... you Libertarians are amazing. You've managed to construct an entire political ideology based on the phrase 'FUCK OFF.'
--Richard James Winters III
I use the more formal literary term 'explication' because libertarianism isn't so much a working government (no government on earth has ever been libertarian--wisely, I might add) as a set of quasi poetic beliefs about man and the world. These quasi-poetic or metaphoric beliefs are adhered to by people who call themselves libertarian in the same way that fundamentalist Christians cling to the literal word of the bible despite direct evidence that God really did not create the world in seven days.
So what do Libertarians believe?
Like most fundamentalist, libertarians approach this basic belief not just as an economic theory; it's a moral theory, as well. Libertarian thinkers--especially those like Ayn Rand --reserve a separate ring of hell for those altruists --a dirty, dirty word among libertarians--who would thwart such so called enlightened self interest in the name of doing good for an abstraction such as 'other people'. These so called "do-gooders," or altruists, are precursors to hideously deformed bureaucratic 'nanny states' (like socialism, or big government liberalism) where no one will ever achieve anything except boredom and ugly apartments.
Unfortunately, the world view based on this metaphor is not merely mean spirited, it is wrong because the fundamental premise--the metaphor, itself-- is wrong. A market is not a 'force of nature', it is a man-made construct and as such is open to manipulation coercion and all the problems that beset any man made instrument or enterprise.
Precisely because of this, of course, no "free market" truly exist. It's a postulate of faith, but not a fact. There is no such thing. All markets are constructed--and most are constructed based on contingency that will favor one group over another, one people over another or one nation over another. Think of the stock exchange. It has rules. The WTO [World Trade Organization] has 900 pages of regulations. The bond market has all kinds of regulations and commissions to make sure those regulations carried out. Every market has rules. For example, corporations have a legal obligation to maximize shareholder profit. That's a construction of the market. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, as George Lakoff has noted, a much more humane and rational rule would be to make a rule that said, "Corporations must maximize stakeholder value." Stakeholders -- as opposed to shareholders, the institutions who own the largest portions of stock -- would include employees, local communities, and the environment. That changes the whole notion of what a "market" is. In that instance, it would actually favor those who have the most interest in seeing their company succeed--for their own survival. But of course, the rule put in place by our 'free market' construct insists that corporations must maximize shareholder profits--those who own the company, not stakeholder profits--those who are employees, communities effected by the company, and the local environment for the company (Like the old joke says, apparently libertarian's relationship to employees, environment or local community is roughly that of a doctor to a patient--when the doctor's name is Kevorkian.). Shouldn't we change that? Yes. Can we change that? Yes. Who can do it? The government that the libertarians want to do without. In fact, the government which provides the laws that define property--its limits, its rules for ownership and non-ownership, its methods of exchange, even, in fact, a definition of whether it is a commodifiable property or not--is the only thing that can control the rules--the construction of the market place.
Yet, libertarians argue heatedly that the less of this control the better. But what I suspect they really want is for a particular market construct that favors a radical vision of property rights of a specific kind--shareholder rights over stakeholder rights to serve in perpetuity. Again, there's nothing natural about this--it's quite indefensible and arbitrary. Once those rules are fixed, if you already have lots of money and property, libertarianism makes sense from a purely selfish point of view. If you don't, you'll be really sorry you supported it
From this original misconception, must of the other fallacies of libertarian thought follow. These are quite many. Below is a short list of some elemental principles to help us get acquainted with the basics:
One of the first principles of Libertarian thought is the notion of an absolute 'right' to property.
The economist Murray Rothbard is probably the most extreme of the libertarian property rights advocates. He was originally regarded as an extreme right-wing Republican, but went on to edit la Boetie's libertarian classic Of Voluntary Servitude. 'If you wish to know how the libertarians regard the State and any of its acts," he wrote in For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (1973), 'simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.' He reduces the libertarian creed to one central axiom,
'that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else'.
