Why I'm Not a Libertarian

March 21, 2013

Libertarianism is an attractive philosophy for a lot of people, particularly younger voters.  There's so much cynicism about government that an approach which uniformly demands less of it seems smart. Libertarians also promise to remove many of the annoying restrictions that touch our everyday lives. They would repeal laws that prevent us from making personal choices on issues from gambling to drugs to sexual behavior.

But like other philosophies that seem attractive in theory, many of the tenets of modern Libertarianism don't transfer well from paper to the real world. The problem with Libertarianism that it seeks to give people freedom by removing government from their lives, but it ignores the fact that the ensuing power vacuum will not stay empty. There are other large and powerful actors in society who will increase their control of our lives, namely large corporations. And there will be no strong force to balance these companies as they push to maximize their profitability.

If you remove the Government's power to limit pollution, keep our food supply safe, inspect airplanes, and thousands of other important tasks, you will leave average people at the mercy of companies prioritizing their profits. Some companies will act properly much of the time, but overall they will be inexorably driven to push the limits. And some companies will completely ignore the limits. Lawsuits might help alleviate some of the problems, but they will come after a disaster or mass poisoning -- and the companies will have many more high-priced lawyers than the consumers trying to hold them to account. In addition, without vigorous anti-trust laws, corporations would quickly see the wisdom of merging into large monopolies, controlling the price of products and limiting consumer choice or redress.  If you think Verizon or Comcast are frustrating and expensive now, imagine if all cable and telephone companies were merged and unregulated.

Government is far from perfect, and its hand is too heavy at times. It is also subject to influence by special interests, which sometimes distort its goals. But a great deal of government policy is set by the People's will -- that's why politicians are constantly polling -- and more often than not it seeks to achieve a real public purpose. Corporations are great engines of prosperity and growth, but they are designed to seek their own ends, not ours. If you remove the government's ability to keep the big companies in check, we would be at the mercy of far less responsive powers. Getting the government to change policy through elections is a laborious, imperfect process -- but try getting AT&T or Exxon to serve your interests when they conflict with their own.

There are many valuable policy proposals from Libertarians, particularly on social issues. Government should allow people to live as they wish when their actions don't hurt others in a substantial way. But just as Socialism wishes away elements of human nature -- ignoring that people respond to material incentives -- Libertarians seem to believe that if government backs off, no other power in society will seek to take advantage of its absence, or grab the newly available power. History shows that it just doesn’t work that way.

Like it or not, because of government, we have safer food and transportation, clean air and water, robust advancements in basic science, minimum standards of health and welfare for the elderly and poor, and many other things we take for granted.  So let's make government better, not replace it with a free-for-all among powerful interests in society.

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