Seven Ways Libertarians Sometimes Run Off the Rails

I’m a dedicated libertarian but my first allegiance is to accuracy.  It pains me when I see libertarians making arguments that are inaccurate, irrelevant, or just plain wrong.  When they do so, they do themselves and our movement a big dis-service.  I list seven such arguments here.  More could be added.

  1. The Fed is privately owned. This is true only superficially. Member banks own shares of stock in one of twelve district Federal Reserve Banks and they receive dividends on those shares. But they have little in the way of genuine ownership privileges. They cannot sell their stock and their voting rights are very limited. The President of the United States appoints the Board of Governors. Just because a legal arrangement is given labels that suggest private ownership, that doesn’t make it so.

  2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics disguises the true unemployment situation by excluding workers who are “discouraged,” i.e., not seeking jobs. This is true of the U-3 unemployment figure which is the most widely cited figure, and the one the Fed says it is targeting. That figure is currently about 6.5%. The BLS also publishes its U-6 figure, which includes discouraged workers and currently stands at around 13%, down from about 17% at the height of the Great Recession. The BLS is not covering up anything here, although politicians may certainly choose to emphasize one figure or the other depending on what ax they’re grinding. Which is the “true” unemployment rate? There’s no such thing. The figures are what they are and observers can make of them what they will.

  3. “Chain-weighted” versions of the Consumer Price Index are politically motivated.  These adjustments are intended to recognize the substitution effect, the classic example of which is when the price of beef rises and the price of chicken doesn’t, people eat less beef and more chicken. Peoples’ cost of living rises less than it otherwise would. CPI increases as measured by a chain-weighted formula reflect this fact, and the resulting price inflation estimates come out lower than under the old approach. That flashes a green light to some conspiracy theorists. While these adjustments are tricky business, substitution effects are real and the attempt to compensate for them should not be impugned.
  4. The Consumer Price Index is politically manipulated by excluding food and energy. There are many versions of the CPI. One of them excludes food and energy because those prices are usually very volatile. That figure may be useful to economists who want to filter out volatile effects and focus on secular trends. Again, the figures are what they are, and politicians or for that matter we bloggers can use or misuse them as we wish.

  5. “Banksters” control the U.S. government. There is a grain of truth in this one. The big banks are both victims and beneficiaries of government dominance of banking and finance. The reality of government regulation is that regulated firms employ many very smart and very well paid individuals who are constantly finding ways to manipulate or sidestep the regulations to which they are subject. The fact is that the regulators and the regulated are very thick. Banking and finance are controlled by a cabal of government and Wall Street firms and individuals. It’s a mistake to say that either group totally dominates the other.

  6. Global warming is a myth and a scam. Ron Paul, whom I admire very much, blotted his copy book when he said on Fox News, “The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on […] global warming.” A few basic facts are beyond dispute: (a) carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, (b) CO2 levels are at an all time high, and (c) human activity is the primary cause of the increase. Beyond that, the evidence starts to get sketchy and incomplete. We do seem to have melting polar ice caps, record high temperatures in some places, droughts, etc. But overall there has been almost no temperature increase during the last ten years or so.  Projections of rising temperatures and rising sea levels appear to be too pessimistic. This is a very complex issue and one where biases can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful. Statists are prone to accept the global warming thesis because they see it as a way to increase state power. Libertarians want the issue to go away for the same reason. This would be a great time for all parties to step back an exercise some epistemic humility. There’s a great deal about this issue that we just don’t know.

  7. Let’s get rid of the state entirely, and all will be well. Given the present primitive degree of evolution of our species, a new state will pop up wherever an existing one is overthrown. The key to peace and prosperity is not anything so simple as abolition of the state, but to convince enough people, thoroughly enough, of the advantages of long-term cooperation. Good institutions will follow.

13 thoughts on “Seven Ways Libertarians Sometimes Run Off the Rails

  1. Forgive me, but you’re incorrect on 6 a) not necessarily true, b) not true, and c) entirely untrue.

  2. “We do seem to have melting polar ice caps”

    Caps plural? Antarctic sea ice has been trending up, not down, for quite a while.

