While 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:
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.