Sunday, October 19, 2008

The coffin of Libertarianism

Jacob Weisberg nails the lid on:

The best thing you can say about libertarians is that because their views derive from abstract theory, they tend to be highly principled and rigorous in their logic. Those outside of government at places like the Cato Institute and Reason magazine are just as consistent in their opposition to government bailouts as to the kind of regulation that might have prevented one from being necessary. "Let failed banks fail" is the purist line. This approach would deliver a wonderful lesson in personal responsibility, creating thousands of new jobs in the soup-kitchen and food-pantry industries.

The worst thing you can say about libertarians is that they are intellectually immature, frozen in the worldview many of them absorbed from reading Ayn Rand novels in high school. Like other ideologues, libertarians react to the world's failing to conform to their model by asking where the world went wrong. Their heroic view of capitalism makes it difficult for them to accept that markets can be irrational, misunderstand risk, and misallocate resources or that financial systems without vigorous government oversight and the capacity for pragmatic intervention constitute a recipe for disaster. They are bankrupt, and this time, there will be no bailout.

14 comments:

Mike said...

I am a libertarian who despises Ayn Rand. I also despise capitalism as it currently exists because it is not "free Market" but rather a conservative nanny state, state-capitalism or crony capitalism, slanted in the favour of the privileged, in order to maintain their position of privilege in a hierarchical society. That these people use the rhetoric of libertarians and libertarianism to try to justify their position, doesn't make it so.

And the bailout rewards the very people that cause the problem, rather than punishing them.

That in and of itself is evidence that Jacob Weisberg doesn't know what he is talking about.

janfromthebruce said...

So Mike, as a libertarian, what would be your ideal system. On the one hand, you have said Weisberg does not know what he is talking about, and yet on the other hand, you did not say what you are talking about. I'm interested in your "pro" stance for your "win" in an argumentative debate.

Cliff said...

Mike I'd always kind of pegged you as a left leaning social libertarian - a position I feel compatible with my self as you know - while leaning more towards the left on economics - verging on anarcho-syndicalism even.

The Libertarianism Weisberg is eviscerating in his piece is the Ayn Rand, Chicago school, Cato Institute, 'fuck you Jack, I've got mine' variety.

It's hard to visualize you in that camp.

Mike said...

I'm not, I'm in the Bastiat camp, with a mix of Autstrian economics...and that's rather the point - Cato and the Chicago Boys like Friedman are despised in the free market anarchist circles I travel in. More of the let me be free to voluntarily trade and own property without the heavy hand of the state or those kinds of oligarchs and plutocrats that would use the state to further their ends.

LeftLibertarian.org is a good place to start, as is the LeftLibertarian2 Yahoo group. Kevin Carson and Brad Spangler's sites (links from my blog). Have a look at Mutualism, Market Anarchy, and other forms of free market anti-capitalism.

I get my inspiration from Murray Rothbard as much as from Durrati.

Jan, mine would simply be a society without a state or without unearned hierarchy or privilege. Let me voluntarily associate and trade without interference. I think anarcho-syndicalists can co-exist with anarcho-commies and and even ancaps.

In this situation, they should be allowed to fail, to ensure that such an internalization for profit and externalization of loses and risk never happnes again.

I am old enough to remember the S&L Scandals in the 80s, when we were told this kind of bail out would never happen again....

Don't confuse libertarians with those that defend actually existing capitalism (which is more a state capitalist, crony capitalist system) rather than actually free market - that is, free voluntary exchange.

Mike said...

We would call them 'vulgar libertarians' not real libertarians.

Ron said...

Let me echo Mike's comments, including his assessment of Mr Weisberg's misguided screed.

Now, I come from a different Libertarian school than Mike--I'm decidedly LRQ as opposed to Mike's LLQ, and there are actually a couple of things I like very much from Ayn Rand( and lots I don't), but I'm also a solid Bastiat/Rothbard/Mises guy myself.

Be clear on this: the recent economic crisis is not a crisis of laissez-faire or a crisis of free-market capitalism. It is a crisis of both left & right *interventionism*, combining in an almost perfect storm.

And what you are going to see now is both left and right *interventionists* blaming the other guy's meddling in the hope they will be able to retain their own style of meddling.

Cliff said...

There's an argument to be made that 30 years of the thumb on one side of the scale requires one on the other side for a while.

Ron said...

Cliff: It hasn't been "libertarians" placing their thumbs on the Scale of State--it's been *interventionists* of both the left and right, and they've been doing it for a heck of a lot longer than 30 years between them.

Kinda like a game of ideological tennis played large and crude between Right Corporatists and Left Social Statists--with *your* money, and *your* life as the tennis balls.

Think for second: "intervention" *means* "putting your thumb on the scale" doesn't it?

Cliff said...

I didn't say I thought it was Libertarians - whether vulgar or otherwise with their thumbs on the scale did I?

