I'm Still Not a Libertarian
so I guess that means I'm opposed to personal freedom

by Paul Kienitz

If there is one political movement today that is so up-and-coming that it's downright trendy, it's Libertarianism.   It's become very popular in the high-tech industries, where there are a lot of people who have reaped great rewards from the operation of the free market, who are trained to an engineer's habit of reductionist problem-solving, and who tend to have less contact than the average person with the areas of human experience that don't fall within the scope of these things.  Libertarianism is tremendously in evidence in places where the high-tech subculture predominates, such as in public discussion on The Net, and in the computer industry in general.

It has now become a commonplace for corporate leaders in high-tech industries to use high-toned Libertarian rhetoric to make their case for freedom from "government intervention" -- though of course, just as in traditional industry, the desire to be free of regulation tends to be highly selective.  One of the types of government "intervention" that is most strongly protested is any law that holds them accountable to the public and to their own shareholders.  More than one attempt has been made to get laws passed granting them, in effect, special immunity from lawsuits.

But such hypocrisy is not the issue when deciding whether one is going to personally support Libertarianism.  I've had fairly extensive exposure to Libertarian beliefs and rhetoric by this time -- within the software industry, in online discussion, and elsewhere -- and believe I can say that I understand the philosophy and its arguments reasonably well.  And it has not been without influence on me: as I have matured my political attitudes has definitely moved in a direction with somewhat more emphasis on individual liberty and responsibility, and less on collective action.  On some issues such as gun control, I've shifted toward a more libertarian position.  Nevertheless, there is no way I can be an actual Libertarian, as that term is currently understood.  To me, there are many reasons to doubt that a Libertarian system is the smartest choice, and some basic fallacies underlying most arguments that doing everything according to Libertarian principles would make everything right.

The first fallacy is one I call the Fallacy of Revolution.  It can be found in any movement that seeks to radically revise the underpinnings of society, whether by abolishing money, imposing a theocracy, eliminating undesirable ethnic groups, repealing all law, organizing everyone's diet according to principles of macrobiotics, or whatever other secret of a perfect society any group comes up with.  In particular, it comes up in exactly equal form among communists seeking to eliminate private property and anarcho-libertarians trying to do the opposite.  The fallacy can be expressed more or less as follows:

By making these radical changes, we are removing the root cause of all the failures and evils of society as it presently stands.  This will eliminate all of the existing problems, and since we have no knowledge of what new problems might arise, we can assume there will be none.  Everything will work right, because there are no foreseeable things that can go wrong.
In other words, since we are removing the basis by which any problems already known to us can be predicted, there is no shortcoming of the new system that can be anticipated in advance.  Therefore it is within the margin of error that there might not be any at all -- that we will achieve the perfect society.  Once the possibility is apparent, someone who wants to believe in the system will find every argument to show that this is not just possible but inevitable.  Every counterargument that occurs to nonbelievers is met by either a tortuous chain of logic showing how people, once "freed" of money or godlessness or mongrelization or law enforcement or nonmacrobiotic misbalance of yin and yang, would spontaneously take care of the problem in the best way, or an assertion that the difficulty the nonbeliever raises is not really a problem and it's morally right that it should not be solved.  The advocate of the new system simply refuses to believe in anything going wrong with it.  The more radical the change from the old way, and the less we know from experience about how things would really work under the new rules, the more unshakable this belief is.  He can deal with any objections by dreaming up a simple answer that's plausible enough to satisfy himself, and then just promising everyone that it's sure to work.  Nobody can prove it won't.  (I have heard a Libertarian answer objections from a doubting friend with nothing more than "Trust me, it will all work out.")  This is why top-to-bottom revolutions can have a special appeal that evolutionary change does not: because it's easy to think that maybe all problems might be solved.

A corrolary of this fallacy is that if one believes that there is one big solution, you usually have to believe that there is only one big problem.  This means that once you have identified the bad guy, he gets blamed for everything.  The identified group or institution becomes a scapegoat, so that even problems that have nothing to do with it are laid at its door.  What communists, anti-communists, Nazis and other ethnic nationalists, religionists, fringe feminists, and revolutionaries of every kind all have in common is that they can name the source of society's ills in one or two words.  For anarchists and libertarians, the word is "government".

We can laugh now at the naive Communists of 90 years ago, with their vision of a world of peace and plenty brought about by centralized bureaucracy.  (For a particularly mind-boggling example, see the polemic novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.) The horror that came from the revolution they once viewed with starry-eyed rapture is blood-chilling to us now.  But the terms it was described in before the fact are eerily reminiscent of the way the Libertarians of today foresee a revolution in the opposite direction, abolishing public property instead of private property -- and without hindsight, each argument sounds about equally credible to the listeners of its time.

This is the first reason I do not support the present Libertarian movement: because it demands that I take so much on faith.  It is too clearly an article of faith that one must believe that certain untested actions will have beneficial outcomes.  Since the real world offers no evidence whatever to back up these expectations as certainties, but only offers the hope that it might happen if the path is cleared, any sensible person has to conclude that trying it might be quite a gamble.  But a true Libertarian, in my experience, can be depended on to insist that it's no gamble at all.

I am not going to gamble my future on a movement that bases so much of its hope on such blatant wishful thinking.  Especially when the fallback belief is that, should some hopes fail, it would only mean that such failure is therefore the right outcome and should be embraced.

The second fallacy is one that I personally refer to as the Libertarian Fallacy, since unlike the Revolutionary Fallacy it is specific to this branch of philosophy.  It is popular with several subtypes of conservatives and most anarchists, as well as with Libertarians.  It can be expressed as the idea that freedom is measured by absence of laws.  Another say of stating it is that only the government can restrict your rights.  (Some Libertarians strongly support this wording, saying that a law removes or restricts your rights, but a private entity can only infringe on your rights without changing them.)  To me, this is an artificial double standard, which labels a restraint on your freedom by one outfit in a completely different way than the same restraint by a different outfit, because one has the label of "government" and the other does not.  Indeed, much of the fabric of reasoning in Libertarianism is based on presuming that the government is uniquely unlike any other entity, and therefore must be judged by entirely different standards from how anything else is appraised.

To me, the question is how much power others have over you and how constrained your choice of actions is, not whether the constraint is by public action rather than private action.  In the viewpoint of those who hold this fallacy, what matters is how free you are on paper, not how free you are in what choices are actually open to you right now in real life.  According to this view, a destitute person with no public support is more free than one who gets some kind of pension or welfare, despite the fact that the latter is the one who can do many things that are closed off to the former.

