Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

Libertarianism As Capitalist Mythos

I stumbled across a piece from half a year ago that talks about myths about capitalism and communism. While I’m not necessarily interested in promoting communism as such (I declare no allegiance to a particular political group ideology, even if some of my criticism overlaps with Marxism), I do think the author brings up a number of valuable points about myths of capitalism which also happens to be part of what one has to deal with in discourse with American libertarians. I’ve made it pretty clear that I think contemporary American libertarian thought is drenched in capitalist ideology, even often in cases in which its proponents try to disassociate themselves from capitalism and expand their thinking leftward.

Part of the problem is that libertarians typically tend to have a universalized definition of property (to the point of defining metaphysical personhood in terms of ownership, which is really what the whole “self-ownership” problem is about), and hence frequently don’t appear to recognize some meaningful distinctions in types of property and the distinction of property vs possession. The article helps clarify: “Property implies not a good, but a title – deeds, contracts, stocks, bonds, mortgages, etc“. Since libertarians frequently confuse the difference between this and simple possessions, they frame their arguments as if to attack property is to attack the apple in their hand, quickly turning the debate toward a red herring.

To expound: property as a modern concept is very much based on legal fiction and economic institutions, not small-scale individual homesteading and exchange in a vacuum. Libertarians often like to describe the nature of modern large-scale economies in terms that apply to a non-existent social context or even what would really have to be a pre-capitalist and even primitive context. The concept of homesteading is hardly applicable to a modern urban society not filled with survivalists (unless your real goal is to be an expat of modern society and try to start anew in the South American jungle), and the description of everyday market activity as if it was nothing more than a consensual exchange between two people rubs up against our everyday experiences of the market as a powerful dynamic of institutions that individuals have to maneuver within.

The institution of property rights is mainly represented by titles and contracts for land, institutional control, profit, investment, and so on – not by the things around your house. It is about special rights to resources and power, not commonplace rights to have things. By the way many libertarians talk about property, it’s as if they want to apply the logic of small-scale commonly recognized possession to things that are detached large-scale institutions and non-concrete entities. It is very typical in debates with libertarians for the libertarian to default to a simplistic scenario about possession in defense of a not-so-simple matter dealing with institutions of property, or for them to generally frame their positive description and defense of markets in terms of informal and small-scale trade or a reference to a pre-capitalist society.

The narrative that the market as we know it simply formed as a cumulative result of a process of land cultivation by settlers and isolated small-scale exchanges – including the narrative that only/chiefly the modern state is or can be to blame for modern economic problems, as the force impinging on the market as this natural spontaneous expression of freedom – is basically capitalist mythos. The libertarian myth of economics is basically that there is this thing called “the free market” that is a natural spontaneous force of freedom, and that anything that might be considered wrong with the market in general can only or predominantly be chalked up to the state’s interventions in it – and even if we recognize a sense in which the market is flawed, the optimal solution is to do nothing because it tends to work its own problems out.

Technically, libertarians talk about “the free market” as something both presently existing and not truly existing at the same time – qua libertarian ideology it exists as a natural force within society insofar as this spontaneous economic activity goes on among humans or insofar as people choose to buy, sell, and trade things, but it doesn’t “truly exist” in its ideologically consistent form because of the state. This enables them to split hairs in discourse in ways that are convenient for preserving their ideology, because whenever anyone attacks modern capitalism they can claim that it’s not a “true free market”. At the same time, the libertarian can refer to contemporary phenomenon as evidence of the virtues of “the free market”, insofar as it superficially resembles a free choice or is thought of as part of the undercurrent of natural market activity that persists in spite of the state.

Thus I don’t think statements from the article such as this one would be misguided as part of arguments against libertarianism:

“The idea that we’re all going around making free choices all the time in an abundant market where everyone’s needs get met is patently belied by the lived experience of hundreds of millions of people. Most find ourselves constantly stuck between competing pressures and therefore stressed out, exhausted, lonely, and in search of meaning. — as though we’re not in control of our lives.”

Libertarians, even some so-called left-libertarians, want us to believe that there is this natural economic force of freedom chugging along in society that is responsible for the bulk of social good, only it’s constrained by the state – and that if only we remove the constraints of the state, the natural result will tend to be an improvement in social good. In libertarian capitalist ideology, the market as a free pursuit of economic self-interest by individuals is the prime source of social good as an emergent property. In reality, the pursuit of economic self-interest within the confines of economic power introduces a whole series of social problems. It is a mixed bag at best in terms of social good, and your freedom within the market is largely illusory precisely because of the institution of property, bad human behavior, and the psychological affects of it all.

