It is truly amazing how little some on the left understand about libertarians. A recent article on Medium attempted to expose the “truth” about us and our beliefs. You can tell immediately the level of discourse the author, I. Kahan, operates on when he calls libertarianism a “cancer”. How charming!
Listing ten “lies” libertarians apparently always tell, everything Mr. Kahan writes ultimately boils down to a festering mire of misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and outright ignorance. Let’s try to drain that bog with a bit of truth (through point-by-point refutation):
10. The Founding Fathers Were Libertarian
The author tells us that the Founding Fathers of the United States were not, contrary to popular belief, libertarians. He dredges up a couple quotes by the Founders. By way of evidence, Mr. Kahan points out that Thomas Jefferson was not a big fan of concentrated wealth, and that John Jay believed government was a necessary thing to have. If either of those sentiments are inherently unlibertarian, you’ve got me stumped. Jefferson’s concerns were always clearly about the maintenance of maximal personal liberty, famously saying such things as “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” That sounds pretty libertarian. And as for Jay, the sentiment that a government is a thing that ought to exist in some form is hardly an anti-libertarian position. I think Mr. Kahan may have us confused with anarchists!
I think it would be fruitless to engage in a game of quote hockey with this guy, though the writing of the Founders is pretty much universally pro-liberty and anti-government. But if one wants to assess whether the Founders were libertarian, they need look no further than the Constitution itself. It is a document designed to limit the powers of democracy (more on that later) and clearly and absolutely affixes the rights of individuals. It is clearly a document designed to maximize individual rights and to strictly limit the power of government. That ticks the libertarian box in my book.
9. The Problem is Crony Capitalism, Not Capitalism
Mr. Kahan is clearly no fan of capitalism. He says it is capitalism that promotes unfair taxation, collusion, and fraud. Basically, his case is that the things libertarians call the ills of crony capitalism are built into the idea of capitalism itself.
It is strange that Mr. Kahan is so quick to call us liars when it seems we agree about many social ills. But apparently because we don’t see the problem with capitalism itself, we are dishonest. Mr. Kahan seems to think that crony capitalism is just the stuff that can be shown on balance sheets, like tax breaks and hand-outs to favored industries. Yet it is a deeply entrenched system of powerful corporate entities that have power because they can manipulate the levers of government. That is true crony capitalism and it is nothing like a free market. Such a perversion is not created just by money transfers, but by all manner of more veiled benefits. It’s created by a revolving door between privileged businesses and high government office, and the special favors and regulations created to defend incumbents.
Without the power of government to distort markets and support favorites, the sort of exploitation Mr. Kahan hates so much would not even be possible. Yet it is free competition that stamps out wasteful corruption.
8. Tax Cuts Trickle Down
This is an odd one, as Mr. Kahan clearly backs off the claim even in his own argument. He acknowledges that there may be times when trickle down happens, he just disputes how much. He also asserts that “economists estimate” that taxes in the US could go up massively to achieve government revenue maximization.
There are two problems with this from a libertarian viewpoint. First, we can challenge the facts. While Mr. Kahan evidently believes the economists of the EPI can serve as stand-in for all economic opinion everywhere, there are plenty of economists who might disagree. But on a more important level, libertarians are not defenders of tax cuts because they will increase government revenue: We don’t want to government to have more revenue at all. We want it to shrink! (I thought that was obvious).
7. The Rich Deserve to Be Rich, and the Poor Deserve to Be Poor
Mr. Kahan is no fan of the birth lottery, or of smart people making more money than average or unintelligent people. Let’s take each of those ideas in turn.
The idea of the birth lottery is that because you do not choose the circumstances of your birth, the wealth of your parents is an unearned and unjust advantage or disadvantage. Of course, biology contradicts this. Everyone born is the product of an exact confluence of biological and genetic factors. In other words, you can’t be anyone other than who you are. And what you get from your parents isn’t unearned privilege. They earned it so they could give you a better life. That isn’t inequity, that is the just reward of hard work and sacrifice.
As for smart people getting paid more, I am genuinely baffled by this notion. Surely talent is something worth rewarding. It seems utterly insane to attack these people for getting advantages over less intelligent people. Our society thrives on technology and knowledge. It’s not capitalism that rewards such people; it’s sane thinking.
6. Government is Tyrannical
Mr. Kahan’s argument boils down to a passionate defense of majority rule. Yet he has up to this point been moaning about the mistreatment of minorities and underprivileged groups. Surely they would be disadvantaged in a majoritarian government?
The whole problem with this argument is that it assumes somehow that being skeptical of the unfettered power of governments, or a majoritarian mob, is to demand the rule of a minority. Libertarians are not fans of rulers of any size. What we believe, and what someone cares about minorities should believe, is that the rights of individuals should be protected and secure, irrespective of the majority’s will. Anything else is, indeed, tyranny.
