Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
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Libertarianism's defenders as bad as its critics


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In a recent piece that got lots of replay from the online liberal commentariat, Michael Lind ("The Question Libertarians Just Can't Answer," Salon, June 4) posed what he considered an unanswerable question to libertarians: "Why are there no libertarian countries?. If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn't at least one country have tried it?"

If anything, Lind's argument proves too much. He'd be answered by an equally profound silence if he challenged advocates of social and economic justice to name one country without economic exploitation by a privileged class. Every country in the world has an interventionist state. Every country in the world has class exploitation. Every country in history with a state, since states first arose, has also had classes and economic exploitation. The correlation is one hundred percent.

This fact is key to understanding why Lind's framing of the question is so naive. Lind writes as though the adoption of this or that form of polity by "countries" was simply a matter of peoples collectively deciding on the best way of life for everyone involved. "We" tried that other thing and it didn't work, then "we" tried this and it worked better.

But that's not how it happens. Since their first appearance, states have without exception been the mechanism through which a ruling class - kings, priests, landlords, capitalists, state bureaucrats - extracts a surplus from the rest of society.

The model of political economy in a country isn't something "we" decide, even in formally representative democracies like the United States. "Democracy" functions only within parameters set by the larger system for ensuring its self-propagation. And the system is defined by economic exploitation. That's true of the "Nordic social democracy" model beloved of Lind and the "center-left" he represents, as much as any other. European social democracy and the American New Deal were implemented, not by "society," but through the primary agency of a state dominated by corporate capitalist interests. The social democratic/New Deal model is simply the form of capitalism that the more intelligent, progressive capitalists believe to provide the maximum sustainable long-term yield of rent extraction from society with a minimum of social unrest and economic instability. The money redistributed downward via welfare and Social Security is a small fraction of the total transferred upward via the assortment of artificial scarcity rents and monopoly tribute enforced by the state.

So by Lind's evidentiary standard, it is equally utopian to hope for genuine economic and social justice. Every society governed by a state has been, ipso facto, an exploitative class system.

If Randroid newsletter-monger Robert Tracinski had deliberately set out to prove this, he couldn't have done a better job than his attempted rebuttal to Lind:

"The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare."

The clear implication is that the main contemporary deviation from 100 percent libertarianism is the liberal welfare state and all that other (in Eric Cartman's words) tree-hugging hippie crap. Just take the existing model of corporate capitalism, subtract the regulatory-welfare state, and you get the libertarian utopia that prevailed in the Gilded Age.

Well, not quite. The welfare state and social safety net aren't the defining features of statism. They are, rather, secondary interventions carried out by the capitalist state in response to the instabilities generated by primary state interventions like absentee landlordism (the appropriation and enclosure of vacant and unimproved land), restrictions on competition in the supply of credit, patents and copyrights, and all the other artificial property rights and artificial scarcities that have prevailed since the dawn of capitalism.

Never mind that the Gilded Age Tracinski lionizes was itself the arena of massive state interventions like the state-financed creation of the railroad system that made a corporate-dominated national market possible, high tariffs, the use of patent pooling and exchange to cartelize industry and the use of federal troops to break strikes.

Capitalism from its very beginning was founded on massive state violence: The Enclosures and other land expropriations; the engrossment of entire continents in settler societies in the New World and Australia by landed interests; the forcible transformation of the entire world into a supplier of natural resources and slave labor for the mercantile powers; the creation of a virtual apartheid state in industrial Britain via the Laws of Settlement, Poor Laws and Combination Laws. Capitalism, in short, was founded by robbing the entire planet.

So Lind is correct. There's not a single country in the world in which free and equal human beings can peacefully cooperate and share the product of their labor without an interventionist state.

And so long as the interventionist state exists, there will never be economic and social justice.

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