Free-market economist David Henderson has been doing some outreach work in the #Occupy camps. Good on him. We all need to broaden our horizons from time to time, sampling alternate reality tunnels and the like. His approach seems to be to “draw out” individual members of his audience and elicit the libertarian answers from the progressives’ (or other non-rightists’) mouths. It reminds me a little of some psychologically-loaded sales tactics (think infomercial pitchcritter working their studio audience) but nothing I can identify as underhanded or deceitful or some other brand of dirty pool. All’s fair in the marketplace of ideas, after all. Since Henderson’s game seems to be “selling” “free market” ideas to a skeptical audience, that component of salescrittership called “overcoming objections” is relevant. In the genuine interest of fostering genuine dialog, I’d like to make this post a personal statement; enumerating my personal objections to what’s come to be called the freedom philosophy. The motive behind these objections, in my own case, is as likely to be emotional as philosophical. For better or for worse, that’s how this INFJ rolls. I speak for myself, of course, but without doubt some people of other left-leaning tendencies (liberal, progressive, populist, etc.) have some of the same feelings for similar reasons. Without even further adieu, here’s my top ten list:
The idea that happiness is contingent on wealth
The right-leaning libertarian blog which most profoundly challenges me is Winton Bates’ Freedom and Flourishing. This is because almost every post there presents research findings that poke holes in certain ideas I most cherish, such as the idea that GDP/wealth is at best misleading as a measure of well-being. The tone of the blog almost comes across as “Yes Virginia, money is everything.” Another venue that strikes terror in my heart for similar reasons is the TV commercials for brokerage firms, especially the ones hawking retirement savings instruments, particularly (for some reason) the ones that air during golf tournament. The most painful ones to watch are the ones that say, in so many words, that the best way to better the world, do creative pursuits, or have the luxury of being into anything without “being in it for the money” is by having money. In other words, a successful (ex-?)yuppie enjoying a well-funded retirement is worth about a thousand starving artists of any age.
The idea that lack of economic development is the root of all suffering
This is often touted as a reason for global south citizens to prefer Chinese development capital over western democracy and other ideals such as personal freedom. Perhaps we’re wrong even to cherish such values.
The idea that the two broad categories of humanity are businesspeople and unimportant people
An especially brutal example is the train wreck chapter in Atlas Shrugged. More relevant to my life is the tendency of libertarians and other conservatives to opine to the effect that, “yes, Virginia, employment is the employer’s prerogative,” with the usual laundry list of reasons why—they own the property, they take the risks, they sign the pay checks, ad nauseam. The implication seems to be that people who run businesses are a superior grade of people, and of course those of us who don’t are inferior.
The idea that success is the objective yardstick of virtue
An idea traditionally (or stereotypically?) associated with Calvinism. In any case, the implication is that unsuccessful people are of defective character and that average people are nothing special. 99% of people don’t count. That sort of thing.
That entrepreneurs, not activists, made the present better than the past, and will make the future better than the present
A lot of us deeply admire friends, relatives, famous people and historical figures who were rabble-rousers, steppers on the toes of the mighty (including the mighty in the private sector) and sowers of the seeds of discontent. For better or for worse, I’m a bigger fan of Joe Hill than of Henry Ford. Marketroids, by crafting convincing-seeming arguments that the goal of making money does more to change the world than the goal of changing the world, seem to be suggesting that our commitments to changing the world are mistaken at best and as likely as not malignant.
The idea that some people are more important than others
Largely a distillation of the previous bullet points, but I gave it a bullet point of its own. I refer to this attitude as ‘egalitarianism-bashing.’ It should be noted that back in the good old days when libertarian was just another word for anarchist (and anarcho-capitalist was an oxymoron), what was then called the libertarian movement thought of liberty and equality as two things that feed on each other, not a tradeoff between conflicting goals, let alone examples of good and evil, respectively.
The idea that nothing good can result from idealism
I’m talking about the people who use Hitler and Stalin as representative examples of idealists. This is beyond insulting. Total separation of economy and state is about as starry-eyed an ideal as has been concocted. Give it a break already.
The idea that entrepreneurship is better than philanthropy at realizing philanthropic goals
I’m still hoping “social entrepreneurship” turns out to be a passing fad. But I felt that way about reality television, so I’m not holding my hopes too high.
The idea that entrepreneurship is better than political progress at expanding political freedoms
Another way of saying activism is a waste of time and energy that should be invested in making money which, after all, is what matters.
The idea that economic freedom is a prerequisite for political freedom
This one is especially painful for me because, like certain others, it bears out the implication that the political interests of businesspeople (economic freedom, property rights, “freedom” to waive freedoms via contract, etc.) are more important than those of other-than-businesspeople (due process, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, etc.) More to the point, if political freedom needs economic freedom more than economic freedom needs political freedom, then there’s an asymmetric dependency relationship there, and I’m fearful that this means there is an opportunity for the business class to “lord it over” the political class, let alone us nobodies. While my solidarity is with the non-market, non-state sector, I’m more inclined to regard as allies those statist progressives who view the state as sort of “the operating system capitalism runs on” than the “separation of economy and state” folks.
Here are some ways in which some libertarians have made market ideology more palatable to me, and probably to many others:
- Agorism, or the idea that free markets ≠ capitalism. Perhaps this is ironic, since perhaps the most central mission of the present blog is to lampoon the “free-market anticapitalism” formulation of Kevin Carson, as well as to offer an antonym for the neologism “agorism.” I find the agorist/neomutualist definition of free market to be indistinguishable from the anarcho-capitalist definition of capitalism, so from my perspective the differences are purely stylistic. But I have INFJ tendencies, so that matters. Using the symbolism and rhetoric of the Wobblies really does help take the edge off the fact that the philosophy seems to be a mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism and American Individualist Anarchism. It’s comforting to be told that you can be Econ-101-literate and still rally around the colors red and black.
- Transhumanism, or the idea that market allocation might a realistic best shot at post-scarcity. This is of course a close cousin of the idea that progressive ends are best served by capitalist means. But transhumanism adds a couple of twists. For one thing, technological development is held up as at least important as economic development, so the class of people who actually count gets expanded from “entrepreneurs” to “entrepreneurs and inventors.” Also, rapid technological advancement within a capitalist context is presented not only as serving progressive or egalitarian goals, but as having the potential to blow away even our wildest dreams in certain areas important to us, such as freedom from economic precarity, and dramatic increases in human potential across social classes, or even possible ways to negotiate with particularly painful (to egalitarians) constraints such as “intelligence.”
- While admittedly not especially philosophically rigorous, 1970’s style libertarianism, stylized as a mixture of strongly conservative positions on economics with strongly liberal positions on so-called social issues. The present-day libertarian movement in America looks to us outsiders like Conservatism On Steroids. On the economic front, they reflexively, aggressive and persistently refer to even one drop of public sector in a mixed economy as Socialism, and pronounce that word with all the obscene emphasis they can muster. Meanwhile they classify social issues as nonpolitical issues. I understand their reasons for doing so, but it doesn’t help that some of them are also adopting Religious Right memes such as “special rights.” A whole half century ago Robert Anson Heinlein was writing novels with positive portrayals of bi and other queer characters. Even as recently as 2008 the Ron Paul campaign bragged about having the support of “hippies,” although some say they didn’t do enough to distance themselves from the fact that other self-identified supporters seemed to be in “white power” type movements. Sure, I know there’s a difference between being judged by the company you keep and being judged by the company that keeps you, but come on, already. At any rate, I’m inclined to say that Ron Paul is not a libertarian.