The peculiarly American concept of Libertarianism has, as I’ve mentioned before, been a constant source of confusion and bewilderment to me since I moved over here. Last night I was lucky enough to further my education and take part in some “lively debates” with some real bona-fide Libertarians.
Freedy neet is, of course, drinkin neet and in the absence of a friendly local boozer we often go to the nearest bar after work which is in fact a chain restaurant in a large Hotel/Conference center in Valley Forge. Brits are probably cringing at this idea, but it’s not too bad. We also get to mingle with the conference-goers-du-jour which can be entertaining. So far we’ve shared the bar with gun enthusiasts, bikers, salesmen, wedding parties and even knitting fanatics (it took us a while to realise that was what the conference theme was – initially we were convinced that it was the annual meeting of The American Society of Frumpy Middle-aged Dykes…sorry). Last night the conference was organized by Campaign for Liberty which, after a quick Google, I realised was a Libertarian group.
Now, the word “Libertarian” has a lot of different meanings, and it’s frequently applied to political ideologies ranging from neo-nazi to anarchism but from what I have managed to deduce, the core of Libertarianism is solid, well defined, and quite different to the public perception. One thing it is not is aligned in any way with the frothy-mouthed right-wing Glen Beck 9/12 racist teabagger wingnuttery that gets a disproportionately large amount of news coverage.
So, I had a couple of “heated discussions” with some willing opponents to whom I was introduced, by my gregarious and loquacious friend, as “a bloody British Socialist.” The first guy was a pacifist Quaker, the second was a high-school economics teacher. Both were anti-interventionist, anti-war, believed that religion and government should have no connection and firmly believed the free market was the solution.
I learned a lot about the fundamentals of Libertarianism, and after a few simple syllogistic explorations the only thing I can say is “you haven’t really thought this through have you ?”
Some examples follow further down.
There is one area of the debates where we would always hit a logical barrier of belief that it’s probably not fair to discuss because I can’t defend my point of view any more then they can; to me it’s so obviously ridiculous I can’t even entertain the idea. To them, it’s so obviously correct it defies debate. That point is (and I’m paraphrasing, probably unfairly) “The free market failures of the past have been as a direct result of government interference and financial support. If the government stopped propping up big corporations and imposing regulations and restrictions, the free market
would work as it should”. Now I’m all about stopping the government giving tax money to corporations, but really…the idea that if you leave them alone they’ll take care of everything is just…I mean…really ? you really…ok – see we’ll ignore that aspect for now.
The first interesting concept was that of being against the instigation of violence and therefore, because taxes were compulsory and enforceable by coercion, taxation was a “violent act”. So, no taxation. Instead, everything must be done voluntarily. Even at this point I’m on board. But after a few more questions we arrived at a point where the guy was defending the scenario we’d arrived at: where we live like they did in the good old days of the early America where everyone was truly free. The fact that life in America during those times was hard, violent and that the population has massively increased since then didn’t bother him. We all become farmers and stop moving around the country. If you get ill, you die. What if someone comes up to you and nicks all of your food, or claims your land ? That won’t happen.
He genuinely defended these assertions. At this point we shook hands and agreed that our beliefs were too different to continue.
Meanwhile, my other friend had discovered that “these Libertarians have some really hot chicks with them” and was darting from table to table like a randy bee. The Quaker I’d been arguing with noticed how keen he was and gave him a copy of a glossy booklet which turned out to be a calendar featuring the Ladies of Liberty Alliance; basically a calendar featuring some scrawny birds in their skimpies accompanied by captions extolling the joy of the free market. Much like the egregious “News In Briefs” in The Scum. It also contained ads for various Libertarian organizations and swag, several featuring pictures of typical Libertarians out and about. One picture included a guy in a circle-A t-shirt, and this perplexed me. Anarchism is clearly incompatible with Libertarianism [if you disagree with this, we should have a chat] and I wondered how the Libertarians themselves felt about this.
The guy sitting next to me by now was a high-school economics teacher, close to retirement age and we had been exchanging pleasantries, so I asked him what he thought of the guy in the picture’s t-shirt. He didn’t know what it represented, and when I told him he was quite firm: “We’re not anarchists. We’re far removed from Anarchists. We don’t believe the same things at all.” Ah good, we’re agreed on that then. He also told me that no Libertarians would claim to be Anarchists, nor would they claim to be pacifists. I found this difficult to believe, mainly because I have met examples of both. But, OK, it’s possible they are outliers, after all this guy obviously knows far more Libertarians then me.
So, I asked if he would be kind enough to explain the fundamentals of Libertarianism to me, and he enthusiastically got stuck in. As with the Quaker, he started with the taxation as violence argument but with a slight twist; if someone attacks you, you can and should defend yourself. The golden rules is that violence shouldn’t be instigated. Good, I’m still on the same page.
Then it started getting weird. He explained there were six fundamental “pillars” of Libertarianism and began enumerating them. The first was “The Right to Private Ownership.” I had to stop him and ask how that worked because there is a bit of a boot strapping problem associated with private ownership – how do you initially decide who owns what? He didn’t understand what I was getting at until we started discussing land, and the fact that without land, you can’t build, harvest resources, grow food or produce the possessions that you have the right to own. He agreed that land was fundamental, but seemed not to understand the problem of who has the right to claim ownership.
“Well you trade it like you do anything else!”
“But how do you get the land in the first place ?”
“Well you buy it from the previous owner!”
“But where did he get it ?”
“He bought it!”
“But if you keep going back, you eventually have to ask who had the right to the land in the first place, which was essentially a case of people claiming it and defending it by force.”
“Well yes if you go right the way back, yeah”
So, what do you do about that ? How do people initially get the resources they have the right to privately own ? He didn’t want to dwell on the first pillar any more and was getting very anxious to move onto the second one so I dropped it.
I don’t remember the details of most of the other pillars but they were mostly reasonably trite and inoffensive until we got to the free market. I asked how it would be possible to prevent price-fixing, market manipulation and capers like Enron…his answer stumped me:
“Well that’s illegal. That’s fraud.”
“But who is enforcing the law ?”
“Well, the government.”
“The government ? So you’re in favour of a government ?”
“Yes! As I said, we’re not anarchists!”
“So how is the government funded ?”
“You’re arguing in favour of taxes now ?”
“Yes! We’re not anarchists. We’d need some level of taxation, to pay for the essentials.”
Essentials…would that include Healthcare I wonder ?
“And you’d need laws ?”
“Yes of course”
“All of which would be enforced by coercion ?”
“Well yes I suppose”
Judging an entire ideology on two beery arguments in a pub is really unfair, but unless the opportunity arises for me to talk to Ron Paul or some other highly-regarded Libertarian who can put me straight, it really does seem like you haven’t thought this through very well doesn’t it ?