According to Rothbard, neither the State nor any private party therefore can initiate or threaten the use of force against any person for any purpose. Free individuals should regulate their affairs and dispose of their property only by voluntary agreement based on contractual obligation. In theory this sounds wonderful, but in practice, you're effectively describing the agreements that 'regulate' a drug dealers corner. Living outside the 'suffocating' regulatory body of the government, most drug dealers must rely on 'voluntary agreements based on contractual obligations'. To maximize profits, if they are to make a real living--and not just your friendly highschool dime drop-- and become the Horatio Algers of drug dealing-- they would have to take some serious risks and generally the riskier the deal outside the law, the more likely it is someone will cheat you, or, simply, kill you. In fact, if you examine almost any enterprise that must take place outside of the enforcement mechanism provided by the government, (Al Calpone's Chicago, a Richmond hooker's life, etc...) what you find is generally criminal disaster. Ultimately, Protectionist rackets then become the next logical step in a libertarian paradise that looks more and more like a very dark alley in the Bronx. In fact, I suspect adherence to such libertarian 'values' will deliver us to the Hobbesian state that most folks have sufficiently evolved to want to avoid. My highly evolved middle class sense says this: thanks, you keep that gun slinging stuff to yourself. I think I'll stick to paying a simple tax, and not my life--it seems by far the most sensible trade.
Rothbard, of course, has an answer for this. He proposes that disputes over violations of persons and property may be settled voluntarily by arbitration firms whose decisions are enforceable by private protection agencies
I sense a problem with this solution, somehow: those 'private protection agencies' sound ominous in the same way that my childhood next door neighbor sounded ominous when he threatened to shoot me with a bb gun unless I gave up my GI Joe. Not a lot of room for the free exercise of reason in such a power based society. This is not to say that people should not or cannot simply barter their way into a friendly mutual existence--I think this is quite possible and quite plausibly happening all over liberal Democracies around the world. Nothing in the world wrong with this--but to suggest that the gold standard for national or even international commerce should be the equivalent of a friendly written contract with no teeth outside a few buddies named Guido from Black Water Security is flatly insane: I wouldn't vote for a system of governance that relied on Guido for enforcement anymore than I'd like to live near John Gotti or have to depend on his sense of justice, or the 'ethically' correct vis a vis contract enforcement to determine my own fate. In a word, Rothbard would have our reasonably civilized world devolved to the tribal security and protectionist type rackets we see sprouting in such wonderful success stories as Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.
Despite the obvious drawbacks of their proposed solution, this question comes up rather often, since absolute ownership of property is fundamental to most flavors of libertarianism. Such 'propertarianism' fuels daydreams of being able to force the rest of the world to swirl around the immovable rock of your property. For example, there were trespass lawsuits filed against airlines for flying over property. People on their homesteads assumed they had rights to the 'air' above them. But such absolute ownership rights exists only in the libertarians heads (see 'dream world' above). Property is regulated just as the market place is regulated. And government-- that huge social contract in which we all have a vested interest-- makes the rules. Of course, a libertarian will argue something like "But it's my property. I paid money and hold the deed!" But what do they hold the deed to? Property as recognized by a government. As such, you can address infringement of your rights through the legal system. However property as recognized by the legal system is limited.
This isn't too surprising, since limitations created by private transactions are also common. For example, property is often sold without water rights or timber rights. Property is commonly sold with easements: for example a neighbor may have the right to cross to reach the road. And property may be sold with limitations to its usage: for example, the Adirondack State Park was bequeathed to the people of New York State with the stipulation that it remain forever wild.
Most government limitations on property are analogous. Just as it would be wrong to deny the validity of an easement sold by the previous owner, it is wrong to deny the validity of the current system of limited ownership of property. For example, a clear statement of such an "easement" is in the Fourth Amendment, which essentially says that the government can enter your property with a valid search warrant and not be trespassing.
There are many existing limitations such as government rights to tax and to zone property, limitations to ownership of navigable waters, how far property extends to the water, etc. And sometimes new limitations are specified, such as non-ownership of airspace above property (but, not, of course, within a libertarian's head).
The second big principle for libertarians involves taxes, how they'd really, really prefer not to pay any. In fact, in their view, taxation is outright theft.
But really, taxation isn't theft, it's part of a payment in terms of the social contract. In fact, property without taxation might be considered theft, because the only way property becomes effectively yours is through the legal entity of the government that confers the right of ownership. Without that, there is no 'right' to property. The notion behind property is that A declares something to be property, and threatens anybody who still wants to use it. Where does A get the right to forcibly stop others from using it? Without government or laws backing up his claims he only has the force of arms, again a return to a pathetically regressive and primitive Hobbesian state. Libertarians, deny that they implicitly support the initial force that has already taken place in the formation of the system of property, and wish to continue to use force to perpetuate it and make it more rigid. But their claim to ownership started somewhere--if you go far enough back--at least on this continent -- you arrive at the doorstep of an Indian village--and they have a more valid claim than any libertarian on earth. Most Indian views of property, by the way, would also find ridiculous the libertarians 'absolute rights' claims to property. The Wampanoags of New England for example, believed that people own land only when they are actually using it, quite different, and a much more sensible view than the permanent and immutable idea of ownership espoused by Westerners.
