Capitalism or freedom? Why libertarians choose capitalism when the chips are down

Michael Lind quotes chapter and verse.

There’s lots to quarrel with in Michael Lind’s essay on why libertarians hate democracy. Lind seems to accept the libertarian pretense that libertarians’ fanatical devotion to unfettered market activity is identical to liberals’ concern with open inquiry and individual autonomy, so he mixes true liberals such as Mill and Macaulay with libertarians such as Mises, Hayek, and Friedman. And why Lind rings in the Tory Lord Acton is a complete puzzle.

It’s true, as Schumpeter pointed out a long time ago, that the liberal concern for personal autonomy isn’t the same as, and can come into conflict with, the democratic principle of majority rule. But that’s not, in general, a tragic tension: there can be no real democracy without personal autonomy and free discourse, and democratic majorities in most of the developed world consent to guarantees of individual liberty that are proof against at least short-term majoritarian pressure. Egalitarianism can also come into tension both with majority rule and with personal freedom. But those tensions, too, are largely manageable under advanced-country conditions; the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has few remaining fans, and even fewer among actual proletarians. Consequently, no substantial American politician is a fan of Castro or nostalgic for Mao.

But libertarian market-worship is in much deeper tension with democratic principle; Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia contains a “proof” that majority rule is, in principle, no different from slavery; if you believe that all taxation is, at its root, theft, then it barely matters, morally, who gets to decide what the taxes are or how they get spent.

Lind’s piece is at its strongest when it lays out the deeply embarrassing facts about the extent to which the “capitalism and freedom” crowd – including St. Milton himself – have chosen capitalism over freedom when push came to shove. And they’re prepared to jettison more than free elections (though in the U.S. they’re prepared to start by just unleashing unlimited money power into politics:  even the torture chamber and the death squad can be called to the service of the libertarian (in effect plutocratic) cause without losing the support of those who claim to be the true carriers of the tradition of Locke. And that viewpoint is deeply interpenetrated with the contemporary Republican party.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

27 thoughts on “Capitalism or freedom? Why libertarians choose capitalism when the chips are down”

  1. Nice Mark. I feel that the observed fact that libertarian market-worship trumps democracy is axiomatic, and has been demonstrated repeatedly. They question is, why? Delve into that a bit more deeply. How is their professed adherence to ‘individual personal liberty’ be so at odds with democracy? You are on to something. Thanks.

  2. Why was Pinera allowed into the US? That’s amazing. He should be kicked out. We need that Spanish judge to come over here and clean house. It is a shame that our Justice Department is so dreadfully inert.

    What’s strange to me is that libertarians remind me most strongly of anarchists, not fascists. (Well, come to that, I don’t know that I’ve ever met a real fascist.) It’s the same immature idea that people spring from wombs fully grown, like Athena or Howard Roark. Heaven forbid that anyone acknowledge that someone helped raise them, or that civilization does *not* in fact grow on trees, or that we owe anything to anyone else.

    Lind is right — these people aren’t worthy of attention. I hope they do seastead — they’ll be happier, and the rest of us will have more room.

  3. I had begun to wonder whether anyone else had noticed this, or whether it was all in my head. It’s long baffled me that so many of the so-called libertarians of my acquaintance choose low-taxes over a commitment to civil liberties and privacy protections when the chips were down. When someone tells me they’re a libertarian, I now basically assume that they’re a crypto-conservative. And as for genuine “libertarians” supporting the GOP’s foreign policy…I just don’t buy it. It’s not like the GOP has held its nose and, weeping, supported people like Pinochet out of necessity. In my lifetime they’ve been downright eager to support such people. Why? Well, in part at least, it’s that commitment to unbridled capitalism over freedom and democracy. Stamping out any hint of socialism has, apparently, been worth a few dead campesinos here and there. The GOP packaged its opposition to communism as commitment to freedom…but since they were willing to side with capitalism when capitalism and freedom came into conflict, I have my doubts about their actual motives. And, again, many so-called libertarians seemed to be just fine with all that.

  4. I agree. I have more in common with a fire-breathing, Bible-thumping creationist than I do with the libertarians. At least they care about something *in addition* to money. (We all like money. Nothing wrong with that necessarily.)

    I have a bone to pick with Lind though. Libertarians may be only 16% of the population, but to my eyes, they run the GOP. How do they manage that? How do they trick all those people into thinking they’re friends? I’ve got to admit, whatever else one can say about them, they’re not stupid.