    “and all will be well” (7)

    Off hand, I don’t think I know any libertarian anarchists who claim that there would be no problems in a stateless society. They only claim that things would be better than with a state.

    “a new state will pop up wherever an existing one is overthrown”

    You know this how? I don’t think there is any good theoretical argument to prove it, although perhaps you can offer one. There have been stateless societies that listed for extended periods of time, although not any modern developed ones, which seems inconsistent with your “primitive degree of evolution” argument. Do you really want to argue that the Commanche were more evolved than we are? So what is the basis for your confidence?

    I suggest that this quote from you belongs on a list of bad arguments rather like the one you are compiling.

    • I don’t know if this helps, but the Comanches (as well as other stateless peoples like the Northern Somalis and Bedouins) were constantly at war with their neighbors and each other. Slave trading and slave raiding were both standard fare in these societies.

      While these societies may have been stateless, they still had enemies and they were still extremely violent.

    • Perhaps I’m naive, but I thought the theoretical argument was an evolutionary/economic one. It’s easy to draw as a flowchart. Start with a society with no government (Anarchy), and assume multiple violent gangs appear and begin to steal from the peaceful producing people nearby. If the gangs steal too much, the productive society will die off (a not-uncommon historical event) and the game is over. The peaceful people can organize a violent gang to protect themselves, but this is simply one more violent gang making its living by taking from the productive population, pushing the society toward collapse. Realizing this, the gangs tend to try to establish local monopolies, so that they can manage the degree of theft going on, keep the host society alive, and maximize their share of the available loot. They do this by going to war with each other or by agreeing to divide up the territory. To the peaceful producing people, a single gang is preferable to multiple gangs, because at least a single gang – a protection racket – is likely to limit the level of theft. Thus, the producing people will conspire with the gang it perceives as least predatory and having the ability to protect the territory from other gangs (this may very well be a gang they organized themselves). This situation, in which a gang promises to protect the territory from other gangs, takes from the people, and aspires to keep the taking to a sustainable level, is what we call Government. Once Government is in place, it has the resources to suppress uprisings and invasions by other gangs – usually. If no Government is in place, gangs will either arise internally, spontaneously, or a Government of a neighboring territory may decide to take over the area and take from the defenseless population.

      Stateless societies have existed. Mostly, they’ve been so poor they were barely worth organizing to steal from, and barely worth calling “societies”. As soon as anyone settled, more or less anywhere in the world, and started to build capital assets, someone has established a violent gang to steal from/tax-and-protect them.


  3. 6b is not true. For example, during the Eocene (65-30 Mya) atmospheric CO2 concentrations were about twice what they are today (with a brief spike to 10x today’s levels) and, surprise surprise, global temperatures were up to 10 celsius higher than today despite similar or lower heat input from the Sun.

  4. Speaking as an anarchist, I actually agree with your point in #7. Anarchists can fall into two traps, at times: Utopianism and putting the cart before the horse. I think relatively few thoughtful anarchists are truly utopians – instead, that’s a standard that’s typically thrown on us from outside which we are to slow to reject. (“How would you deal with crime? People would kill each other!” Of course they would – but that’s not the point. They do NOW, despite govt police – the question is whether eliminating the State would be an improvement, not whether it would be perfect.) The second, though is a true blind spot for those that ignore the fact that politics follows popular ideology. If the people generally view the state as good or necessary, we will have one. Step 1 isn’t eliminating the State – that would be unstable, as you describe. Step 1 is educating people on the benefits of voluntary cooperation – including describing the evils of the State and how a Stateless society could work. It’s a long process – but will be more successful if we go about it in the right order.

  5. Anarchy, or statelessness, in the libertarian or voluntaryist (as opposed to leftist or anti-heirarchy) sense does not mean that there will be no large institutions employed by most people of a particular geographic area, or that those institutions won’t provide services that resemble the services provided by today’s governments. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be murders, burglaries, wars, liars, rapists, daily NAP violations, Hobson’s choices, disease, death, disagreements, unresolvable honest disputes, unhappiness, or country music. It is not an absence of security, charity, or regulatory institutions. And it is not utopian.