The everyday experiences of most people should attest to the fact that consumer sovereignty is a myth and that the voluntary nature of employment is a myth. Markets represent an environmental condition that one has no choice but to engage with, no less than the state. For most people, conventional employment is just an adaptive necessity of life and entraps them into playing along with organizational dynamics and competitive pressures. Marketing teams and businessman in the hierarchy, who for most of us are faceless strangers, essentially engage in attempts to *pitch* products to you or tell you what you need, have organizational incentives to do whatever it takes to bring in profit, and significantly have a role in determining what your practical options are before you even start making decisions. The idea that the production cycle is all just a reactive mechanism to people’s authentic needs and wants is misleading.

Perhaps markets don’t adapt to people as much as people adapt to markets. The psychological affects of markets on employers and various businessmen often amounts to a series of incentives for them to do what is necessary for the economic institutions they are beholden to, even if it means actively working against the interests of employees and consumers and turning themselves into moral monsters. Once they are ideologically embedded in the system, they even think that their moral monstrosity is virtuous and just. It’s called drinking the corporate cool-aid. Try working under someone in management in the retail industry who’s been invested in it for some years, and you’ll likely see what I mean. They’ve built their whole lives and personal identity around this, have bought in to the buzzwords and ideology of sell sell sell, and unfortunately their roles often make them into crass, petty, penny-pinching people who internalize a conservative ethos and treat their workers as expendable resources.

The article states this point well enough:

“Even that boss (the apparent victor in the “free exchange”) isn’t free: the market places imperatives on the ownership class to relentlessly accumulate wealth and develop the forces of production or else fail. Capitalists are compelled to support oppressive regimes and wreck the planet, as a matter of business, even as they protest good personal intentions”. 

On the side of average workers and consumers, the conditions presented to them as the market are something that they have had to adapt their lives around. Their corporate cool-aid drinking bosses are just something that they have to work with. The bureaucratic norms of businesses are something that they just have to engage with to maneuver through society. And competition with others for the chance to secure the necessities of survival (plus a bunch of manufactured wants that have taken on a life of their own) is incentivized. Some people become brown-nosers and aggressive social climbers, some people internalize the values transmitted through markets against their own concrete interests, some people take to crime. All this is a matter of psychological incentives involved in markets and the consequences of basing societal needs on markets.

Since the incentives of capitalism are based around continual growth and the pursuit of profit, it has become a kind of machine that subsumes human values. The libertarian idea that the market is just *us* and our internally or autonomously determined values, manifest through trade, relies on isolating individuals as market actors devoid of real social context. The people who realistically are in control of the market have a notable affect on the setting of the framing for what is portrayed as valuable in popular culture. More broadly, the market has generated its own values that more or less tend to encourage and reward narcissism, dishonesty, and the drive to “win” at the expense of others. The market has its own culture, and it will not balk at appropriating any culture or value it comes across for the higher value of its economic self-actualization.

Much of the problem with libertarianism centers around the fact that it can’t square its lionization of markets with social and psychological reality, and that it therefore ends up disguising tyranny and social ill in an illusionary narrative about individual choice and personal freedom; whether conciously (libertarianism as snake-oil salesman for capitalism) or not (libertarianism as dupes for capitalism). It is an ideology that does not particularly recognize that economic forces as such can be a significant infringement on personal freedom, and that the nature of modern economic life determines and restricts choices. It is stuck in the trap of either crassly denying or even rationalizing the problems and nastiness involved in markets (vanilla and right libertarianism), or gaining conciousness of them only to default to denialist anti-statism anyway and continueing to promote ideological tenets that perpetuate/enable what they want to decry (left libertarianism).

Ultimately, I had to leave libertarianism because my experience of the world clashed dissonantly with its rhetoric about property and markets, and as I teased out the negative social consequences of taking those ideas to their conclusions. What started as horror at the overtly nasty underbelly of libertarian ideology (which is a big part of the impetus to left-libertarianism) eventually turned into a deconstruction of its basic tenets and common tropes (self-ownership, property rights, homesteading, the non-aggression principle, methodological individualism, and so on). When I look at it now, much of it is capitalist apologetics even when it isn’t trying to be, and much of what I wanted to separate myself from as a left-libertarian is perfectly compatible with that core ideology. The core ideology needs to be addressed at the root.

As some libertarians like to say: strike the root.

