(Originally written September, 2009. I’m giving my ‘Drafts’ folder a little spring-cleaning.)
The more belligerent an anti-Libertarian screed is, the more I feel the need to respond. It’s, like, an honor thing. I have to defend my honor. I’ve just now found an almost two-year-old blog entitled Libertarians are Retards, by a gentleman who identifies himself alternatively as Larry H. and The Barefoot Bum. Will I just sit here and take that sort of verbal abuse? No sir!
Of course, the most belligerent blogs are often the easiest to refute. They are usually short on substance. The point, after all, is not to inform the reader, but rather to entertain the reader with witticisms and jocular ridicule. Often the authors are so blinded by their antagonism that they flagrantly and proudly misunderstand and misrepresent the the very ideas they intend to challenge. This makes refutation all the easier, and exposes these bellicose bloggers as the fools and jesters they are.
Such is the case with Libertarians are Retards. Lets step through it:
Big Ell Libertarians piss me off worse than Christians (worse than Muslims even, and you know how much they piss me off).
The Barefoot Bum singles out “Big Ell Libertarians” for opprobrium. I’m not sure whether this term should apply to me. I’ve been registered under the Libertarian party, and I vote Libertarian. My blog sports the Libertarian Party logo. But not all Libertarian Party members believe all the same things. Many who support small ell libertarian principles are not registered as Big Ell Libertarians, and do not vote with the Big Ell Libertarian party. Many people who vote with the Big Ell Libertarian party support what I consider to be quite un-libertarian policies, such as “cracking down on” undocumented, illegal immigrants. I don’t believe that the Barefoot Bum sufficiently clears the air when he singles out “Big Ell Libertarians” this way. I vote Libertarian, but I do not believe several of the things that the Barefoot Bum accuses Libertarians of believing. I can’t say for sure whether this blog was intended to apply to me.
Libertarianism rests on absurd hypocrisy. Pacifists notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s rational to absolutely denounce coercion (you have to defend yourself); Libertarianism denounces, rather, the “initiation” of coercion. However people have been coercing each other since the dawn of recorded history.
It has been wrong since the dawn of recorded history.
Denouncing the “initiation” of coercion means just, “Go back until someone else acted coercively, and then justify my own coercion as a defense against that coercion.”
I’m sure that everyone, if they “go back” far enough, can find an ancestor who has benefited from some sort of criminal coercion, and an ancestor who has been harmed by some sort of criminal coercion.
Personally, I have never considered initiating any sort of force against English Protestants whose ancestors may have initiated force against my Scottish Catholic ancestors. Similarly, I’ve never considered initiating force against Ukrainians whose ancestors may have participated pogroms against my Israelite ancestors. I have no accounting either of what, if anything, I lost in these incidents or from whom, if anyone, I should collect. Simply to go on a retributive coercive rampage without such an accounting would be an unwarranted initiation of coercion, in my opinion. One can not justify initiating coercion by simply “going back”.
If (American) Libertarians were serious about the “initiation” of coercion, they’d give their land back to the Indians and move back to Europe.
I personally do not own any land to give back to the Indians. If I did, I would not give it to the first person who came around claiming to deserve it because he “went back” to an earlier coercion. Nor will I excuse or justify the misdeeds of my predecessor Americans. But I will remind my readers that the federal government owns half the land west of the Mississippi River. State governments also own a significant amount of land. I would open all of this land to homesteading, and I would not oppose a program that entitled Indians and the descendants of freed slaves first dibs on that land. Not all land is created equal, but there is probably enough to go around.
Any notion of property rights requires the acceptable initiation of coercion. If something is property, then someone has to make that something his property for the first time. I have to, for example, fence off some piece of land to make it my property. But how is that not the “initiation” of coercion? Until I put up the fence, you were free to use that land as you pleased; now I’m forcing you to stay off of it; only I can now use the land as I please.
I have a different theory of land ownership. I think I got it largely from Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, but I can’t find the exact citation right now. It goes like this:
The main way to come into first ownership of a parcel of land is not to build a fence around it, but rather to apply transformative labor to it. Either farm it or build something on it, or clear it, or do something like that to it. In fact, no fence is necessary. Those who can see the improvements upon the land will know that it is occupied. They will also know that to use that land without the permission of persons who worked to improve it will be a trespassory form of theft of labor, against which the land owner has a right of defense. Furthermore, one who merely builds a fence around a parcel of unimproved land would have no right of ownership to the enclosed land. He has a right of ownership to the fence, which is the product of his labor, but he does not have a right of ownership to the land. I agree with the Barefoot Bum’s assertion that to unduly prevent another person from entering onto unimproved land would be an illegitimate initiation of coercive force.
I understand that this is not the traditional American view of land-ownership. I vote Libertarian in the full knowledge that not even Libertarians will immediately reform land-ownership laws to meet this standard. I happen to believe nonetheless that voting Libertarian is the biggest step in the best direction.