I will refer to these two definitions of freedom as F1 and F2, the former being freedom on the books and the latter being freedom available in the concrete moment.  Now there can be plenty of good arguments for why F1 is somehow more essentially important than F2, but I am not going to go along with a movement that dismisses F2 from consideration.  The freedom that I most value day to day is F2 -- the practical opportunity to arrange my life the way I best like, not the theoretical opportunity to do things that some random legislator might want to outlaw someday.  Now F1 is indeed important, make no mistake; it is only by making sure of some guarantees in this area that we preserve our rights and make sure that F2 has a stable foundation.  It is the kind we like to fight for as an ideal, because we can speak of it in noble abstract terms and magnanimously promise that it will be equal for all.  No such idealization is possible for F2,  since it can never be equal in practice for different people.  It depends on things like how much money you have and how healthy you are.  So we tend to avoid confronting the question politically, and many conservatives argue that it should not be considered at all, since that's a slippery slope leading to socialistic intervention.  But in disregarding it for the sake of clarity and fairness, we can easily argue ourselves into a situation where by increasing "freedom" we curtail our opportunity in practice.

The Libertarian philosophy takes this to an extreme, sometimes arguing that even the most drastic loss of F2 is right and proper and not to be worried about for an instant if it comes about by increasing F1.  In this, Libertarians can readily fall back on the tried and true argument long used by capitalist conservatives of the old school:  namely that once you are free1, then whatever goes wrong for you in the area of F2 is axiomatically your own fault, and therefore it would be morally wrong to do anything but leave you to get yourself out of it however you can.

There are psychological reasons outside the scope of this discussion why our culture has often promoted an attitude of "blaming the victim", of finding reasons why anyone who suffers misfortune must have somehow brought it on themselves.  This attitude manifests in extreme cases as a magical belief that whatever happens to you is something that you "chose" unconsciously.  Politics aside, I find this behavior repugnant and consider it a symptom of emotional unhealth, a defense mechanism that soothes fears at the expense of other people.  When any political philosophy incorporates this attitude, that philosophy and I part company.  This is especially true when, as has often been the case with Republican-style conservatism, this blaming attitude is put in the service of class interests and racial and sexist biases.  The argument implies that the advantaged must have earned and created their advantage through merit, whereas the disadvantaged are in a worse position strictly because of their own inadequacy.  The hypocrisy of this self-serving sanctimoniosity is obvious enough, I hope, to require no elaboration here.

For anyone who believes in the principle I call the Libertarian Fallacy, it is difficult not to progress from there to some form of the it's-all-your-own-fault argument, and from there to a disregard for issues of unearned advantages held by a privileged class, race, or gender.  Indeed, most Libertarians regard issues of discrimination as too intangible to support in their envisioned court system, which is usually described as being based on very clear and concrete rights focused on property.  Since what I want for society is the best spread of opportunity as measured by the combination of F1 and F2, rather than by just one of them, and privilege issues greatly undercut F2 in ways that, despite smooth lies to the contrary, have nothing to do with what people have brought upon themselves, I conclude that the Libertarian agenda is not the one I want to support in this area.

When taken to an extreme, this fallacy would lead to the conclusion that the ideal system is no laws at all.  Libertarians do recognize that in order for people to be free in practice, there has to be some law to define and protect their individual rights.  This is an implicit recognition that less law does not always mean more freedom.  By granting a minimal recognition of this and giving it no further consideration, Libertarians have, in essence, tried to declare that the problem is solved simply because it is boxed in with no wiggle room.  This gives a very definite answer to such questions, but that doesn't mean it's the most realistic answer.  It's just the answer that is most satisfying to a mind that wants one simple set of rules to answer every question.

Speaking of logical extremes brings me to the third reason why I am not a Libertarian, which is not due to a fallacy of thought but simply because of the ideological absolutism the movement is so rife with.  Or maybe this is a fallacy... the utterly commonplace fallacy of believing that your own opinions and moral judgments must be right.  The movement attracts more than its share of absolutism, because it is based so much on axiomatic principles rather than on weighing different points of view.  A political absolutist -- someone who believes that it is right that you should get a particular political environment, whether you agree or not -- is simply not a person to be trusted, especially in large and ambitious groups.  One of the contradictions of Libertarianism, to me, is that it's based on leaving people as free as possible to create the way of life they want, yet it feels it must impose a system of Libertarian law on everybody, without regard to their own wishes.  According to Libertarian belief, this system is simply the only one that's morally permissible, all others being in some abstract sense a violation of everyone's rights.  Libertarians argue that I can be as communistic as I want in my own community, but this disregards the fact that my whole group would have no choice about living under laws based on the most rigid and extreme interpretation of property rights, in which if we go broke we're dead meat.  I will not go along with a movement that wants to dictate to non-members what the only allowable way to run a society is, no matter how well they argue that the other systems, not theirs, are the ones really doing the dictating.  (Libertarians excel at proving that everyone else is tyrannical.)

At least with what we've got we get to adjust it and change our minds, we get to incorporate a variety of differing philosophies, and make compromises back and forth.  A society built on true Libertarian principle allows little or no compromise on any matters of law, and settles all such questions by simple absolute principles decided in advance by a small group of ideological leaders.  We are then expected to live with the consequences as best we can, and if we happen to end up worse off than before, that doesn't matter; the important thing is not that we do what we feel works best for ourselves, but that we stick by the principles.  I am not going to support putting some random goober's opinion of moral principle ahead of the consequences for live flesh and blood people.  That's a form of "liberty" that, from one angle, looks suspiciously like theocracy.

Absolutism creates intolerance, of the sort that leads to violence.  Once you convince yourself that any other agenda is morally wrong and violates your rights, it's not that big a step to the conclusion that you have a right to use force on those trying to advance the opposing cause.  If you listen to some hardcore Libertarians talking about rights to self-defense and defense of property, and the incompatibility of those rights with such things as taxation for government actions outside the limited role they envision, you almost start wondering what reason they'd give for not having taken up arms.  Certainly the odious Objectivist branch of the Libertarian movement (the people who some Libertarians say are the ones making the rest of them look bad) are capable of embracing such arguments for violence, since similar ones are endorsed in their guru's novels.

