Libertarian Liability: Why Libertarianism Fails to Impress


I am not a fan of Libertarianism. It does not appeal to me. I do not see the wisdom in it.

However, I find myself in an awkward situation when people whom I otherwise have a great deal of intellectual respect for, people with whom I am usually in moral and philosophical alignment, seem quite smitten with Libertarian ideals.

So I feel the need to explain why it is that Libertarianism fails to impress me, to suggest that perhaps it should not impress others as much as it does, or at the very least to explore what exactly it is about my own values that Libertarianism is in such irreconcilable conflict with.

When I start to think about the problems of Libertarianism, I am often reminded of Communism. I do not mean in a mechanistic sense regarding how the two systems operate, but rather the sharp contrast between Communism as explained in theory, and Communism as applied in practice. I am sure that many of you can relate to this experience. At this point Communism is practically a punchline to a very unfunny joke. It is the great 20th Century example of an idea that seems great on paper, but fares so poorly in practice. In Libertarianism I feel as though I see an adolescent stage of the same sad story.

When Libertarianism is explained to me, in sympathetic terms, in principles, in ideological mantras, it sounds great. How could it not? Individual Liberty above all else, Voluntarism, Freedom of Association, the Non-Initiation of Force. These seem like great ideals. Yet time and again, when I hear proposals floated as to how these ideas would be applied to actual communities, actual economies, actual people, I find myself in uncomfortable waters. Whatever spell the ideology cast on me is rapidly disenchanted.

There are a hundred examples I could give of such proposals not sitting well with me, but I would like to cut to my favorite: The example I give is from the 2012 Election Season, when Paul the Elder, Ron not Rand (and the better of the two Pauls in the opinion of this writer) was asked a question regarding using tax dollars to feed hungry children.

I want to take a moment to explain why this is the example I use, least some Libertarian apologist dismiss me as cherry-picking a particularly bad case to make a study of. Ron Paul is no poor representative of the Libertarian ethic, at least he was not at the time. He was well received by the Libertarians I knew as an erudite representative of their position. Furthermore, the kind of answer he gave to this question seems very much in line with the kinds of answers I have received personally from Libertarians when discussing similar issues. I also pick Ron Paul because, for as much as I disagree with him, during the 2012 primary debates, he proved himself to be the smartest man on stage, being the only one to consistently answer in meaningful and intelligent ways rather than in vapid talking points.

In 2012, Ron Paul was running for a spot on the Republican Ticket rather than as a third party candidate. The calculation was that Libertarianism had a much better chance of making its way into the White House if it attempted to hitch a ride, lamprey-esque, on the back of the larger, stronger, fish that was the GOP. The strategy was a good one, despite the fact that he did not ultimately win, and it was during one of those Primary debates that the following occurred:

Ron Paul, regarding a previous statement he had made critical of the practice, was asked to elaborate on his position regarding free and reduced cost lunches for economically challenged public school children.

He replied that yes, of course those children should be fed. Of course they should not go hungry due to whatever economically woe begotten circumstance had befallen their parents. That was not the fault of the children and for it they should not suffer. However (of course there is a “however”), it is not the role of the Federal Government to do that. It is beyond the proper role of Government to mandate support for those children by taking the money of citizens, through taxation, and applying it to that cause.

Paul acknowledged, as a point of Constitutional Law, that State and Local Governments might have the authority to intervene through taxation, but that ideally all mandates to aid the hungry would be removed and if those children were to be fed, it ought to be done via individual, voluntary, and per instance acts of charity by the local community.

That was his answer, and that is precisely the kind of answer you get from Libertarians regarding other similar issues.

So what is wrong with that? The problem with that reasoning jumped out to me immediately, as I am sure it did for many of you. However, for those not predisposed in the same manner as myself, allow me to elaborate:

The problem with Ron Paul’s answer, the Libertarian answer, is a simple truism if human nature: Charity is fickle.

I do not wish to be dismissive of the level of charitable giving in this country. We can be relied upon to donate enormous sums to a vast array of worthy causes. However, we do not donate Proactively,  or as a matter of regular and dependable civic duty. We donate reactively. When the latest catastrophe strikes and we are shocked by the humanitarian need, we donate. When our employer or school has a canned food drive, we donate. When someone in our family or in our neighborhood asks for pledges for their charity walk-a-thon, we donate. We often even donate simply because it is the Holiday season, out of the simple benevolent atmosphere at the time.