Libertarians refuse to be obligated to protect my rights, but demand that I protect their property. Fuck you. Defend your own damn property against robbery and theft. If those ten guys over there can overpower you and take your stuff, what business of it is mine? You should have hired more bodyguards.
Hey, look. I was born into this system. That wasn’t my idea. The State has already extracted tax money from me to fund its “free” law-enforcement “public option”. If I did defend my own damn property against theft and robbery, would the Barefoot Bum see to it that I received a reduction in my tax liability?
The Barefoot Bum is correct that this is a hypocritical position to which many Libertarians adhere. The idea is crystallized in section 2.0 of the Libertarian Party’s platform:
The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected.
If that government is funded through taxation, then Libertarians have put themselves in the awkward position of advocating the violation of property rights to protect property rights. But any hypocrisy-based argument against Libertarians applies in at least equal force to members of both mainstream parties and most other parties. They each will generally tell you out of one side of their mouths that robbery is a felony punishable by imprisonment, and they will tell you out of the other side of their mouths that robbery (in the form of taxation) is not only permissible, but desirable and mandatory, so long as the robbers are first voted into public office through a general election. Is this not hypocrisy?
Many Libertarians challenge the idea that government has a legitimate role even in protecting property and adjudicating disputes. Discussing his compendium of Anarchist thought, Anarchy and the Law, Edward P. Stringham described the origins of our public police and court systems:
Bruce Benson has an excellent article Are Public Goods Really Common Pools? In this one, he talks about how in England a thousand years ago, there was a very worked out, well developed system of private dispute resolution. People would be members of these groups called hundreds where they would pledge: “If you are part of this group you’re going to be honest. If somebody does something we’ll pay restitution to the other person.” And it worked very well. And then eventually the kings in England started observing this and they said “Oh, there’s lots of restitution being paid to victims. Maybe in addition to paying restitution to victims, maybe you can pay some of the restitution to the king as well.” So they started passing these laws that said “not only did you violate the victim’s rights, you also violated the king’s peace.” And eventually the government started saying “Well, this is also a violation of kings peace. That’s a violation of king’s peace.” So you got more and more criminal laws passed over time. Eventually, they said: “Well, you know, the victim, he doesn’t really matter. The real victim is the king.” So they made all the restitution go to the king, and then, eventually, people stopped using this system. And then the government said: “Look! It’s a market failure! Markets don’t work!” Okay, so they stepped in ex post and said: “We need to provide public law enforcement,” but it wasn’t because the market wasn’t doing it, it was because the government intervened.
I have not yet read either Edward P. Stringham’s book or Bruce Benson’s article. Nor have I considered any of their sources, or any other possible sources for this information, so I don’t yet have a very good sense of how a privatized system of law enforcement of work, but I am interested in considering methods of protecting property that do not rest on the initiation of force against those unwilling to participate.
In 21st century America, it would be politically inexpedient, to say the least, to adopt as part of any political platform a statement explaining that the party intends to dissolve its municipal police force and citizens should begin to consider patronizing private security firms. I do not believe that Americans, by and large, are ready to consider that message. Libertarians are marginalized enough as it is. I accept their platform position on this matter as a politically appropriate intermediate stage between our current system of laws and law enforcement, and a truly libertarian one.
All told, I personally demand nothing from the Barefoot Bum. If he refused today to pay his taxes, either to spite me or better tend to his own affairs, I wouldn’t say a word to him.
(And if your bodyguards realize they can take your stuff, too bad for you.)
Let’s not pretend that lawmakers and public police are never corrupt and never abuse their authority. Let’s get real. This is a universal problem.
Libertarians tend to be upper-middle-class professionals. What these Libertard upper-middle-class professionals fail to realize is that their status and wealth is protected by un-Libertarian law and custom (i.e. requiring law degrees and bar examinations; why not let the market decide who should be a lawyer?)
This is not the first time someone has attempted to discredit me by accusing me of being wealthy. It was a meritless ad hominem attack last time I heard it, and it is a meritless ad hominem attack today.
I vehemently oppose mandatory licensing requirements for legal professionals. They reduce the supply of legal services available to the public and therefore increase the price of those services. The detriments redound almost entirely to the poor and middle class in this country, who are very often left to defend themselves pro se in court. Those who have permission to represent themselves in court would be better off if they also had permission to hire a person who knows a mere one more thing than they do about how to prepare and deliver a case. Instead, onerous licensing laws raise the bar of permissible legal services to above that which many can afford. The market should decide who should be a lawyer.