True political absolutism, if it gains power, is dangerous in another way, because no system of dogma is ever going to handle everything that comes up.  The real world is bigger than the conception of it in our heads that we invent our rules from, and it always has ways to step outside of the pint-sized boxes we build for it.  This means that sooner or later every absolutist will be confronted with some piece of reality that fails to fit his beliefs.  When this happens, he can either deny reality, or alter his beliefs.  But the latter means ceasing to be absolutist, so to remain a True Believer will inevitably require, sooner or later, pretending that certain facts are not real.  Such instances of denial are not difficult for anyone to find in Libertarian discussion today.

For even more confusion, when absolutist beliefs move from the speech and the pamphlet to the legislatures and the courts, and try to cope with real life, they will inevitably run sooner or later into paradoxes, where the overly simplified principles end up working against their own supposed purposes.  When this happens, the choice comes down to either waffling on principle for the sake of having things work out reasonably in practice (which undermines the presumption of moral necessity behind the new system and invites any amount of further twiddling), or sticking by the rules regardless of the consequences, even though somebody gets fucked over.  The really dedicated man of principle will, of course, choose the latter.  But not with my support.

For one example of how a paradox can arise from Libertarian principles as they have been explained to me so far, consider whether a citizen has a right to travel.  I think most people would agree that to be held prisoner in one place is a violation probably second only to that of a physical attack on the body, more fundamental than a theft of property is.  (Our penal system reserves imprisonment for more drastic crimes than the ones it punishes by seizing property.)  I think this means that most of us would agree that the right to get up and go somewhere else is fundamental.  Now, Libertarians are all for repealing laws that restrict travel, such as immigration quotas.  But they also generally favor the privatization of all public roads, so that instead of being paid for by taxes, they would be paid by fees or subscriptions of those who use them.  For roads to work on a private basis without taxes, it is of course necessary that the property rights of road owners should not be watered down; any requirement that a road owner has to allow travel by everyone greatly undermines both the financial attractiveness of road maintenance and the true elimination of centralized government coercion.  So the person who owns the road outside your front door has every right to refuse to allow you to step onto it, if you don't have the toll fee or if he just doesn't like your kind of person.  And it isn't just outside your front door, but wherever you go; you can hardly take a step in any direction unless you first ensure that you have an invitation or permission of the person controlling the land under your feet.  We already have laws enough that make it a crime for a destitute person to lie down and sleep.  Now the proposal is to make it a crime also for them to stand up and walk around, putting a hike along the shoulder of the road on the same footing with a hike through your back yard.

Libertarianism and other schemes involving maximum privatization are a completely untried experiment in seeing how human beings could get along with no public space.  There has never been a society, to the best of my knowledge, that has found any way to live as a community without some kind of common public space.  I would predict that the need for it is so great that eventually something must give way: either we would have some landowners throwing up their hands and ceding their holdings to free public use just because somebody's got to do it, or people will get so uncomfortable with restrictions that there would be civil disobedience of private property laws in areas that people had the strongest public-land feeling about.  I don't think people can really manage without some amount of public space, especially not if they take the right of travel seriously.

It might well be that some public-minded landowners would contribute their land to be free public space, but then the cost of this falls on just one person.  There's a tremendous incentive to hold back and wait for someone else to blink first.  How many other amenities that we take for granted would be hard to find if each one required that some individual chooses to sacrifice the profit he could make?

The agenda for privatizing all the roads is not only an instance of discarding people's freedom2 in the name of freedom1, it is also an example of the kind of paradox that always finds a way to crop up when people try to address a wide range of topics with a simple absolutist set of rules.  In this case, the headlong pursuit of F1 in one area ends up not just impeding F2 in practice, but in fact violating another basic right just as fundamental as the one that the effort was made for the sake of.  It doesn't just sacrifice F2 to F1, but F1 to F1, since the law on the books would state that you are not permitted to travel from your home or wherever without someone's permission.

Another paradox arises when you take the right to bear arms to an absolutist extreme.  According to Libertarian thought, citizens are not truly free from the threat of tyranny until they are privately armed at a level that can match the government.  These days, that doesn't just mean machine guns and grenades, it means fighter jets and nuclear missiles.  With any lesser armament, a tyranny can always end the fight in its favor, so if you truly don't compromise, you can't stop short of this.  When nobody has the right to blow your entire city to Hell but everybody has the right to be ready to do so (if they can afford it), and your only recourse if somebody decides to let fly is to either hire a private anti-missile battalion and pray, or just sue the attacker after you're dead... what you've got isn't freedom, it's a reign of terror.  A cold war on every block?  Once is enough, include me out.  At least when weapons of mass destruction are handled through a democratic government, you can hold them accountable, limit their construction, and put rules on their use before people get slaughtered.  Though a government monopoly on hydrogen bombs is hardly to the liking of those uncomfortable with the power it gives to the evil State, it's probably the reason we're still alive.  There is no man less free than a dead guy.

There is one way around these kinds of paradoxes: people have to be willing to compromise on hard-and-fast rules of dogma, and cease treating them as moral absolutes.  In the case of guns, for instance, we must recognize that somewhere there is a cutoff level beyond which it is suicide to have most of society decide one way, and a minority decide the other way.  We made it through the cold war alive because we had the capacity to make one decision about whether to launch or not to launch, without fearing (much) that some faction would decide otherwise and take matters into its own hands.  We can argue later about how bad a weapon should be before we either ban it or restrict it to collective use instead of individual use, but first we had better acknowledge that some division point must exist.  Until the Libertarian movement recognizes the need to permit and practice such compromises, and qualifies their morally righteous stance with some admission that the rules they propose will need to be made less pure and exacting in practice, I cannot support them.

Speaking of privatization brings up my fourth disagreement with Libertarianism, which is the focus on private property as the central individual right.  This disagreement especially applies to ownership of land, where every legally earned title traces back eventually to simple theft if you follow the history far enough.  I have nothing against the right to keep what you've produced with your own labor or traded for with your labor, but it's hard to apply that reasoning to land, and not much easier to apply to "labor" that consists of grabbing natural resources.  In any case I hardly consider that right to be of the same core primacy as the right to not being bodily violated, or the right not to be coerced by force or threats into doing what you don't want to do.  Some Libertarian thinkers elevate property rights so high that they subsume all other rights under it, defining one's bodily rights on the basis that your body is your property.  If it is, of course, then you can sell it, and the most antiliberty practice of all, slavery, is legal.  I would hope Libertarians at some point clarify better to what degree their system would permit or forbid the "voluntary" signing away of basic rights by contract.

