The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Which “Libertarianism” is Falling Apart?

Pollution Soviet style.

One of those chic Left writers, hoping to profit handsomely off the Koch brothers wrote yet another of the series of “get rich” exposes. Christopher Leonard has written his version of a John Birch Society conspiracy theory with the Kochs replacing the Illuminati at the center of a giant web. Along the way he makes some pretty broad, and rather absurd, comments.

His comments indicate he’s utterly clueless as to what libertarians think. His version of libertarianism would appear as crude as when the Klan writes about Blacks, Trump talks about immigrants, or the Family Research Association writes about gays. In other words, it’s bigoted, distorted, and ignores facts.

A second problem is the Kochs are hardly the best way to determine libertarian thinking. While they have funded some libertarian or libertarian-leaning groups most their political donations have gone to anti-libertarian conservatives and their organizations. For the most part, over the decades, the Kochs have ignored the vast majority of libertarian positions on social freedom and foreign policy — to only talk about economics — even though they personally support the libertarian view.

Loony conspiracy theories about the Kochs aren’t just a Left-wing invention.

Let’s take one comment from this breathless left-wing version of Alan Stang as an example of how many falsely interpret libertarianism.

“There is a basic concept in economics that a company is not going to do more than it has to do. So, if a company generates mercury as a byproduct of manufacturing and it can put that poison in a river for free, it will do so. A society must put a price on the pollution to assert some type of discipline over a company’s harmful behavior. There are so many levels where a libertarian vision of society falls apart. Libertarianism instantly breaks down when you start dealing with the real world. That is my personal view. I try to keep my views out of the book and just focus on Charles Koch’s beliefs and what his political network is doing.”

In his comment it is clear he thinks markets and libertarianism would support the right of companies to pour mercury into rivers. It should also be noted socialist societies, so popular in his circles, have exactly the same sort of problems! Pollutants are not unique to capitalism, although you wouldn’t know it from the writings of the Left.

Leonard’s critique is bizarre. I’ve been a libertarian a bit over four decades and I’ve never heard a libertarian scholar of any note argue this sort of polluting would be, or should be legal. I heard lots of explanations as to why the problem originated and why it exists, but never that it should be legal.

In fact, I’ve heard some libertarians argue a position far more strict than those Mr. Leonard proposes. His rebuttal to the straw man was “A society must put a price on the pollution to assert some type of discipline over a company’s harmful behavior.” In fact, I’ve heard some say ultra-permissive solutions such as Leonard’s allow polluting and harming some people, provided the guilty pay off the government to do so.

We need to remember when Leonard refers to “society” he means the state. But, why should a company be able to buy its way out of inflicting harm on people? If the issue is mercury in the river, paying off the state for doing so means paying them for permission to kill innocent third parties. Regarding that I’ve heard nothing but disdain from libertarians, more so than I ever heard from the Leonards of the world.

Libertarians argue the state should not be permitted to violate the rights of some for the benefit of others, particularly in egregious areas such as life and death. Paying a price to do it doesn’t make it better. Leonard says two things about this practice. One is companies will “put that poison in a river for free” and “society must put a price” on it. Libertarians have argued this is an assault on others and the state can’t sell the right to assault others.

This pollution problem in our legal system gets a real boost from the thinking of Mr. Leonard and those who share his views. Early in the history of railroads there were some externality problems. Coal burning engines emitted smoke and often burning embers. These embers would often land in farmer’s fields along the track and, as often happens, the fields would catch fire. Farmers were harmed by the railroads directly. Libertarian theory would argue this was a violation of the rights of farmers.

But, the Leonards of the day came along and started talking about the rights of “society” and how the greater good of the collective comes before the selfish interests of the individual. The courts ruled the greater good of having railroads were more important than the rights of the farmers and thus to encourage railroads the rights of farmers were unimportant. In a property-based system if you harm the property of another you pay for the damage — that’s a libertarian principle. Mr. Leonard seems to think in a free market if you harm others that’s fine, but then argues that in interests of society such harm should be allowed provided the states benefits. Mr. Leonard’s view isn’t libertarianism, that’s what advocates of the “greater good” were proposing.

There is another problem here with rivers and water rights. They were legally considered public, collective property operating outside the realm of market-based, private property. What everyone owns no one cares for and everyone tries to exploit. Libertarians have long talked about this “tragedy of the commons” and how stricter application of private property principles can help solve these problems. It is the Leonards of the world, for a long time now, arguing for collective ownership which inspires the sort of “dumping mercury for free” issues to arise.

Libertarians have been arguing against the very foundation for the policy encouraging dumping pollutants into rivers. My guess is Leonard doesn’t have any idea this was the case. What he doesn’t know regarding libertarianism is encyclopaedic. As erroneous and false as this one paragraph gets, Leonard’s twisted reading of history and libertarianism gets worse from there.

He makes a very broad claim about libertarianism totality failing: “Libertarianism instantly breaks down when you start dealing with the real world.” He doesn’t add any caveats or exceptions. It’s just failure for libertarian ideas, full stop!

I think of the campaigns libertarians were involved with over the decades. One of the first for me, was opposition to conscription and registration for the draft in the 70s. I was involved with the Coalition Against Registration and the Draft and was on the Chicago board after being nominated by Sidney Lens, the editor of The Progressive.­

Students for a Libertarian Society were active in opposition to conscription. We haven’t had conscription since. Is this policy breaking down as it deals with the real world? Does Mr. Leonard want a return to conscription?

Libertarians were arguing for the abolition of sodomy laws before Democrats could even say gay without vomiting disclaimers and insults. Is this one of those libertarian solutions breaking down as it deals with the real world?

One of the editors of Playboy mentioned in an interview how she hear Ayn Rand speaking about abortion rights in public long before anyone else. Libertarians, especially libertarian feminists, were pushing for reproductive freedom years before Roe v. Wade. Is this one of those libertarian solutions breaking down as it deals with the real world?

In the 80s I wrote a newspaper op-ed that appeared in both the Oakland Tribune and the Orange County Register about why legal exchange and purchase of needles was an important step in fighting HIV. As far as I know it was the second such article in major media. After the article appeared some friends and I wrote Proposition O “The Clean Needles Initiative” to make legalization of hypodermic syringes official policy for San Francisco. It was attacked viciously by the Leonards of the day merely because libertarians wrote it, now it’s accepted wisdom. Is this one of those libertarian solutions breaking down as it deals with the real world?

Portugal has legalized the use of all drugs and crime is down, drug use is down, people are seeking help, and the costs of fighting drugs are way down. All the results promised by the war on drugs are coming from legalized drugs instead. Libertarians were advocating this for decades. Is this one of those libertarian solutions breaking down as it deals with the real world?

The point of this litany is simple. If you want to make stupid-ass “all or nothing” statements then be prepared to defend some awful positions. Leonard didn’t even bother to say he thinks “some” libertarian solutions fall apart in the real world. He made a blanket dismissal of libertarianism in totality. Yet it is clear from his own comments he doesn’t have much of a clue what libertarians believe. All he has are his preconceived notion and stereotypes, a clear case of liberphobia, just as bigoted as the other ugly prejudices we have to deal with in a world polarized by the grab for power.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.