That was just a little of the class consciousness that's part of what probably makes any variety of pure libertarianism impossible, because its proponents will never concede libertarian thinking has been economically and philosophically correct and applied with sufficient vigor. Because humans are messy, tribal creatures who stubbornly refuse to bend their natures to ideology or sacrifice heir own or their class self interest in the interest of a more perfect application of theory.

Since competing interests will never allow a truly pure and correct version of any adherants world view to exist - providing an ironclad defense against real world failures - I've mostly become fairly cynical of world views.

Naomi Klein was asked to describe the attributes of fundamentalist capitalism:

"They're almost the attributes of every fundamentalist: the desire for purity, a belief in a perfect balance, and every time there are problems identified they are attributed to perversions, distortions within what would otherwise be a perfect system. I think you see this from religious fundamentalists and from Marxist fundamentalists, and I would argue that [Austrian economist Friedrich] Hayek and [University of Chicago economist Milton] Friedman shared this dream of the pure system. These are brilliant mathematicians, in many cases, so it looks perfect in their modelling. But I think anyone who falls in love with a system is dangerous, because the world doesn't comply and then you get angry at the world."

So lets call it the market mentality if you prefer. The belief that every aspect of human experience can be handled by the unfettered market. If that is not Libertarianism as you define it, great. But if it any way does describe it than we have a fundamental disagreement as I really do believe that the democratic state intervening in the market is sometimes the right thing to do.

Economic cycles can be eased of their dislocating effect through counter cyclical macro-economic policies. Equality and fairness can be increased through the actions of the state.

That leads to another messy little reality: citizens tend to swing back into at least tacitly voting in their class self interst when they finally perceive that thumb on the scale against it I was talking about.

People like interventionist government. They don't like paying for it and they can be conned for long stretches that they don't have to, but they can snap out of it when a bucket of cold water like the last month hits them in the face.

Somebody once said that libertarians believe that in the absence of coercion people will choose to compete more than cooperate while anarchists believe that in the absence of coercion people will choose to cooperate more than compete.

So if the folks behind the Chicago school, the Washington Consensus and the Neoliberal project to reallocate the wealth back to elites is vulgar libertarianism, or just people misusing libertarianism, and the truer version of the idea is more than just 'Fuck you Jack, I've got mine.' I accept that correction.

But you know, deeds not words. The only time libertarianism ever even seems to get mentioned in terms of actual application to the real world - it always seems to be to provide an elaborately justified philosophy allowing, even encouraging exploitation.

That must be fairly frustrating for libertarians who don't subscribe to such a world-view, that it seems to be the only real world application of their praxis.

Ron said...

"I didn't say I thought it was Libertarians - whether vulgar or otherwise with their thumbs on the scale did I?"

No, you didn't, at least not explicitly. I just assumed that's who we were talking about since Weisberg's point was it was libertarianism that was being discredited. I thought the thread was *about* alleged libertarian influence.

Did you mean someone else?

"Since competing interests will never allow a truly pure and correct version of any adherants world view to exist - providing an ironclad defense against real world failures - I've mostly become fairly cynical of world views.

Who has a world view? Others can organize themselves as they wish, and I have no grand plan to change the world--I'm just saying that in my life, it's *my* judgment I depend on, that I am enough authority for myself, and it is *my* authority I accept in my life, not someone else's authority.

So lets call it the market mentality if you prefer. The belief that every aspect of human experience can be handled by the unfettered market.

Every non-coercive aspect can--and should--be handled in a free market. Coercive people, people who instigate aggression or fraud or such can be handled any number of ways that don't involve a State.

"the democratic state intervening in the market is sometimes the right thing to do."

We still disagree on that :-)

"Economic cycles can be eased of their dislocating effect through counter cyclical macro-economic policies. Equality and fairness can be increased through the actions of the state."

So you say, but is that what we're seeing? It looks a right mess to me, and we've been playing the "counter-cyclical macro-economic game" non-stop for a while now. A guy named Paul Craig Roberts put it really nicely: "We should all be thankful to the Soviets because they have proved conclusively that socialism doesn't work. No one can say they didn't have enough power or enough bureaucracy or enough planners or they didn't go far enough."

"So if the folks behind the Chicago school, the Washington Consensus and the Neoliberal project to reallocate the wealth back to elites is vulgar libertarianism, or just people misusing libertarianism, and the truer version of the idea is more than just 'Fuck you Jack, I've got mine.' I accept that correction."

Thank you.

At it's very worst, libertarianism is just telling Statists "fuck you Jack, I'm. not. yours. My life is *mine*" ;-)

Think back to elementary school...I'm sorta the guy who plays well with others, uses manners at the dinner table, treats littler kids and girls nice, fights back when bullies push me or others around, laughs when the principal says "no dancing"...and maybe has a line on the girlie mags if you're interested ;-)

"People like interventionist government. They don't like paying for it and they can be conned for long stretches that they don't have to, but they can snap out of it when a bucket of cold water like the last month hits them in the face".

