Why I am Not a Libertarian

(c) 2017 by Barton Paul Levenson


Could I, Barton Levenson--the crazy liberal on the internet--be an ex-Libertarian? Well, yes.

I grew up with folks who always voted Democratic, who thought the Rosenbergs, and Sacco and Vanzetti, had been railroaded. I liked socialism, since I hated poverty, racism, and other horrors my country had never fixed. I knew vaguely that the Soviet system was bad, though I was vague on why--I just knew Stalin had killed a lot of people and repressed eastern Europe.

I became an anti-Communist liberal in college, on learning of the sheer extent of Stalin's genocides and the lack of checks and balances under Communism. I minored in economics, and read about other ways to run an economy than from the top down. Free markets actually made sense other than as a right-wing slogan.

I read a lot of Milton Friedman--and corresponded with him for a while--and saw that, back then, the monetarists had the evidence, while the Keynesians did not. With the bad examples of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I knew repressive states were a real, serious danger. So why not run the economy with minimal state interference? I began to see how market-based approaches could fix the social problems I cared about--Friedman's negative income tax to reduce poverty, effluents taxes to curb pollution, etc. Finally I joined up.

Knowing about World War II, I approved when Bush Senior tried to stop Saddam Hussein. Sixty million people died because the great powers failed to stop Hitler in 1934 when he marched into the Ruhr valley. Saddam had conquered Kuwait and was aiming for Saudi Arabia. I knew you had to stop conquerors early.

And then the Libertarian Party, with its opposition to military spending, came out against Desert Storm. I promptly quit the party.

I couldn't be a Republican; they were too in love with big business and repressing women and minorities. I went back to the Democrats, but with no real hostility to the Libertarians. We differed on one big issue. Stuff happens.

A question of science

I loved astronomy long before I cared about politics. I got my bachelor's at Pitt--a dual major in physics and computer science. I had known since the 1970s that carbon dioxide was a major player in planet surface temperatures. I had also gone from a naive, pre-teen believer in Erich von Däniken to a gleeful debunker of pseudoscience. Planet temperatures interested me because habitable planets interested me. I was teaching myself to write atmosphere models in 1988 when Jim Hansen told congress "the greenhouse effect is here." I agreed because as an amateur astrophysicist, with the science chops to do the math, I knew how such things worked.

Then I came across my first "global warming deniers." The Earth isn't warming, they said, it's cooling. And the Sun is causing the warming. And we don't really know the Earth's temperature. Sometimes they said all three.

I argued with them on-line, assuming they were just your usual internet loonies. I knew nothing, yet, about the millions of dollars the fossil fuel industry and its allies poured into global warming denial each year. Slowly, I learned about the denial industry, the payments to crackpot scientists and self-styled "mavericks," the fake think tanks and fake journals. I knew from my own studies that global warming was real, man-made, and the greatest threat civilization had ever faced outside of nuclear war. That became my biggest political issue.

And then Reason magazine, flagship journal of the Libertarian Party, denied global warming. They followed the hard-right party line: if global warming is real, liberals will raise taxes. Therefore it can't be real. A classic logical fallacy, the argumentum ad consequentiam. Reason magazine no longer deserved its name.

Classical Libertarianism--call it "CL"--is a political philosophy based on protecting individual rights from government repression. I was appalled to learn how far Libertarians had fallen in a couple of decades. What used to be a movement promoting natural rights ethics had become a hodgepodge of pseudoscientists, anti-feminists, neo-Confederates, and isolationists happy with foreign dictators.

Modern Libertarianism--"ML"--has degenerated from CL to Ayn Rand-style anarcho-capitalism. The only right MLs still care about is the right not to pay taxes for any reason. They think the only bad thing is government. Individuals are good, corporations are good, even states and cities are often okay. But the feds are the root of all evil.

ML is not just confused, it is incoherent. People call themselves "Libertarian" who have no idea what the word means. They talk about "small government" when they mean "no government," or even, "government small in most areas, but big and intrusive where I want it to be."

I already mentioned global warming, where Libertarians are just plain wrong. So is anyone who decides a science issue by his or her politics. Physical reality doesn't give a damn about your political beliefs; it is what it is. You can say the law of gravity is repressive and statist, and you won't follow it, but walk off the Sears Tower and see what happens.

But Libertarians argue with science on more than global warming. The school of "Austrian economics" openly rejects empirical evidence for theory: "Its statements and propositions... are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts"--Ludwig von Mises, Human Action--A Treatise on Economics, p. 32. If the facts contradict free-market theory, so much the worse for the facts.

This is most clear when it comes to what economists call "externalities." An externality is a cost, or benefit, accidentally given a third party in a transaction. In classic free market theory, a business transaction happens when two free individuals, buyer and seller, agree on a price for something and exchange it for something else (usually money). No harm done, and in Murray Rothbard's phrase, you should not interfere with "capitalist acts between consenting adults."

