Freethinkers and Libertarianism (Book Excerpt from Fighting Back the Right)

With the candidates of both major parties carrying high negatives this election year, the Libertarian Party is enjoying more attention than usual. Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both two-term governors, give Libertarians a presidential ticket with credentials, and many disaffected voters feel that the third party deserves a serious look. Thus, a critique of libertarianism is very much in order. In Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, I spend a few pages providing just such a critique, in the context of considering how the United States should strive for rational, human-centered public policy. If America is on the verge of major change, and many believe it is, we need to seriously consider what role, if any, libertarian thinking should play. Below is an excerpt from Fighting Back the Right addressing that issue. It is very lightly edited for clarity and context.  

Freethinkers and Libertarianism

At first glance libertarianism, with its minimalist approach to government, seems consistent with the freethinking inclination to question authority. Freethinkers question authority, and few institutions are more synonymous with authority than government. For this reason I often say, only half jokingly, that every intelligent young person should go through a libertarian stage. When young people ponder their individual autonomy in relation to the power of the state, it’s only natural that libertarian ideas would have an allure. But as we’ll see, it seems just as predictable that most rational minds eventually will realize that the virtual elimination of government is hardly the best answer to the challenges of modernity.

In fact, libertarianism applied to social issues—under a guiding principle that government shouldn’t regulate personal behavior that harms no third party—poses few core philosophical problems for most progressives and freethinkers. Reasonable minds may of course have different opinions on issues such as, say, legalizing recreational drugs or prostitution, but many progressives and freethinkers are sympathetic to the general libertarian view that private behavior should not be dictated by the government. For many, this sympathy still won’t translate to support for a Wild West legalization and deregulation of such activities, but it will at least indicate a general open-mindedness on such issues. And importantly, it will also repudiate the fear-based “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” appeals that so commonly emanate from conservatives, underlining that most social issues have numerous levels of complexity that require more serious consideration.

The good-and-evil rhetoric of the Right on social issues tends to drive away progressives and social libertarians alike, and it’s noteworthy that the simplistic nature of the moralistic appeals reflects the anti-intellectualism upon which the modern conservative movement so often relies. Note also that such rhetoric plays both to the conservative religious base (by portraying many issues as the righteous against the evildoers and advocating harsh punishment for the bad guys) and to anti-egalitarian sensibilities (by inevitably targeting the poor and minorities as the most likely to receive the government’s “tough on crime” wrath).

Economic libertarianism, meanwhile, is another matter altogether. Here we have an ideology that, especially in the form advocated by major think tanks and other high-profile proponents, would dismantle government while empowering corporate interests at the expense of ordinary people. Under this banner and the “free markets” rhetoric that accompanies it, major institutional interests—that is, corporate interests—have cynically seized control of the American system in recent decades, enriching themselves while making a mockery of both the democratic process and the small-government philosophy that they claim to espouse. So while economic libertarianism has never been, and will never be, actually applied in the real world, the theory itself provides invaluable legitimacy to anti-egalitarian interests. Corporations seeking to avoid regulation use libertarian theory to support their position, as do politicians demanding tax cuts for the rich and opposing social safety nets, whether it be food stamps, unemployment insurance, or Social Security. So it’s no surprise that major donations flow from the corporate sector to libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute (with a budget of over $22 million) and the American Enterprise Institute ($38 million) to promote ideas and policies that validate stripping government of its regulatory powers over major corporations.

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It is predictable, though nonetheless troubling, that vocal libertarian sympathizers tend to be rich white men. “I don’t believe in safety nets,” declared John Elway, the retired NFL quarterback who now runs football operations for the Denver Broncos. “I believe we’re given the opportunity to succeed or not succeed. . . . My philosophy is when given the opportunity to go take advantage of that.” Of course, not everyone is “given the opportunity”—genetically or otherwise—of earning millions of dollars for playing professional sports, but this doesn’t seem to concern Elway. Such a statement, coming from a strong, rich, exceptionally talented white guy—a man who enjoys much more privilege than most people could ever imagine—reeks of audacity, but to that we also can add a smidge of hypocrisy: Elway voiced no objections when taxpayers doled out $300 million to build his football team a new stadium. That’s quite a safety net.