  5. I see nothing wrong with the notion that libertarians are opposed in principle to democracy. In as much as it’s just a way of deciding who gets to do the pushing around, rather than an alternative to pushing people around. The problem is with the idea that libertarians would prefer autocracy to democracy, rather than liberty. Our preferred alternative to voting on what everyone will be forced to do, is people getting to make their own choices. I think it’s flat out crazy to think that everybody is free so long as they get a vote on which post their chain will be fastened to.

    And, yes, if pressed to make a decision between somebody who will attack my economic liberties, and claim to be better on civil liberties, (Not terribly impressed with how much better liberals are in practice. You do a lot of fooling yourselves on that score.) vs somebody who will attack them less, I figure I can deal better with the censors if I’m not poor.

    IOW, I don’t see much to apologize for here. Of course somebody who has a hugely different conception of what comprises “liberty” is going to think that libertarians aren’t very good when it comes to liberty.

  6. Sooner or later, our innocence is lost and we learn that we live in an unjust world. It is an emotional wrench. There are different ways to resolve the crisis. Libertarianism is a form of denial — the problem is never the world’s injustices; the world’s injustices would vanish, they think, if people didn’t try to do anything about them. They are the political equivalent of the alcoholic who believes that everything in his life would be fine if people just quite bugging him about drinking. They are quite willing to support political repression, because their main objective is to get “those people to just shut up.”

  7. Uh, Brett, if everybody gets to make their own choices, what do we do about the people who choose to take your property and beat you up and teach Karl Marx to your children? Sorry, you can’t escape some version of the state. And that requires some notion of government. And that requires . . .

  8. Tom, that seems right to me.

    I’ve always felt that libertarianism is a walking contradiction. It assumes that people are free, when they are not, and that government attempts to make them more free are really attempts to take a way their freedom. That people are not free is an empirical fact. Financial, human and social capital is what allows us to be “free”, without it we are not. We have evolved a highly complex culture of learning and achievement that is dependent on a variety of forms of capital. So without a state that provides somewhat equal access to that capital, so that they may be leveraged, people are by definition not free. One might say that in reality, libertarianism is an effort to minimize freedom.

  9. Libertarians are for freedom for themselves, their friends (and not least their sponsors). What the state/business/the powerful, in other words, they do to others outside that magic circle is of no concern to them.

  10. there can be no real democracy without personal autonomy and free discourse

    It seems “real” is doing rather a lot of work here. Democracy answers a question about how decisions are made; libertarianism answers a question about what questions can be decided collectively. Of course, a democratic process may give answers to questions that a theory of rights says are out-of-bounds (this isn’t specific to libertarian theories of rights.)

  11. Sam,
    Are you equating “democracy” with “majority rule”? You’re entitled to so do, but I’m not sure that the rest of us are. There is some overlap, to be sure. But a lot of us view democracy as being about the structure of a society, with decision-making only an incidental aspect of it. Let me make this concrete. Is Singapore a democracy?

    You could argue that it is a representative democracy; it has parliamentary elections whose outcomes are determined by the votes cast. And nothing comes out of Singapore’s parliament unless a majority of MPs vote for it. But the government plays a very active role in determining the structure of discourse that determines the election results, with government officials silencing dissenting voices with libel suits.

    I do agree with your last sentence, and the second clause of your second sentence.

  12. Are you equating “democracy” with “majority rule”? You’re entitled to so do, but I’m not sure that the rest of us are. There is some overlap, to be sure. But a lot of us view democracy as being about the structure of a society, with decision-making only an incidental aspect of it. Let me make this concrete. Is Singapore a democracy?

    Yes, I would be happy to translate “democracy” as “majority rule”; most critiques of democracy, including those quoted in the referenced article, seem to be using that definition. Both the Friedman quote (“My personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.”) and the Macaulay quote (“I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty”) do not make a great deal of sense if democracy includes independent courts, real personal autonomy (including strong property rights–“you can do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t include breathing any of our air” isn’t really very permissive), and the other minority protections that are a key feature of the liberal societies today.

    I would say that Singapore (on the facts you cite) is an illiberal democracy, while Hong Kong under British rule was liberal but not a democracy.

  13. I do think that when we talk about democracy and elections, we don’t talk nearly enough about the Bill of Rights. We’d be having civil wars right and left without it, just like everyone else on earth. There are certain things that should be out of bounds.

    Of course, we still argue about what those things are, but that’s the fun in life.