I'm not convinced that ownership is so fundamental.  I rather think that it is essentially an artificial right -- at bottom, an ad-hoc legal creation that has been found to be useful in preserving various other rights and freedoms that are less easily defined, like the right to make a bed and not find someone else sleeping in it.  The most basic rights, such as the right not to be maimed, are based on what is necessary for human survival and well-being.  Property rights have no such direct foundation; their justification is indirect and secondary.  The system that defines one's body as one's property has only one redeeming feature: it makes everything simple.  Apparently this is a big part of its appeal.

To me, making property rights the whole story is as silly as if we were to make, say, the right to privacy the most important thing in law.  Privacy is a real right, to be sure, yet if the law said that we could only prosecute crimes committed in public, or only recover stolen property if the thief happens to bring it out in the open, we'd catch on pretty soon that there are one or two things in the world more important than avoiding intrusion into privacy.

There are far too many examples in history in which vigorous enforcement of property rights has become a primary tool of violating people's other rights.  The history of slavery is the most blatant example, but even if you outlaw overt slavery, there are many examples of ways in which economic advantages have been leveraged, through uncompromising enforcement of property rights, into various forms of pseudo-slavery.  (Even if techniques such as perpetual debt are not used, people today have forgotten the literal truth the term "wage slavery" once had.  When chattel slavery was abolished in the USA, many industrialists were not slow to learn that just by maintaining a large enough local labor surplus, they could actually get more work at less cost than the plantation owners did, when the alternative was to starve.)  Many Libertarians today endorse the view that slavery is a perfectly reasonable thing for a creditor to inflict on a debtor.  The whole fundamental principle of Libertarianism is supposed to be that nobody is allowed to initiate coercion on anyone else, but if you owe money then you are considered to have initiated coercion by not paying, and you lose your rights -- in the view of those who see the body as your property, you lose every right.  There is nothing the creditor can't do to you as a way of trying to make you pay him back.  The Libertarian Party's sacred principle of non-initiation of coercion wears pretty thin when you listen to some Libertarians list all the conditions that they would consider to be initiation of coercion against them, morally permitting them to respond with force.  If a person is belligerent and prone to rationalizing, there's not much he can't  justify to himself with Libertarian logic.  All he has to do is, like any schoolyard bully, whine "But he started it!"

Many critics of Libertarianism have noted that the concept of "initiation of force" gets defined in very unexpected ways sometimes, to make their other ideas consistent with it.  For example: the Libertarian Party opposes all legislation against ethnic discrimination, on the grounds that it violates one's right of free association and the right not to engage in a contract when you don't wish to... and this means that if a business puts up two drinking fountains labeled "white" and "colored" and a nonwhite person drinks from the white drinking fountain, the drinker has "initiated force" against the owner of the fountain.

Historically, the elevation of property rights has always been most strongly advocated by, and of course most to the advantage of, those who already had all the property.  When there is unrest at differences in privilege, that's when you'll hear the most urgently sanctimonious declarations from the upper strata about how much we all need to revere property rights.  But when a movement among have-nots embraces and advocates the values most promoted by the haves, that is when the existing social order is least threatened and real change becomes least likely.  I would probably be a lot more sympathetic to Libertarianism if its view of fundamental rights was not so tied to ownership.  I would love to see someone develop a branch of liberty-based thought that is less tied to such agendas as privatization, and less a stooge for the interests of the existing advantaged class (which knows very well how to use Libertarian ideals as a stick to beat down their reformist opponents with).

Both communism and anarcholibertarian capitalism have tried to answer the question of how to deal with property rights by picking an extreme and declaring that there is no need for compromise, one giving personal property zero credence and the other giving it infinite credence.  Neither seems willing to acknowledge any validity in the middle ground, despite the fact that every human society has existed somewhere in that middle and every attempt to hold it to one end has been a failure, sometimes a very destructive one.  I don't think a society in which property is everything, and everything is property, is one that real flesh and blood people can live in.  Every society has had to temper ownership with commonality, and vice versa.

In their day, Communists were famous for being so absolutist that rival sects with only minor differences could be declared to be no different from their worst enemies.  To (say) a Stalinist, a rival Trotskyist might be no better than a Nazi, just as in the golden age of Protestantism it was easy for (say) a Baptist to believe that the Congregationalists were all going to burn.  Nowadays it's among Libertarians that you hear statements such as "Reagan was just another liberal" or "Democrats and Fascists are basically the same thing".  (I keep noticing these parallels, as if Libertarianism is just a sort of Communism turned inside out, that are of course completely invisible to anyone inside either camp...)  To their credit, though, it does have to be admitted that Libertarians are glad to accept partial measures and small steps in the desired direction, and don't demand all or nothing the way Communists have often done.

Given that Communism doesn't seem to work nowadays as an alternative to private ownership, we should wonder why the idea has so much appeal, generation after generation.  What makes so many people wish it could be more successfully applied?  I think the answer is that the ideal of communal living mirrors the way most of our ancestors lived before industry, and especially before agriculture.  The fundamental way of human life, for most of the time our species has existed, was to live in village-sized bands, sometimes nomadic, in which most work was essentially communal and individuals generally had private ownership of little more than their clothes and some tools, which were continually replaced as they wore out.  In present-day cultures that still live this way, a constant interchange of gifts is often a central part of both relations within a group and relations between neighboring groups.  The process of evolution that made us what we are today took place mostly in this setting.  It is shaped to fit our fundamental instincts, and our fundamental insticts have been shaped in turn to fit this way of life.  This, I believe, is why when modern people get a chance to live a more communal way of life in which money is of minimal importance, they often become strongly attached to it.  And it's why those who have gone from modern cultures to live among people whose cultures still follow a communal village-based model so often end up reporting that these people seem fundamentally happier than we are.  A communal life feels better than a market-driven life.

Endless numbers of modern thinkers and observers and writers have discussed, from endless different viewpoints, the common observation that the mood of the typical citizen of the modern industrial market economy has an undertone of constant angst and discontent that can't be put into words.  For generations, the observant among us have consistently been noticing that most of us are, at bottom, not happy living this way.  Those who defend the modern social system often don't deny this, but instead try to ennoble discontent, characterizing it as the divine wellspring of our greatness, the force that pushes us to expand and achieve.  But how much expanding and achieving do most people get to accomplish?  Some conclude that we are discontented because the market wants us that way; it keeps us ready to buy tons of crap that they tell us will make us happier.  But maybe the real reason for our common discontent is that having one's life controlled by money is simply not a decent way to live, or at least one that is a bad fit for our basic nature.

