By Patrick Langille
There is an ideology that is sweeping through right-of-centre political parties throughout the Western world. Historically, ideologies have almost always proven to be dangerous, regardless of whether they emerge from the political Left, Right, or Centre; as Eisenhower once said: “Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong”, a warning as true then as it is now.
The folly of ideology is establishing a set archetype to solve any issue which emerges, rather than simply responding to issues as they arise. A radical form of libertarianism is sweeping through right-wing parties, especially among the youth wings of these organizations. In this article, I will explain, adopting the perspectives of both Left and Right, why libertarianism is not only false, but also extremely dangerous, and threatens to undo much of the progress made by the Left and the Right in the previous century.
What is libertarianism? Libertarianism is a radical free-market ideology that emerged from a group of primarily Eastern and Central European economists and philosophers in the 20th century; namely, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, the American Murray Rothbard, and the early classical liberal, Claude Fredric Bastiat. While Rand did not describe herself as a libertarian, but rather an “objectivist”, her novels and essays were important in the development of the libertarian morality. In addition, libertarians often cite Nietzsche, John Locke, Adam Smith, certain American revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson, and others to give their philosophy a greater degree of sophistication and seeming historical grounding. However, with the exception of Bastiat–who was a relatively unimportant and ignored writer in his own time–there are few 19th century economists or philosophers with similar ideas, except one, to whom I shall return later. First, however, what do libertarians believe and how to they express it?
The libertarian ideology emerged from the Austrian School of Economics. People such as Hayek and Mises believed that from unregulated and unrestricted “laissez-faire” capitalism a “spontaneous order” would emerge from mutual self-interest. Citing early liberals such as Smith, but taking it much further, and often without the social-reforming tendencies, they contended, notably in Hayek’s work The Road to Serfdom, that any government interference with the economy, be it in the form of unions, regulations, or government spending, would inevitably result in tyranny, like that seen in the Soviet Union. Ayn Rand was the author of novels such as Atlas Shrugged, set in a world where the entrepreneurial class decides to disappear, leaving the world in utter chaos. She, too, advocated small government and laissez-faire capitalism. Murray Rothbard, the American-Austrian economist, created what is sometimes called “Anarcho-capitalism”, and attempted to find moral grounding for a society based entirely upon self-interest. The time and place from which these economists and philosophers emerged is of utmost importance for understanding their philosophies.
Both Hayek and Mises were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and both to noble families. Austria-Hungary was a strange political entity, neither a nation, nor a state given modern definitions. The entire empire, though subdivided into small regions with their own local assemblies elected by the town burghers and nobility, was the private property of the Hapsburg family. While the serfs had been liberated during the reign of Joseph II in the late 18th century, little had changed for the average peasant, and the economy was generally rural with some small scale industry. Hayek was from a family of academics, and Mises was the scion of railroad barons. Hayek and Mises had their formative years during the First World War and the social upheaval following the disintegration of the Hapsburg dominions. Eastern European countries suffered coup after coup, switching from one ideology to another, and always winding up with dictators. Rand, for her part, was born into a wealthy, Jewish, bourgeois family in Russia on the eve of the Revolution; she was twelve when Nicholas II resigned. Her family supported the moderate reformer Aleksander Kerensky, who was later overthrown by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Rothbard’s parents were also Russian émigrés who fled the Bolsheviks. To them, the collapse of this order seemed like another Fall of Man.
For much of the 20th century, these people were largely ignored. They were seen as a throwback to the American Robber Barons of the 19th century, and advocating a discredited idea. The preferred economist of governments at the time, John Maynard Keynes, who advocated the opposite policies, was perceived as saving much of the West from the worst privations of the Great Depression. Many government spending initiatives during the 1940’s, 50’s, and into the 70’s are still of great utility today–for example, in the domains of infrastructure, public housing, medical care, and welfare policy–and were largely based around the economic thought of Keynes. Things changed dramatically following the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970’s. In 1975 Hayek won the Nobel Prize for Economics, albeit jointly with a socialist. Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in Britain were elected in landslide elections during the 1980’s and both advocated free market policies. Reagan once said: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Neither Thatcher nor Reagan self-identified as libertarians, but those who do are often their staunchest cheerleaders.
Much of libertarianism is tacit and implicit racism, classism, and inter-regional contempt–depending on the context. By simply referring to the lazy or the stupid, libertarians can tacitly appeal to people’s baser feelings, and convince them to vote against their economic interests. In a purely libertarian system all waste management, fire departments, public transit, the military, the police, even dogcatchers, and everything else the government does would be privatized. Given that many poor and working class individuals would be unable or unwilling to pay for such services, large sections of towns and cities would be left without waste management or fire services; the latter being especially dangerous since poorer districts of cities are often more densely populated and fire tends to spread rapidly. In response to such a quandary, some libertarians will posit that a private fire company would put out a fire once it spreads over to another house, missing the point that the original house would be nearly burned to the ground.