The National Libertarian Party membership form has "the pledge" on it: "I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals." It's quite amusing to hear how much libertarians disagree over what it means: whether it is or isn't kosher to overthrow the US because it has "initiated force" and they would be "retaliating". Rarely do they stop long enough to ponder whether their own claims to 'property' are even valid within their own narrow worldview. Based on their primitive first come, first serve, ideology, they're probably not. Again, the Indians on this continent would have first dibs. We know, of course, with what deep respect our National ancestors treated the Indians 'right' to ownership.
In fact, you need only look to New Orleans to see how your primitive Libertarian world might end up. How many Libertarians have the money to pony up for their own Black Water Security force (Many of those guys scored a grand+ a day in Iraq)? How many will outfit themselves with a mini arsenal of handguns and semi-automatics and say, three days supply of food, busily fending off the natives?
Of course, many Libertarians will argue from a purely economic view that they would be much wealthier if they didn't pay taxes. For short term, maybe, but certainly not in the long term because if taxes are eliminated, you'll need to purchase services that were formerly provided by government (definition of commidifiable property, protection of said property, education, enforcement of health codes, purity of water, transportation, etc. The war tax resisters league--whom I personally look on with admiration but not emulation--have the best game plan for ensuring they pay no taxes, they've learned to live in our consumerist society by staying below the taxable limit. Kudos to them. If libertarians want to practice a tax free life, might I suggest voluntary poverty as a very easy method to achieve this goal?) Finally, many libertarians take the view that government taxes used for social programs are coerced. Here's the shibboleth: "It ain't charity if you are using someone else's money." What they overlook is that, in many philosophical and religious systems (including Judaism and Islam), charity doesn't determine the virtue of the giver: charity is for the relief of the receiver. In short, it really doesn't matter if they feel emotionally coerced or not, it's not about them; it's about people who need the money and resources more than they do--and it's money and resources they would never have had rights to without the government to begin with. Luckily, whether such greed heads like it or not, they belong to a government that still makes sure some nominal support is provided. Actually, this 'liberal' government policy has done more to save the Libertarian's middle class bacon then all their hoarded foods and weapons ever could, and yet as most conservative leaning folks, Libertarians are inclined to sentimentalize their past, believing that they lived in a fairly libertarian society in the US 150 years ago. Something of a principle for them is the belief that their golden age was actually ruined by FDR, and the 'liberal' agenda, when in fact their lives were made considerably better because of it.
Now, in all fairness, Libertarians do usually remember and criticize some of the more prominent non-libertarian features of that period, such as unequal protection under the law for blacks and women. However, they seem to overlook a lot of other important things. Yes, the Federal government had a much lighter hand then. However, state and local governments had a much greater influence. There is not one class of positive duty or obligation in the US today that did not exist 200 years ago at state or federal level. All the biggies were there except income tax. The equivalent of income tax was property tax (on all possessions) or head tax by many states. There was involuntary conscription, eminent domain, etc. As a matter of fact, things got much better when powers of states were interpreted to be restricted by the US constitution (much later.) Powers such as state religious authority. Also, society was organized quite differently before the industrial revolution spread to the US. Our "nation of shopkeepers" was actually a nation of farmers. The means of production were controlled primarily by the workers (who were the owners of the farms and shops.) Government of that era would be as out-of-place today as the tariffs and scientific knowledge of that era. As to the liberal agenda, it's a huge blind spot for libertarians because they refuse to understand that without the so called 'liberal agenda' their world would be infinitely darker and more dangerous.
Consider just a short list of the accomplishments of the 'Liberal' agenda
Interstate Highway System
Proposed by Roosevelt and erected by Eisenhower (a Republican), the Interstate system was a big government project. As much as anything else in the post WWII era, the Interstate is responsible for tremendous economic growth, prosperity, and has spawned an entire culture (some of it admittedly not so good).
