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The Libertarian Cancer

December 28, 2010

For an excellent primer on and critique of libertarianism, check out Christopher Beam’s new piece in New York Magazine. Toward the end of the piece, Beam makes a point that can’t be repeated enough:

At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. “Man’s first duty is to himself,” says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. “His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.” Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise. If you don’t get your way, blow things up. And there’s the problem. If everyone refused to compromise his vision, there would be no cooperation. There would be no collective responsibility. The result wouldn’t be a city on a hill. It would be a port town in Somalia. In a world of scarce resources, everyone pursuing their own self-interest would yield not Atlas Shrugged but Lord of the Flies.

Individual liberty, while a good in itself, must be tempered by other goods (e.g. equality), or it will tend to morph into its opposite: tyranny.

Of course, the reverse is also true. As libertarians are well aware, wealth redistribution can squelch individual initiative, in effect making everyone poorer. Likewise, rigid social norms can lead to rebellion and disunity — hence, for example, the cultural revolution of the 1960s. As Beam’s piece suggests, however, the real danger right now lies in the libertarian direction; the real danger is that the so-called libertarian moment will linger on.

The real danger is that body politic will become cancerous due to the unchecked growth of the individual.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 31, 2010 3:33 pm

    My favorite is this part on page 5:

    Libertarian minarchy is an elegant idea in the abstract. But the moment you get specific, the foundation starts to crumble. Say we started from scratch and created a society in which government covered only the bare essentials of an army, police, and a courts system. I’m a farmer, and I want to sell my crops. In Libertopia, I can sell them in exchange for money. Where does the money come from? Easy, a private bank. Who prints the money? Well, for that we’d need a central bank—otherwise you’d have a thousand banks with a thousand different types of currency. (Some libertarians advocate this.) Okay, fine, we’ll create a central bank. But there’s another problem: Some people don’t have jobs. So we create charities to feed and clothe them. What if there isn’t enough charity money to help them? Well, we don’t want them to start stealing, so we’d better create a welfare system to cover their basic necessities. We’d need education, of course, so a few entrepreneurs would start private schools. Some would be excellent. Others would be mediocre. The poorest students would receive vouchers that allowed them to attend school. Where would those vouchers come from? Charity. Again, what if that doesn’t suffice? Perhaps the government would have to set up a school or two after all.

    It just doesn’t end. Libertarianism is great in theory, and a failure in practice. Without equality, it can’t be implemented, and after too long, it collapses in on itself.

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