Devon Chenelle | University of Notre Dame
Americans’ discussions of Marxism generally conclude with something like “communism is a beautiful idea, but it can just never work in the real world.” I have no idea whether that’s true of communism, but I am certain it is true of libertarianism, a creed which, unlike communism, has never seduced half the world to its banner. Although libertarianism offers some innovative ideas, its indubitable impracticality and ideological insecurity make it nothing more than an intellectual amusement, fit only for the classroom and the thinkpiece.
Unfortunately, discussion of libertarianism’s practical benefits and drawbacks is almost impossible, for one simple reason: a libertarian state has never been realized. This historical reality, hinting at the impossibility of libertarianism, should itself be sufficient dissuasion from the ideology. To the objection “but laissez-faire!” I first chuckle at the need to make recourse to a 19th century policy vaguely similar to current libertarianism, and then I reference 19th century England, a textbook laissez-faire state, and ask how “libertarian” a state sustained through the extraction of resources from militarily subjugated peripheral regions could possibly be. Furthermore, it was “laissez-faire” policies discouraging food aid that enabled the Irish Potato Famine, while, closer to home, in past financial crises, the active financial measures abhorred by libertarians have prevented utter economic collapse when they were taken (2008) and economic ruination ensued when they weren’t (1929).
Libertarianism’s nonviability extends beyond the real world, for its intellectual prospects are ultimately foreclosed by fundamental philosophical weaknesses revealed by none other than libertarianism’s two greatest thinkers, John Locke and Robert Nozick. The first fatal flaw appears when Locke’s Second Treatise of Government attempts to account for the just original acquisition of property. Locke begins by assuming that people have an inalienable right to their bodies and, “Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer,” he argues that property originates through the “mixing” of one’s labor with natural resources, removing them from common ownership. There are several serious concerns with this position, beginning with Proudhon’s challenge “I did not ask you to work so why should I have to pay you for what you did?” Locke responds that one can acquire exclusive land rights to the extent that “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” This implies property acquisition is only just when no one else is left worse off by it. This is a remarkably strict, potentially impossible, condition, for when doesn’t the appropriation of scarce natural resources lead to the loss of some utility for others? Additionally, confiscation of common property without common consent flagrantly contradicts Locke’s doctrine of natural rights. Another problem arises from the unclear rationale for why “mixing” one’s labor with natural resources makes it your property. If I mix a can of soda with the Atlantic Ocean, does this make it my property, and if not, why does this mixing lead to loss instead of gain? Also unclear is what it means to have property in one’s person, and why this means one’s labor is one’s own. Considering the lack of compelling responses to any of these long-standing concerns, the Lockean account of property acquisition so integral to libertarianism appears feeble indeed.
More damning is the problem with the libertarian conception of justice - absolutely prohibiting rights’ violations – encountered in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Smuggled away in the last sentence of a long footnote, Nozick writes “the question of whether these side constraints are absolute, or whether they may be violated in order to avoid catastrophic moral horror...I hope largely to avoid.” It is unsurprising Nozick wanted to avoid the question, because it has fatal implications for his libertarian system. Hypotheticals make it obvious the avoidance of “catastrophic moral horror” demands the violation of rights. For example, who wouldn’t steal a bicycle to save the human race? More realistically, if children are dying of starvation while the wealthy live in luxury, can anyone oppose a little redistributive taxation? The door is open to further deterioration of Nozick's position, for what is “catastrophic moral horror”? Imagine a horrible plague threatens to wipe out most of the population. Surely none think taxation to fund, say, immunizations that would prevent millions of deaths would be wrong? What if analysis indicates a preventive health-care system could save more lives for a cheaper price, though no horror looms? We simply cannot use rights as the ultimate moral value in the way libertarians propose.
During the last presidential election, several commentators confidently predicted that third party candidates would be the real beneficiaries of the vicious campaigning. The Libertarian party eagerly anticipated the election, hoping that candidate Gary Johnson’s polling numbers would eventually surpass the 15% support necessary to garner a game-changing seat at the presidential debate. I remained skeptical; I’d been hurt too many times before by the Libertarian Party’s stunning incompetence. This hesitance was well-justified: when the final voting tallies appeared, amidst the most unpopular major party candidates in living memory, Johnson garnered a miserable 3.27% of the popular vote, and, as always, a grand total of 0 electoral college votes. This embarrassing performance in the election that represented libertarians’ best ever shot at mainstream recognition killed, stomped, and micturated on the last dim flickerings of hope I, once a card-carrying, email-list member, Ron Paul quoting Libertarian, had that the libertarian party would get any real traction in American politics. Funnily, the communism libertarians deride as a laughably impractical pipe dream was incomparably more successful as a governing ideology than libertarianism ever was.
For all the attraction it bears to young males of a certain disposition, the immense infeasibility and doctrinal downfalls of libertarianism have been so repeatedly demonstrated and clearly evidenced that the ideology’s sincere adoption is, despite the continuing allure of the radically free utopia it promises, no longer possible. Indeed, in the year 2018, a self-proclaimed libertarian should be look at just as askew, and dismissed just as cursorily, as one would a committed Maoist or Monarchist.