This act of Congress enabled millions upon millions of Americans to get college educations, something that most Americans had never had the opportunity to do previously. An entire generation of leaders, scientists, and business people owe their education to the GI Bill.
An end to child labor, 40 hour work weeks, the right of employees to collectively bargain, overtime pay, workplace safety, all of the things we take for granted today are thanks to liberal laws passed in the first half of this century. It was the conservatives who fought tooth and nail against the end of sweatshops and exploitation.
era: late 1940's-1950's
Foreign aid is a popular scapegoat these days. Those who would cut it should look back at the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe, and is the major reason that Communism never made it past East Berlin.
The environment has gotten much better in the last 30 years thanks to liberals. Bald Eagles fly once again thanks to endangered species laws, most rivers and lakes are clean again due to anti-pollution laws, and frequent smog days are a thing of the past in most big American cities.
Food safety laws
Ever read Sinclair's "The Jungle?" That's what things were really like before food purity laws were on the books. Today cases of food poisoning are rare, and consumers know that whatever they buy is safe to eat.
Workplace safety laws
Long hours in unsafe conditions are much rarer today than in the past. Tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and child labor have been eliminated by liberal and progressive legislation.
This program has provided three generations of Americans retirement benefits, and nearly eliminated poverty among the elderly. The program is weakening now, but for 50 years it did its job to a T.
Liberalism and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand. Unlike the pseudo-boom of the 1980's, the 1950's and 1960's were a period of sustained and real growth for all sectors of the economy and all social classes. Taxes were fair--that is to say, progressive, government worked, and America prospered under both Democratic and Republican administrations
It was Kennedy who challenged us to make it to the moon, and it is under his and Johnson's administrations that the space program took off, with numerous benefits to American industry and peoples' standard of living, not to mention national pride. If you are reading this on a computer, thank the space program and the liberals who got it going.
Kennedy inspired thousands of Americans to ask what they could do for their country, and the Peace Corps is his most visible and effective legacy
Civil rights movement
Liberal ideals drove the biggest change in American society since the Civil War, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. All Americans who believe in freedom and opportunity cannot help but be inspired by the valiant struggles of MLK and others. Also recall if you will that the major opponents of civil rights were conservatives.
The fight against Totalitarianism
World War II was fought by all Americans; liberals and conservatives fought together the evil of Nazism. The ideal we fought for was freedom and the dignity of the individual against totalitarianism. Under the leadership of Roosevelt and Truman, we won. But the battle is never over, so we must remain vigilant.
Not a liberal program per se, but rather a government one, which many equate as the same thing. The internet is a good example of what a government program can do when allowed to work.
The Tennessee Valley project
The Depression-era government program bought electricity to thousands of impoverished families in Appalachia, prevented floods, and created thousands of new jobs.
Women's right to vote
Before 1920, half of America's population could not exercise the essential duty of citizenship.
Universal Public Education
The reason America is so strong economically is because we have a well-educated citizenry. Public schooling is the true melting pot of America, where every student, regardless of economic background can be taught the basics of citizenship. It is no coincidence that in the last 20 years, as conservatives have greatly weakened the public school system, that American students have scored lower on tests and our civic society has started to unravel.
National Weather Service
This is one of those things you never think about, but you are glad its there. Far from just forecasting the weather, the NWS also provides vital data to pilots and sailors, and the NWS satellites and observation posts provide the raw data that all other weather forecasting services (private ones too!) depend on.
Much of the great discoveries in science have come about through grants from the government. This is not to say that scientific genius depends on Washington, but the fact remains that pure science is expensive, and private industry will often not fund experiments which don't have a direct commercial potential. From Salk's polio vaccine to todays Human Genome Project and Hubble Space Telescope, the government is an important partner in scientific discovery.
Product Labeling/Truth in Advertising Laws
"We take it for granted that if a claim is made publicly for a product, it's reasonable to assume it's true. Plus, every time we check the ingredients on a can or package of food, we should mentally call down blessings on the liberals who passed the necessary legislation over the anguished howls of the conservatives, who were convinced such info would be prohibitively expensive, and too big a burden on business."
Government funded water and sewage systems are an important part of modernity. In addition, organizations such as the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control play an important part in maintaining the national health and preventing epidemics through research, vaccination programs, etc.