But suppose the transaction harms a third party who never consented to it? What if Smith Power burns coal and sells power to Jones Industries, and then dumps its mercury-and-cadmium-laden waste gases into the air? And people nearby get sick and die from it?

Classical Libertarians have an answer--see, for instance, Rothbard's "The Libertarian Manifesto on Pollution." They admit externalities are real, and say the courts could handle them. This isn't a good answer--How easy is it for poor people to sue giant corporations?--but at least they don't deny the problem.

Modern Libertarians say externalities don't exist. As Fred Smith put it, "[e]xternalities... are an excuse for expanding government." Industry is under siege by "junk science," which seems to mean any scientific finding that a corporation is hurting people. With their Republican pals, Libertarians now embrace "tort reform" which takes away even the right to sue, or limits how much you can win. Or they just deny pollution is a problem. "Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent 'Thank you' to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find," said Ayn Rand (The Anti-Industrial Revolution, p. 278).

More Libertarian shenanigans

In my view, it is not just governments that can violate individual rights. An individual can--think of robbery, rape, murder. A corporation can--pollution, colluding on prices, smearing and intimidating climate scientists. Of course most individuals, and most businesses, do not act like this. But some do. The way to protect individual rights is not to restrict the state while letting corporations run wild. That way lies feudalism, not freedom.

Are women's rights human rights? If life starts at conception, laws banning abortion are just laws against murder. Thus Ron Paul ran for president on a "right-to-life" Libertarian platform, and later his son, Rand Paul, did the same for the GOP. And if some kinds of contraceptive might cause abortions, ban them, too.

Colorado recently began providing free contraceptives for teens. Abortions and teen pregnancies fell 40%, the state saved money, everybody won--a "positive externality" with benefits for the whole community.

The Libertarians hated it. The state was taking taxpayers' money to help other people!

Gay marriage? Like a lot of Republicans, many Libertarians think it should be "left up to the states." Apparently it's okay for states to be repressive. Or at least, it's somehow worse for the federal government to tell them not to be.

Ron Paul's old newsletter used to go on and on about this. Abe Lincoln was a terrible tyrant for invading the south. (Ignore the fact that it was the south that started shooting--twice, the first time during Buchanan's presidency--and that southern troops set foot on northern land first.) Sure, slavery was just awful, but it would somehow have died out anyway. The Union never should have used (gasp) violence to interfere with the states' right to secede.

Even as a Party member, I knew states' rights made no sense. Why is it bad for the federal government to oppress people, but okay for states or cities? When did states get natural rights?

It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that if states have rights that can be enforced against individuals, you've got the Soviet Union. After all, the Soviets guaranteed freedom of speech. But they also banned "slandering the state." If you said bad things about Uncle Joe, you infringed on the state's rights, and belonged in the GULAG. Same deal if "coloreds" tried to use the white bathroom in the south before 1964.

And did "South Carolina" want to secede? Fifty-eight percent of South Carolinians in 1860 were slaves--they didn't get to vote on it. Nor did many land-poor whites. And the anti-slavery forces in the south--yes, there were some--had been silenced by years of intimidation. Abolitionist presses burned. Men and women who even mentioned Abolition aloud got pulled off trains, stripped, and whipped. (So much for gentlemanly southern treatment of ladies.) Is that some kind of "freedom" the state must not interfere with?

Did you know there was a serious Libertarian argument for slavery? See Walter Block's "Towards a Libertarian Theory of Inalienability [sic]: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Kinsella, Gordon, and Epstein." That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but if you own yourself, clearly you can sell yourself--permanently, if that's how the contract reads. How's that for defending individual freedom?

Murray Rothbard has a lot of interesting views. One is that it would be wrong for the government to force parents to feed their children. He thinks parents have the right to starve their children to death (The Ethics of Liberty, pp. 99-101). I think it's criminal for parents not to feed their kids. Rothbard thinks it's criminal for the state to force them to. Which position seems more like abject lunacy?

And back to me again

In my college years I gave up utilitarian ethics for natural rights theory. I still believe in natural rights, which are, in my personal view, God-given--that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, and that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But I no longer think the Libertarian Party can get us there.

I still have Libertarian views on many issues. I think the "War on Drugs" has been a costly, repressive failure which hits minorities hardest. I oppose banning sex acts among consenting adults, even when I personally think those acts sinful (I'm a born-again Christian). I think if you're competent to do so, you should be able to own firearms for self- or home defense. And I think free markets are the best way to organize an economy, though you do need government regulation to stop companies harming the public and each other.

But I do not believe "small government" is always the answer. Nor is the dreaded "big government" the Republicans and Libertarians are always warning you about. I have an idea neither of them seem to have thought of, so let me lay it on you right here and now--how about government as big as needed, but no bigger? Or in simpler words, "right-sized government." Or is that too complicated?

Page created:09/24/2017
Last modified:  09/24/2017