It’s difficult to nail down what it is exactly. Stanford’s Philosophy Encyclopedia defines Libertarianism as “the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things.” The modus operandi generally seems to be that the free market, unhindered, can maximize utility for everyone involved. The government’s interference in this sphere is thus coercive at best. So, the government should avoid regulation and keep social services to a minimum, as the market will provide them. It should be like a night watchman, interfering only when it needs to.
Off the bat, Libertarianism seems very simple and effective. One can point to many instances of government interference hurting economic progress, job creation and trading. But clearly libertarianism cannot be taken to the extreme, even if the only thing one cared about was business.
Why? Well, for example, the pure libertarian would find it difficult to run a business if, in doing so, he had to pave all the roads between every part of his supply chain. Perhaps he or she could exploit private roads, but the inundation of highway fees might get extreme. Also, this would limit business doing to only those places in which roads would be profitable; those poorer neighborhoods would be quite out of luck. But before worrying about roads, our pure libertarian might have difficulty educating their workers. Paying for a Masters degree is one thing; what if every business owner had to sponsor future workers through grade school? And then what of the sewers needed to keep these workers comfortable? Or how about a fire department—imagine the hassle of having to manage a private fire contract? Would private police forces consume the majority of a business’s budget since the business with the biggest security would obviously be able to set the terms? If legal procedures were not uniform across the business world, how can our libertarian trust other libertarians to honor their contracts? And even if we assume they would, how would we ever finish negotiating a contract if there were no enforcement of a standard business language?
Of course there’s no such thing as a pure libertarian. That’s because every complex capitalist interaction that occurs is underwritten by some combination of implicit services from the government. Without these services these interactions wouldn’t be possible. So, the libertarian must make the call to draw the line of government interference at some subjective point. And suddenly the position seems more slippery. Every libertarian must have a slightly different opinion of where this line is drawn, so any one libertarian’s drawing of it coerces another, directly contrary to their ideal of personal freedom. And if it’s done entirely through quantitative means, like cost benefit analysis, then we seem to be violating Stanford’s definition—that agents own themselves, no? Or do agents only own the part of themselves above and beyond that which can be predicted with analytical statistics? And besides, there are some social services that the government can simply do better; Medicare has close to 6 percent administrative costs, while individual private insurance has up to 30 percent.
Really, once we see that the libertarian argument ignores what the government implicitly does already, we see that it ignores other things, too. First, it ignores the capacity of humans to make irrational, amoral choices. Proponents like Rand Paul say that under libertarianism, good people wouldn’t shop at racist stores, so there wouldn’t be any. But research by our own Dan Ariely shows that on the aggregate, people make small amoral decisions if the amorality is sufficiently abstract and the decisions benefit them personally. So long as a racist store can provide cheaper goods, it would thrive under libertarian economic policy. The rights of minorities would by no means be prioritized.
It also ignores the effect that one’s actions have on the environment. If there were no government interference to realize externalities, then change in business practices would occur in reaction to tangible effects. Progression would thus be abruptly harmful economically and only occur once the environmental damages became noticeably large—irrevocably large, in some cases. Yet when I say environment I don’t refer solely to the natural environment.
No, natural environment aside, one’s social environment would not do so well under libertarianism. There is some evidence that in societies with more income equality, both the wealthy and the poor are healthier. Higher stress has numerous downsides: increased cardiovascular toxicity, shorter lifespan, more risk for depression, higher crime. Thus the libertarian hurts himself by favoring a system that allows for extreme stratification.
Finally, consider the fact that it has been repeatedly shown that depression is not inversely correlated to wealth. So if one’s goal in life is simply to achieve a lasting happiness, libertarianism doesn’t seem to help anyway.
Thus, I conclude that the libertarian thinks himself isolated from his surroundings, both in influence and effect. The environmentalist and neuroscientist know this to be fallacious. Anyone with maturity beyond that of an 18-year-old should see this, too. But, libertarians, like the kids in high school who just weren’t smart enough, keep at their juvenile arguments with dogged persistence. And thus are the cannibals in the society of normalcy.
Lucas Spangher is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Friday.