Morrill Land Grant Act
era: late 1800's
This act is the reason why nearly every state in the Union has a large public university. These centers of learning have educated untold millions of Americans. If you went to a school with a state name in it, then you were helped by liberalism.
This allowed remote, rural areas of the country the basic convinience of electricity. I am sure that those of us using computers on the internet, sitting in our air conditioned homes, under our electric lights consider electricity a basic necessity - one that the pure market would never have found profitable to provide to isolated farming communities.
era: 1890's-present day
Put a college education within the reach of nearly every American. In addition to education, many of these institutions have played key roles in all kinds of scientific research and been a strong influence on our entire society.
Bank Deposit Insurance
era: 1930's-present day
About 1934, as part of extensive New Deal banking legislation, Congress created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to provide federal insurance for bank deposits.Ê This was instrumental in restoring confidence in our nation's banks, and remains so to this day.
Earned Income Tax Credit
era: 1970's-present day
Reduces the tax burden for working families who make under $28,500.00 You have to earn income to get it. It is not a handout. It's a great incentive for families to stay off welfare. But the atmosphere has changed in Washington, and Republicans had to find a way to pay for their capital-gains tax cut, and EITC was their ticket to success. So, the Republicans voted to cut this program by $29 billion over a certain time frame. Well guess what? They just raised the taxes on lower income working families.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
era: 1940's-present day
The world's foremost authority and defense against infectious disease and epidemic is a department of the United States government.
Family and Medical Leave Act
era: 1993-present day
This is a program which mandates that you have the right to job leave to take care of sick family members, or to have a child. Many conservatives were opposed to this valuable piece of legislation. Perhaps they were opposed to family values?
Consumer Product Safety Commission
era: 1972-present day
These guys regulate consumer products for safety. Everything from sharp (and edible) baby toys to flammable pjamas have been taken off the market due to the work of this commission.
era: 1930's-present day
Millions of our children have learned from shows like Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, and Mister Rogers (and so many more). Millions of adults continue to learn from shows like Nova. Also, the best broadcast journalism is by far National Public Radio. PBS and NPR have served to enrich our national culture.
Americans With Disabilities Act
era: 1990-present day
Civil rights for disabled citizens. It is fair, just, and it is the law of the land. Credit where credit is due, former Senator Bob Dole helped push this through, a rare nod in favor of liberalism from Mr. Dole.
This is not to say that Liberalism is perfect. Far from it. Like any ideology, it must be constantly on guard for signs of internal decay, and rigidity. But the core values of Liberalism are what made these accomplishments possible--compare these to the accomplishments that the core values of Libertarianism have made possible within the last few years when the closest thing to a true believer has been in power:
Income tax cuts, one of which was the largest dollar-value tax cut in world history. Increasing the wealth of the top 1% of our citizens exponentially, while maintaining or only marginally reducing tax levels for the lower 99%
Provided support for permanent elimination of the Estate tax.
Killed the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty
Significantly eased field-testing controls of genetically engineered crops.
Changed parts of the Forestry Management Act to allow clear cutting of national forests
Killed Clinton's CO2 anti-pollution regulations that were helpful in reducing overall CO2 emissions, a major contributor to global warming.
Killed U.S. involvement in the International Criminal Court
Killed the International Ban on Small Arms Trafficking Treaty
Privatized government by putting hundreds of thousands of jobs up for bid--in many cases not even up for bid, simply doling them out to the friendliest crony and politically best connected crony, weakening public-sector unions and cutting pay across the board for public sector employees.
Of course, we could go back through the Reagan years and pick up more 'accomplishments' along the same line, but notice the items listed are almost uniformly defined in the negative, eliminating something government had previously offered, or cutting taxes that allow government to operate. They offer nothing positive, at all actually, in the sense of a government program or accomplishment.
Why do the libertarians have so few real government accomplishments to point to?
- There's never, ever been a purely Libertarian government, (phew!). This is probably as close as we have ever gotten outside of the Reagan era, or farther back, the McKinley era (also known as the era of the Robber Barons) and...
- Because Libertarians fundamentally don't think government can or should do anything. They believe in the individual, but not the group, and the individual can do very little except work energetically (or, in Ayn Rand's obsequious view, heroically) within the market constructed by the government to aggregate wealth to himself or herself. They can also of course, work the refs (government officials and pols) to make sure the market constructs are hugely favorable for those who already possess property. This has produced nearly zero overall benefit for the public good in terms of public policy--and has gone a long way to make it worse.
