No one is a true libertarian

Libertarianism is a philosophy that says, in effect, you take care of you and I’ll take care of me and everything will work out fine. On the surface this philosophy seems perfectly reasonable. As I go through life I am faced with choices that I make every day. When I get paid by my employer I have money in my pocket. I can spend that money on housing, transportation, food, or education– or I can spend it on drink, drugs, or partying. If I make good choices throughout my life I am likely to be rewarded for my good behavior. If I work hard, most employers will recognize that and are likely to give me greater responsibilities, more opportunity, better pay. But if I make bad choices, if I fritter away my money on frivolity and hedonistic pleasures, I am very likely to wind up with no savings, no family, no home, no future. So if I am honest and hard working and if I save money for my future why should I pay to help those who make bad choices? Everyone should be responsible for his or her own livelihood. Those who fail to take responsibility should expect that society will not reward them for their failure.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, so far as it goes. But it does make some underlying assumptions that aren’t obvious, and that most people don’t actually believe. The first such assumption is that everyone has an employer. The fact is that some people just aren’t employable. Persons with severe physical or mental disabilities generally fall into this category, though the boundary of this group has been eroded by advances in technology and public toleration. For example, Stephen Hawking suffered from a debilitating neurological disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS) and yet he was able to make tremendous contributions to physics and to the public understanding of science generally. But some people, through no fault of their own, are born with conditions that make it impossible for them to work in any capacity whatsoever. Some people develop conditions such as heart disease or stroke that incapacitate them. Most people, myself included, believe that society has a responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Another problem with the libertarian view as I have outlined it above concerns the fact that some people are in fact capable of change. I once met a man who was a recovering alcoholic. He told me that he had once been an IBM systems salesman. At that time (the mid-1980s) that would have been a position at the absolute pinnacle of the American workforce. But he was a drinker, and his drinking consumed him. He lost his job, lost his wife and family, his house– everything. Finally– when he had reached rock bottom– he realized that he had to change his life. He joined AA, worked at it, kicked his habit, and got back into the workforce selling PC software. People sometimes can turn their lives around, can decide to remake themselves, to make amends for their poor choices. And sometimes that works. I think that society owes such people a second chance, and a helping hand up.

Mind you, I also recognize that there are some people who can never be changed. Ted Bundy is, to my mind, the quintessential example of this sort of person. He was addicted to killing. He enjoyed it, enjoyed the power he felt over his victims, and he was never going to stop killing until society put him away. Differentiating between those who are earnest in their desire to change and those who will never change is hard. My general rule of thumb is that I’m willing to give anyone a first chance to earn my trust. And I’ll offer most people a second chance, so long as they can demonstrate to me that they’re sincere– but the burden of proof is on them, not me.

Where libertarianism completely falls apart is in the broader context of society generally. Consider pollution. Suppose we have two businesses A and B, both of which manufacture the same product. Suppose further that Business A is mindful of its impact on the environment and disposes of its waste responsibly. But Business B is owned by a true libertarian who believes that businesses should only consider their own interests and profits without giving any consideration to the general condition of society at large. So Business B simply dumps all of its solid and liquid waste into the nearest river or stream and pumps all of its gaseous waste into the atmosphere. Business B will therefore have a lower cost of operation and will therefore be able to undercut Business A on price. And in the long run the market will reward Business B with more sales and profits. The inevitable end result is a race to the bottom in which responsible disposers of waste are forced out of the market and those businesses that remain are the worst polluters.

A libertarian apologist might argue that this is all perfectly reasonable since consumers can choose which products they prefer. If they want clean air and water then they can elect to purchase only from corporations that properly dispose of their wastes. But that assumes that consumers have enough information to make such choices. The fact is that businesses lie, and they have the means to make their lies seem reasonable. Cigarette manufacturers lied for decades about the relationship between tobacco and cancer. They even hired people with advanced degrees to argue that the science on the matter was not definitive. Consumers were confronted with two completely different narratives on tobacco products. The Surgeon General argued that tobacco products increase the risk of getting cancer while the tobacco companies claimed that the science was not conclusive and that cigarette smoking does not cause cancer. Only later was discovered that the tobacco companies had known for decades that everything the Surgeon General had said about their products was true. When consumers have deeply flawed or incomplete information on which to base their purchase decisions they can’t be expected to make sound choices.

No one– not even the most strident libertarian– wants to breathe polluted air or drink poisoned water. There is only one way to prevent businesses from spewing their waste into our rivers, streams, and atmosphere, and that is by enacting and enforcing regulation. Businesses that pollute should be punished for the harm they do to society. The marketplace generally cannot do that and therefore it is the responsibility of society as a whole to provide the punishment that capital markets cannot.

The ultimate problem that libertarianism cannot address is climate change. The planet’s climate is being radically altered by human behavior– that much is now undeniable. Limiting or reducing the adverse effects of climate change is something that will require the cooperative efforts of all societies on the planet. It is not a problem that can be addressed by entrusting each individual to act in their own self interest.

In contemporary discourse libertarians often argue that the regulation of business violates libertarian principles. The libertarian philosophy that applies to individuals, so the reasoning goes, should also apply to businesses as they are simply agglomerations of individuals. That philosophy holds that individuals should be held accountable for their own failings. Since the marketplace holds businesses accountable by punishing mismanagement there is no reason for society– or the government– to impose additional constraints. But that reasoning fails to account for the kinds of problems that can only be solved by moderating social behavior generally. Pollution and climate change are two of the best examples of such problems, though there are others as well. No one– not even the most strident libertarian– wants to breathe polluted air, drink polluted water, or live in a locale that is too hot or too wet for human life. And therefore no one is a true libertarian.

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore. All rights reserved.

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