The truly wealthy realize they don’t need a political philosophy to protect their wealth. Indeed, the very wealthy usually realize their wealth — just like the wealth of most of the middle-class — derives precisely from the non-Libertarian structure of society. Henry Ford couldn’t have become rich unless his workers were paid sufficiently above cost to afford to buy his automobiles. Welfare props up the above-cost value of lower-class physical labor, which props up the value of middle-class intellectual labor, which props up the value of upper-class ownership.
Its funny that the Barefoot Bum should bring up Henry Ford, of all people, to support his upside-down logic. Consider the case Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, 170 N.W. 668 (Mich 1919). In that case, the Dodge brothers owned 10% stock in Ford’s motor company, and Ford regularly paid “special dividends” on that stock. One year, Ford tweaked his business model:
‘My ambition,’ declared Mr. Ford, ‘is to employ still more men; to spread the benefits of this industrial system to the greatest possible number, to help them build up their lives and their homes. To do this, we are putting the greatest share of our profits back into the business.”
Ford also contended that because the stockholders had already recuperated their investments after the previous dividend payments, they “had no right to complain.” I agree with Ford. If the Dodge brothers were unsatisfied with their stock, they should have sold it off and bought more lucrative stock. Instead, the Dodge Brothers called on government to initiate coercion against Ford if he did not pay the dividend. The Michigan Court sided with the Dodge brothers:
A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders. The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end. The discretion of directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to a change in the end itself, to the reduction of profits, or to the nondistribution of profits among stockholders in order to devote them to other purposes.
Leave it to the Barefoot Bum to credit welfarism with doing what Michigan State courts had actively prevented Ford from doing himself. Some may question Ford’s altruism. Apparently, Ford did not want the Dodge brothers to have the money because Ford knew that the Dodge brothers were using the dividend money to set up a rival car company. But I do not believe that his personal motives would have had much effect on what would have been the outcome had the government permitted Ford to plow his profits back into the company. Ford would have been able not only to employ more of his fellow countrymen, but also to increase the supply of useful automobiles for them.
Under the Barefoot Bum’s narrative, societal wealth is created when money is taken from the rich and given to the poor. The poor can then afford to buy more things from rich producers. This makes the rich richer and allows wealth redistributors to take more money from the rich and give it to the poor. I might call this the M.C. Escher, upward-flowing Waterfall approach to wealth creation. I don’t see it working.
No, no. Wealth is created when owners of capital invest, innovate and produce. They figure out how to produce more cheaply goods that were once prohibitively expensive. Those goods will then be available to a wider market of people with less money. A larger market will lead to more purchases which will lead to more profits for the capitalist and more goods for the populace.
The claim that “Henry Ford couldn’t have become rich unless his workers were paid sufficiently above cost to afford to buy his automobiles,” is specious. First of all, it is impossible to pay a worker “above cost”. A worker costs whatever you pay him. You can’t pay a guy more than you pay him. You pay him what you pay him. Secondly, Ford was successful because he found a way to produce cars cheaply enough to make them available to the masses. The government did not bring the people up to the cars. Ford brought the cars down to the people. Lastly, if Ford could not have made cars cheaply enough for the masses to be able to afford to buy them, then he would have been misallocating resources. But that alone is not a bar to wealth. If nobody could afford to buy Ford’s cars, then Ford could have become wealthy simply by mass producing something else—something that people could afford. He could have found a better way to allocate resources.
Positive feedback dominates a finite free market: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
If positive feedback dominates the finite free market, then how do the poor masses get poorer? That would happen only if negative feedback dominated the market. The Barefoot Bum simply didn’t think before he wrote. He just invoked a familiar platitude, and combined it with the word “dominate” to make capitalism sound more oppressive.
To the extent that I even understand what the Barefoot Bum is trying to say, I agree that “positive feedback dominates the market”. I do not agree that such “positive feedback” makes the the poor poorer. I believe that it makes everyone richer. Art Carden explains, citing data from Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, a Brief Economic History of the World:
Who were the big winners from industrialization? The big winners from industrialization were unskilled laborers. Returns on capital? Flat. Returns on land? Flat. Wages for unskilled laborers grew explosively over roughly the last 800 years. So capitalism made us all better of, but it particularly redounded to the benefit of unskilled laborers.
If the Barefoot Bum is concerned primarily about the unequal distribution of wealth, then his concern is misplaced. His concern instead should be whether the least wealthy, by and large, have access to the goods and services that make for comfortable living. Art Carden explains further:
Let’s consider what we mean by inequality. As a society gets richer and richer and richer, the distribution of income becomes less reliable as a measure in inequality because the technological characteristics of the goods and services available to the very very poor will come to more closely resemble the technological characteristics of the goods available to the very rich. … Is it really such a bad thing that Bill Gates can afford a $2000 bottle of wine to have with his dinner, while the middle class family, or even average poor family will have to go to … Trader Joes, [where] you can get a bottle of two-buck chuck or three-buck chuck … that’s actually quite good?
The difference between rich and poor historically was the difference between who lived and who died.
