is also impractical.  People cannot avoid setting up some form of agreement with their neighbours and the wider society.  Even if a group of libertarians were to avoid paying tax to a government – by living on offshore artificial islands and paying directly for the services they required, a concept known as ‘seasteading’, which was described in an article entitled The Great Escape that was published in Prospect Magazine in April 2010 – they would need some agreements and shared arrangements among themselves: at least some rules of behaviour and a mechanism for paying for shared costs such as maintenance.

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