Liberty: The label or the reality?

The US Libertarian movement is an interesting one. One of my friends is besotted by Ron Paul and his Austrian Economics based ideas. I always thought it a bit arrogant that economists think that when the question of how we organise our society arrises it’s them we should turn to for answers. Having looked at the basis of most economic theory I’m less than impressed. Actually, I think if what I know about it was known more widely, people would be very angry. Before I looked at it closely I saw economics as a form of engineering rather than a science. It doesn’t tell us anything about reality but rather how to achieve particular outcomes given particular resources and constraints. An engineer can’t tell you if internal combustion is the right or wrong choice for our global transport system, just that it’ll work given a set of requirements are fulfilled. Engineering can’t tell you why an engine works, that’s the job of physics, but it can use physics to construct an engine. Actually this view of economics is generous. It’s perhaps how economics should be, but for the most part not what it is. Frankly, what it is mostly, in my opinion, is a religion [2]. The fact that there is such a thing as ‘Austrian Economics’ should raise a cringe in anyone honestly interested in improving our society just as it would if someone claimed to be an expert in ‘French Physics’.

I don’t really want to talk about economics in this post. What I want to talk about is the use of simple words. I tried to point out, to my friend, that just because Libertarians use the words freedom and liberty here and there that doesn’t mean that their ideas have anything to do with promoting either. Obviously US Libertarians are in favour of reduced government, but they do believe that the government should enforce contractual law and laws against physical violence. If the Libertarians are in favour of liberty and freedom in such a philosophically pure way why do they want to limit our freedom to breach contractual law and violence laws? Really, the first is pragmatic. Their capitalist society can’t be implemented without contractual laws being enforceable. Rules against violence don’t follow from any part of their framework, nor does their free-market society need violence laws. They would probably argue that violence would be a breach of the individual’s rights, which is the limit of anyone else’s rights. Fair enough. But, their entire theoretical society is built on breaching the rights of others. For example, one of the things the Libertarians really do complain about is the government creating money on the grounds that it reduces the value of people’s cash [3], but under just about all branches of economic the ‘law’ of supply and demand means that pretty much everything anyone does has an impact on the value of everything everyone else owns. If I dig some gold out of the ground I increase the supply of gold, everyone else’s gold is devalued. To a large extent the idea is completely ignored at the theoretical level by doing things like pretend supply curves are flat for individual companies, but economic’s internal inconsistencies aren’t my problem.

This is all largely ignored because we all, luckily for Libertarian preachers, have been trained to accept that being free implies some situations in which freedoms are constrained, and violence is one of them. Take another example: Imagine I argued that we should free all of our prisoners. I would in a technical sense be an advocate of freedom. Should we extend freedom to criminals? While I would be advocating freedom in a narrow sense, releasing prisoners would globally have the opposite effect. People would feel unsafe leaving their homes, their activities would have to be modified to compensate for the new risks they face. Overall, society would be less free. Local principals, in aggregate, can have counter-intuitive global effects.

I see a similar idea at work in US Libertarianism. It’s difficult to get this across to people who’ve bought into it. Libertarians talks about freedom all the time. They talk about laws against violence (as if such ideas are philosophically unique to his position [1] ) so their position must be humane and peace-loving. But, the implications of their policies can go only two ways: fast regression to pre-industrial feudalism caused by a lack of a public sector or profound neo-feudalism. Further, either way, their principals on violence and contractual discipline would be irrelevant. The tyrants would have the best lawyers, all the buying power and commercial leverage, and the best tools and expertise. Hurting people would just be another risk subject to cost benefit analysis, and the enforcement of laws would be probably underfunded, perhaps subject to tender to private tyrannies.

At this point the Libertarian apologist would probably insist that monopolies without government are impossible or some such irrelevance. Perhaps that’s true, I doubt it. It totally ignores how resourceful humans beings are. But if it is then their vision would result something between chaotic pre-industrial sole-trader economies to having almost but-not-quite-monopolies. Having our worlds resources controlled by two tyrants instead of one isn’t that different.

Libertarians argue for the prospect of us voting with our cash. This is such a fundamentally awful idea that it’s hard to begin to explain why. It spells out what would be wrong with a Libertarian’s world. You are free to withdraw your custom if you don’t like how your money is spent, but you have to spend it somewhere just to live. If you don’t like your work conditions just quit! Give up eating. You’re free to starve if you don’t like be exploited. You cast your vote by giving it to someone else who uses it to literally manufacture more votes. If you think this is Liberty than the word really is useless.

I think this is the process through which words are reduced to meaningless, often counter-productive, labels. In Libertarianism we are seeing it mid-flow. What they advocate is a set of narrow freedoms. Given time the word Liberty would end up being used to refer to a state of affairs like those in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The word ‘Socialism’ has already been through this process. Now it has as much meaning as a swear word. You are supposed to shudder when you hear at, not comprehend it’s meaning. What happened in Russia since the thirties called itself socialism. It wasn’t anything like it. Many a Libertarian will argue the media is biased but accept in seconds the premise that what happened in Russia in recent decades was socialism or communism.

Another example of this type of weird warping of words can be seen in the firearm debate in the US. I have read articles by very intelligent people talking about what is wrong with the liberal’s pro-gun-control views. My understanding of the word liberal is that if you are liberal with regards to a thing, you are in favour of loosening regulations. So it is the gun lobby that should be called the liberals. Similarly the Reaganites, the Thatcherites and the Free-Market Capitialists are all liberals with regards to economic policy. If the conservatives really were conservatives they would want to protect traditional American values, like traditional industry or worker movements or a passive stance on international affairs or free-press, then they would be ‘Socialists’ or ‘Communists’ or ‘Leftist’ biased.

[1] One of the things about US Libertarian position that slightly annoys me is that they refer to their position on violence as if they have derived it from their philosophically solid position, when really its just a rule injected into it. In a really free market we could all do as much violence as we like and violence itself would be an industry. We would all be free to risk our live’s in the market place which is how Ron Paul feels about healthcare.

[2] I think this will change. I can imagine economics will go through a process much like Linguistics or Neuroscience recently. There is research being done applying things like complex systems, non-linear dynamics, graph theory to economic theory that is giving good results.

[3] As it happens this obsession with government money production illustrates a complete lack of understanding of reality, mainly of how banks and money actually works. The currency supply is increased by lending. When do banks lend? When someone asks for a loan. In other words, when there is demand not when there is supply.

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