Friday, May 21, 2010

Libertarianism - just another bankrupt utopian 20th-century ideology


















Rand Paul on Obama's criticism of BP:
"What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP.' I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business," he said. "I've heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill. And I think it's part of this sort of blame game society in the sense that it's always got to be someone's fault instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen."
This quote illustrates the fundamental um...for lack of a better word, dumbness...of the libertarian ideology for which Rand Paul is an unthinking foot soldier. Think about his statement for a minute. How did BP get access to the particular piece of the ocean floor that it was drilling when the spill happened? Answer: the government sold it the rights to use that land. Of course, BP bid for the rights to the land. But its bid was not just money; implicit in its bid was that it would work to minimize accidents that would hurt the citizens who elect and employ the government that sold it the land. And yet BP reportedly did just the opposite, using its political clout to minimize safety regulations. If the government had known the true probability of a spill, it very well might not have sold BP the land; thus, BP fleeced the government. And now the government has every right to criticize the company that fleeced it.

But libertarianism does not admit the possibility that natural resources are different from other types of property. The libertarian ideology holds that profit is earned by the effort and the inventiveness of the person who earns it, and therefore deserves to remain in the hands of the earner. But land is not created by the sweat of a man's brow or the ingeniousness of his ideas; it is pre-existent in the world, and its allocation comes about not as a result of efficiency but as a result of power. The land goes not to Jon Galt, but to the guy with the most guns.

Now, in order to make the most efficient use of land, we try to use market mechanisms to sell it to the highest bidder. But due to information asymmetries - like the fact that BP engaged in skullduggery to minimize safety regulations after it had already won the land rights - the market mechanism doesn't always work.

Libertarians crafted their ideology to be simple and internally self-consistent. But in philosophy, consistency always comes at the price of realism. In order to preserve the beautiful simplicity of their worldview, libertarians are forced to deny the existence of persistent information asymmetries, public goods, incomplete markets, and externalities - things that most obviously exist in the real world, and whose existence shows that libertarianism cannot be a blanket answer to the questions of economics. But libertarians are so eager to cry "This is it, boys! Man is saved!" that, like the communists before them, they have become devoted to squelching every piece of scientific evidence that pokes holes in their beautiful facade.

In the 20th century, the United States managed to avoid falling into the ideological pits of communism, fascism, and theocracy - and thank God we did. But at the end of the century, we stumbled halfway into the pothole of libertarianism, an ideology perhaps slightly less pernicious but no less blinkered and ignorant than the others. As a result, we are sliding toward a collapse of the basic functions of government, a nightmare scenario that in other countries has been fertile ground for takeovers by even more baleful ideologies (visit a Tea Party website to see that this is already happening). Ayn Rand and her many fellow-travelers convinced us to close our eyes to inconvenient reality, and close our minds to doubt and questioning, and we (temporarily, at least) lost access to the only advantage Western civilization has ever really had: adaptability.

It is time for libertarianism to follow communism into the intellectual dustbin of history. It has become an empty exercise in self-deception.


Updates:

Blogger tristero agrees with me.

Salon writer Gabriel Winant agrees with me.

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