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What's Wrong With Libertarianism, Part II


My piece on What’s Wrong With Libertarianism seems to have provoked a lot of discussion. I originally let the words of another website speak for me. Now I’ve got some time, so let me explain in my own words What’s Wrong with Libertarianism.

All I ask for is for rich and poor alike to pay their fair share of taxes. In the 1940’s, corporate taxation made up 35% of the federal tax revenue. Now it’s about 7%. In the 1950’s, CEO income was about 40x that of the average worker. Today it’s about 500x.

Now, certainly, producers and risk-takers deserve compensation. Their talents and hard work prove them to be useful to society, and deserve reward. But really, is the CEO of Pepsi twenty-thousand times more useful to society than a schoolteacher, fireman, policeman, or soldier?

Back to the fairness of taxation — do you really think corporations only benefit from 7% of the federal tax dollars spent?

Let’s look at it this way: if anyone has a right to complain about the unfairness of taxation, it is not the rich corporatist, but the poor or middle-class worker. We pay far more in taxes than we ever get back in services. I actually dream of the perfect libertarian society where everything is privately owned and people must pay for their own individual uses. It would be beautiful to watch rich people and corporations actually have to pay for the government they use.

For example, lots of my tax money goes toward running the Securities and Exchange Commission. I don’t own and trade stocks; what do I need that for? But the corporation’s entire existence depends on the SEC. There’s also a huge local, state, and federal court system. Yeah, I need that a little bit to make sure criminals get punished and I don’t get beaten or robbed. But the vast majority of lawsuits and court cases involve corporate interests that mean little or nothing to me. Do I really care whether Widget Corp. wins their copyright-infringement case against Gadget Inc.?

How much money goes into national defense? Sure, I need an Army to keep marauding hordes of invading Canucks out of my back yard, eh, but that’s a small percentage compared to the money spent on overseas military action. How much risk do we put on the fortunes of oil company CEOs if they don’t have an Army to guard those Middle East pipelines or a Navy to protect those oil tankers?

I understand there’s this entire interstate highway system that runs across the entire United States. Now, I only use a small stretch of I-84 about twice a year to visit Boise, and a stretch of I-5 to travel between Portland and Salem. But I understand the CEO of Walmart needs just about every mile of that highway system, every day to run thousands of trucks to get his products to the market.

Public education? Well, I don’t have any kids, so I can’t figure out why I’m paying for that. I did go to public school, but my cost for that has to have been paid up long ago by my parents’ taxes, I figure. However, doesn’t just about every corporation require an educated workforce in order to function? Is Phil Knight going to step up and start creating elementary, secondary, and college educational institutions that their future workers can attend for free?

FDIC? FSLIC? Yeah, right, like I have any significant money in the bank that needs insuring. But I’ll bet Bill Gates does.

Space exploration? Why do I need rocket technology, re-usable shuttles, and well-trained astronauts; it’s not like I’ve got a summer home on Titan or anything. But I’m pretty sure Rupert Murdoch needs all of that to keep his satellites in operational order.

Tax deductions for entertainment expenses? Yeah, maybe once a year I get to write off a $20 meal for work. But I’m guessing Mark Cuban gets to write off a whole lot more than that.

And in general, the more you have to lose, the more you have to pay to protect it. You pay more for car insurance when you drive a Lamborghini then when you drive a Pinto. What would I have to lose if the country were taken over in a Socialist revolution by violent disgruntled Americans sick of unemployment, poor health care, high crime, and inflation, who then nationalize healthcare, nationalize the oil industry, and mandate union membership? Nothing; in fact, it might make my life better. But the lifestyle of the CEOs of Pfizer, ChevronTexaco, and General Motors would be drastically altered. So it seems to me the taxation is the “society insurance” that provides the social services that keep the hoi polloi just barely gruntled enough put up with Donald Trump’s gold plated bathroom fixtures while homeless guys sleep on the steam grate outside the Trump Tower.

See, in that perfect, science-fiction libertarian society you speak of, the rich would actually have to start paying for those government services they use. And if a big corporation, oh, let’s pick on airlines and savings & loans, goes belly-up, they wouldn’t be getting back any bail-outs from us. (Why should I pay that? I don’t fly or use an S&L.;) Furthermore, we can forget about all the subsidies, protectionary tariffs, and grants the government gives to various industries, like big corporate farms, for one example.

Of course, don’t think for a second that Richie Rich will actually cough up the money for all of those things. He’ll just tack that operating expense to the price of his goods and services. Welcome to the world of $10 gas, $30 steaks, $1/20 mile roadways, $5000 airline flights, and a permanent caste system.

Now, I love science fiction as much as the next guy (and believe me, I comprehend Heinlein; I’m just able to separate fiction from reality), but it is not a good basis for a religion or economic system. If we could just see one historical example of working libertarianism — ONE! — maybe you could prove your point.

