Sunday, November 04, 2012

From Libertarianism to Tyranny / A Response to [T]he Barefoot Bum, P.1

Below, in “A Response to [T]he Barefoot Bum”, I tried to capture a comment I left for Larry with a few objection to his direction on Libertarianism; admittedly my first stab was purely philosophical. I’d like to now make the mess a little more coherent and see where, perhaps, our differences lie. Again, since I haven’t historically been a “political thinker”, I do struggle a bit with these conversations, and to be perfectly honest I’m still at a crossroads where it’s difficult to explicitly draw out what my political affiliations are. In a general sense, I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative, which in today’s environment typically gets the Libertarian label; whether or not that’s a fair assessment remains to be seen. In any case what better way to start fleshing out those ideas and begin to make explicit your thinking than to get in a tangle with someone who at least seems to think differently than you do, and who is at the same time very proficient in communicating his political ideas.

 Before getting into all the points of contention, I’d like to offer up what I consider to be an obvious difference between Larry and I. The polemics that Larry offers appear to be against Libertarianism as an ideology in a vacuum. In other words he’s stripping away current context and considering what would happen if Libertarianism were implemented in an environment where nothing had existed before. I would make the challenge that this is at least in small portion disingenuous because it’s not the same standard of thinking he holds for himself.

 As an example Larry stated:
“…we know from experience that while it [communism] might be effective at quickly industrializing a poorly-industrialized country, unconstrained political rule by a self-selecting party elite has serious negative consequences when industrialization reaches a certain stage. I therefore abandon the idea of such a party elite. If the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must change. “

 Clearly then, he’s giving himself the benefit of reasoning from experience and context as opposed to the reasoning in a vacuum approach he applies to Libertarians. In effect he’s allowing himself (and so we should) the freedom of changing and tweaking the premises upon which a given conception is based to make it better. And great! I most certainly agree with that. However as the result of his vacuum reasoning throughout several articles he would like to convince us that Libertarianism effectively entails tyranny, but of course that would be exactly the sort of thing a Libertarian would object to.

 Pushing aside the whole idea of reasoning in a vacuum, we do in fact have a current context with which to place our Libertarian thinking, i.e. we have a political environment with certain sorts of laws and regulations in place that we can draw from when objecting to Larry’s points. To put it in yet another way, we can’t assume that if Libertarian candidates get a hold of House and Senate seats in addition the Presidency that the whole of our current political environment and the context it exists within would simply disappear. So then, it is with this thinking in mind that I’d like to make my objections to Larry.

 First I think it’s important to lay out the definition of Libertarianism that Larry is working from:
“As I understand their position, Libertarianism fundamentally consists of the objective moral value that the initiation of coercion is absolutely wrong, and that interference with one's property, broadly defined, always consists of the initiation of coercion.”

 Most of this looks pretty good to me, although I’m not altogether certain the inclusion of “objective moral value” is a fair one, even though I admit that perhaps not all Libertarians would object to. Hopefully in a post to follow I can address that.

 In any case, the major point of contention as I see it is how we get from Libertarianism to tyranny. We do so, according to Larry, because there is nothing within the Libertarian premise that would prevent runaway absentee ownership. In essence, he argues, Libertarianism enables the evolution of an ownership class which by default become the group of individuals who are privileged to “define the terms of tenancy”, and therefore “play the major role in legitimizing the initiation of coercion; therefore, they are the government”. If we accept this reasoning (and I do think it works in a vacuum) then of course it’s not difficult for us to get from there to the idea of a “government of the owners of property”. In effect a property owning, and potentially tyrannical, oligarch.

 But why should we accept this reasoning given our current environment that anything like runaway absentee ownership could become a reality? In other words we already have provisions and regulations in place against monopolies of all kinds, so why should this one be any different? If I would be correct in saying that current regulation would prevent monopolies on absentee ownership, then the idea of an oligarchic ownership class becomes a moot point. Larry needs to tell us how our current system would allow such ownership runaway outside of the context of pure Libertarianism, otherwise he’s simply arm waving over ideologies. To take another angle, Larry needs to convince us that by allowing a slow evolution of Libertarian thought to trickle into political life through the voting process, why anything like the development of ownership monopolies would be something the people would endorse. Now granting that ownership monopolies are an effect, and therefore not something one could explicitly endorse as a policy, I fail to see that there isn’t enough foresight to recognize the consequences of policies that would allow it. Given that we currently see and understand the negative effects of monopolies in a general sense, I’m not sure how this one would be any different.

To conclude, I would challenge Larry that his reasoning within a vacuum, i.e. holding up Libertarianism outside the context of our current environment, is a bit disingenuous given his own standard of thinking. It's not that arguing philosophical ideologies don't have their place, but in practice (the manner with which political ideologies actually take form; the evolution within a historical backdrop) the reasoning falls apart. It is because of this that I'd challenge him on his conclusions and say that, whereas they may conclude logically from the perspective of reasoning in a vacuum, the same doesn't apply when reasoning within a  political and social environment. In essence then, in order to make the conclusion of tyranny you need to convince us not just that Libertarianism as an ideology fails, but how current context and historical contingency could ever lead to such a hostile takeover.

Incidentally, as an afterthought for later:
why would it be more economical (for example in the case of absentee rental property), to have runaway ownership in rental property than it would be purchase land and build homes for sale and ownership? Additionally, if people want to purchase and own homes, how can one reason that a system which in theory allows runaway ownership would not satisfy the demand of individual ownership since of course, it would be economical to do so. i.e. why favor runaway ownership when there's money to had in personal ownership?


  1. Much better. I understand where you're coming from.

    The obvious response is: OK. I'll bite. What does Libertarianism do in the present context?

    Remember, I'm mostly dealing with Libertarians who formulate their own philosophy in a vacuum, so I respond in kind. But a different formulation, which takes into account how Libertarians would change the status quo, is entirely legitimate. So how would a Libertarian government change the status quo in the short- to medium-term?

  2. As I've continued to ponder this I started think that at some point either one of two things has to happen.

    A.) The Libertarian model will be slowly implemented over time, dissolving government, regulatory laws etc., and this leave us in a state where your points are entirely valid.

    B.) Libertarianism is turned in much like a switch and we're in the same situation.

    Given that I'm starting to think I have to be somewhat sympathetic to your analysis, so I threw up some additional possibilities that I think are still consistent with the Libertarian model.

    In any case to your question as to how would Libertarianism change the status quo, that’s a tough question which is what lead me to my above thinking and the P.2 post. Of course I can’t fathom a good answer to your question other than to say a gradual lowering of tax rates and a systematic but slow dissolving of socially controlled institutions.

    In any case, I think I have to play by your ball-game, and that perhaps the "disingenuous" claim I threw out should land in my court... We'll see where I can take this.

  3. I mean if we can't talk about how the evolution of the thing would work then all we have to talk about is how the end product would work in theory.

    So in imagining how I'd argue against myself I get to your question.