Libertarianism Incompatible With Democracy

Reason Magazine - Little Minds and Big BusinessWhile clicking around last night, I happened upon a 2011 Michael Lind article at Slate, Why Libertarians Apologize for Autocracy. He argued that libertarianism really is incompatible with democracy. I think he is right about that claim, although if you talk to actual libertarians, you will usually find that they are delusional. In my experience, most of them think that libertarianism is unpopular only because the people don’t know just how great it would be. The serious libertarian thinkers, however, know that libertarianism goes against the very idea democratic rule.

Lind noted that the two irradiating lights of the libertarian movement—Friedman and Hayek—very much saw the fundamental problem. You should read Lind’s article for his take and all the historical evidence. I will explain it here from my own perspective. Liberal democracies are the result of people starting with the idea that they want to maximize everyone’s freedom. Over time, they find that it is necessary to enact laws that go against the “maximum freedom” doctrine of libertarianism because, for example, my next door neighbor’s freedom to pollute is interfering with my freedom to live a healthy life. So people who are looking to maximize overall freedom naturally move in the direction of liberal democracy.

The problem with the likes of Friedman and Hayek is their focus on “maximum freedom.” They both want to remove all government-caused diminution of freedom, but don’t care about other things that reduce freedom. What this means is that they are interested in maximizing the freedom of those who, in a liberal democracy, already have the most freedom. Consider public schools. There are a number of reasons for having them, but one is compensate for the vagaries of birth. It should be clear to everyone that the freedom gained by public education is vastly greater than the cost of taxes to pay for it. Except it isn’t to the libertarian.

So libertarians find themselves interested only in one side of the freedom equation. They are looking to create a society in which some people have the maximum possible freedom. But you don’t need libertarianism for that! Kim Jong-un and his associates have the maximum possible freedom. So it is no surprise that libertarians would gravitate toward despots like Pinochet, who (unlike Kim Jong-un) use the language of free markets.

It may seem shocking that many libertarians think that an autocrat could set up a libertarian utopia and once completed, the autocrat would just yield power. But libertarians are not known for their deep thought or understanding of human psychology. And note how much this idea sounds like Stalinism, where there was only going to be a dictatorship until the communist utopia was realized. And this is more and more how libertarians seem to me: like communists of the 1920s. But the truth is that Milton Friedman didn’t actually care who was running the government, as long as the rich got to do what they wanted.

Lind noted one of the most interesting contradictions of libertarian thought. It may claim to care about freedom in a general sense, but all its followers are ever interested in are issues of economic freedom. And it isn’t just any economic freedom—it is the economic freedom of those who are already rich. Consider this:

[W]here was the libertarian right during the great struggles for individual liberty in America in the last half-century? The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, voting rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion—issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.

Lind doesn’t mention it, but the libertarians have been worse than apathetic to real issues of freedom like civil rights and police abuse. They have been antagonistic toward them. They always find some way to disagree with them. I never get into an argument with a libertarian in which they don’t at some point mention that local government is always better. They can’t seem to accept the fact that the worst domestic abuses of the government over the last century have been by state and local governments. Nor do they engage with the fact that “states’ rights” is code for anti-democratic and racist state policies. (Lind also noted that Confederate President and American traitor Jefferson Davis was posthumously inducted into the “libertarian hall of fame.”) Libertarian thought is not about freeing the average man; it is about enslaving him.

So I completely agree with Lind that libertarianism is incompatible with democracy. In fact, I’ll go further. I think that idea is cooked into the libertarian philosophy itself.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Libertarianism Incompatible With Democracy

  1. Some of Lind’s article is lifted right from Wikipedia’s Hayek page. That’s fine, but Lind should have cited the page; instead, he cites the sources cited on the page. Cheating! But I’ve done it in college papers.

    The libertarians I’ve known are contrarians by nature. They don’t want to feel as though their thinking follows well-established lines. That’s a good starting point for developing political awareness. But not such a great ending point.

    Like I’ve said about "centrists" ("centrism" and libertarianism have a lot of overlap), if you’re determined not to think along established lines you’re letting established lines determine your thinking. Sometimes the most independent choice you can make is one many other people have made before you.