In fact, there’s a good deal of hypocrisy in the reliance of American conservatives on libertarian arguments to justify tax cuts and business deregulation. Economic libertarianism, after all, is supposed to be much more than just low taxes and deregulation; its raison d’être is the downsizing of government. This, however, would interfere with the enormous government contracts that so many corporations enjoy, so it’s not a serious goal that conservatives actually seek. Libertarian advocates in Washington, funded by large corporate interests, are quite effective at promoting lower taxes and the deregulation of corporate activity, but meanwhile the overall size of government continues to swell. Even under supposedly “conservative” administrations, the money flowing into and out of government—almost always to major corporations, especially in the defense establishment—is staggering, as we will see.

Not surprisingly, the antigovernment rhetoric that naturally accompanies libertarian philosophy resonates when it is directed at populist issues such as lowering taxes. In recent years the top marginal federal income tax rate has been around 35 percent, and conservative lawmakers go ballistic at the suggestion of even modest increases. Historically, however, such rates are extremely low, and in fact top tax brackets were around 50 percent during the Reagan years, even higher (70 percent to 90 percent) throughout America’s prosperous decades following the Second World War. Nevertheless, despite historically low rates, great political pressure forces many contemporary politicians to sign a “taxpayer protection pledge” promising to oppose any tax increases for individuals or business. Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, explained the political leverage in a CNN interview: “The American taxpayers are a powerful force. They don’t want their taxes raised. Obama and the Democrats have a fight with the American people, not with me.” . . .

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Interestingly, while most progressives and freethinkers are not economic libertarians, they share some of the broader frustrations of libertarians. Whereas libertarians tend to see big government as the problem, the critically thinking progressive sees a more nuanced situation. Aspects of government are indeed worthy of harsh appraisal—it is too big, often too wasteful and inefficient, reflects wrong priorities, and so on—but that is largely due to special interests, particularly corporate interests, that have undue influence. In the next chapter we take a closer look at those interests, and we see how they’ve obstructed the progressive agenda. . . .

Nonhuman People

“Power to the people!” was once a rallying cry for those who sought direct political action. Popularized by John Lennon through a song by the same name, it was a call for real participatory democracy, a declaration that the will of the people cannot be crushed by any governmental institution.

Unfortunately, however, it’s an inadequate prescription for our current ills, because “people” are already in control. The problem is that those “people” are not human—they’re corporations. That is, in today’s America, corporations are people. And thanks to the success of the conservative movement, unrestrained corporate interests maintain a tight control over the American system, at the expense of actual human beings and real democracy. Thus, as odd as it sounds, progressives and others interested in human-centered public policy must determine how to seize control of the system from corporate people and effectively give it to real people, or humans.

The issue of corporate personhood vaulted to the front pages in 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, holding that certain political spending restrictions aimed at corporations violated First Amendment free speech protections. In fact, however, the problem of corporate personhood goes back to the nineteenth century, when the nature of corporations began to change radically, evolving from extremely rare and highly regulated legal entities to a common and largely unregulated business model. The Citizens United decision is just the latest chapter in the long saga of these large institutional interests overtaking the interests of flesh-and-blood Americans. This historical context helps us understand not only how corporations came to be so excessively powerful in America, but why they should be restrained.

Before embarking on that discussion, however, it must be noted that the issue of corporatism alone should refute any argument for economic libertarianism. Corporations, of course, do not exist in a state of nature, as they can be created and maintained only via government action. Statutes, passed by the government, allow for the creation of corporations, and anyone wishing to form one must fill out the necessary government paperwork and utilize the apparatus of the state in numerous ways. Thus, the corporate entity is by definition a government-created obstruction to the free marketplace, so the entire concept should be appalling to libertarians, who loathe any government activity beyond the bare-bones necessities. A true libertarian would instead advocate for enterprise via traditional common-law means, mainly proprietorships and partnerships, but you don’t see Gary Johnson, Rand Paul or their brethren touting this path. Instead, their ideology would unleash corporate power in a fully deregulated environment.

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Contrary to popular understanding, the notion of a corporation being a person is in fact inherent in the corporate concept. The word “corporation” derives etymologically from the same roots as the word “corpse” (meaning “body”), and the corporate entity has always been understood legally as a fictitious body, or person. In eighteenth-century England and its American colonies—and also in the early decades of the United States—corporations were extremely rare, because special permission from the crown or the legislature was needed to create one. (One could not, as one can today, choose to set up a corporation by simply filing paperwork with a government office.)

What Kind of People?

