Top 10 Libertarian Lies
They don’t hate government or love freedom, and their propaganda sucks
For a short time, it seemed like the libertarian cancer in American politics was finally dead. Rand Paul, the supposedly electable and hip son of Ron Paul, ended his train wreck of a campaign after a pathetic showing at the polls. The Republicans instead chose Donald Trump, the least libertarian candidate in the race. On the Democratic side, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders built a massive movement around his decidedly anti-libertarian ideas.
But I should have known better than to discount the corporate class. Led by the Koch brothers, the 1% did not give up on their capitalist agenda. As their traditional Republican venues disappeared, they headed to their last resort: the Libertarian Party.
The Libertarian Party is not in a very respectable position. Their nominee is oddball Gary Johnson, who lost in an embarrassing fashion in 2012. Unfortunately, though, he is running against Clinton and Trump, the two most disliked candidates ever nominated for the presidency. This provides him with some room to air his libertarian drivel, as unappealing as it may be.
We will undoubtedly hear some of the tired libertarian lies that political junkies have grown used to. While libertarians are hardly a monolithic group, I believe that this list provides the most common fictions that American libertarians frequently spout. Let us bury them, once and for all.
Lie #10: The founding fathers were libertarian
More than anything else, libertarians love to call themselves “classical liberals,” beckoning us back to the early days of this nation. For a group that despises our government, they have a strange admiration for those who created it.
It is unlikely that many of the founders would have admired them back. In the late 1700s, governments across the world were almost universally undemocratic. Within that context, some of the founders were wary of government overreach. However, they did not focus their disapproval on regulations and services designed to protect the poor. In fact, “classical liberal” Thomas Jefferson vocally supported progressive taxation, adding that “whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” Similarly, John Jay said that “nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government [and the idea that] the people must cede to it some of their natural rights.” While I’m no great fan of the founding fathers, they were no libertarians.
Lie #9: The problem is crony capitalism, not capitalism
When we point out the injustices within the capitalist system, libertarians will often claim that the real problem is “crony capitalism.” While it is sadly true that the rich often do get favors, blaming “crony capitalism” reflects a disturbing naivete. The poor both pay less to and receive more from the US government than the rich, yet our system is still grotesquely unfair and tilted against the disadvantaged. It’s not crony capitalism that’s behind this unfair tax system - it is capitalism. It’s also not crony capitalism that allows employers to pay their workers starvation wages - it is capitalism. Nor is it crony capitalism that incentivizes collusion, fraud, and the creation of barriers to entry - it is capitalism. Finally, it’s not crony capitalism that rewards class privilege, white privilege, and intellectual privilege- it is capitalism. The reality is that the neoliberal destruction of the middle class did not come about through crony capitalist giveaways, which are barely reflected in the government budget. It came about through the tax cuts, spending cuts, and deregulation championed by libertarians.
Lie #8: Tax cuts trickle down
Incidentally, this lie is more often associated with conservatives than libertarians. Many libertarians are dogmatic radicals who oppose all taxation, and for them, it doesn’t matter whether tax cuts hurt the poor and the middle class. However, there are a number of libertarians who, like conservatives, point at the Laffer curve, and say that cutting taxes can actually increase our tax revenue through economic growth.
Obviously, cutting taxes to 0% (or 5%) will not increase tax revenues. There is a revenue-maximizing rate…and economists estimate that it is between 68% and 80%. Tax cuts won’t increase tax revenue, since our highest tax rates aren’t even remotely close to those numbers. And while tax cuts for the rich do stimulate the economy to some extent, in the end they are usually paid for through devastating cuts to social programs. Plus, wealth transfers to the needy offer a far greater stimulus.
Lie #7: The rich deserve to be rich, and the poor deserve to be poor
This is perhaps the most revolting libertarian lie, that the rich “earned” their wealth, and that the poor are just lazy. Libertarians use this lie to justify everything from their hatred of taxation to their shameful neglect of the poor.
It is also ridiculously easy to disprove. Adult children make, on average, 33 additional cents for every dollar that their parents make. Of those born in the bottom 20% in the income distribution, 43% remain in the bottom 20%, and 70% remain in the bottom 40%. Of those born in the top 20%, 40% remain there. That’s not because they are getting government favors. It’s because in a capitalist society, those who win the birth lottery have countless advantages.
Furthermore, for every dollar that a white man makes, a white woman makes 78 cents, a black woman makes 64 cents, and a Hispanic woman makes 54 cents. The income of those with IQ scores in the top 10% is more than double the income of those with an average IQ. Those with certain personality attributes, like extroversion, also have higher incomes. 65 people own as much as 3,500,000,000. None of this has anything to do with hard work. In fact, the productivity of the bottom 90% has increased as their wages remain stagnant. The truth is that our distribution of wealth is wholly based on the lottery of birth, the injustice of capitalism.
Progressives reject that injustice. Their solution is not to have everyone make the same, but to help those who fell through the cracks through no fault of their own. They support welfare policies that not only don’t discourage the poor from working, but actually cause them to work harder.
Lie #6: Government is tyrannical
This is perhaps the most successful libertarian lie; the notion that representative government is inherently tyrannical. When they frame the debate as us (the people) vs. them (the government), they ignore that we collectively are, in fact, our democratically elected government.
When this challenge is brought up, libertarians tend to counter that they didn’t vote for the government, so it’s a “tyranny of the majority.” This, once again, exposes the libertarians’ hopeless naivete. Conflict will always exist in some form, in which no resolution will ultimately satisfy either person. Therefore, the just resolution of a conflict will be one of these two options: 1. The resolution which satisfies the most people. 2. The resolution which leads to the most overall satisfaction.
