More Libertarian Delights

 Posted by on 15 August 2004 at 8:26 pm  Libertarianism
Aug 152004

Paul just pointed me to this gem of a libertarian interview of John Perry Barlow (the founder of EFF) by Reason. Let me just quote a few choice bits, with emphasis added:

But by virtue of our abdication, a very authoritarian, assertive form of government has taken over. And oddly enough, it is doing so in the guise of libertarianism to a certain extent. Most of the people in the think tanks behind the Bush administration’s current policies are libertarians, or certainly free marketeers. We’ve got two distinct strains of libertarianism, and the hippie-mystic strain is not engaging in politics, and the Ayn Rand strain is basically dismantling government in a way that is giving complete open field running to multinational corporatism.

Then, in response to the question: “What are some of the specific actions or policies of the Bush administration that alarm you more than Clinton did, or Reagan or the first Bush?”

An unwillingness to engage in any kind of mitigation of the free market. The one thing that I know government is good for is countervailing against monopoly. It’s not great at that either, but it’s the only force I know that is fairly reliable. But if you’ve got a truly free market you only have a free market for a while before it becomes completely regulated by those aspects of it that have employed power laws to gain a complete monopoly.

And then, speaking about multinational corporations:

We need them. We have a deeply symbiotic relationship with large corporations. I wouldn’t want to eliminate them, because they are the engines of our economic well being at the moment. But we need something — and I think it’s governmental — to reregulate the market and make it free, because the multinationals have taken it away.

Yup folks, Barlow wants to force us to be free. And that’s not some hidden implication, but his explicit ideological claim, time and time again. Nonetheless, Reason seems quite happy to embrace him as a fellow libertarian. Since “reason” was discarded a while back, I’m not surprised that “free minds and free markets” have followed suit.

Back in April, in attempting to make some sense of the term “libertarianism,” I wrote:

Yet we might still ask: Precisely what meaning does the concept “libertarianism” have? Is there some set of core political doctrines held in common by those commonly considered libertarians, such as Milton Friedman, John Locke, Jan Narveson, Ayn Rand, David Friedman, George H. Smith, Rod Long, Adam Smith, Friedich Hayek, Julian Simon, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Thomas Jefferson, and so on? I think not. Such libertarian thinkers differ widely in the foundations of their political views: moral versus economic, egoistic versus altruistic, utilitarian versus deontological versus teleological, and so on. They differ in their substantive views of the proper political order. Some libertarians are anarchists; they seek to abolish the state in favor of private defense agencies. Others advocate a minimal state limited to police, the courts, and national defense. Others are willing to use government to solve so-called market failures, educate children, and provide for the poor. Such libertarians also often diverge in their implementation of rights, including on abortion, self-defense, animal rights, intellectual property, and more. Given these substantial and wide-ranging differences, the term “libertarianism” seems to be based upon family resemblance more than any feature (or features) common to all. Such a mixed-bag concept seems epistemologically indefensible to me… and virtually useless.

I also argued that the attempt to identify libertarianism with a belief in the non-initiation of force principle is hopeless:

Many people do opt for a different approach, namely that of reducing libertarianism to a single principle: the rejection of the initiation of force. As an example of this view, the oath required to join the Libertarian Party is merely: “I certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.” This approach is untenable, even dangerous, because it strips libertarianism of the content which gives it meaning, such that it can become just about anything to anybody.

The basic problem is that what does or does not constitute coercion is radically dependent upon prior notions of the range of actions to which an individual is entitled. If I am not entitled to the money I earn, then the government is not coercing me by redistributing it to the needy. If I am not entitled to self-defense, then I am initiating force in warding off a rapist. If I am not entitled to my car, then anyone may use and abuse it.

…[Further elaboration in the form of a quote from Jimmy Wales]…

So by stripping a rich political theory down to a single principle which is not even comprehensible in isolation, the focus on the non-initiation of force principle lends credence to the claims of socialists, communitarians, and other statists that they are the true libertarians. After all, they too are opposed to the use of force. They just simply understand what does and does not constitute force quite differently from you and me.

In light of those earlier thoughts, I found the Reason interview with John Perry Barlow to be quite interesting, as it shows just how little mainstream libertarians care about their once-beloved initiation of force principle these days… or about agreement on basic political issues at all. I’m not surprised.

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