Column on Further Distortions of Libertarianism

Further Distortions of Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

In his essay “The Tea Party Jacobins,” with its hyperbolic and besmirching title, Mark Lilla, whose The Reckless Minds: Intellectuals in Politics I once favorably reviewed, advances the notion that the Tea Party’s “libertarian irruptions … [attracted] individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone.”

I am reminded of this point by Andrew Hacker’s essay “The Next Election: The Surprising Reality,” in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 2011), which quotes Lilla favorably. But check this: Libertarians demonstrably do not believe what Lilla claims they do. Libertarians aren’t “convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone.” What they believe, instead, is that free men and women can do things much better than bureaucrats and politicians, mostly in voluntary associations. Teams, orchestras, clubs, corporations, choirs, and many other such associations aren’t “individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves.” No libertarian I have every known–and I have known a great many, having edited one of the first collection of essays by libertarians for Nelson-Hall Publishers of Chicago back in 1973 (The Libertarian Alternative)–is convinced of such an idiotic idea. None want to do things “themselves.” What they want is not to be coerced into associations to which they may object, especially by the government. They don’t believe people ought to be forced to contribute to social security, medicate, and similar programs not of their own choosing. It is a complete non-sequitor to hold that this means they want to do things by themselves.

Comments like those by Lilla suggest to me that critics of libertarianism are running very low on bona fide objections to the position. Instead they need to make it appear that the libertarian positions embraces ideas that it clearly does not embrace or even remotely implies. Only that way can they come of up with criticisms of it.

This has been going on for centuries, actually. For example, Marx argued that individualists, the libertarians of yesteryear, think they are self-sufficient and defend the right to private property so as to make use of what they own arbitrarily and selfishly. As he put it, “the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily, without regard for other men, independently from society, the right of selfishness.” This line of criticism, along with the charge that free market advocates believe in atomistic individualism, has been repeated over and over again, not just by the Left but also by the Right. And it is bunk.

In fact, the main thing that the right to private property secures is the individual’s liberty to choose how to dispose of his or her labor or resources. It is this choice that bothers the critics who all contend that they, not you or I, can decided best how we ought to use our labor and goods. Indeed, under socialism your and my labor is public property and to be allocated as the party leaders decide because they have the requisite knowledge, something you and I supposedly lack. (Why they but not we is an unanswered question!)

Anyway, Lilla and his ilk just don’t want to deal with the bona fide libertarian viewpoint. They need the nonsense they impute to libertarians so as to make the position appear ridiculous. But contrary to what they suggest, it is not at all ridiculous. It does not hold that people are all isolated atoms who believe they can fend for themselves, all alone. No sane person believes this. But once you allege that some people do, they can be dismissed as nut cases, which is just what it seems Lilla & Co. would like to do with the Tea Party folks. One cannot help thinking that what these critics are after isn’t to get it right about politics and economics but to secure for themselves the exclusive authority to call the shots for everyone.

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