Besides arguing privatization on moral grounds, many Libertarians make an economic argument, and all too often they use a whopper which I call the Taxation Fallacy, which even a nine year old ought to know better than.  The Taxation Fallacy counts how much wealth is taken away by taxation, but ignores the amount that comes back from it -- it treats money that is taxed as if it simply disappears, rather than being moved around.  By using this fallacy, some respected Libertarians argue that the amount of wealth the typical person can reap would increase by a ratio of eight to one if taxation were eliminated, and nearly that much if it were reduced to the levels they advocate.  The fact that many real countries, including ours at some times, have enjoyed low levels of taxation without any such fantastic prosperity arising is explained away by pointing to the growth of industry and technology, which was not advanced enough in those other cases to produce the wealth that would supposedly come about today without the burden of government.  But this gaffe is not the foundation of Libertarian economic arguments; it is simply an indication of how uncritically eager some followers can be to believe in the free market.

I have my doubts as to whether we would prosper better under an economy managed on pure laissez-faire principles, as Libertarians and other free-market fans insist we would.  As I look back over the history of modern economies, I am struck by a fact which I don't think I've ever really heard anyone point out: the times and cultures that enjoyed the most envy-inspiring prosperity, the greatest freedom from want, the most smug levels of well-to-do-ness in the broad population (barring a few that had windfalls from some natural resource they got hold of by luck), all came about under governmental systems that applied some pretty substantial progressive taxation to the citizens with the highest income.  And when we look at situations where there was no such taxation and something closer to laissez-faire operation existed, we constantly find ourselves reading a story of a pyramid-shaped society with a small group of rich aristocrats or plutocrats and a large supply of poverty.  Which is exactly the direction our present culture has moved back towards since the Reagan upper-bracket tax cuts of the early 1980s, and then inched away from again with the Clinton upper-bracket tax boost of the early 1990s.  Even the most conservative and marketarian of economists will rarely be heard to admit a belief that a wide separation between rich and poor is a good thing in itself... they usually go along with more liberal folks in saying that yes, naturally a broad and prosperous middle class is the best thing for all in the long run, and just claim that somehow the market gets all the credit when this happens, and government gets the blame when it doesn't, despite the historical correlation so often running in the opposite direction.

Now I don't know what will happen under a Libertarian pure market economy, but my best guess is that it will sport the same misfeatures that we have seen in the past at times of little government power over money: more separation between rich and poor, less broad circulation of wealth (and all the secondary aspects of prosperity that go with it, such as good education) and therefore a lower median standard of living, even if the mean income keeps rising; a rebirth of economic systems of semi-slavery based on rent or debt or rights signed away by contract; and a flowering of monopolies, as a consequence of all the little ways that an existing advantage can be used to leverage a bigger advantage.  (Maybe when the Libertarian revolution takes over, they will relocate their capital to Seattle, home of such paragons of fair and open competition as Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks.)  When education and other things that support opportunity become more stratified, I believe we will see a sharper and solider set of class boundaries develop, such that it may still be possible for a low-born person to raise himself by his bootstraps to be the equal of the well-off, but it will take him five times as much work and smarts as it will take the young generation of the already advantaged.  We have enough Bushes and Quayles rising to positions of power and influence without ability or hard work already.

Any loss of prosperity among the broad majority will reduce the creation of new wealth.  The economy of the mid eighties showed this in action: speculative investments boomed, while productive ones stagnated, as money flowed from the many to the few.  And current history is also warning us that when control of land is concentrated in few hands, we can expect ecological abuses to be more extreme.

As increasing technology enables ever greater amplification of abilities, the separation between those who start out with abundant resources and those who don't, in terms of what they can then get out of the market, is likely to widen further.  In some sense we are definitely making it more possible to, in essence, buy ability itself for cash.  We are already going to be facing a crisis of division due to those with a head start being increasingly hard to catch, to the point where it may someday literally divide us into more than one species, some enhanced by science and the rest left behind...  The least we can do is to not egregiously widen the gap ahead of time if we can help it.  This is why I oppose such measures as fully privatizing education -- along with, of course, concern over the abuses of miseducation that occur when children are treated as parents' chattels, to be fed exclusively whatever lies and dogma the parents want to restrict them to.  The Libertarians I've heard from so far have unfortunately tended to sound a lot more interested in parents' rights than in children's.  The former are so much easier to cast in terms of noninterference... or in terms of property.

Libertarians and conservatives like to remind us ad nauseam that nobody has a right to free food or medical care or other amenities, but one group does have exactly those rights.  Children do.  This is why failure to care for one's children is a criminal offense.  And as much as they need food and other care, children also need to learn. How much Libertarian, or conservative, dogma suddenly looks shaky and off balance if you admit that perhaps, up to some certain age, education is a right?

I am further suspicious of Libertarian predictions for how prosperous a truly free1 market will be because these expectations are based on a number of ad hoc presumptions that are expected to be taken on faith.  The most blatant is probably the one that says that the market will always find the efficient way to do something, whereas government will always do a worse job, riddled with waste and misdirection and inefficiency and pointlessness.  This is so strongly believed that it is used as an axiom to reason from, rather than as a conclusion to reason toward.  But despite the big collection of anecdotes and legends that are used to bolster this idea, there is not really much evidence to speak of that this is true in a dependable general way, and plenty of counterexamples to the presumption that government action will always fuck things up.  For instance, despite some attempts and various glowing promises about how it might work if really tried, it looks to me like nobody has yet found any way of putting together a decent city transportation network without some form of government management.  The same goes for several other aspects of urban infrastructure, like water and sewers.

Speaking of sewers brings up the issue of public health.  The greatest single step forward in improving general health in our civilization's history was probably not the invention of vaccines or even the discovery of microbes, but the construction of underground sewers in the cities.  London before 1800 was a good example of how waste disposal was handled when government stayed out of it and it was left up to individuals: it wasn't handled.  One of the big reasons that going off to colonize areas outside Europe was so popular was that the European cities were such hellholes of disease and filth that even starving among hostile savages could be an improvement.  Once the American colonies started to thrive, the average American-born colonist was three inches taller than the average Englishman -- that's how much better health was in unspoiled country.  England didn't catch up until public health was dealt with as a serious public issue, by the government.  Vaccination is another area where government involvement yields greater benefits than the market does: when immunization is a matter of who decides they can afford it, the disease remains a threat to every generation.  When vaccines are made fully available to all, diseases can be made a thing of the past, and the total long-term cost is much lower.

