Posted by: CS | December 7, 2013

The Libertarian Delusion

Those who want to “spread the wealth” almost invariably seek to concentrate the power. It happens too often, and in too many different countries around the world, to be a coincidence. Which is more dangerous, inequalities of wealth or concentrations of power?

Thomas Sowell: quoted by Mark J. Perry, at Carpe Diem

The above statement, by the normally sensible Thomas Sowell, seems to me to encapsulate the absurdity of an American strain of libertarian thought, which holds that the right to accumulate wealth without limit is a great, if not the ultimate, good, whereas the right of the poor to a share of the wealth accumulated by the rich is a great, if not the ultimate, evil.

Hence the failure, in the view thus expressed, to recognize that wealth itself represents a potent concentration of power, whereas wealth redistribution is a manifestation of political power in its most widely distributed form, which is to say in the hands of the people.

Hence also the confounding, in the view expressed, of the promise to share the wealth, which is inherent in Communist ideology but rarely manifest in Communist practice, and the desire to spread the wealth, which is manifest in practice by any genuinely popular democratic regimes.

Further, the view ignores the fact that the accumulation of great wealth is usually possible only if all members of society adhere to a complex code of law and tradition, which would not exist in a libertarian society, i.e., without enforcement by a powerful state.

But, then, libertarians are a weird bunch that includes anarcho-syndicalists such as Noam Chomsky who believe that property should be held in common to billionaire capitalists who wish to create floating worlds: “free from the laws, regulations, moral codes of any existing place,” and where there will be “no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons.”

Which prompts the realization that intelligent people, even highly intelligent people, can be remarkably dumb.

Consider, for example, the question of property, which the left libertarians want held in common, while the money-grabbing capitalist libertarians want to hold tightly in their own sweaty hands. What is the practical significance of these ideas? How, in reality, could either set of ideas give rise to a libertarian society, which is to say a society allowing near total freedom in the absence of a powerful state or without any state at all.

To answer that, one need only consider how the legal status of property is determined?

In no case have property rights ever been established either by the prescription of scholars, or through voluntary submission to the fantasies of the rich. Only by the application of power, whether of money, rhetorical genius, or brute force has any man become king of his own country, castle, floating casino, brothel, or whatever.

But wherever a kingdom is thus created, what emerges is not a libertarian utopia, whatever the ideology of the ruler, but another instance of autocracy, and if it is called a libertarian paradise, that is only because the owner or owning clique owns the “free press” and knows the importance of good PR.

Such a libertarian was William the Bastard, aka, William the Conqueror, who invaded England, killed the reigning monarch and took possession of the whole country, with the result that even today, almost one thousand years later, only the monarch can own land absolutely, whereas, so-called freehold property is held “of the crown” and is subject to government powers of taxation, eminent domain, police power, and escheat.

How forms of government are won or lost. The relief of Khe Sanh, 1968. Image source.

How forms of government are won or lost. The relief of Khe Sanh, 1968. Image source.

Property rights have never been established through universal acquiescence of both rich and poor, but have always been created and are everywhere maintained, by the exercise of power. And if, anywhere, an effective power structure is absent, the strongest and the most devious will contend for opportunity thus provided to create a power structure to their own advantage.

But under any established power structure, there is always a struggle among various interests, classes, clans and individuals upon whom the king or ruling clique must rely to retain their authority: sometimes this individual or group asserting the greatest influence, sometimes that. But always the people, the masses, will have some power, if only to disrupt the system by means of strikes or revolts.

The claim of the masses to a share of the wealth will, thus, always be a legitimate issue of public debate and political action. Billionaire libertarians and their mouthpieces will have to get used to it or prepare for a peasants’ revolt.

PostScript: Since writing the above, I have discovered that there are many other essays or commentaries on the Web with virtually the same title. To explore some of them here’s a link. Among those I have read, this from OpEd News, vigorously demolishes the notion that freedom can be enjoyed without the law, or that in the absence of the state, warlords, thugs or gansters will not create a system of social control to serve their own advantage. I thought this also was worth a read.

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Responses

  1. […] friend sent a link to this piece of sophistry on libertarianism. From the beginning, the writer sets out his leftwing stall, first quoting Thomas […]

    • I looked forward to the discussion but found no arguments to contend with, only accusations of deploying unspecified straw men, of sophistry and of leftism.

      As an example of sophistry, “Orphans of Liberty” quotes my penultimate paragraph, but then fails to critique it. An omission that precludes discussion.

      As for leftism, I suppose my mention of peasant revolts is enough to set the anti-tax right-wing libertarian’s teeth on edge, but it does not make one a leftist, merely a realist.

  2. […] Recognizing the necessity of government, Smith recognized also the necessity of taxation and proposed principles of taxation that any small-government conservatives would approve.  Certainly, he would have considered absurd, the notion that taxation is necessarily theft. […]

  3. […] The Libertarian Delusion […]

  4. I attempted to leave a comment on “Orphans of Liberty” but my bland remarks: “failed to pass our spam filter.”

    LOL.

    They obviously need a more libertarian spam filter.


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