5. Libertarians are Against Big Government
This is another really bizarre argument. Basically, Mr. Kahan claims that a world of unfettered capitalism would become so inequitable that a proletarian uprising would be inevitable, and that thus in order to protect their property a large and powerful state would be necessary. And thus libertarians must want a big government to protect their stuff.
It is tempting simply to leave that argument on its own and let it collapse under its own weight. But that is hardly sporting. So to answer these accusations, firstly, it is hardly reasonable to assume that wealth would coalesce in that way. Absent crony capitalist protections there would be greater competition and entrenched interests would find it hard to gain purchase.
As for the proles, capitalism has done a pretty excellent job of improving the lives of everyone, including the poorest. People live longer and in greater comfort thanks to the innovations of the market, and fewer people die of disease, war, and banditry thanks to a world based on free trade rather than conquest.
Finally, the idea that the government would have to be huge is a bit silly. If people are free to defend themselves however they choose, why would they need a massive state to do it for them? Even if capitalists were the evil caricatures Mr. Kahan wants to portray them as, they would hardly want a massive government that could become a threat to them!
4. Libertarians are Against Aggression, Violence, and Force
To make this point, Mr. Kahan relies on an absurd thought experiment: A libertarian refuses to pay his taxes, so an IRS agent walks into his house and starts taking his money. The libertarian then turns a gun on the agent to get his cash back. Therefore, libertarians reject the non-aggression principle.
This, of course, is an astonishingly strange notion. By and large libertarians acknowledge that government exists and comply with the laws. The point is that philosophically we dispute the right of government, or anyone, to take what we earn and own to distribute elsewhere. I know I pay my taxes. We aren’t all Cliven Bundys.
Also, the principle of non-aggression isn’t a pacifistic stance. It just means we do not start violence. But we, like any living being, can and will fight to survive and protect ourselves. To do otherwise is to deny our right to life.
3. Libertarians are Moderates and Socially Liberal
This whole “lie” is really just a matter of definitions. Mr. Kahan says it is not socially liberal to eliminate social spending on things like education and healthcare, and thus libertarians are not socially liberal. I mean, sure, by that definition, I guess we aren’t. But if you define social liberalism as supporting the rights of individuals to live freely, to marry who they want, and put into their bodies what they want, then surely we are very liberal.
Mr. Kahan says it is not liberal to support private prisons and a glut of gun murders. Yet private prisons have only sprung up because mass incarceration (due to the Drug War) has swamped the public ones. And, contrary to popular delusion, overall gun violence has been dropping for decades. So perhaps our brand of liberalism is what we actually need in this country!
2. A Deregulated Market Helps the Poor and the Middle Class
Mr. Kahan contends that capitalism is inherently exploitative, and that the poor and middle classes see none of the benefits of capitalism while wealth accumulates at the top. He says that the Gilded Age, an era of unfettered capitalism, saw exploitation of children and workers, and that it was only with the advent of New Deal economic policies that we saw an end to economic depressions.
There’s a lot to unpack from these contentions. First, it is worth pointing out that capitalism and free trade have massively improved standards of living across all rungs of society and across all societies with market economies. Aggregate poverty, child mortality, horrific disease, and more have all been stamped out by the economic engine of free markets.
As for the Gilded Age, it was hardly an era of capitalists alone. It was in fact the era in which government corruption and crony capitalism reached a new zenith. So many of the monopolies Mr. Kahan decries were protected from competition by helpful officials, and many that were broken up were given in pieces to simpering favorites of the governing powers. Hardly a time of free markets!
The New Deal has many detractors and supporters. But what cannot be denied is that when the New Deal was implemented America was in a deep depression, and it was still in a depression nearly a decade later when the country entered the Second World War. If anything, the New Deal lengthened and exacerbated the depression. No other economic downturn before it, even those of similarly calamitous size, lasted anywhere near as long. Perhaps the problem was too much government, not too little.
1. Libertarians Love Freedom
The would-be coup de grace of Mr. Kahan’s argument is the contention that libertarians, contrary to their name and literally everything they talk about, are not in favor of freedom. And this is because he does not agree with our definition of freedom. He prefers to include positive rights, like the right to healthcare and education, as parts of freedom. It is a rather dishonest argumentation tactic to say someone is a liar because they happen to have a separate definition of something. That is real dishonesty.
But here’s the thing about freedom: While we can dispute what freedom entails, libertarians are very clear on what we believe to be freedom. When we talk about freedom, we mean freedom from coercion by government and others. We mean freedom to live how we want without the strictures of a society or external power making demands on us.
We would be happy to debate the value of this belief. But until people like Mr. Kahan approach us with honesty rather than mischaracterizations and demonization, that may prove a challenge.
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