    It means only that some critical mass of a population acts (whether they all sincerely believe it or not) as though NAP violations are categorically unacceptable. They act as though the only openly permissible shame-free type of human interactions, are voluntary ones. Any involuntary interactions are either hidden from the public, or immediately treated with widespread rebuke.

    What would that look like? Nobody seeking popularity could bring herself to openly advocate taxation, forced redistribution, or mandatory compliance anymore than a public figure today could bring herself to advocate random home invasions or puppy killings. That is, adults would actually start to take seriously–and without exception–the good behavior lessons that parents have taught their children for ages. None of those lessons involve urging the child to force his will upon peaceful unwilling others.

    The usual dismissals of anarchy (aside from the one’s employing the above strawmen) argue that there is some sort of law of nature that requires fairly widespread institutionalized NAP violations for any sort of highly functioning society to long exist. That law is not a deduction but at best an approximate empirical extrapolation, and at worst a mere supposition. Such people, of course, would also have to deny the facts of every major innovation in human society since the beginning of mankind–none of which existed anywhere before they did exist.

    Fortunately, anarchy doesn’t require any kind of grand plan or deliberate organization. Each person can choose today to act as though NAP violations are unacceptable. Each person can choose to stop making excuses for the abuse of innocents (“it’s a social contract”, “it’s our government”, “we decided it”, “there’s no other way”, “someone must keep order”, etc.) If enough people believe that employing violence against arbitrary strangers is simply wrong, the current institutions will change for lack of conscientious people to employ the state’s unethical methods. There’s no law of nature saying it will happen. But neither is there a law saying it can’t.

    Anarchy is civility taken seriously.

    • “There’s no law of nature saying it will happen. But neither is there a law saying it can’t.”

      I’m inclined to argue that there is a law of nature saying it can’t happen. People are social animals so there will be co-operative action as you describe. They are also social animals that form hierarchical relationships. That tendency to hierarchy is a law that says it can’t happen.

    • “I’m inclined to argue that there is a law of nature”

      That is the reason for my post.

      “That tendency to hierarchy is a law that says it can’t happen.”

      And that is the reason for the first sentence of my post. You confuse archy with cooperative or voluntary hierarchies. Of course, a community can choose to use semantics (e.g. “hierarchy” or “anarchy”) of their choosing, but whatever one’s semantics, the fact remains that people can and frequently do form voluntary relationships with ranked authority for the purpose of cooperation without any need for NAP violations.

      Arguing that anarchy is impossible because hierarchy is inevitable is (in the voluntaryist or libertarian sense of anarchy) rather like saying anarchy is impossible because NAP violations are inevitable–it is a strawman argument.

      To a voluntaryist, it isn’t prestige or level of organizational responsibilities or purchasing power or quantitative differences in ownership per se that are most important (or important at all). It is the NAP. One might even reasonably argue that different voluntary social structures entail greater risk of NAP violations than others. But it is still actual NAP violations (institutionalized and widely acquiesced to) that distinguishes anarchy from archy. And it is such institutionalized NAP violations that characterize all modern governments.

      Advanced large human societies without organizational structures–including ranked ones–is impossible, which is why subsuming “heirarchy” under “archy” is a strawman. But it is peculiar that anyone should oppose such organizations anyway, particularly if it is unanimously chosen by those involved. And once you allow such voluntary ranked relationships into your theory of anarchy, it becomes much easier to understand how an advanced anarchical society could thrive.

      Then the question of the feasibility of anarchy comes down to, “is it possible in an advanced society for the NAP to be an unequivocal cultural standard, or isn’t it?”

  6. “Then the question of the feasibility of anarchy comes down to, “is it possible in an advanced society for the NAP to be an unequivocal cultural standard, or isn’t it?””

    And my answer would be no.

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