What forms the basis of rights and property found in the social contract? Whatever the voters agree to -- which means they can be anything, as indeed history has shown. And how are their rights and property defended? Primarily by the enforcement mechanisms authorized by the contract: police, military, legislatures, courts, etc. Without such enforcement, the agreements themselves would be precarious, and nothing could stop a stronger neighbor from violating your rights or your property.
Many conservatives consider rights to be natural, inalienable, God-given and self-evident. But rights cannot be natural, like the laws of nature, because they can be broken. They cannot be inalienable, because history is filled with examples of people who never had rights in the first place, or had them taken away. They cannot be God-given, because the world's religions widely disagree on what rights are; even Judeo-Christianity allowed slavery for thousands of years, whereas today it doesn't. Rights cannot be self-evident, because slavery was viewed as natural by Aristotle and defended by the Church as such until the 19th century. The fact that rights have changed so much throughout history demonstrates that they are social constructs. Liberals believe that advances in moral philosophy and science are responsible for our improving concept of rights. We are, after all, children of the Enlightenment, while Libertarians, in their purest state, tend more toward children of the corn.
In societies that reward merit and success the most, competition becomes supreme, the fittest survive, and people get what they allegedly deserve. Such systems are called "meritocracies," and they are accomplished by relaxing the rules. On the other hand, when equality is awarded to everyone, people become less treacherous and more civilized to one another, but they lose incentive to achieve, since there is no reward for going the extra mile. Such systems are called "egalitarian societies," and they are accomplished by expanding the rules. Most societies try to strike a balance between these two extremes.
Liberals believe that a completely unrestricted meritocracy is ruthless -- the absence of rules allows the strong to eliminate or subjugate the weak. In economic terms, power and wealth concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. We know this dynamic just by a quick summary of financial sheets: CEOs pulled in median compensation of about $14 million in 2004, up 25% from 2003, meanwhile real earnings--in terms of actual buying power-- for the middle and lower tier workers fell dramatically.
Liberals therefore advocate a moderated meritocracy: those with the most merit continue to earn the most money or power, but a percentage of it is redistributed back to the middle and lower classes. This is accomplished by progressive taxes, anti-poverty spending, and other forms of regulation. Liberals do not see this as a "giveaway" to the poor -- on the contrary, they view the runaway profits of the rich (especially in the later stages of wealth accumulation) as undeserved (how, exactly, is interest on inherited wealth, earned?), so redistributing them back to the workers who produced them is necessary to prevent exploitation. A moderated meritocracy retains the best of both worlds: incentive to achieve, and a healthy talent pool from which merit is drawn. Numerous studies confirm that these are the healthiest economies. In one of the more famous studies, economists Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini conducted a thorough statistical analysis of historical inequality and growth among modern democracies, and found that those with more equal incomes generally experience faster productive growth.
Personal Responsibility and Freedom
The third principle that motivates libertarianism is the notion of personal responsibility coupled with their idea of freedom. Put simply, for most libertarians, freedom is measured by absence of governmental laws. Another way of stating it is that only the government can restrict your rights. (Some Libertarians strongly support this wording, saying that a law removes or restricts your rights, but a private entity can only infringe on your rights without changing them.) But really, this is an artificial double standard, which labels a restraint on your freedom by one outfit in a completely different way than the same restraint by a different outfit, because one has the label of "government" and the other does not. Indeed, much of the fabric of reasoning in Libertarianism is based on presuming that the government is uniquely unlike any other entity, and therefore must be judged by entirely different standards from how anything else is appraised.
The question in terms of personal freedom and responsibility is how much power others have over you and how constrained your choice of actions is, not whether the constraint is by public action rather than private action. What matters to those that hold this view is how free you are on paper, not how free you are in actuality. According to this view, a destitute person with no public support is more free than one who gets some kind of pension or welfare, despite the fact that the latter is the one who can do many things that are closed off to the former. It's silly reductionism, of course, that leads to these conclusions. Reductionist reasoning is very attractive to Libertarians, many of whom, as noted, are in the information technology field and are thus already likely to think in very simplistic and binary ways.
