In years past I often described myself as a libertarian, accompanied by the now burned out expression of “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.” However, after some critical thought on libertarianism and the core philosophies beneath it, I have changed my mind, particularly within the last year or so. When reading this, please bear in mind that I am not attacking any individuals who would describe themselves as having libertarian-oriented beliefs, nor am I attacking individuals who would describe themselves as sticking to beliefs of any other political or philosophical persuasion. Much of this is an exercise, as I still hold many (albeit less) libertarian views.
A Fiscal Structure for Addressing Social Issues
Libertarianism is a system that is composed entirely of negative positions and doctrines. In this context, negative doctrines are those which do not promote doing, but instead advocate for avoiding behavior which would be detrimental to the proper functioning and execution of the system of which the doctrines comprise. In other words, negative doctrines, ideologies, systems, promote inaction as opposed to action that would aid in facilitating the end goal of the philosophy as a whole. Two good examples of negative doctrines in libertarianism include voluntarism (not forcing exchanges on others against their will – i.e. taxation), and the non-aggression principle (do not use coercion or violence on others unless in self defense).
My concerns with libertarianism have very little to do with fiscal proposals, as I mostly agree with economic conservatism; my concerns lie in the application of the aforementioned negative doctrines in relation to social issues. One of my largest concerns here is that these negative doctrines promote the idea of a moral standing where one is good enough, and as long as he abides by these negative doctrines, he is a morally good person. This is opposed to positive-oriented philosophies, which serve to help one to constantly attempt to be better than being good enough.
Within the libertarian framework of inaction regarding social issues, one should have no qualms with doing antisocial, immoral, and unnatural things, as long as he does not violate the liberty of others – this is not the way to produce and uphold a healthy and functional society. This is not to say that libertarians themselves are necessarily immoral or antisocial people, as many of them are quite the opposite. It is to say, however, that the libertarian structure itself does not discriminate between decent and indecent ways of life, and to follow and promote the social wing of libertarianism is to urge others to follow the doctrine of happiness.
One thing to note here: I do understand that for many, libertarianism is not the be-all-end-all to one’s entire philosophical worldview. Libertarianism can be an effective modifier when combined with other ideologies that do seek to explain and provide solutions to social and cultural issues, but quite often libertarianism is not accompanied by or blended with other viewpoints. As such, he who subscribes to libertarianism and little else is decidedly susceptible to nihilism, hedonism, and the orientation of one’s values such that the pursuit of pleasure is the primary goal of being.
The 1931 novel A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley provides an example of the negative doctrine taken to an absurd and dystopian extreme, where the pleasures of life become so universally acceptable that they are nearly no longer pleasurable. For example, A Brave New World shows us a society in which sexual promiscuity is rampant, so much so that it is nearly enforced, and any intention of procreation is completely removed from sexual intercourse. The novel also references the characters’ constant consumption of a happiness producing drug called soma, which is taken whenever a character experiences even the slightest bit of discomfort.
The Inevitability of the State
One of the most important pillars of libertarianism is the notion of a highly limited state government, however there seems to be a spectrum within libertarianism whereupon advocates sit regarding size and scope of government. On one end of the spectrum sit those who I would consider classical liberals (in an American context), and generally accept a larger government than other libertarians, but who still support the limiting of government to its basic functionality. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who I would consider anarcho-capitalists, and generally advocate for the abolition of government in its entirety. Anarcho-capitalists propose the replacement of essential government roles (i.e. police, firefighters, etc.) by privately owned organizations.
It seems the anarcho-capitalist form of libertarianism is not particularly viable, given the inevitability that not every person will necessarily adhere to the principles of the AnCap. However, the primary reason for its impossibility is the eternal presence of government. This may be a tragic notion to both libertarians and anarchists of all stripes, but systems of government will always arise in any society once such society becomes large enough. The State will always exist primarily because it is a highly effective way for those who fiercely desire power to be able to work their way into positions of authority. Acquiring power within a capitalist system requires work, strategy, and intelligent investment into one’s organization – not necessarily through charisma and bribery (though there are exceptions, especially in the system of faux capitalism in the U.S.). Yet, acquiring positions of authority in government is often reducible to charisma and bribery. That being said, not all people who are elected to government office have malicious intent, but most systems of government reward deceitfulness.
To add to the inevitability of the presence of government, there is also an inevitable growth of government.
The Issue of Tolerance
The pure libertarian worldview allows for (and in many respects requires) tolerance of the actions of others, so long as those actions do not infringe upon one’s own rights, or violate the non-aggression principle. A common refrain one may hear from libertarians is something to the effect of “I want gay couples guarding their marijuana crops with rifles.” Phrases like these show the libertarian’s dedication to advocate for the rights of others to do as they please, and advocate for their own rights by proxy. Leaving the question of morality or social acceptability aside, excessive tolerance will inevitably lead to the decay and weakening of a social or political movement. Seeing as libertarians and anarchists are perhaps the most tolerant of all social or political movements, it is easy to understand why they have never been a force to be contended with on the national level, and are often disregarded completely in discussions about the political future.
