What America Would Look Like If Libertarians Got Their Way
if you cut all benefits? What if all of public life were a giant
competition? What libertarianism would look like in real life.
December 25, 2013 |
These four libertarian/conservative dystopias are offered, as Rod
Serling used to say in "The Twilight Zone," "for your consideration."
qualified my previous writings on libertarianism with disclaimers
explaining that I’m addressing a specific, popular subset of libertarian
thought. But I’ve still run afoul of dozens of people who say, “I’m a
libertarian and I don’t think those things.” I’ve still received
comments like those from David Brin, who correctly notes that I’m not addressing libertarians like Friedrich Hayek in my criticism.
But Hayek ain’t in the saddle these days. Ayn Rand is leading the
posse, to the extent any intellectual figure is. But I'll put my
disclaimer upfront this time: I acknowledge that, as
libertarian-friendly writer John Danaher puts it, “’libertarianism’ has come to denote a broad, often fractious, group of political theories.”
suppose it’s only fitting that a philosophy celebrating competing
markets would, to a certain extent, be a set of competing markets
But it seems even clearer that a “libertarian”
in today’s political environment is almost always someone who ascribes
to certain core philosophies: He abhors government, hates taxation, and
is hostile to collective action on behalf of the less fortunate. Name
any prominent modern libertarian—Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, Peter
Thiel, Rand Paul—and they are likely to fit this description.
figures represent a singular and increasingly dominant libertarian
vision. To avoid future confusion, I'll give their brand of thought an
admittedly imperfect name: “libertarian/conservative.” It is that
vision, and their future, which I address here—and it's a frightening
1. What if you cut all benefits?
heard it from Sen. Rand Paul and other conservatives this winter:
unemployment benefits increase unemployment. It’s an enormously
destructive idea, though absurd on its face. It's like the argument that
hospitals create sick people; after all, there are so many of them
We usually consider such thinking "primitive" in modern societies.
that's exactly what libertarian/conservatives are arguing when they say
that unemployment benefits increased or extend unemployment. There is
no credible evidence to suggest that this is true. There is overwhelming
evidence suggesting that unemployment is caused by other factors,
including poor consumer demand and lack of business confidence.
now there are nearly three job seekers for every job opening. That
means there are no jobs available for two out of the three. They will
not “go out and find work” once their unemployment benefits stop. They
will simply plunge into deeper economic misery. They will become like
accident victims who are denied hospital care because it would “foster
an attitude of dependency.”
But, as absurd and unkind as
this thinking is, there’s something even more frightening about it:
This kind of thinking never ends. If you believe that unemployment
benefits cause unemployment, you’ll cut those benefits off. That could
throw millions of people onto the welfare rolls. But if you believe that
welfare causes dependency, you’ll cut those benefits off, too. That
will leave people utterly dependent on programs like heating oil
subsidies, food assistance, and even homeless shelters.
But if you believe that those programs create dependency, too....
never stops: Close down the homeless shelters. Shut down the Salvation
Army. Make it illegal to throw a starving person a coin or toss a
blanket over them as they lay on the sidewalk. This logic only ends one
way: in a hellish dystopia where the underclass is starving, homeless
and dying in droves.
If that seems melodramatic, ask a libertarian/conservative this question: When will you know that your theory is wrong?
2. Nothing but competition.
idea lies at the heart of libertarian and conservative thinking. The
argument says that human beings excel when they are competing with one
another for dominance. The free market is the best economic system in
the world, we’re told, because private enterprises compete with one
another for market share.
This is the thinking behind
the movement to privatize government services. In fact, it’s the very
same thinking which led the conservative American Enterprise Institute
to design the set of policies the world now knows as “Obamacare.”
also wrong. We saw that in the ignominious failure of libertarian Eddie
Lambert, the Sears CEO who drove his company into the ground with the
misguided notion that internal competition among his company’s
departments would cause each of them to function more efficiently. That
proved to be an enormously frustrating experience for customers, and
ignominious failure for the corporation as a whole.
These ideas, along with a number of other misguided notions, have caused Sears stock to lose more than half its value. (Lynn Parramore has a good roundup of the Lambert fiasco here.) Eddie Lambert’s biggest mistake was believing that, in the words of Bloomberg BusinessWeek,
“If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly… they would run
their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.”
It turns out that people who are motivated to act out of self-interest
will do whatever it takes to enrich themselves, even if that means
damaging the entire society—in this case, the Sears “society”—in the
process. Sure, competition “works,” sometimes, for some things. But the
Sears experiment showed us that it works best when there is a fabric
which knits the competing parts together into something more than the
sum of its parts.
We call that something a nation.