6 responses to “Libertarianism As Capitalist Mythos

  1. Julia June 27, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    “Technically, libertarians talk about “the free market” as something both presently existing and not truly existing at the same time – qua libertarian ideology it exists as a natural force within society insofar as this spontaneous economic activity goes on among humans or insofar as people choose to buy, sell, and trade things, but it doesn’t “truly exist” in its ideologically consistent form because of the state. This enables them to split hairs in discourse in ways that are convenient for preserving their ideology, because whenever anyone attacks modern capitalism they can claim that it’s not a “true free market”. At the same time, the libertarian can refer to contemporary phenomenon as evidence of the virtues of “the free market”. insofar as it superficially resembles a free choice or is thought of as part of the undercurrent of natural market activity that persists in spite of the state.”

    *cough* neo- *cough* platonism *cough*

    The tw00 free market has existed forever in the Heavens, ya statist!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dimitry June 27, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    Libertarians are just one of those groups of people that think if they repeat metaphysical explanations enough that it will materialize itself as historical and empirical fact. Truth be told they are often very ignorant of economic history and their close ties to various Austrian/Neoclassical schools of thought demonstrates this. They see market activity having the ability to head towards its “optimum” if unfettered and left alone. A lot of their assertions on a starting point or tendancy towards market equilibrium takes a barter type economy and tries to apply it to modern Capitalist economies (for example applying non monetary theories of interests to credit economies). What this means is that they are correct in saying that their true free market has never existed, but this actually shoots them in the foot. Unless they want to go back to barter relationships (a position they do not advocate) they will have to deal with the reality that the inefficiency of markets or any kinks they may come across is not simply an intervention issue (the state, taxes, the Fed, etc…). So even if they think free(d) markets are not an ends but a means that doesn’t really help their positoin because they start off with a bad analysis of historical markets.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Julia June 28, 2014 at 2:48 PM

      Not to mention, they rely on highly dubious examples of societies which allegedly held certain elements of the “free(d) market” society they envision without understanding how those societies actually functioned. Medieval Iceland is a good one: a society where most of the population were slaves and feudal lords gradually ate up more power was “anarcho-capitalist” because the courts were divorced from the police, or something. Charles Johnson loves to point to the free markets during the so-called “Islamic Golden Age” as proof that market actors, when working outside from the State, will create more mutual aid-based markets, yet we know that the conditions which produced these “mutual aid free markets” will probably never be repeated (such as the fact that the Arabs had the overwhelming monopoly on trade during that time); plus the Caliphate was also a feudal slave society run on religious law codes. In other words, neither example presents a good case for free market left-libertarianism.

      As well, the circumstances they dream up in order to put their ideology into practice seem either impossible or very undesirable. They tend to imagine a society where everyone lives in small towns that are spread far apart from each other without highways or other easy means of getting around (wouldn’t that in itself create de facto regional monopolies?), with each small town centered around a bazaar or farmers’ market where self-employed small producers and coops come to exchange goods and socialize. I really don’t see how this would be feasible by a long-shot. The heavily localized economy is not always a good thing, not just because of potential regional monopolies but because producing a diverse amount of goods in a single location makes it difficult to take advantage of a region’s specialty (good luck attempting to grow papayas and pineapples in the White Mountains!). And if you really want to 3D print a new bicycle but the only company which carries the raw materials needed is 100 miles away, yeaaah, you’re not making a new bike, especially when there’s no highways or mass transport (Carson often laments the existence of the highway system and enjoys blaming it for consumer society).

      Where I’m going with this is, the dream of a totally free market where everything is small-scale and local is impossible. I could point out another handful of things concerning this topic, but you get the idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brainpolice2 June 27, 2014 at 10:20 PM

    Very good description, Dimitry. You have a way of expounding on my points in your own words. Yes, libertarians shoot themselves in the foot by clinging to a concept of free markets that is a fantasy. There just is no such thing as the free market, and never will be, in the terms they describe. Their definitions for markets are ahistorical and rely on concepts that more aptly describe pre-capitalist societies – and they thus fall into the trap of approach modern phenomena from an analysis that is non-applicable.


  4. Pingback: Quotebag #108 | In defense of anagorism

  5. Federico June 30, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    My hypothesis is that, when push comes to shove, *all* libertarians are ultimately utilitarians: the outcome of market dynamics supposedly reflects a desirable or “natural” state of affairs. Never mind that this isn’t at all clear or that, time factoring in, the “balance” the market is supposed to achieve comes a too high a cost, when pressed about concerns such as power disparities among individuals they tend to deny their relevance. Curious, considering how they have the pretense of championing personal freedom.

    (By the way, this also shows that they’re not even *good* utilitarians).

    Liked by 1 person

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