A little discussion of this question on a more international scope tends to reveal that this received wisdom about the inevitable ineptitude of government is hardly a universally recognized law; rather, it is a peculiarly American cultural attitude, hardly found in most other industrialized nations that have roughly similar experience with problems of governance.  It is more a product of anti-statist ideology than a cause of it.  The loathing and distrust that many disaffected citizens here direct so strongly and exclusively toward government, particularly toward the federal government in Washington, are not just the natural reaction of governed citizens: they arise from particular conflicts.  For example, they are popular among Mormons because Mormons were persecuted by that government.  But most especially, they arose in the American South after the Civil War, when the federal government committed its most egregious confiscation of property by force ever, taking away everyone's slaves.  Such an outrage against property rights was so unforgivable that a great many have never gotten over it.  The jury-built philosophy of self-justification for slave ownership that led to the Civil War still lives on, and remains a central strain of thought in such areas as the anti-government militia movement.  Though such an indirect connection is of course no grounds for judging modern Libertarian ideas, it can be interesting to remember sometimes, while listening to them, the ancestral debt that many modern lines of property-oriented anti-statist thought owe to such groups as the Ku Klux Klan.

Some other ad hoc articles of faith that crop up in various Libertarian arguments are: besides the burden of taxes, government regulation also saps a huge amount of economic vitality that could otherwise explode in unprecedented wealth; low taxes will allow everyone to prosper so well that it will more or less eliminate poverty (the one promise that every utopian scheme has in common); the reason the family is "breaking down" is because the government has intruded itself as a surrogate family member (the things that some ideologues say about families make me wonder if they've ever lived in one); abuse of government power constitutes an environment of "chaos" and therefore the worst case predictions of what would go wrong without government are only what we've got already (this one is used by anarchists, so I call it the Anarchist Fallacy); the reason people do things that are crazy and mean and destructive is because current law does not properly model and reinforce personal responsibility; and that anyone who opposes libertarian ideals is some kind of closet fascist whose true agenda is to run other people's lives.  What all of these arguments have in common is that they are almost never found in persons not already invested in an anti-government ideology.  They are not derived from trying to find meaning in real-world data, but from reasoning backward from preexisting beliefs that government must be wrong.  And far too many Libertarians appear to be holding these beliefs as absolute, with all the consequences of absolutism discussed above.

Unconditional praise for the market also ignores some very real problems with how the market functions, such as how it reacts to any "tragedy of the commons"  situation -- a category that includes many of the difficult ecological situations we are finding it so hard to deal with effectively.  (A "tragedy of the commons", briefly, can be defined as any situation where there is money to be made by using up what's left of some natural resource before the other guy grabs it.  What happens is that the resource is rapidly exhausted and everybody loses.)  In this area it is not at all rare to come upon problems where the only thing that saves the situation is government intervention in direct opposition to what the market tries to do.  On one level, the "tragedy of the commons" problem becomes another argument for privatization, for the elimination of publicly shared resources.  Privatization does solve the problem, when it can be applied.  But there are some things that can't be privatized.  Think of ocean fisheries -- as I write this, species after species is being overfished to the point of becoming completely unproductive as a food source, because every increase in scarcity makes the remaining supply more lucrative.  This is a present day textbook example of a tragedy of the commons.  If each fish had a designated owner, this would not happen, because the majority of fishers would preserve their private supply... but there is no way to do that.  The ocean can't be privatized, the air can't be privatized, major rivers can't be privatized, the ozone layer can't be privatized.  Each of these things gets misused and overused when the opportunities to profit by abuse are individual but the consequences are collective and diffuse.  Some Libertarians handle this by simple denial, believing that with enough technology and "imagination" we'll find ways to privatize everything, even the air.  All I can say is that the burden of proof is on them.  And even if it can be done... where is the moral right to designate an owner for something previously unowned?  That reduces the law to a dispenser of arbitrary privilege.

As far as we know, the only thing that protects such collective resources is conservation law.  Protection based on class-action suits by affected citizens cannot do the full job, in my opinion, because only a fraction of the overall damage can be defined that way, and only the worst cases are going to be worth any one citizen's time in getting involved in a court battle.  Class action suits would stop some of the most egregious abuses, but would tend to leave the low-level chronic ones unchecked, and do nothing about simple overuse.  Or alternatively, a Libertarian system could make laws declaring any pollution to be a fundamental violation of rights (which it is), but given the black-and-white way that Libertarian conceptions of rights operate, this would make it quite difficult to have any modern industry at all.  I think we can dismiss the idea that this will ever happen.  If we regard the right of property as fundamental only for products of labor and not for land, and put some limits on privatization, then we may solve the problem of public space but we worsen the problem of the market abusing shared resources.  Either way, there is no answer that clears everything up within the market.  The market is simply not equipped to do the job.

Some Libertarians use the problems of common resources as a criticism of public or government ownership, though that is not the same thing.  They say that misuse and wastage arise inevitably in these cases.  But the record is often otherwise.  Look at the national forests, for instance: when compared to corporate tree-growing land, the public lands stand out by the fact that they still have forest on them.  Capitalists have often tried to criticize the wastage of government-run forestry, but they do so on the basis of how "inefficient" it is at producing lumber -- the "waste" they see is that the public lands have not been cleaned out and turned into pine farms.

And while it is true that eliminating common resources through privatization does remove one incentive to impoverish your fellow citizens, there is a flip side to the same issue.  When individual benefits impose collective costs, you get a tragedy of the commons and an argument for privatization.  But what about when individual costs have collective benefits?  As mentioned above in the discussion of roads and public space, treating all property as totally private then creates a situation where everybody's incentive is to wait for somebody else to be charitable.  When somebody finally breaks down and sacrifices their profit for the common good, they end up carrying an excessive share of the collective burden, and you can expect the total contribution to be paltry in proportion to the need.  This creates resentments on all sides.  Sometimes a common resource is the easiest and most cost effective way to meet a social need.  Even Libertarians have to recognize one collective need that needs collective support: a law system that protects people's rights.  Libertarians mostly recognize that they cannot entirely eliminate taxation, since such a system is not likely to be supportable by voluntary donations, at least not without being corrupted by conflicts of interest.  This shows how great the need is for some form of collective resources: society is forced to collectivize a share of what is private.

