Caricatures of libertarianism
I’m not a libertarian but I do share many beliefs in common with libertarians. That’s one reason I find this piece by Amanda Marcotte so incoherent. Leaping onto the anti-Koch bandwagon, Amanda comes to this conclusion about libertarianism:
But what all this points to is a very serious problem for libertarianism, whether Christian or secular. As I noted earlier, libertarianism tends to spring up when you start to believe human beings exist to serve systems and institutions, and not vice versa. But our system of government was laid out explicitly on the grounds that institutions serve human beings—basically, the founders were backed by a humanist philosophy. If you disagree, let me point you to the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
Rights exist because of people. Government exists because of people. Markets exist because of people, and if those markets stop working for people, they should be modified until they do. Libertarians take an opposite view, which is that their institutions—free markets for seculars, free markets plus the patriarchy plus the church for Christian libertarians—have the right of way when they come into conflict with the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of The People. Pollution is no reason, in their view, to introduce environmental regulation. Economic crashes shouldn’t result in economic regulation. We’re all supposed to just see that as the way the cookie crumbles.
I’m simply not following the notion that somehow libertarians – all staunch defenders of individualism – believe that “human beings exist to serve systems and institutions” or that, if this is the case, in what sense they believe this in contrast to liberals who apparently do not. First of all, Amanda is arguing through assertion. She says libertarians believe this, therefore they must. She says that libertarians believe that institutions (including free markets?) trump “the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of The People”. This is nonsense. It never ceases to amaze me that people like Amanda are so distrustful of every institution except the government. She lists markets, the church, the patriarchy – but what about the state? Isn’t it every bit as powerful – indeed, a lot more powerful – than any of these other institutions – even allowing that ‘markets’ are an institution (and assuming she means corporations and is simply conflating the two)? The state is also an institution. And like the rest of these, it may be good or bad or neither, but it can certainly work against The People just as easily as Big Business.
Oh, certainly some policies that libertarians offer up might lead to many people getting trampled on – I don’t believe, for instance, that a purely free market healthcare system would fill in the cracks in any meaningful way, even if more market-based mechanisms could certainly be used to improve the system – but that hardly means that libertarians actually think the way Amanda says they do (even the really pernicious Objectivists don’t really fit Amanda’s caricature here). Some policies progressives want will similarly lead to people getting trampled over. That’s the awkward thing about government and trial and error. Policies fail. There are unintended consequences despite good or bad intentions.
Furthermore, I think Amanda is taking the whole evolution thing a bit far. If the Koch exhibit at the Smithsonian she describes really does imply that humans will adapt to global warming, well that’s a little silly also. We don’t know the effects of global warming, and they may happen too fast for biological evolution to occur. Technological adaptation is a much more likely response – indeed, probably the only response beyond preventative taxation measures, to the threat of global warming. Amanda is taking the extremes of libertarianism and the specific political biases of the brothers Koch and applying them to libertarianism writ large. This is not a very honest portrait of that philosophy, however accurate it may be of some of its adherents. Not every libertarian is Ayn Rand. And even if they were this would still be an inaccurate portrayal of their beliefs.