Okay, well, let's play the game. I will refer to these two definitions of freedom as Abstract Freedom and Walking Freedom, the former being freedom on the books and the latter being freedom available in the concrete moment. The freedom that I most value day to day is Walking Freedom -- the practical opportunity to arrange my life the way I best like, not the theoretical opportunity to do things that some random legislator might want to outlaw someday. Now Abstract Freedom is indeed important, make no mistake; it is only by making sure of some guarantees in this area that we preserve our rights and make sure that Walking Freedom has a stable foundation. In fact, a good argument can be made that Walking Freedom is the evolved form of Abstract Freedom, but the Freedom that counts to me in my waking, breathing life is the Walking variety. Walking Freedom depends on things like how much money you have and how healthy you are. So we tend to avoid confronting the question politically, and many conservatives argue that it should not be considered at all, since that's a slippery slope leading to socialistic intervention. But in disregarding it for the sake of clarity and fairness, we can easily argue ourselves into a situation where by increasing our Abstract on the book "freedom" we actually curtail our Walking Freedom in in practice: this is exactly the deal with the devil the Libertarians would make.
Let's take an example to make this more concrete. Raising the minimum wage, or even having a minimum wage. One suspects that a Libertarians view of the minimum wage would be a forthright 'no'. In principle it's obviously a socialistic attempt to manipulate business into providing a baseline nanny state social net for labor costs that artificially drives up the costs of the products involved and is overall hurtful to the economy. But more importantly, it's a constraint on the sacrosanct and brilliant workings of the 'invisible hand' of the market place. So I would suspect a clear and declamatory 'no' from the Libertarian party. This despite the fact that it would greatly increase the Walking Freedom of many of our fellow citizens--even, I would suspect, a few of our less noteworthy Libertarians might benefit directly from a rise in the minimum wage. They will argue 'no' based on their understanding of the Abstract Freedom that would be constrained. But even at an Abstract level they would only be right for a short term, because ultimately, the 'invisible hand' of the market place would show itself to be a failure and the social cost of keeping wages below poverty level for a larger majority of our citizens would become untenable and their would be something like a revolution that could quite easily wipe out all 'Abstract Freedom' that the Libertarians so deeply cherish. Libertarians don't much like to think about class based revolutions in these terms but they ought to--because ultimately it could have a much deeper impact on their cherished Abstract Freedom then some penny ante hike in the minimum wage which would have increased the Walking Freedom of so many others. That communistic radical, Christopher Caldwell, from the conservative Weekly Standard makes something of the same point here:
Yet, the Libertarian philosophy sometimes argues that even the most drastic loss of Walking Freedom is right and proper and not to be worried about for an instant if it comes about by increasing Abstract Freedom. In this, Libertarians can readily fall back on the tried and true argument long used by capitalist conservatives of the old school, that is, those wonderful Social Darwinist dunderheads: namely that once you are free, then whatever goes wrong for you in the area of Walking Freedom is axiomatically your own fault, and therefore it would be morally wrong to do anything but leave you to get yourself out of it however you can.
There are psychological reasons outside the scope of this discussion why our culture has often promoted an attitude of "blaming the victim", of finding reasons why anyone who suffers misfortune must have somehow brought it on themselves. This attitude manifests in extreme cases as a magical belief that whatever happens to you is something that you "chose" unconsciously, somehow, or have failed to work sufficiently 'hard' to achieve. Laziness is a great crime and is coupled directly with unemployment. The fact that 5-6% unemployment is a practical and built in necessity of our current market structure (otherwise inflation would get out of hand) is never mentioned. Instead, it's the persons fault for not finding a job. Predictably, 5-6% of our population can never find work and yet, the Libertarians rather than offer some type of reasonable social safety net for the loser prefer, one assumes ostracization and if push comes to shove, some form of private charity, but nothing mandated by law, which means effectively, many times, nothing at all. Politics aside, this is stupid, callous, mean, and repugnant behavior. Ultimately it's a defense mechanism that soothes fears (and guilt) at the expense of other people. When any political philosophy incorporates this attitude, that philosophy is corrupted. This is especially true when, as has often been the case with Republican-style conservatism, this blaming attitude is put in the service of class interests and racial and sexist biases. The argument implies that the advantaged must have earned and created their advantage through merit, whereas the disadvantaged are in a worse position strictly because of their own inadequacy.
Since what most Liberals want for society is the best spread of opportunity as measured by the combination of Abstract Freedom and Walking Freedom, rather than by just one of them, and privilege issues greatly undercut Walking Freedom in ways that, despite smooth lies to the contrary, have nothing to do with what people have brought upon themselves, most Liberals rightly--and most Americans rightly -- conclude that the Libertarian agenda is not the one to support.
