Miscomprehending Libertarianism


I came across a cartoon (above) entitled “if housepets were libertarians”. It is interesting because I would argue that it not only evidences the author’s misunderstanding of libertarianism, but also represents society in general’s miscomprehension of libertarian principles.

Let’s discuss the seemingly ungrateful and selfish dog. Clearly the implication is that those who advocate libertarianism are ungrateful for what government provides them with, they selfishly shirk their moral obligations because they are either mistaken or just bad people. Before we go any further let’s define what gratitude is. Gratitude is a feeling or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive. A benefit is defined as an advantage or profit gained from something. So, the implicit premise is that the results of government action are advantageous and profitable to individuals and therefore society as a whole. This premise leads to the conclusion on which the joke hinges, which is that people should be grateful for what government provides; and therefore those who aren’t are ungrateful and deserving of admonishment. So, if we can prove that government action and the results of it are not beneficial to society, that is if we can prove that the implicit premise which this first joke is founded on is false, then we can rightly dismiss the joke as being nonsensical. Well, we can.

Government action, in the form of control of the economy, results in the formation of incontestable monopolies on the provision of schools, roads, hospitals, infrastructure, energy, water, emergency services et al., funded by the coercive redistribution of wealth which is a process known as taxation. Government uses coercion (in the form of laws and regulation) to prevent anyone who wishes to supply these essential services from entering the markets to do so. Incontestable monopolies always have a negative effect on society because they prevent competition; and competition is essential to maximizing overall economic prosperity and raising the standard of living because the inexorable consequence of this economic force is that it drives the quality of goods and services up, and the cost down. Relative to free, competitive markets, incontestable government-sustained monopolies can only result in lower quality and higher costs in the long-run. Competition also results in the optimal allocation of resources in any given market because only those providers of goods and services who are best meeting their customers’ wants or needs remain in business. Only within the environment of a government-sustained incontestable monopoly can providers who aren’t best meeting their customers’ wants or needs remain in business. This is a misallocation of resources, which stunts economic growth.

To assert that because we use government-built roads, go to government-built schools and use government-built hospitals we are therefore obliged to be grateful to government is nonsensical because we have no choice but to use them; and we have no choice but to use them because government monopolises the provision of these resources. To say we should be grateful to government is the same logic as saying a kidnap victim should be grateful for the food and drink his kidnapper gave him. It’s absurd.

Obligations are either moral or economic/contractual. In the case of this joke, the assertion is that people have a moral obligation to be grateful to government. Morality, however, can only apply where there is choice – e.g. it cannot be immoral to shoot a man who is attempting to murder you because in order to save your own life you have no choice but to do so – and it’s a fact that we have no choice but to use government roads, schools and hospitals; and so the notion that we should be grateful for the ‘benefits’ that government provides us with is totally incorrect. It is not advantageous or profitable to society overall, or even economically sustainable, to have an institution that monopolises the provision of those resources and services which we may rightly deem ‘essential’ to the development of an advanced society. Whilst it is advantageous in the short-term to public sector workers who benefit from higher wages, job security and pensions, and to providers who are given government contracts, having certain groups benefit at the expense of everyone else is undesirable compared to all people benefiting from voluntary trade.

On to the second joke. In order for the analogy between the filter in the fish tank and government to be correct two premises are required to be true. One, that the filter in the fish tank is the essential ‘infrastructure’ required for the well-being of the aquarium’s inhabitants. This is, of course, true. All life in the fish tank would die without the filter and the oxygen it provides. And two, that without government an advanced society with developed infrastructure would not be possible, and therefore government is essential to society. The second premise is false because it misidentifies what government is, it essentially conflates government with society. Government is not infrastructure or society. Government is, as we’ve already established, an institution that has a monopoly on the provision of infrastructure, fundamentally because it has a monopoly on the use of coercion and violence. The absence of government would not make advanced society impossible, it would merely remove the violent authority that establishes monopolies on the provision of society’s ‘essentials’.

So, because this joke accepts as true the false premise that government is essential to the very existence and functioning of an advanced society, it inevitably draws the false conclusion that government is analogous to a filter in a fish tank. It isn’t, this is a totally false analogy, and so the joke is nonsensical. Government is not to society what oxygen is to a fish tank!

The third joke relies on the premise that not enough people would choose to help the impoverished people in society and that is why we need an institution with the power to coercively redistribute people’s money towards programs intended to help such people. In short, the majority of people are unwilling to help the poor and so they must be forced to, and this is why the welfare state is necessary and good. If the existence of the welfare state reflects the will of the majority to help the poor then this means the majority are willing to help the poor and therefore do not need to be forced to. If no force is required then government is a costly and entirely unnecessary ‘middle-man’ serving only to reduce the efficacy of our efforts to help the poor, and should be bypassed (this reasoning is supported by the manifest failure of any democratic welfare state to solve the problem of poverty). If, however, the existence of the welfare state does not reflect the will of the majority, then our justification for the existence of democracy is falsified. In other words democracy is not what we believe it to be, instead it is merely the minority in power imposing their will upon the majority through the use of force. Clearly, not desirable.

All three jokes are based on false premises and therefore are nonsensical. But, hey, when you’re more interested in attacking those who do not share your beliefs rather than arriving at the truth, it doesn’t matter one bit.

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