But such charity is not reliable. Interest wanes, the walk-a-ton ends, the holiday season gives way to just another year. But the hungry are not only hungry during the holidays, or when your child happens to have a canned food drive. They are hungry during the other times as well, and will continue to be, month in and month out, decade after decade, for the reminder of our lives and far beyond. There will always be hungry people who need to be fed, or else left to perish. And these kinds of problems, regular, constant, mundane suffering and need, these are the issues that charity is woefully ill equipped to deal with. These issues require reliable, steady, and systematic attention.

So when Ron Paul, or really any Libertarian, offers such a solution to the insoluble problems of poverty and need, I am forced to one of two conclusions: Either they are stupid (which, for the record, I do not think Ron Paul is) and somehow failed to recognize this basic truth about the unreliable nature of charity, or they are fully aware that chastity is fickle, and as much as they may feel for those poor children, ultimately, they are willing to sacrifice the stomachs of the hungry on the alter of individual liberty.

That is calculus I cannot abide by. That is a prioritization of values that does not sit well with me. And it is the way so many similar discussions with a Libertarian will go. This philosophy seems to miss the basic truth of the social contract, the core advantage of being a communal species as opposed to a solitary one. It seems to forsake the glue of civilization, the idea that every person in the civilization, simply by merits of being in it, is afforded some level of protection and prosperity beyond simply what they have individually earned by their own merit. In this way, a community is greater than the sum of its parts.

And this leads me directly to my second major problem with Libertarianism; how out of touch with reality is seems. It has often occurred to me that Libertarianism is a political philosophy one can only preach from atop a mountain of safety, security, and influence purchase by the combined effort of millions that came before. Put simply, it is the political philosophy of the privileged and the few.

I recently came across an example that perfectly illustrates this: A friend of mine (again, a person who me I otherwise have a great deal of respect for) shared a Meme headlined, “Things that are none of my business (as a Libertarian), or the governments”. The list began;

1: What kind of love, or what gender of lover, consenting adults prefer.

-Sounds great.

2: What Political Party you belong to.

-Ok, I’m with you.

3: What restroom you choose to use or gender you identify as.

-Hell yeah!

4: What you choose to read.

5: What you choose to write.

-Yes, #agreestrongly

6: How you choose to spend your money.

-Well, that depends on….

7: Who you choose to employ or not employ.

-Ok, now wait a minute.

8: Who you choose to serve or not serve at your business.

-And, you’ve lost me.

As always with Libertarianism, what started out so good, plummets into a dark place where I cannot follow.

And then the Meme wrapped itself up by ending with the following caption: “I will treat you with respect and human decency. If you choose not to reciprocate, no biggie, I’ll move along.”

…If you won’t treat me with respect and decency….no big deal….I will move along.

I replied to that friend by quoting the above passage and saying, “If the core of White Privilege were condensed into a bumper sticker slogan.”

And while I don’t want to make this post about race, there is no way to ignore the privilege that statement drips with. There are really only two conditions under which a person can say such a thing with a strait face and not even a hint of irony.

The first possibility is that you have access to such great resources that it truly is no big deal to you if people treat you disrespectfully and indecently. Resources such that encountering such treatment really has no impact to your prospects.

Either that, or the second possibility, that you belong to a demographic, in a time and a place, where you can feel reasonably sure that this poor treatment will not be systemic enough to affect your earnings, employment, healthcare, housing, education, and treatment by the criminal justice system.

If you are not one of those two types of people, if you are a person of a group towards whom that poor treatment is systemic enough to have a very real impact, or a person with so few resources that finding a world disrespectful and indecent towards you would be devastating to your ability to prosper, then you could never make such a statement with a strait face.

This idea that the disrespect and indecency of other towards you is truly “no biggie” and something you can “move along” from, is an idea that can only be born of a disconnected and irresponsible privilege.

And for those reasons, Libertarianism does not impress me. It prioritizes individuality over communal responsibility to a degree which I deem to be both harmful and immoral. It stares down from a place of influence and strength to propose a system of governance in which those not also atop that rampart of privilege would be left to the wolves. It is both intimate in the way it disrespects the have-nots, while simultaneously distant and disconnected from them as well.

In short, it is, by my judgment, a terrible system for governing a population and lacking in its moral priorities. Unless or until someone can present to me a form of Libertarianism that takes those values of Individual Liberty and Free Association and Non-Initiation of Force, and balances them in a wise and moderate way against our shared responsibility to one another and to our community, until that happens, Libertarianism is a ship I just cannot board.