If corporations are people, they’re not the kind of people you’d want to take home to meet your parents. Imagine a person who is totally self-absorbed, greedy, phony, amoral at best and downright immoral at worst. And if that’s not bad enough, corporate “people” are also rich, immune from physical injury, and, for all practical purposes, immortal. . .

Most of us understand that corporations often act against the interests of the general public, but few understand why. Corporate wrongdoing, whether criminal or just immoral, usually is not an accident of judgment by corporate officers or agents, but is necessitated by the very nature of corporate management and governance. . . [N]o real “person” with the psychological profile of a corporation would be considered stable or healthy. Those managing a corporation are duty-bound to shareholders to earn maximum profit, and this fiduciary responsibility cannot be hindered by pesky concerns such as the health or safety of employees or the general public—unless the law requires it. If there were not laws protecting workers or consumers from corporate wrongdoing, you can rest assured that corporations would run roughshod over them, except to the extent that sales and profits were affected. In fact, this was the reality of nineteenth-century capitalism before the rise of progressive reforms. . .

Moreover, the nature of corporate action, where bureaucracy dictates that most of the actors are far removed from the actual harm that might occur as a result of their decisions, increases the likelihood of egregious conduct. This explains why a tobacco executive, who might admonish his own teenager for smoking, would nevertheless be part of a decision-making process that would aggressively market his company’s product to other children if the law allowed. Recall the infamous case of the Ford Pinto, where in the 1970s the automaker did a cost-benefit analysis and decided not to remedy a defective gas tank design because doing so would be more expensive than simply allowing the inevitable deaths and injuries to occur and then paying the anticipated settlements.

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The Need for Institutions

As each of us wakes up each morning in our warm home, turns on the lights, makes a stop at the indoor bathroom, goes to the kitchen to get a cup of imported coffee, and unplugs our smartphone from the charger to check for messages, we have already enjoyed numerous benefits of modern, advanced civilization—technologies that would not have been available even to royalty in previous generations. In those first five minutes of the waking day, we have already interacted, directly or indirectly, with more outside institutional entities than most of our ancestors would have in a lifetime. The chains of supply that bring us all of the comforts and conveniences of modern living are incredible: providers of electricity, heating, and water and sewer; the manufacturers of the furniture, phones, and countless other products that we utilize, along with the wholesalers, transporters, and retailers of those products; the phone service company and various communications firms providing messaging and social media; and the various companies involved in importing the coffee from overseas and producing and delivering the other foodstuffs that we consume.

As we go about our day, we constantly interact with the complex web of modern technological society, and we tend to take much of it for granted. If we give it even a passing thought, however, it becomes obvious that such a society would be impossible without institutions to deliver the technology. Most of us don’t even change the oil in our cars anymore, as our busy lives require us to block out twenty minutes at a local quick lube to do that (probably a corporate-owned chain). For better or worse, we all are dependent on an immensely sophisticated infrastructure just to trudge through our daily routine. And there’s no way around it: This infrastructure requires institutions. Except for the most determined recluses, the days of the lone wolf, of old-fashioned rugged individualism, are over.

If modern living necessitates institutions, the suggestion that a healthy public sector is not needed to regulate the immensely powerful corporate sector—to suggest that such governmental activity amounts to “socialism,” as some conservatives would argue—is either stunningly ignorant or diabolically deceptive. The existence of such alarmist cries only points to the need for sober thinkers—who are wise enough to question concentrated power in all forms, not just governmental—to engage politically. Simplistic answers, such as the broad-brushed claim from the Right that “big government” is the source of society’s ills, need rational rebuttal. The only sector benefiting from such rhetoric is the one that has been raking in profits for decades while ordinary Americans have struggled: the anti-egalitarian interests of the corporate elite.

Corporate dominance, or at least the degree of corporate dominance that we see in America today, has been made possible politically by the rise of the Religious Right, which has paved the way for anti-egalitarian policy to proliferate. Knowing that, we can see why the emergence of an organized, focused secular-progressive movement would stand as such a formidable opponent to both the Religious Right and the anti-egalitarian interests that have grown so powerful. Rational thinking, independent thinking, and an attitude of questioning all authority is precisely what has been lacking in America and precisely what freethinkers and progressives can deliver. As we’ll see in the next chapter, the last three-plus decades are an example of what can happen in a modern society when freethinkers and progressives are suppressed.

Continued in Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

See book for footnotes.