Wednesday, January 05, 2005


I've always admired libertarianism because it is one of the few idealogies that attempt to derive their political positions from first principles. Conservatives, in contrast, seem to work their way backwards from what they want to why it's the right thing to do, anyway. Liberals, I think, are more concerned with results than with principles. But libertarians are genuinely concerned about what is right, in their view. The notion of what is right for the libertarian, it seems to me, ultimately revolves around the issue of ownership.

Any interaction between human beings is legitimate, for the libertarian, if it is the result of a free exchange between owners. If I have something that you want, and you have something that I want, then it's nobody's business but ours if we decide to exchange them, as long as nobody was coerced into making the exchange.

I like this philosophy because it's simple to understand and to reason about. But I don't really believe in it anymore (I once did...)
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There are two problems that I have with libertarianism: (1) I don't think that the notion of fair exchange is well-founded, and (2) I think that unmoderated libertarianism leads to a state that is functionally equivalent to feudalism.

First, well-foundedness. Libertarianism is about a process, how to get from point A to point B through legitimate means. If we agree that I own this car, and we agree that the $20,000 in your wallet belongs to you, then if we freely exchange your money for my car, then afterwards, we agree that you own the car, and I have the money. Right? Okay, but how do we agree that I legitimately own the car? Well, I must have legitimately bought it from somebody. But how did he come to own it? There is a chicken-or-egg problem here. If the only way I can legitimately own something is by buying it from a legitimate owner, then how did the first property come into existence?

I think libertarians have two answers to this question. The first answer is that if you go back far enough, land wasn't owned by anyone, so the first person to claim it and defend it was the first owner. What that ultimately boils down to is that the first owner was someone who had the military might to kick other people off the land. So ownership ultimately got started through force. To me, that calls the whole notion of a principled notion of a free exchange into question, since we are all tainted by the original sin of violence.

The second answer is more pragmatic---just take for granted the current notion of ownership as practiced by our society, and from now on let's make sure that exchanges are all free. The problem with this is that the current notion of ownership is not the libertarian notion. What basis is there for thinking that the current state of ownership is fair?

The second issue I have with libertarianism is that I think that over the very long run, libertarianism is not much different from monarchy. At first glance, that probably sounds ridiculous? How could libertarianism, which believes in minimal government, be like monarchy, where one person (or family) has absolute governmental power? To see the connection, imagine a situation in which all property in a country is owned by a single person. That is a perfectly legitimate state of affairs for libertarianism. But in practice, such an absolute owner would be an absolute monarch. Nobody would dare say or do a word against this person, because you depend on this person for the food you eat, the job you hold, the house you live in, everything. I guess one small difference between monarchy and this extreme case of libertarianism is that an absolute monarch can have your head cut off, while the worst that an absolute owner could do to you was to have you exiled. So maybe it would be a kinder, gentler type of monarchy. But it wouldn't be liberty, by any stretch of the imagination.

This extreme case of ownership in the hands of one person may seem far-fetched, but I don't think it really is. Money can be leveraged to make more money. With no mechanisms to redistribute wealth, I think that the natural course of things is for money and property to become more and more concentrated. With the number of multi-billionaires growing while median wealth has been stagnant for several decades, I don't think that monarchy (or at least feudalism) is far off.


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