The other ad hoc article of faith that crop up in various Libertarian arguments is that the reason the family is "breaking down" is because the government has intruded itself as a kind of surrogate family member, superseding so called traditional values; the reason people do things that are crazy and mean and destructive is because current law does not properly model and reinforce personal responsibility; and that anyone who opposes libertarian ideals is some kind of closet fascist whose true agenda is to run other people's lives. Well, let's begin by suggesting this is not true on the face of it for the simple reason that most people apparently have a better understanding of human nature than your average Libertarian. Most people understand that government and laws are in fact necessary to keep people from starving other people to death, to keep people from, for example, price gauging during a national disaster. What do Libertarians say about the example of price gauging during Katrina? Is that right? Shouldn't there be laws against it? And how do those laws not properly model and reinforce personal responsibility? Are they somehow suggesting that the absence of laws in such situations would encourage more personal responsibility? How does personal responsibility take into account the acts of those individuals who are certainly acting according to the market, but who, meanwhile, are destroying others who have been put in such a precarious position? Ultimately, libertarianism is ineffective not so much because of its utopian belief that everyone will take action to obtain all necessary information and will act rationally--although that's silly enough--but because they don't understand that humans who are indoctrinated by this very notion of heightened individualism with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility will tend to neglect their equally important responsibility to society at large: to their neighbor. The greatest failure of libertarianism is its failure to even recognize an entire dimension of the human condition: the cooperative model of existence that finds relations with other humans as good in and of itself, without reliance or even regard for a reductionist (and, I might add, extremely materialist) market place. I am put in mind of John Kenneth Galbraith's famous quote:
... "extreme capitalism": the obsessive, uncritical penetration of the concept of the market into every aspect of American life, and the attempt to drive out every other institution, including law, art, culture, public education, Social Security, unions, community, you name it. It is the conflation of markets with populism, with democracy, with diversity, with liberty, and with choice---and so the denial of any form of choice that imposes limits on the market. More than that, it is the elimination of these separate concepts from our political discourse, so that we find ourselves looking to the stock market to fund retirement, college education, health care, and having forgotten that in other wealthy and developed societies these are rights, not the contingent outcomes of speculative games.
That's why libertarianism and its adjunct, extreme capitalism, and the 'conservative movement' in general doesn't rise to the level of a philosophy. They are more like one dimensional cartoons, which at the end of the day, have done more harm to society than good --witness the ethos of the rapist sports star, the gansta rappers and the Ken Lay crooks all of whom have their roots in a deformed Horatio Algerism which is nothing more than libertarianism writ cartoon large for the common man. Many people who subscribe to the libertarian metaphor--especially in the world of higher finance--are effectively tax evading criminals who have found methods of staying within the framework of the law while essentially breaking the spirit of the law every day of their lives. I hope someday we will have the political courage to shut down their Cayman Islands, their Jersey islands and their illicit offshore tax havens. They are members of no community worth belonging to, and truly deserve no more respect than the most common thief. If the libertarians favor such thinking, and such people, they favor a selfish and adolescent venality that is beneath contempt (but really, what's new?). Thanks, but again, I think I'll stick to paying my taxes. That's the price we pay for belonging to community. If you don't want to belong, of course, there is an option that I highly advise my libertarians friends to take: leave. The sooner the better. Especially leave if you think any other nation on earth would be silly enough to shelter such selfish souls within their own borders.
Libertarians have certainly done more harm than anything the Liberal 'agenda' of compassion and a social safety net might have achieved. Their so called philosophy of selfishness is the problem with our deteriorating family values. The term 'personal responsibility' has as much depth and force in a culture built primarily on greed as the term 'bling'. It's a magpie's philosophy full of shiny, trembling things that are worse than useless for running a country. In this regard, libertarians desperately need to heal themselves. But they must first understand that much like a strict materialist interpretation of Marx, their perverse ideology reduces man to a ticker in a market, idealizes a consumerist ethos that commoditizes every aspect of existence, and makes man at best a hero of greed, the most noble, the king of selfishness--and thus, because it aims no higher then our lowest desire is the root illness of this century. Libertarians need to understand this corruption at their core. They won't be cured otherwise.