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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The "No True Libertarianism" fallacy

by David Atkins

A bunch of libertarians have taken great offense at my earlier post on libertarianism in Somalia. The key part of that post was:

This, by the way, is why racism, theocracy and libertarianism go hand in hand, when from a philosophical point of view they should have little to do with one another. The negative effects of the lack of a central government are so obvious in developing countries that wherever the social order fails as in Somalia, it must have been due to bad religion, or the defect of having been born to an inferior race.

Ron Paul fans must reassure themselves that such things would never happen to white, Christian folk. They're immune from the Somali problem by virtue being of different stock and different values, you see.

The "Somalia" argument is a sore spot for libertarians. They either fall back on the old line of race and religious prejudice I outlined, or they claim that it isn't true Libertarianism, you see: it's anarchy. True Libertarians believe in just enough government to protect private property and personal safety; without those protections, they argue, anarchy ensues.

The only problem for libertarians is that they cannot point to even a single current or historical example of a government that functions as they imagine it should. They have no concrete, real world examples, so they ply their arguments in a theoretical construct.

Each and every example of places with little centralized government is dismissed by libertarians as an anarchistic situation, not a "true" Libertarianism. It's the "no true Scotman" fallacy, Ron Paul edition. The hellish situation in Afghanistan is blamed on 30 years of war and tribal anarchy, rather than the lack of a central government. The case of Somalia is blamed again on war, on American intervention, and again on tribal anarchy. Historical examples of feudalism arising in the absence of a centralized state, or the repeated Dark Ages that arise after civilization collapses, are dismissed as either irrelevant to the modern world or invalid because of war and anarchy. The fact that corruption and the Mafia are more prevalent in southern Italy where tax collection and central government are weaker than in the North, is again dismissed as a cultural or anarchistic issue. It's always the same argument.

Libertarianism, in other words, is infallible. Wherever it fails, it does so because the people weren't ready for it, or there was too much violence to allow it to work, or because the government wasn't powerful enough to protect people from harm.

Libertarians fail to realize that there has never been--and never will be--a government that functions according to their principles because it runs entirely contrary to human nature.

As any libertarian understands when it comes to statist authoritarians, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you decentralize and remove the modern welfare state, leaving only essentially a glorified police force in charge to protect private property and personal safety, one of two things happens:

1) The central police force turns into a right-wing military dictatorship invested in stamping out all leftist thinking, then appropriating the country's wealth for themselves and their friends (e.g., Chile under Pinochet);


2) All central authority and protection break down completely as power localizes into the hands of local criminals and feudal/tribal warlords with little compunction about abusing and terrorizing the local population (e.g., feudal France, Afghanistan, Somalia, western Pakistan, etc.) As I said before:
Feudalism is the inevitable historical consequence of the decline of a centralized cosmopolitan state. That's because the exercise of power by those in a position to wield it does not end with the elimination of federal authority: rather, it simply shifts to those of a more localized, more tyrannical, and less democratically accountable bent.

Urban street gangs in under-policed neighborhoods, mafias in under-taxed countries, and groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon invariably step in to fill the void where government fails. When the Japanese government wasn't able to adequately help the population after the earthquake and tsunami, the yakuza helpfully stepped in to do it for them. The devolution of local authority and taxation into the hands of criminal groups willing to provide a safety net in exchange for their cut of the action is the invariable pre-feudal result of the breakdown of the government-backed safety net. It happens every single time. The people will want a safety net where utter chaos doesn't prevent it: they'll either get it from an accountable governmental authority, or from a non-governmental authority of shadowy legality. Both kinds of authority will levy their own form of taxation, be it legal and official, or part of an illegal protection scheme.

In its own way, the "No True Libertarianism" argument is very similar to the "No True Communism" of those on the far left, who argue that the fault of Communism lies not with the idea, but with the practice--despite the fact that no successful large-scale Communism has ever been implemented in the world. Neither ideology can fail its adherents. They can only be failed by imperfect practitioners.

Both ideologies run counter to human nature for the same reason: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The people with the money and guns will always abuse the people who don't have the money and guns, unless there are multiple levels of checks, balances, and legal and economic protections to ensure the existence of a middle-class tax base with a stake in maintaining a stable society. The modern welfare state didn't arise by accident or conspiracy: it evolved as a means of avoiding the failures of other models.

Libertarianism is a philosophical game played by those without either enough real-world experience of localized, non-state-actor tyranny, or enough awareness of history to understand the immaturity of their political worldview. Unfortunately, the harm they do to the social safety net and to governmental checks and balances is all too real, and all too damaging.