For a movement to become a force to be contended with, it must have some degree of intolerance toward its opponents. Bear in mind that “intolerance” does not necessarily mean prejudice towards others regarding immutable characteristics as the connotation of the word often suggests. It is important that any group, or individual for that matter, retain some sort of intolerance if such a group or individual wishes to not become easily intimidated and in a perpetual state of apology. To try and shed the connotation from the concept of intolerance, I’ll provide some examples here from both the “left” and the “right” in the United States. Note that these examples are not indictments of either political alignment, and only serve to outline the concept.
Left Wing Intolerance:
Though many would consider the left wing the epitome of tolerance, they are quite intolerant when it suits their interests, and this has proved to be invaluably effective for their cause. More specifically, take the generic left wing’s advocacy for the approval and acceptance of the homosexual community, or perhaps its support for radical egalitarianism. Those who make disparaging comments about homosexuals or perhaps make stereotypical jokes about people of other races will be swiftly and severely punished. The left’s ability to deplatform, socially isolate, and pressure employers to terminate those who make such disparaging comments or jokes showcases the effectiveness of their intolerance. Again, I am not casting judgment on the morality of this intolerance, I am simply calling it as I see it. It is my understanding that many of those on the left who practice this intolerance do so because they will not tolerate those who are intolerant of their agenda.
Right Wing Intolerance:
Though the generic right wing was once (up until the early 2000s) highly effective in asserting their intolerance of dissent, they are now almost completely ineffective at doing so, most likely because of the highly liberal climate in the West. This is not to say that there is no intolerance within the right wing – it is to say that, in the court of public opinion, nobody cares what the right wing will and will not tolerate. Yet, there have been a few occasions of right wing intolerance that have been somewhat successful in recent years. For example, it’s easy to see that the National Rifle Association believes that there is a slippery slope regarding the regulation of firearms and firearm modifications/accessories. The NRA has been (mostly) successful at pushing back against the regulation of firearms, even regulations that seem very inconsequential and minor in nature. However, their intolerance of what they believe to be infringements on the constitutional rights of their members has been effective in swaying public opinion.
There are some ideas and behaviors which (taken at face value) seem harmless and innocuous, but when tolerated for long enough, they pick up steam and become aggressive to the point of infringing on one’s personal liberties. The most obvious and most relevant example of excessive tolerance leading to the infringement of liberties is the issue of internet censorship. There are a great deal of political figures on the internet – many of whom used platforms such as YouTube as their means of income – who have recently been banned from using these platforms because of their ideologies. The libertarian might contend that social media corporations are private entities, and have the right to censor and deplatform as they wish. The libertarian might also assert that if the banned user had used a given platform as their means of income and intend to continue to rely on internet activity as their means of income in the future, that they should “build their own” platform. Personally, I would usually be inclined to agree with the sentiment, but the circumstances regarding censorship are far different than they were in the past.
The user bases of platforms such as YouTube or Twitter, as well as the public at large (including libertarians for the reasons listed above), generally tolerated the banning and deplatforming of many internet figures. Some did decide to build their own platforms, and websites such as Gab.ai, BitChute, and Hatreon were created. But it did not take long before access to online payment processing through PayPal and Stripe (together having overwhelming dominance of the payment processing market) had been revoked. The market dominance of PayPal and Stripe (which frequently operate in lock-step, nearly cornering the payment processing market) is what is important here. Though it is obviously difficult, one can create an alternative platform where they can host content for themselves and others like them; however, to ask for one to create an alternative media platform as well as a payment processing system within a market where practically no competition to the dominant companies is able to go anywhere is an absolutely absurd proposition. Tolerating the deplatforming of any person who was (within their constitutional rights) operating on platforms which are now the de facto public square is the cause of a new wave of censorship that has now targeted libertarians themselves for banning and removal from these platforms.
I understand that the above example of internet censorship is somewhat long-winded and complicated, however, I personally find it preferable to taking the heat over explaining an example like the baking of wedding cakes for homosexual marriages, or the legal requirement to refer to people by using their “preferred pronouns.”
In summation, I don’t believe that libertarianism is something that is deeply flawed, nor do I think that it is a system of political and social thinking that is without value or merit. But there is a reason why the peak success of libertarianism and ideas like it took place long ago during a time of exploration, pioneering, and occasional lawlessness. In a low density population the idea is quite good, yet with the way things are now, it is increasingly obvious that not everyone can be convinced of free market principles and the value of the individual through simple logical explanation, and those people who cannot be convinced will inevitably band together into a collective and utilize the power of the state in one way or another to infringe upon your liberties.