Many leftists perceive libertarians as the more favourable and reform-minded branch of conservatives, as opposed to the more socially conservative minded. Their ideas almost seem like some sort of compromise. Libertarians perceive liberty as being indivisible, and an unregulated business sphere is deemed “economic liberty”, which is fundamentally connected to general political liberty. What they deem economic liberties, however, is more revealing. Many consider hiring or renting practices based on race or sexual orientation as forms of regulation on business and private property, as well as standards relating to food safety, building codes, and licenses for occupations. Libertarians support many leftist social policies, yet their other policies would completely undermine their intended purposes.
Libertarians can take a strong, seemingly leftist, stance on an issue, and still win the support of those who oppose it. This is why they can win the vote of pro-life supporters, despite supporting the philosophical right to choose–Ron Paul is a good example here. However, public funding and access to abortion clinics are fundamentally more important than a philosophical right. Wealthy women were always able to bribe doctors prior to the legalization of abortion; mere adherence to a philosophical right would essentially be a return to this. On the other hand, discount abortion providers would exist for the poor, and as for the very poor, there are always other options. I cannot imagine many libertarians–or their daughters–wanting to have to go to Big Steve’s Discount Abortion Emporium. This way, libertarians manage to dupe leftists into supporting them, or at the very least seem harmless if not beneficial, while still essentially taking abortion off the table. One important example to cite for the necessity of regulation and licensing for abortion-related practices, and in general for that matter, is the Canadian case of the Butterbox Babies.
In East Chester, Nova Scotia during the 1920’s and up to the mid-1940’s there operated a business known as The Ideal Maternity Home. Ran by Lila and William Young, a midwife and a chiropractor masquerading as an obstetrician, they gave birth to babies born to unwed and poor mothers, who would otherwise risk mutilation or death from a self-induced abortion. They would later sell these children for up to $10,000, a massive sum at the time; this was done in the form of “fees.” Due to lack of bureaucratic oversight and lack of laws against such actions they were never sentenced, though they were once tried and acquitted on charges pertaining to maltreatment of the children. It was not until long afterwards that the full extent of their cruelty and opportunism came to light. Children who were physically and mentally disabled, or were Natives or Blacks and thus perceived as unlikely to be adopted, were starved to death by the Youngs, being fed nothing but molasses and water. They often lived for no more than two weeks. These dead children were buried behind the home in boxes from dairy products, hence the name “Butterbox Babies.” It is estimated that between four and six hundred infants were murdered in this fashion. Events such as these highlight the necessity of government regulation, as without such oversight tragedies such as these are allowed to happen.
From the Right, libertarianism is like a parasite. It has seeped quite far and has largely dislodged the Old Right, one based on the Post-War Consensus. In practice, the rabid privatization that often accompanies libertarianism would destroy rural areas, and is an epochal break with history, the sort Edmund Burke warned about. In addition, I mentioned that there was an additional political thinker whose ideas were similar to those of libertarianism, and that philosopher is, ironically, Karl Marx. Libertarianism has ironic, and some would say disturbing, parallels to its apparent ideological competitor. Libertarianism and Marxism are essentially the inverse of one another. Whereas in Marxism, the bourgeoisie are malevolent, in libertarianism they are Nietzschean übermensches. The proletariat are uniformly honourable and industrious in Marxism. In libertarianism, they are lazy and shiftless. Marx believed society could be forced to run entirely on altruism, while libertarians believe that one can run society entirely on self-interest. In Marx’s definition, communism was actually a stateless paradise, with trade unions taking the place of the private corporations of libertarianism. Both are dangerous ideologies, and despite libertarian assertions to the contrary, the two can actually be very similar.
If you don’t believe me, read Lew Rockwell. He lies on the extremities of mainstream libertarianism. If you apply the reasoning applied in this article to his writing, it’s easy to see much of the tacit racism, classism, appeal to stinginess, and bigotry. Lew Rockwell was an editor of the controversial Ron Paul newsletters, which when referencing the L.A. Riots stated: “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began. … What if the checks had never arrived? No doubt the blacks would have fully privatized the welfare state through continued looting. But they were paid off and the violence subsided.” Read the text of Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s lecture on Margaret Thatcher, where he explicitly calls people “stupid.” For an elected official to take such views of his constituents says something about his perception of those he is ostensibly meant to represent. To a libertarian, poverty is uniformly caused by laziness or stupidity, and social spending can do nothing to alleviate its most dire effects. There was a campaign manager for Ronald Reagan named Lee Atwater who, speaking anonymously, revealed to political scientist Alexander Lamis precisely the history of how these policies became of utility to the Republican Party, with its ability in seeming populist with a “we’ll show them” and “anti-elites” type attitude. Much of Reagan’s campaign tactics reveal many of the hidden messages behind the views of many self-described libertarians and their reasons for holding them.
Atwater was a Southerner who understood Southern people. He grew up during the Civil Rights movement, during a period of flux in American politics, whereby the Republican Party became the Party of the South. The former Confederacy is the only part of the United States completely and utterly defeated in a war. The events of 1812 ended status quo ante bellum, and Vietnam was essentially a colonial venture. This was important in shaping the Southern attitude towards the federal government, and by extension, federal intervention in Southern affairs. Atwater infamously said: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N****r, n****r.’”
Patrick Langille ’14 graduated from the University of Toronto. His blog can be found here: http://kickasshistory.wordpress.com/