If you go to Golden Corral [Buffet & Grill], or something like that, you see these amazing smorgasbords of probably relatively low quality food, but this is what sort of the great kings of yesteryear would have killed for. If you look at sort of the banquet of a very very rich person in the 19th century, or royalty in the … 17th century, you’ve got meat of questionable quality, bread, seasonal fruits and vegetables, ice cream if you’re really lucky, wine, a handful of other things. Today, by some people it’s considered a strike against capitalism that you can go to bust-your-gut buffet and bust your gut, and then go and pull a little handle and make yourself a dish of soft serve ice cream, which you can then load up with busted-up M&Ms or something like that….
The world has changed, and the world has changed a lot.
My favorite example is the mobile phone. In the not-too-distant past, a “mobile phone” was something that only the well-to-do could afford, and they had them only in their cars. Occasionally you would see this in the movies. A guy would be driving along, and then all of a sudden he’d reach down and pull a phone out of his ass and start chatting on it. That used to confuse the hell out of me. Now, everybody has a cell phone.
One day I forgot my mobile phone and needed to use a pay phone. When I found one, it was out of service. Twenty feet to my right, a panhandler in a wheelchair pulled a mobile phone out of his ass and held it out in my direction. He said: “Here, use this. Just give me what you would have put in the pay phone.” You know what: that confused the hell out of me. But that’s what the free market does for the poor. I borrowed the man’s phone in exchange for fifty cents.
No, Mr. Bum. The poor are not getting poorer, and it is not compulsory welfarism that is making all of these amenities accessible to more and more people.
Most of Libertarianism’s economic absurdities come from extending the simplifying assumptions of infinity to actual truths about the finite world.
I’ve written before about how those who argue against the free market generally use such hackneyed and predictable arguments that they sound like someone’s old grandmother telling the same anecdotes over and over again. This is not one of those arguments. This is actually a new one for me.
Juliusz Jablecki, writing for my favorite Austro-libertarian think-tank, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, lambastes mainstream economists and government policymakers for applying the assumptions of infinty to the finite world:
It is indeed puzzling that a concept that causes problems in pure mathematics itself is employed in economics, whose purpose, after all, should be the study of real things and real-life phenomena.
[N]evertheless “the economic policymaker in Washington … [who] works with figures that are summarized for geographic regions, different industries, and so on” doesn’t care about the individual consumer (or merchant), and would much rather treat them in a continuous manner just as the physicist treats individual molecules. The real motivation behind introducing “bad metaphysics” into economics was certainly not to help identify the mechanisms of a market economy, but rather to provide a useful tool for policymakers.
Yes, there are people out there applying assumptions of infinity to discrete sets to arrive at politically convenient results, but they aren’t among my preferred information sources.
Given that the “initiation” of coercion is an inherently incoherent, contradictory concept, in a finite free market, power will accrue not to the most “productive” but to those best able to marshal coercive power: To borrow from Napoleon, “The coercion was initiated by the side with the worst artillery.”
And we’re back to the same old misrepresentations about the free market. A market is not a place where people go to “marshal coercive power”. What market does the Barefoot Bum patronize where business is conducted primarily by kicking the crap out of each other and stealing each other’s things? The only part of a market transaction that even remotely resembles that is the part where the State levies and collects a mandatory sales tax on each transaction. Yes, markets occasionally get robbed, but this is not a function of the market. This is an anti-market function. If the Barefoot Bum wishes to argue that the free market will always succumb to more powerful anti-market forces, then let him argue that. All of his work is ahead of him. Markets thrive everywhere, despite occasional robberies. But to argue that “in a free market, power will accrue … to those best able to marshall coercive power” is to fundamentally misunderstand what a market is. The result is misplaced antagonism. The Barefoot Bum should mobilize his readers against coercive anti-market forces, not against markets.
The last “free market” society was 18th century France, and look how that turned out.
I guess this a touche for the Barefoot Bum. I don’t know much about 18th century French history. Perhaps someone can school me in the comments: Is he talking about pre-revolutionary France, or post-revolutionary France?
There’s nothing wrong with individual liberty and property rights. Both are valuable tools for managing a productive economy which provides happiness and material benefits for everyone, not just the ruthless few.
I agree completely.
But they are human constructs; they were not written by God Himself into the fabric of the universe.
I agree as well, but I don’t see the relevance.
Libertarianism is nothing more than the infantile, puerile whining of children who demand to keep the toys the other children shared with them.
You know, it really isn’t very difficult to describe one’s opponents of being crybaby whiners. Honestly, so-called progressives and socialists sound the same way to me: “Waah! Corporations are earning profits! Waah! I’m being exploited! Waah! Rich people aren’t shaaring with me! Waaaah!” The only problem is that this sort of ad hominem nonsense does not constitute a valid argument.