Libertarians and Economics

Libertarian Pets

Over at Daily Kos last month, gjohnsit wrote, Libertarianism and What Adam Smith Actually Said. It doesn’t actually have that much to say about Adam Smith other than that libertarians have turned him into a kind of demigod who can’t be questioned. As I wrote before, “If Marx is the opium of the socialist, Smith is the opium of the capitalist.” There isn’t much grappling with the thinking of the old master, just acceptance as though God had been whispering in his ear.

The biggest problem with the modern day Adam Smith worshipers is that they don’t know what he actually wrote. In particular, the libertarians claim that markets are perfect when Smith never said they were. But even if he had, The Wealth of Nations was written almost 250 years ago. It represented an important advance on the state of economic knowledge. But here’s the key: the state of economic knowledge was abysmal at that time. Libertarians are very much like people who think that knowledge of mechanics stopped with Newton. Oh, wait: some libertarians do think that!

But I was struck with one thing that gjohnsit wrote:

American libertarians generally believe that if you work hard you will succeed, and if you don’t work hard then you will fail and deserve to fail. Simple enough, right?

However, if you run into bad luck and something happens to you, American libertarians will also be the first to tell you the truism of “life isn’t fair.”

Now, this is not really a contradiction. But it does get to the heart of libertarian demographics. The philosophy is one that is only embraced by the winners of society who see almost no chance of their becoming losers. They are very much third-basers: people who are blind to their own privilege. So in their minds, they are submitting to the same kind of social Darwinism as everyone else.

What they don’t realize is that even if the society were perfectly equitable in opportunity distribution, they have already tipped the playing field in their own favor. Libertarians tend to be young, (reasonably) intelligent, and energetic people. Libertarianism is not a philosophy that calls out to people with muscular dystrophy. So libertarians skirt John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” The question is: would you pick libertarianism as your philosophy if you didn’t know how smart and healthy you would be? My guess is: no.

The reason I guess that is because libertarianism is the philosophy of the winners. Look who embraces it: people who are already rich and people who think they are certain to be rich (or at least comfortable). Gjohnsit was quite correct when he wrote, “[Libertarianism] isn’t a political philosophy, it’s a personal one.” So the question is never, “What is best for everyone?” It is, “What is best for me?” And in this case, “me” is one of society’s winners who will be doing well regardless.

And just look at what happens to the libertarian champions when they become losers. During the 2008 financial crisis, the Masters of the Universe went begging to the government for a handout. I don’t blame them. Theory is all well and good, but when practical matters are going to bankrupt you, something needs to be done. But what is blameworthy is turning on the government the moment you get bailed out. And they use the same logic to do so, “I was just using the financial tools that were available to me. If there hadn’t been a government, there would have been some other way because I’m a smart guy. I’m a Master of the Universe!”

Economics is by its very nature a practical science. But libertarians aren’t interested in practical results except in as much as they affect the specific libertarian. This is why it is so aggravating to talk to libertarians. They will make all kinds of claims about the utopia that society would be if only everyone became a libertarian. But when you demonstrate that their ideas don’t work in practice, they retreat into theory. Not having a minimum wage would make life worse for everyone except the wealthy? Well, we should still do it because anyone should be allowed to make any contract they wish! And on and on.

So it doesn’t matter than libertarians don’t actually read Adam Smith. It isn’t about economics. It isn’t about politics. It is about freeing themselves from any limitations. And they don’t realize that their own status in life is dependent upon all kinds of limitations put on other people.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Libertarians and Economics

  1. I have actually come to the conclusion that all conservative/libertarian American politics is some repackaged version of Calvinist theology.

  2. Although I don’t share you conclusion, I can understand your apprehension about some libertarians.

    Speaking of Rawls, Gary Chartier of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a group blog mostly by professors, has a new book that calls for "Radicalizing Rawls." I’m waiting for the paperback.

  3. @JLO – I used to be a bleeding heart libertarian. So I do appreciate much about libertarianism. That may be why I’m so much harder on them than paleoconservatives. The critical issue is that libertarians tend to live in a theoretical world that I appreciate. But I don’t think it makes good political philosophy.

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