    There is definitely an appeal to imagining yourself an island, utterly self-determined. It comes, I believe, from having been let down by others, or disappointed with yourself for letting down others. The great thing about libertarianism is that it removes from your shoulders the burden of having to reciprocate the common decency with which most human beings treat each other. I feel as though I’ve gotten far more than I can ever repay. It’s a weight I sometimes wish I could shed. Libertarianism, war, hatred of other groups, are all ways of venting that inner reluctance to owe people favors. Which we all share. Kids know at a very early age the concept of fairness, that taking someone else’s toys is fun but having them take your toys is not — so if you don’t want your toys taken you’d better adhere to the group rules about not taking toys.

    If libertarians weren’t overwhelmed by participation in the human drama, they’d be anarchists. Anarchism is just as problematic (sometimes group consensus is simply unfeasible; the guy dumping toxic waste on your lawn isn’t going to agree with the group’s decision that he should stop, so you have to override him) but at least it tries to seriously imagine a freer society. Libertarianism imagines a starkly less free world; if you’re depressed by humanity or don’t feel up to membership, it can be attractive.

    Or you could just be one of those people who gets really into owning dogs.

  2. @JMF – I think you are being unfair to Lind. His article was written 3 years ago. I’ve had Wikipedia plagiarize me in the past, so I can well imagine Wikipedia doing the same to him. There is a lot of great professional work done by the actual Wikipedia staff, but most is done by just anyone. What you can do, however, is look at the Way Back Machine and see if those references were already there.

    Okay. I had to get that out. I’ll comment on the rest and your other comment later. I’ve got to write and article [i]and[/i] cook dinner!

  3. I did wonder about that plagiarism issue with the Lind article. The quotes are so direct, somebody’s ripping off someone else. I assumed Lind was ripping off Wikipedia, because none of the Wiki links cited his article, but you’re certainly right, sometimes Wikipedia contributors rip off original work and pretend it’s cited by alternate sources than the ones they copied.

    The line that had me dubious about Lind’s references was about how Hayek "even recommended Chile to Thatcher as a model to complete her free-market revolution." That’s straight from the Wiki Hayek webpage and there it’s cited from "The Shock Doctrine." Either Lind is using what he learned from Wikipedia about Hayek as a means of helping make his very intelligent point, and not owning up to it because Serious Writers do not reference Wkipedia, or Naomi Klein stole from Lind some years before her book and his article were published.

    Personally I have no problem with using Wkipedia as a source. Many college professors do, because college is largely about proving you can jump through hoops when instructed to do so by authority figures and Wikipedia is hugely more easy to look up than trundling through academic publications. Wiki is biased by the majority opinion of contributors. Academic journals aren’t? (For goodness’s sakes, history professors accept 19th-century newspapers as primary sources. These are more truthful than Wikipedia, how exactly?)

  4. @JMF – In my experience, libertarianism appeals to people with really good lives who are looking for a way to improve them. It is the most narcissistic political philosophy.

    Having read that other site I wrote about last week (?), I now see that libertarianism is just our name for anarchism. Most libertarians are individualist anarchist and the left libertarians are the social anarchists. The former group makes a more sense than the latter. The idea of having almost no laws leading to a just and peaceful society is just ridiculous for any but the smallest of groups.

    Actually, that line of Lind stood out to me too, and I thought, "Oh, I read that in [i]The Shock Doctrine[/i]." That’s such a towering book in liberal thought that I think we all reference it all the time.

    The thing about Wikipedia is that it is legal to steal from it. But it is also dangerous, because I find errors all the time. And morally it is questionable. I never do it. But if I find an article via it, I see no reason that I need to give Wikipedia a H/T.

    Speaking of 19th century newspapers, if you haven’t done so, you should read [i]The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick[/i]. I wrote two articles about it when I first started this blog. It is a really fun read. But the basic thing is that an American reported made up the effect and magicians in various countries tried to figure it out for the next hundred years. It’s filled with lots of delicious Victorian racism, "The Indians couldn’t possibly do a trick we can’t figure out!" The fact that it was true didn’t take away from the racism.

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