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  • Writer's pictureShelly Albaum

The Libertarian Fix

Libertarian Traffic Signal

Before there were willfully ignorant Trump voters, there were willfully ignorant Libertarians.

Libertarianism can be pithily debunked by noting that every right by definition entails a corresponding responsibility -- e.g., the responsibility of others not to interfere with your right, or your responsibility not to interfere with others' rights -- and so it is simply illogical to care immensely about rights -- the "liberties" of libertarianism -- without being equally concerned with mechanisms that protect those rights, or that manage the inevitable clashes between your right to party-hearty and my right to peace and quiet.

The tool that we use to navigate these conflicts is called "government," and despite what Libertarians tell you, it's not a bad thing.

But we need not resort to theory when we debunk Libertarianism, because the contradictions and incoherencies of Libertarian theory are right on the surface in plain view.

1. Negative Rights. Libertarians care about positive rights -- e.g., my right to pollute -- without acknowledging negative rights -- e.g., my right to live in a world free of pollution. That's inconsistent.

2. Public Goods. Libertarians ignore the existence of public goods, like clean air and clean water, that cannot be privately owned and managed, and instead must be managed collectively if they are to be protected for everyone. That's incomplete.

3. Government Inefficiency. Libertarians embrace a false belief that government is inefficient and ineffective, despite the overwhelming evidence that private organizations are equally susceptible to corruption and mismanagement, and for the same reasons. Most employees in government, corporations, and non-profits are wage-earners with similar institutional incentives.

4. Private Tyranny. Libertarians falsely believe that they are advocates of freedom, when in fact their economic vision imprisons workers to the least democratic, most tyrannical corporations, and then maximizes those corporations' ability to rule despotically without oversight.

5. Market Fundamentalism. Libertarians falsely believe that market forces will limit the public harms done by private corporations, even though (1) the markets can only function effectively with perfect competition and perfect information, which never, ever exists, and (2) some harms can't be corrected by markets because even a single instance of harm is intolerably damaging -- e.g., The Deepwater Horizon's poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico.

That last example is worth special attention, because by far the worst behavior by unregulated economic actors results from invisible risk-taking. For example, if an airline cuts safety personnel, increasing the risk of an airplane crash from 1-in-a-million to 1-in-100,000, the risk to the passengers is magnified by ten-fold, but the passengers have no way of measuring the risk or even knowing that the odds have changed, so the market can't evaluate whether the cost-risk ratio is optimal.

An endless run of disasters engineered by large corporations that let risk get out of control in order to maximize short-term profits teaches us not only that such bad behavior can happen, but that it necessarily will happen, as long as major decisions impacting public health, safety, and economic security are left to the secretive devices of profit maximizing private entities:

  • Union Carbide Explosion in Bhopal (10,000 killed)

  • Exxon Valdez (Environmental devastation)

  • Deepwater Horizon (Tens of billions of dollars in damage)

  • Enron (Massive economic displacement)

  • Housing Bubble of 2008 (Millions lost their homes)

  • A thousand more

Every day factory farms increase or decrease the risk that deadly pathogens will flow through our food system, and Libertarians have nothing to offer but prayer. Their theory of government is incomplete and inadequate, childish and irresponsible.

Libertarianism must be rejected decisively in favor a theory that allows for responsible, democratically accountable decision-making with respect to the issues that affect us all, including our health, safety, security, and the economy.

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