Bastiat said: "The State is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else."

"Somebody once said that libertarians believe that in the absence of coercion people will choose to compete more than cooperate while anarchists believe that in the absence of coercion people will choose to cooperate more than compete."

That's close like SunnyD is close to fresh squeezed orange juice.

"But you know, deeds not words. The only time libertarianism ever even seems to get mentioned in terms of actual application to the real world - it always seems to be to provide an elaborately justified philosophy allowing, even encouraging exploitation.

That must be fairly frustrating for libertarians who don't subscribe to such a world-view, that it seems to be the only real world application of their praxis.
"

It is frustrating. My real world application of libertarianism is nothing more grand than how I try to live my life. I don't push people around; I won't even vote. I try to be an example is all, and to explain why I think like I do which is, put simply: "meddlers with grand plans make bad neighbours".

I initiate no aggression or fraud, I take sole responsibility for my decisions, and I have no interest in controlling others or their stuff.

Ron said...

...and I appreciate your tone and your hospitality here. My thanks.

Cliff said...

No problem.

So if your application of Libertarianism is entirely personal, a one man religion - he said, knowing you will object to the 'r' word - you simply choose not to participate in your own or others exploitation.

This suggests a basic indifference to the larger scale political realities, presumably unless they cross a red line of interference in your own life. Now I would argue that too little state intervention leads to entrenched corporate power and corporate intervention just as intrusive, abusive and damaging as state power. A way to think of it is fettering both forces by setting them against each other.

So from my perspective, not unmoved by appeals to radical individualism, a state that stays out of the social sphere - that is reducing the state's influence over my choices about my body, my relationships, my personal freedoms, while also seeking to limit corporate power - to threaten the environment or abuse workers for example - that seems an acceptable state of affairs to me.

"Conservatives want government off of people's backs, Liberals want government off of people's fronts." - Robert Anton Wilson

My favorite part of democratic socialism is how imperfect, flawed and accepting of incrementalism and setbacks it is. I distrust grand theories of everything too. They lead to frustrated lashing out when the world refuses to comply with theory.

And counter cyclical interventionism of the Keynes variety hasn't really be tried since the Freidmanites got the upper hand in the late 70's early 80's on Reagan's coat tails. It worked really well for decades. Can it be applicable now in all its postwar glory? Probably not exactly but it's something that worked once and variations of it could work well again.

Ron said...

This suggests a basic indifference to the larger scale political realities...

Well, it's not at all like that. It's just that in order to do something you have to actually *do* something. So I do the small stuff as an example of how the big stuff can work and work from there. Bottom up instead of top down.

That said, I have a detailed understanding of economic theory and political history from a wide range of perspectives, and I've done my time as a public political activist in traditional organized politics. I learned that you don't have to be directly involved in party politics to affect party politics, either to improve it or, when required, to disrupt it. And I learned that any number of those methods have, certainly, more impact than a puny vote.

The other thing is: I come from the left, not the Right. I'm not into demonizing people who hold a differing opinion, and as much as different methods might work for others, I don't know too many people who have been insulted into changing their minds so I try not to get sucked into that game.

Look, ultimately the repressive structure of the Soviet system didn't fall until a critical mass of people simply decided enough is enough. They didn't make violent revolution; they just stopped paying the established Government their attention, stopped being afraid of it, stopped depending on it, and looked for new ways to get things done.

Have things in Russia and the surroundings been perfect since? Hardly. But they've been better. I work for *that* type of change.

...presumably unless they cross a red line of interference in your own life.

That line got crossed years ago.

Mike said...

Cliff,

To be clear, 'free market' is merely voluntary, consensual, non-coerced exchange between two or more people. It does not mean the state-capitalist system or the plutocracy we have now.

'Free market' can be applied to goods and services or even ideas. It can be used for both profit (and actual market) or cooperation (brainstorming). In deed, as Michael Shermer points out in his book Mind of the Market the real basis of market exchanges of any kind is cooperation, not competition - you won't trade with someone you don't trust and trades themselves are win-win, rather than zero-sum transactions.

The free market can be used by both for profit individuals AND not-for-profit or non-profit entities like coops and professional organizations (indeed in some situations - like providing health insurance - non-profits probably have a market advantage).

It is indeed a bottom up vs top down process. So indeed the 'free market' ought to rule every part of our life because people ought to be free to make decisions about themselves and associate voluntarily without interference and coercion form people who think they have the right to control others, regardless of whether they think they derive that right from a divine decree, station of birth or the outcome of a farcical election process.

So in the end, I am both a social anarchist - fighting imposed and non-voluntary privilege and inequality - and a laizzer-faire market anarchist - fighting the same thing in the realm of economics.

The minute you think its ok to subjugate yourself, even temporarily, to another person who can force you to do things you do not agree with or did not explicitly agree to, then you have become a slave.

BTW, check out the video I posted yesterday explaining how our current crisis was caused by state interference, rather than the state not interfering enough.

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