The first resolution is satisfied by a direct democracy. The second (seemingly better) resolution is satisfied with a representative democracy. When voting for a representative, voters are forced to prioritize their concerns, thus making those who are more passionate about an issue also more influential. Libertarianism, on the other hand, is a tyranny of the minority. The libertarian minority wishes to impose their unpopular system of dogmatic property rights onto others. Moreover, “votes” in their system are dollars, distributed through the privileges and disadvantages of the unjust birth lottery.
Lie #5: Libertarians are against big government
Lie #6 is even more egregious when you realize that libertarians are not, in fact, opposed to big government at all. That’s because the foundation of libertarianism is property rights. What are property rights? They are restrictions on who can and cannot use property. Who enforces property rights? Most libertarians agree that the government should, in fact, enforce property rights.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that a government that gives to the poor is no bigger than a government that protects the property of the rich. In fact, the government that protects the rich is the real “big brother.” Because the capitalist distribution of wealth does not reflect the will of the people, a government which protects that distribution of wealth will need to be larger so as to fight against a democratic uprising.
Lie #4: Libertarians are against aggression, violence, and force
All of this inevitably points to an uncomfortable truth for libertarians: that they are just as aggressive, violent, and forceful as the rest of us. Their property rights are not peaceful. Imagine, for a moment, a scenario in which the IRS walks into your house and collects your taxes from a pile of cash on your table. When you find out, libertarians say that you can turn a gun on the IRS, then physically wrench the money from their hands.
In this scenario, how in the world are you not the one initiating aggressive force? The IRS never touched you or threatened you. Yes, they took what you consider your property. But if the action was aggressive simply because they took what you personally consider to be your property, then you’re essentially redefining aggression simply as “anything that I personally dislike.”
Lie #3: Libertarians are moderates and socially liberal
This is a Johnson favorite. He loves to point out that he sides with Sanders on 73% of the issues. He and the libertarians like to say that they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” This calls to mind an illusion of moderation, of taking the best elements of both parties.
And of course it’s completely false. First of all, “fiscal conservatism” implies careful spending, not slashing spending because of your dogmatic beliefs. Libertarian fiscal policies are more than just fiscal conservatism, they are downright lunacy. Most libertarians support the virtual elimination of taxes, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, minimum wages, and public schools. Second of all, libertarians inevitably prioritize their fiscal conservatism ahead of social liberalism. Every influential libertarian - Hayek, Rand, Friedman, Mises, Paul - is known for their economics. Finally, it is impossible to separate fiscal and social issues. There is nothing socially liberal about screwing over the poor. There is nothing socially liberal about private prisons or feeding a glut of gun murders. There is nothing socially liberal about standing by expressions of hatred and discrimination.
Lie #2: A deregulated market helps the poor and the middle class
Libertarians like to say that the “free” market is a “tide that raises all boats.” Sometimes I wonder whether any libertarian has ever cracked open a history book. History offers a number of examples of deregulated markets and many examples of strong representative governments. That history lesson is clear.
The most notable example of a libertarian society was the US during the Gilded Age, a time with virtually no taxes or regulations. Libertarians would be correct to point that aggregate production increased significantly during this period. That is a key characteristic of capitalism; endless production on the backs of the many, serving the few. The average industrial worker at the time worked 60 hours a week, making an inflation-adjusted $2 an hour. Children worked in horrific and life-threatening conditions to support their impoverished families. 40% of the population had no wealth at all. Instead, the wealth all accumulated to a handful of robber barons and their engorged monopolies. Moreover, the business cycle and financial industry were also completely unregulated. This led to a series of depressions, including the longest recession in our history.
Since the onset of New Deal regulations, the US has not once experienced a depression. Much like welfare programs in other countries, the Great Society slashed poverty in the United States. The post-war period, when we had 91% marginal tax rates, contained possibly the greatest and most equitable economic boom in US history. Unfortunately, this would end with the onset of deregulation and Reagan’s tax cuts.
Meanwhile, a different group of nations took the place of the US. The Nordic countries have the highest taxes in the world. Incidentally, they beat the US in happiness rankings, median income, median wealth, every measurement of quality of life, as well as life expectancy.
Lie #1: Libertarians love freedom
This may come as a shock for some libertarians, who built their entire ideology on the notion of freedom: no, you do not believe in freedom at all. Freedom means “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” That involves positive freedom, i.e. the freedom that we need to create for others. If someone working a full-time job can’t pay for her groceries, she does not have freedom. If a sick child is not provided healthcare because her parents cannot afford it, she does not have freedom. If a young black man cannot attend a private college because of racist administrators, he does not have freedom. Libertarians oppose mandated help for all of these people, instead championing the freedom of those who refuse to help.
Ardent libertarians will contort and embarrass themselves to avoid this inescapable truth. Negative rights can be consistent, they’ll argue, while positive rights contradict each other. Do you know what doesn’t contradict itself? Always looking to help others as much as possible. When you can have such a noble goal, why follow the arbitrary and destructive goal of dogmatic negative freedom? In fact, libertarians do not pursue negative freedom, as evidenced by the IRS example noted in Lie #4. The reason that libertarians tie themselves up in knots is as simple as it is breathtaking: they are simply pawns in the game of their corporate masters. In their quest for power, the 1% will do anything, even invade our intellectual discourse with their sorry and pathetic talking points. But as this election has shown, the people will only take it so long. Like it or not, the revolution is coming.