Lambert’s Sears is a nation in microcosm. When its common purpose was
lost, the entire enterprise collapsed. Eddie Lambert taught us that that
when people act solely out of self-interest, they act destructively
toward others, and hurt themselves as well. Everybody loses.
Lambert wanted Sears to teach the nation a lesson, and it did. Selfishness is one of the roads to dystopia.
3. Free-enterprise zones.
concept of the free-enterprise zone was first popularized by Republican
Jack Kemp. Kemp, a football star-turned-House member and
vice-presidential candidate (with Bob Dole in 1996), adopted the
concept, also known as “urban enterprise zones,” as a campaign theme
during his initial rise and a 1988 presidential campaign. It’s based on
the belief that economically disadvantaged areas—inner cities or
impoverished rural areas—would be revitalized if regulations, minimum
wage requirements and tax levels were eased.
concept is based on two separate but related theories. The first is that
employers are likely to be attracted to these struggling areas by the
lower cost of doing business there. But a deeper, less frequently
articulated theory cuts even closer to theoretical libertarianism: that
regulations and taxes are themselves economy-killers. Free-enterprise
zones, it was thought, could therefore become laboratory experiments
which would demonstrate how much better an economy functions without
It didn’t work out that way. A few of the zone’s
tools, such as targeted tax breaks, have provided temporary relief in
some instances. But overall the experiment has been a singular failure.
As one roundup of research on zones put it: “Most of the more
sophisticated studies show no increases in employment or per capita
Instead, the one consistent finding across all
studies appears to be this: zones typically made money for one or more
corporations, but the promised social benefit in jobs and income never
That hasn’t killed the zone idea, or the
many variations on its theme. Statewide initiatives, offered as tax
breaks or other incentives, have been equally unsuccessful. The most
spectacularly unsuccessful track record in this regard belongs to New
Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has offered nearly $2 billion
in tax incentives to spur job growth. The result? Job growth in New
Jersey lags behind most of the nation, while hundreds of millions in tax
breaks went to giant casinos and to large corporations Prudential,
Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Verizon, and Panasonic.
zone idea is truly dystopian in scope, and that’s the idea which refuses
to die. The premise is this: The regions inhabited by low-income brown,
black, or white citizens should become places where basic worker
protections are nullified, and the financial obligations of the wealthy
are relaxed even more than they are today.
idea is pursued, the zones will become Third World nations within
nations in the North American landmass, de facto colonies which have
been insourced for corporate convenience. They’ll belch out poisons in
their unregulated mines, farms and factories; under-bid one another for
jobs and underpay workers while placing them in increasingly unsafe
conditions; drain revenue from local, state and federal government; and
lower the overall standard of living.
4. The absolute rights of private ownership.
turn again to Sen. Rand Paul on this issue, because he expresses these
ideas clearly and directly (just as he does when I agree with him, on
issues of civil liberties and drone warfare), although he has been known
to recant somewhat afterwards.
Paul said that he opposed the Civil Rights Act
because, he said, "I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision
to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do
believe in private ownership.”
Here’s the dystopian
dimension of Sen. Paul’s argument: Governments exist to uphold the law
and, at the federal level, to uphold the Constitution. The Civil Rights
Law serves both purposes. If “private ownership” is a barrier against
these governmental prerogatives, where does it end? If you can’t outlaw
discrimination on private property, what can you outlaw: Fraud? Theft?
In Paul Randian libertarianism there is no limit
to the deeds a business owner can commit inside the confines of his own
business. Even if laws against theft and murder are upheld, that would
almost certainly mean an end to all workplace safety laws, much less
minimum wage laws. As with free-enterprise zones, workers (and anyone in
the vicinity) could be subject to the dangers of a Bhopal or a
Bangladesh clothing factory, and government would be powerless to stop
This time the mayhem wouldn’t be limited to some
designated places on the map. The entire country would be placed at the
legal, economic and environmental mercy of property holders. The nation
would be divided into Owners and Others, with the Others given no
ability to enforce societal values—even matters of national
security—over the Owners.
The counter-argument will
often be made that “it can be settled with the free market.” Sen. Paul
made that argument himself, when he said he “would not go” to the
Woolworth’s which refused to seat African Americans during the civil
rights struggle. But people lack alternatives, in an economy
increasingly dominated by a few corporations. And they’re unlikely to
hear about most of these crimes and injustices, in an era where
corporate media are also under “private ownership.”
needy. Selfishness run riot. A North America dotted with Third World
colonies. And a blighted landscape where Others are subjugated to
RJ Eskow is a writer,
business person, and songwriter/musician. He has worked as a consultant
in public policy, technology, and finance, specializing in healthcare