  14. When push comes to shove most libertarians will, in a moment of weakness, admit that they don’t care for democracy. It allows for the many to take from the few and redistribute it. Though quite often libertarians will portray themselves as the defenders of democracy from political forces that they don’t care for. Particularly they will accuse liberals of being anti-democratic forces and paint themselves as the defenders of democracy, because for the common many democracy is the pillar of a free society. But this is just a talking point, not an actual belief, as Brett Bellmore has attested.

  15. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind of the liberal New America Foundation attacks libertarians as crypto-fascists who “apologize for autocracy.” It’s a long screed riddled with errors and misleading statements, so in the interest of space I’ll focus on the overall theme, which is that libertarians have been on the wrong side of American history since at least the Civil War…
    Michael Lind: Libertarians “Apologize for Autocracy” and “Side with the Confederacy”

  16. Lind’s article also demonstrates why libertarian states cannot last, as they eventually devolve into warlord states — competing groups of private armies.

  17. When push comes to shove most libertarians will, in a moment of weakness, admit that they don’t care for democracy.

    Actually, when push comes to shove, most libertarians will admit that they don’t care for markets. As Mike Huben points out:

    There are roughly 200 nations to which you could emigrate. They are the product of an anarcho-capitalist free market: there is no over-government dictating to those sovereign nations. Indeed, the only difference between the anarchy of nations and libertopia is that anarcho-capitalists are wishing for a smaller granularity. These nations have found that it is most cost-efficient to defend themselves territorially.

    If any other market provided 200 choices, libertarians would declare that the sacred workings of the market blessed whatever choices were offered. The point is that choices do exist: it’s up to libertarians to show that there is something wrong with the market of nations in a way they would accept being applied to markets within nations.

    Libertaria is a combination of values that just doesn’t exist: the government equivalent of a really posh residence for very little money. You can find nations which have much lower taxes, etc.: just don’t expect them to be first class.

    And the reason these combinations don’t exist is probably simple: the free market of government services essentially guarantees that there is no such thing as the free lunch libertarians want. It’s not competitive.

    Lind points out that “every modern, advanced democracy, including the United States, devotes between a third and half of its GDP to government, in both direct spending on public services like defense and transfer payments.” The obvious response to libertarians who don’t like it would be the same as their response to workers complaining about appalling conditions at their workplaces: go somewhere else.

  18. […]
    One reason for Lind’s conflation is that he automatically translates being anti-democracy into being pro-autocracy — because he assumes that the only alternative to democracy is autocracy. But in fact there is a third option; rather than the many dictating to the few or the few dictating to the many, what libertarians seek is a world where nobody is in a position to dictate to anybody — or at least to get as close to that situation as possible. (It might be argued that such a system actually has a better claim to the term “democracy” than those regimes that typically receive that label.) For anarchist libertarians, this means replacing the state entirely with networks of voluntary association; for minarchist libertarians, it means structuring the machinery of government in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible to abuse.

    In other words, libertarians don’t oppose democracy (in the conventional sense) because they hanker after autocracy; they oppose democracy because it is too much like autocracy.

    Libertarians In Jackboots?

  19. If I recall correctly, Nozick also suggests that slavery is compatible with liberty (as he defines liberty). If we own ourselves, there’s no reason why that property should not be alienable. It’s not hard to follow the logic of Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain fable to slavery for debt.

  20. Mark —

    I certainly agree that many libertarians choose capitalism over democracy, but it’s not self-evident why this involves choosing capitalism over “freedom.” Democracy and freedom may often support each other, but they are not the same. Indeed, most liberals (like most libertarians) believe in placing meaningful limits on democracy, often for the protection of freedom.


  21. If I recall correctly, Nozick also suggests that slavery is compatible with liberty.

    This does not seem to be in controversy in the US mainstream, so I’m not certain why it woudl be a strike against libertarian theory that it reaches the commonly-accepted result. (SFAIK, you can still be jailed for not paying money you owe, even if you don’t have it, in (e.g) the child support system.)

  22. […]
    No, I don’t “like” the idea forcing citizens to join a Washington-run health care program or forcing parents to pay for crappy school that fail their kids year after year. But I’ve yet to meet a libertarian who opposes restrictions on homicide. Perhaps I don’t get out often enough. I always knew there were many schools of libertarian thought, all of them having something to do with an underlying belief that an individual ought to have the freedom to live his/her life as he/she likes as long he/she respects the individual rights of other hes/shes. Critics always seem to ignore the latter half of the idea. Imaginary anarchy, racism, and hedonism ensue.

    Libertarians Hunt Humans—And Other Tales: The latest hysterical response to libertarian ideas

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