Even in more mundane areas of the economy, when ecological issues aren't a big concern, the market is rife with endless situations in which, by supposedly responding to the sum of everybody's wants, it produces results that nobody wanted.  The market supports and rewards every kind of action in which benefits are short-term and negative consequences are long-term, or in which rewards are personal and negative effects are diffused over many people.  Often our way of dealing with various blightful manifestations of market forces, such as billboards and liquor stores and golden arches, is that they are banned outright in wealthy communities but are spread profusely over poorer communities.

One area where this difficulty shows up is in the unavoidable conflict between the value of preventing harmful situations beforehand, and the liberty to take the risk of doing harm and be held accountable for it after the fact.  Libertarians generally oppose regulations that try to mandate safety before the fact, arguing that holding people responsible after harm is done is sufficient deterrent.  But the market always financially rewards, in the short term, the one who cuts corners and risks other people's safety, up until the accident happens.  A long-term deterrent is always being opposed by short-term competitive pressure, which means that unnecessary risks are never prevented to the degree they are with some amount of before-hand regulation, and deaths and maimings that could often be avoided at minimal cost continue to crop up.  The Libertarian commitment to the maximum possible freedom before anything goes wrong creates, in my opinion, a blind spot:  it leads to denying the notion that to put someone at risk without their consent, whether anything goes wrong on a given occasion or not, violates their rights.  I think most of us agree that it is a violation of rights to play Russian Roulette with someone else's head, even if the bullet doesn't fire.  So I believe that regulation of safety matters has to be a matter of balance, not of considering the right to sue afterwards a "sufficient legal remedy" for harm done, as Libertarians commonly do.  The latter view resembles the worst kind of Old Testament conservatism which sees punishment as the solution to every ill.  This does not mean that safety regulation necessarily has to be done by the State; a privatized version might well be workable, but Libertarians have instead tried to argue that we must rely only on deterrence.

Another difficulty I have with marketarian faith is summed up by this quote from James Gleick's Chaos, describing the impact of the mathematics of chaos on the science of ecology:

      Robert MacArthur, the dean of the field in the fifties and sixties... built a conception of nature that gave a firm footing to the idea of natural balance.  His models supposed that equilibriums would exist and that populations of plants and animals would remain close to them.  To MacArthur, balance in nature had what could almost be called a moral quality -- states of equilibrium in his models entailed the most efficient use of food resources, the least waste.  Nature, if left alone, would be good.
      Two decades later, MacArthur's last student found himself realizing that ecology based on a sense of equilibrium seems doomed to fail.  The traditional models are betrayed by their linear bias.  Nature is more complicated.
The analogy to the morals drawn in economics is nearly exact: in a phrase, "The market, if left alone, would be good."  Adam Smith knew that the natural equilibrium between supply and demand would yield the most efficient economic use of resources, and reasoned that government interference could only push prices artificially high or push prices artificially low, both generally making things worse in the long run.  We can, of course, name exceptions: cases where some good or service has a hidden cost (e.g. alcoholic drinks), or indirect benefits (like pesticide-free foods), that makes a penalty or an incentive pay off in that particular case.  Most of the time, though, Smith's theory has proven valid... as far as it went.  But what nobody understood then -- though in hindsight it seems as though it should be obvious to anyone who observes an economy in action -- is that in many areas, the natural state of the economy is not equilibrium.  When factors controlling prices are dependable and slow moving, equilibrium is stable.  In more volatile areas, prices may oscillate back and forth, and resist being stabilized, just as in nature some fast-breeding species periodically outgrow their food supply and undergo mass starvation, to the cost of every species they're connected to in the food chain, as well as themselves.  With a little more volatility, prices become chaotic in the mathematical sense, fluctuating rapidly and unpredictably with no cyclical pattern, driven into self-amplifying randomness by, in part, people's attempts to guess what's coming.  In the worst cases, prices can be caught in runaway positive feedback, leading to bubbles or crashes that appear from nowhere and leave devastation behind them.  And in areas that are chaotic, such as stock exchanges or commodities futures, their instability affects everything else.

These conditions are not aberrations; they are an unavoidable aspect of unregulated market economies.  But just because such instability is natural for the system does not mean it's a good thing.  It guarantees wastage, deprivation, insecurity, and everything else the Smithian ideal of laissez-faire equilibrium is supposed to prevent.  Market cycles, boom-and-bust episodes, alternating shortages and gluts, and the other features of an economy that resists equilibrium cost all of us plenty, leaving us poorer and less secure, as well as diverting a whole class of citizens into nonproductive roles that feed off of the fluctuations.  The government's role is not just to push prices higher or push them lower, but to damp down instabilities.  Few Americans have any clear idea of how much we now benefit every day from a market in which prices are artificially more stable than they would be without interference.  The most vital case is farm prices -- our present system of abundant agricultural production is completely dependent on artificial price stabilization, just to enable farmers to stay in business without going bust every five years, due to the combination of highly variable supply with extremely inelastic demand.  The relative absence of the kinds of crashes and panics that plagued the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is also something we owe to this kind of stabilization.

Then there is the modern market economy's need to make sure that useful work never quite stretches to include everybody; there always has to be a cushion of about four percent of the workforce looking for jobs, or the economy becomes "overheated".  As time passes and things become more complex, the bar of entry is continually raised.  The demands made on the average citizen to be permitted to participate fully become slowly but relentlessly more strenuous, and it becomes less and less avoidable that part of the citizenry becomes economically marginalized.  And when we do have work, we often end up working a good deal harder than is really necessary now for us to take decent care of ourselves.  The natural amount of work that a preagricultural person, or many wild animals, put into providing for themselves is only about half of what we consider a basic work week nowadays.  When we look at the things we end up doing, and putting up with, for the sake of money, many have wondered:  is the market serving us, or are we serving it?

To most sane persons, there is nothing particularly shocking about the idea that sometimes one answer doesn't solve every possible problem, but America, especially among its more conservative citizens, is rife with fundamentalist believers in the market, raised on the myth of the Invisible Hand, who seem unable to credit that it can ever really do anything wrong.  Such marketarian fundamentalists are, of course, readily drawn to Libertarianism.  Until the movement's philosophy is willing to solidly grasp the fact that the Invisible Hand really is capable of doing things completely against everyone's interest sometimes, and that there are times when we need to actively resist it in order to avoid self-destruction, any failures in its laissez-faire solutions will be left uncorrected and dealt with only by denial.  That puts a serious crimp in the system's usability for real life.

