Sunday, December 16, 2007

Libertarianism's Conundrum

Libertarianism finds its foundation in the support for individual liberty. The political philosophy holds that individuals are the absolute owners of their lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their person or property so long as they allow others the same liberties. Libertarianism has long been associated with democracy, as it is believed that democracy is the form of government which best upholds libertarian principles. This conclusion is misguided, however, in that it fails to acknowledge the basis of democratic rule: the will of the majority. Democracy will indeed never be able to satisfy true libertarianism.

First, a distinction must be made between a true democracy and a republic. In a true democracy, every decision of the state is decided upon by every member of the state. The actual carrying out of the decisions of the democracy may lie in elected representatives, but the decisions are the sole responsibility of the populace. Unanimity, of course, will not always exist in a society, so the principle of majority rule applies in democracy. A democracy will carry out the decisions of the majority, as that represents the views of the most people in society, and therefore is most just.

Democracy, following this assumption, operates fundamentally as a utilitarian body designed to maximize societal utility. An obvious problem results from such an assumption. If democracy exists solely to maximize utility for society, the only reason democracy should exist is if it actually does maximize utility. In order for democracy to maximize utility, however, the majority of a democracy’s populace must always make the best political decisions. Democracy assumes, to be brief, that the majority is always right. This we know not to be true. The majority is oftentimes misinformed, and frequently reaches conclusions that are invalid. Human nature is such that a charismatic statesman can easily sway one’s opinion, even if what the statesman is saying is not best for society. Also, the nuance decisions that governments must frequently make are oftentimes best made by experts; the majority’s uneducated opinion, in such cases, simply does not suffice.

Republicanism arose in order to address the inability of true democracy to achieve maximum societal utility. A republican form of government is one in which members of society elect representatives to make political decisions for them. Republicanism, therefore, cannot be said to be anything but a utilitarian form of government. Indeed its very purpose is to take away rights from individuals in order to best maximize societal utility.

The libertarian objection to democracy, however, does not lie in democracy’s ineffectiveness as a utilitarian body. The libertarian, in fact, has no regard for utility. Indeed, his only concern is that the individual rights and liberties of every member of society are upheld. He believes that one’s rights precede the state, and that if a state is to exist, it must concern itself solely with the task of upholding the rights of every member of society. A libertarian, in justifying democracy, would state that democracy is the only form of government (outside of anarchy, in which political rights do not need to exist) which upholds every member’s political rights. Democracy, however, is subject to the whims of the majority, of which the libertarian has no regard. In a true democracy, for example, the majority can decide to disallow wearing the color blue. In this situation, although every member of society’s political rights were upheld, one’s right to wear the color blue has been violated. Democracy therefore, while it allows for the political rights of every member of society to be upheld, will always, unless unanimity in political decisions is always achieved, violate the basic individual rights of the minority.

Winston Churchill’s defeatist epithet that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other kinds” does not satisfy the libertarian. It does, however, raise an important question: if not democracy, then what? It is clear that democracy is inherently at odds with the principles of libertarianism, but must the libertarian adopt a utilitarian point of view and accept democracy as the form of government that, compared with other forms of government, best upholds its principles? In asking such questions, the libertarian makes a basic mistake: he assumes that political rights are more important than other basic rights.

It must first be acknowledged that libertarianism is not consistent with true anarchy, where no forms of cooperation exist and the individual lives in a Lockeian “state of war.” Libertarians believe in universal and equal rights, including the right to use force. The libertarian believes the individual may execute these rights provided the execution of one’s rights does not encroach on another individual’s rights. Murder is an interesting example. In anarchy, the would-be victim is forced to defend himself against the would-be murderer. Such a situation is consistent with libertarian principles, as the individual (being the sole owner of his life) who is being attacked has the ability to use force himself against his attacker. The attacker is violating libertarian ethos, but the individual being attacked assumes sole responsibility for his self defense, just as he assumes sole responsibility for his other rights. If, however, the attacker and attacked do not possess equal ability, anarchy is not able to satisfy libertarian principles of individual liberty. For not every individual possesses the same ability to defend himself. Anarchy, therefore, provides for the survival of the fittest, disregarding individual rights in the process.

Libertarians therefore adopt the concept of the state in order to protect their individual rights and liberties. As Locke describes in The Second Treatise of Civil Government, societal cooperation becomes necessary in order to protect individuals. Locke argues that individuals must necessarily sacrifice some of their rights in order to receive such protection. For example, one must relinquish his right to use force (to a police force, for example) in order to receive protection from others using force against them. Again we see utilitarianism used to justify a lack of individual rights.

When first considered, libertarianism can only reach its fullest potential in two forms of government: anarcho-capitalism and libertarian socialism. A state of anarcho-capitalism is one in which no authoritarian or coercive institutions exist and property rights reign supreme. An individual in an anarcho-capitalist state does not have to defend himself however, as he can pay a police force provided by the market to protect him. Libertarian socialism, on the other hand, does not recognize an individual’s right to property. Instead, libertarian socialists delegate property cooperatively, using non-bureaucratic, decentralized means of action such as trade unions, municipalities and workers’ councils to determine the proper allocation of society’s resources. Both forms of government reject the state as an unacceptable form of coercion that inherently undermines one’s natural rights. Both forms of government still, however, violate libertarian principles in notable ways.

Anarcho-capitalism relies on the market to uphold individual rights and liberties. The market, however, suffers from the same problem as democracy in upholding such a task. Just as democracy fails to satisfy the wants of the minority, so does the market for those not willing to pay the market price. If police protection in such a system costs $200 a month, and an individual in society is either not able or not willing to pay such an amount, he will be subject to the same problem addressed above, in which he must provide protection himself. In such a case, the individual’s inherent rights and liberties have been taken away (or at least limited) by the market mechanism.

The obvious critique of libertarian socialism is that it necessarily takes away one’s rights to property. If a libertarian considers the right to property an essential and fundamental individual liberty, the argument ends there: libertarian socialism is unjustified. The libertarian socialist, however, argues that the right to property is not only not an inherent individual right, but that property ownership necessarily leads to the violation of other individual rights. This is simple to understand: one individual owning a pencil, for example, violates another individual’s right to own that same pencil. Beyond property rights, libertarian socialism faces contradiction in that it cannot successfully allocate society’s resources without the use of some form of coercion. Libertarian socialism relies on either production or distribution (or both) of society’s resources to be conducted by an institution. Such an institution, according to libertarian socialists, must be governed democratically, but therein lies its fault: the rights of the majority will trump the rights of the minority, and libertarianism again fails.

Libertarianism can only truly exist in such a state in which possession rights (along with the absence of coercive institutions), but not property rights, exist. There is an important distinction between the two rights. Property rights, on the one hand, allow for an individual to possess an article of property that he did not himself produce. For example, when Bob pays James to produce an article of property, Bob claims possession of the article even though he himself did not produce it. Possession rights follow that one possesses only what he has himself produced. In such a system, one may trade the fruits of one’s labor for other items that he needs, so long as the transaction is cooperative.

Even so, however, libertarianism will nevertheless fail under such a system of possession rights. The production of an item as small as a toothpick requires the cooperation of many people, making it impossible to determine exactly what product should go to whom. Such a system will inevitably lead to a system of libertarian socialism, which, as is proved above, violates libertarian principles.

Alas, true libertarianism is impossible to realize.