By Andrew Kerr
Oct 30, 2014
Libertarianism is, in theory, no defender of the rich and powerful who must always be subject to market competition. As a libertarian who has engaged in countless classroom and online debates, I’ve often asked myself why other people cannot see that. However, I’ve come to understand the reasoning behind the intuitive criticism from the Left that libertarianism is about maintaining current power structures. Libertarianism should not be an apologia for the rich and the status quo – but, on reflection, I have to concede that it is. The issue is not with the theory and ideology of a free market, but problems arise when we deem current economic structures to be reflective of a genuine free-market (and therefore legitimate) when in reality our market economy is rigged by the state on many levels. This is what Roderick Long refers to as ‘conflationism.’ Libertarianism is based upon solid intellectual and theoretical foundations of how a free-market society should operate, but when these free-market arguments are applied to defend the corrupt, cronyist, corporate state rigged market capitalism we have at present, the effect is not to support a free market, it is merely to excuse rent-seeking corporations that are beholden to state power.
Amazon (for example) has been accused, here in the UK, of (legal) tax avoidance to a chorus of libertarian approval; “Hurrah! Starve the beast!” we jubilantly cry. Yet the costs that Amazon places upon the tax-payer are scarcely mentioned – in addition to taxpayersubsidised warehouses, Amazon deliveries are sent on roads paid for by taxation, its staff attended government schools and the NHS will treat their workers when they are sick. This is not an argument in favour of taxing Amazon to pay for these things, merely a suggestion that we dial-down the triumphalism over their tax avoidance and instead focus attention on the costs their rent-seeking imposes on others.
Many libertarians (myself included) have fallen victim to the false dichotomy that whatever is not ‘the state’ is the free-market. The corporations we defend are not free-market entities, they are creatures of the state, endowed with privileges; lip-service condemnations of corporate welfare will simply not suffice. Corporations are not leading the defence of the free market against the state; the corporate-state complex is pulling a con-trick on society. Libertarians rightly oppose statist liberalism, but we must not fall into the trap of siding with “pro-business” conservatives either, we must consistently make the case for a genuinely free-market alternative.
A libertarian defence of our rigged market locks in advantages achieved through state force. Imagine playing Monopoly where one player initially takes an extra $100 from the other players when they pass “Go.” If the other players protest and the rules are changed, the first player has a massive in-built advantage that will allow him to build houses and hotels and reap the benefits long-after the rules have been equalised. This is not a call for a state policy of redistribution of wealth, just acknowledgement that this is a problem we cannot blithely ignore, a problem for which there are libertarian solutions.
Right-Libertarianism is narrowly focused on the state and the use of direct physical force, to the exclusion of many societal issues and problems people face. Our focus is typically on individual agency, to the neglect of (and at times downright hostility towards) structural problems. Issues are often treated as black and white; any encroachment upon individual property rights is wrong and that is the end of the story. This has the benefit of sharp clarity, but it does not help to solve a vast number of complex problems that exist in our society – particularly for the disadvantaged.
Right-Libertarianism is a philosophy of contracts, voluntarily entered in to; the theory is simple, but the reality doesn’t always fit our expectations. When two parties agree a contract, one may have vastly more power in the relationship than the other, thus enabling them to set the rules of the game. Wage rates and conditions of employment are, in a free market, determined by supply and demand and the respective positions of the employer and the employee. In our rigged economy, the relationship between labour and capital, between worker and corporation, is hopelessly skewed in one direction – in favour of the bosses. Yet despite this, Right-Libertarians too often instinctively side with bosses over workers; Unions wanting better pay or conditions for their members are derided as causing economic inefficiencies, yet seven figure sums for CEOs is staunchly defended as though it were a free-market pay rate. There is no “libertarian” reason why this should be so, it is merely a symptom of conflationism.
Libertarians should not invoke the free-market principle of contracts in a society where the state gives one side a great power advantage over the other; this is only a crude approximation of how contracts would exist in a free-market.
Racism, Homophobia & Misogyny
Right-Libertarians can often be found defending what, to many people, is seemingly indefensible such as the rights of racists to their views, the rights of homophobes to keep gay people from their property. We pride ourselves on living up to Voltaire’s maxim. However, we must do more than defend the rights of bigots to their opinions and property rights; it is not “unlibertarian” to unreservedly condemn people’s unpleasant or immoral views, even whilst respecting their right to hold them. Too often, libertarians are silent on moral evils, concerned only with expressing the right of the bigot to hold their views.
Libertarians rightly defend the principle of freedom of association and the rights of people to their opinions, no matter how abhorrent, but we should be just as strident in condemning those views as we are in defending people’s right to hold them. It is not enough to say “Abolish the state and let society get on with it” we must be a force in society, as passionate in our opposition to structural restraints on liberty as we are to the use of physical force.
On the face of it, colour-blindness sounds like the right way to tackle racism in society; treat everyone as individuals fits naturally with libertarian instincts. However, when you consider the ramifications, colour-blindness unwittingly reinforces racism in society. To put it (perhaps uncharitably), colour-blindness says that we should ignore race and hope that the problem of racism will simply go away, but sadly it won’t. It is an inconvenient truth that, despite how much we’d like it not to be the case, race matters as ethnic minorities suffer a series of disadvantages based on their skin colour or religion. We frame issues on the basis of individualism, but people’s experiences differ radically according to race, gender, sexuality or disability. Rugged individualism is all well and good for fit, strong, intelligent twenty-something white men, but what does libertarianism have to offer the rest of society?
Whilst libertarians do earnestly oppose racism, homophobia, misogyny & transphobia, at times opposition is little more than lip-service. The libertarian belief in human agency blinds many to the reality that many people experience, due to the structure of society. We need not be afraid of acknowledging the effect of structure as well as agency. It is vital that supporters of a philosophy of liberty are enthusiastic in their opposition to all barriers to human freedom.
No doubt many libertarians will take issue with my characterisation of the ideology, but it is not an unthinking caricature of a political opponent, but a call to action from someone who broadly shares their political philosophy. I’m realising that there are colours other than black and white and libertarians need to start painting the political canvas with a fuller palette.