But we do have historical examples of capitalism unfettered by regulation and taxation — the American Gilded Age, modern Haiti, Pinochet’s Chile, post-Communist Russia — and those didn’t work out so well for society in general.

Now, to your moral imperative: How can I give a woman, black, or homosexual liberty for their actions and being, but deny Richie Rich the liberty of keeping all of his money because he has to pay his fair share of taxes? (The imperative feels very different when it’s framed like that, no?)

Because I don’t believe Richie Rich is really much of an aggrieved party. A woman forced to bear a child against her will; a black denied opportunity or advancement; a homosexual denied civil rights; these things seem much more serious to me than a guy who made $10,000,000 forced to bear the hardship of getting by on a paltry $5,000,000 and the indignity of only getting to pass on $2,500,000 to his never-have-to-work-a-day-in-their-lives kids when he dies.

Entrepreneurship and capitalism are wonderful, and they do deserve reward. That’s why successful businessmen get to live lives where they need not worry about where their next meal is coming from, how they’re going to afford college for their kids, where will they get the rest of the rent money, choosing between prescriptions or new clothes, or whether their only car will break down. That’s why they get to enjoy all-expenses-paid vacations in Jamaica, 20,000 square foot houses on both coasts, yachts & country clubs, trophy wives & girlfriends, caviar & lobster, and front-row seats at the Lakers’ games.

Your closing line sums it all up: “I want to be a human being who associates with those who wish to associate with me.” Well, you don’t get that luxury — nobody does. You’re a part of a society. That society includes lot
s of people you don’t want to associate with, but must — the illiterate single mom, the HIV-positive junkie, the man working two McJobs to feed his family, the homeless guy you ignore on your way to the office, the pregnant teenage girl, the illegal aliens you employ to keep labor costs down — you are not an island, Mr. Libertarian, and you need us and government far more than we need you.

You’ll deny that with some line about the importance of producers and creators of wealth and how the peons should all be grateful that the altruistic capitalist did them all a favor by creating corporations to provide them jobs and goods and services. I can’t argue with that — I like computers and cars and movies and my paycheck.

But your own philosophy tells me that if one capitalist can’t make the venture fly, another one will step up to take his place. Our far-from-libertarian society seems to be producing plenty of millionaires and billionaires, so what’s the complaint, that they aren’t millionaires and billionaires enough? And it seems to me the capitalist needs the workers — making and buying his goods and services — much more than the other way around. No man can become rich without leveraging the labor of others, but every man can survive through the brunt of his own labor, even if that’s just subsistence survival.

Another libertarian talking point is the “initiation of force” — that taxation is stealing from people at the barrel of a gun. Well, as shown above, the libertarian needs the government more than I do, and even the most die-hard libertarian will agree that we need some government, for police, courts, and military protection. That’s over 20% of the federal budget right there, so some taxes will have to be taken, even in mythical Libertaria, which means it’s okay by libertarians to point that gun and steal that money for at least basic government services. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, we’ve now determined what you are (in favor of initiation of force to steal citizen’s money for government), now we’re just haggling about the price.

The libertarian will also argue that in their science-fiction universe, anyone is free to compete and trade and leverage their skills, work, and talent to become rich. Absolutely — anyone can, but not everyone can. Some people will be born unskilled, untalented, handicapped, or just not very bright, or will become sick, injured, discriminated against, or suffer hardships and bad luck beyond their control. No matter how hard they work, they cannot win. Not everyone can be a winner in the capitalism game. So the question is: how good should the winners have it and how badly should the losers have it? As others have explained, in such a system, eventually the winners game the system to the point where only other winners can compete and losers have no shot. Eventually the best winners collude to prevent competition among themselves. Eventually the losers owe their soul to the company store.

Progressive taxation and limited capitalistic socialism is the only workable solution for a successful and vibrant democratic economy. It’s what we have had in place since the New Deal, and it took the United States from the failed, second-rate, Depression-era economy caused by laissez-faire capitalism of the robber barons to being the dominant world superpower with the greatest standard of living ever achieved in human history. Why would libertarians want to mess with success, just to implement a science-fiction philosophy that’s been shown to cause greater overall human misery, all because they feel that they are not quite rich enough? How many 17-foot home theaters do they need before they figure that even a lazy, shiftless, parasite on society (otherwise known as a “human”) deserves better than sleeping in the street, eating from the garbage, and suffering from easily treatable medical ailments?

OK, discuss. That’s all I have to say about that. Since the Libertarian Party has no chance in hell of winning any election that will effect me directly, and since the hard right-wing of the Bushites is going down faster than Paris Hilton in a night-vision home video, I really don’t worry about them very much.

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RadicalRuss1

RadicalRuss1