And indeed, what is the policing of property rights but a direct resistance to the rawest form of pure market forces: the incentive to steal?  To me, to say that laws against stealing are a natural part of the system, but laws against despoiling common resources are an intrusive interference, is doublethink.  The rules of the market are artificial however you construct them.  The more cynical critics of Libertarianism have a lot of justification when they say that what Libertarians really advocate, far from being an absence of intrusive government force, is the unlimited use of government force to intrude in the particular ways that they approve of -- namely, to make sure that nothing ever takes precedence over the property rights of whoever has title to the resources you depend on.

A side note: as a character calling himself Jimmy Hoffa Bush once pointed out in a classic anti-Libertarian flame, one should perhaps be a mite suspicious of the economic prowess of people who talk big about how great people will do in a really free market but have noticeably little success to show in the market we've got now.  The Libertarian party is famous for its paucity of rich members, compared to the two main parties.  One just might suspect that the Libertarian party has a lot of folks who think they ought to be able to do well, but can't, and the intervention of government is their excuse.  Meanwhile the real capitalists go out and make money no matter what the system of law is.  "The difference between a libertarian and a hard-core capitalist is the capitalist doesn't bother whining."  The old cliche "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" never had a more perfect application than in the case of the Libertarian Party.  Liberal-leaning people who first hear Libertarian ideology are prone to react with repugnance because this sounds like the kind of person who is going to go out and ruthlessly exploit others.  The truth, I suspect, is sadder: the Libertarian is not the exploiter, but the one exploited, who has been snookered into glorifying his own exploitation.  Those who are on top of the heap in this society do not want to be Libertarians and do not want a true Libertarian system brought about...  but they do want us to believe Libertarian rhetoric.

To me one of the saddest things about American conservatism is how those whose traditionalism is based on morals and religious values have been hornswoggled into believing that defending capitalism is part of their agenda.  For the religious right, it would make far more sense to see religious and capitalistic values as being completely opposed to each other.  After all, Jesus had a lot to say about accumulating wealth, and none of it was positive.  Many of the behavioral traits that moral traditionalists wring their hands over -- selfishness, irresponsibility, unwillingness to delay gratification, rejection of spirituality, and materialism in all senses of the word -- are exactly those nurtured by a market-driven culture.  It's mind-boggling to realize that so many have been convinced that more capitalism could be the cure.

Even without a moral compass derived from religion, don't we all experience, deep inside where it counts, the awareness that values which come from the heart constantly conflict with the values that follow money?  It's so true it's a cliche, yet how many of us examine what that means when we consider the rules and systems and values that dominate our lives in modern society?

Every culture defines itself, in part, by creating its own definition of what "human being" means, and by drawing distinctions between the kind of man a proper good citizen of this culture is, and the less fortunate creatures that crop up in other cultures.  Differing values, and differing opinions on rules for Right Living, allow cultures to set themselves apart, unify their people, and tell themselves that they are somehow nobler than those whose values are otherwise.  And each culture, especially in its more nationalistic and ethnocentric moods, paints a picture of the Ideal Human which is adjusted to fit their preferred values.  Every culture has its own "myth", an idealized story of how it came to be and how it is going to progress, and part of that myth is a mythological hero who embodies the traits that the good citizen is supposed to manifest.

Human beings are full of many traits, or potential traits, that can go in opposite directions.  For instance, human beings have a great capacity for tenderness, and also a great capacity for viciousness.  Some like to believe that one is true and genuine and the other is a distortion, an illusion, or something imposed from outside.  But both are equally genuine as a part of human nature.  The same is true of a great many other dichotomies, such as greed vs. charity, honor vs. trickery, discipline vs. hedonism, and individualism vs. collectivism.  Since a culture is not going to get far if it tries to make up imaginary aspects of human nature and then live by them, what generally happens is that one side of the normal range of traits gets exaggerated and made much of, and the other side gets downplayed and disparaged, or denied and disbelieved.  For instance, in a warlike culture the traits that make one an effective fighter get encouraged and lionized, and traits that lead people in the opposite direction, such as squeamishness or reverence for life, are reviled as weaknesses.  And the same can happen in the opposite direction in a society that abhors violence.  At its most extreme, each tries to make half of human nature into a whole, but never succeeds because the other half is always there, and so it condemns itself to a perpetual struggle against its own life force.  Any culture that rejects the full range of human nature finds itself plagued by an ineradicable Enemy Within.

American culture has a myth too, and it's a very strong and definite one.  The American national myth is about individualism, self-reliance, hard-working enterprise, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the can-do attitude, independence in every sense of the term, and the Invisible Hand of the free market rewarding the good and punishing the wicked.  Our culture is the product of our ancestors, and our ancestors were generally those who decided to abandon the communities they had roots in to go chase opportunity.  The American myth incorporates the Capitalist myth, though the latter is hardly American property.  American culture's version of the ideal man is one who embodies all the traits related to initiative and ambition and self-reliance in exaggerated degree, and in whom traits of cooperation, community-mindedness, and interdependence are toned down and understated.  Even caring for one's family is muted, despite how much we like to tell each other that the family is our first priority.

For those who embrace the American mythology in its more extreme forms, even voluntary private charity, let alone anything resembling government welfare, is suspect and to be discouraged, since it undermines the independent spirit and is presumed to weaken people.  (The Objectivists take this to an extreme, disparaging all altruism and denying that true compassion exists.)  But that other side of us won't go away just because we try to ignore or shame it.  Small wonder that people seeking alternatives, looking for another choice besides the way of life that's fed to them, usually head in the direction of a more cooperative and community-oriented lifestyle than the standard one.  And small wonder that such experiments are often viewed with irrational alarm by those invested in the status quo, as if Satan were loose in these clusters of recalcitrantly uncapitalistic citizens.  (There are still states that have on the books "anti-commune laws" designed to stamp out the threat of people forming cooperative households.)  The fact is, people need interdependencies, we need to be able to count on each other and lean on each other sometimes instead of being fully self-reliant.  By trying to live up to artificial standards of self-sufficiency, we only end up inflicting pointless punishment on ourselves.  We need balance -- we cannot live by only one side or the other; many have tried, and it never works.

Many health studies have verified a causative link between social interconnection and physical health:  those who live in relative separation from other people sicken and die a good deal easier than those who are tightly woven into social networks do.  Indeed, when the effect was first quantified, the groups which stood out as having the strongest health benefits were members of conservative, dogmatic religions -- populations which might be fairly described as among the least individualistic in America.  Interconnection is so important for life expectancy, particularly for recovery from illness, that even owning a dog can make a significant difference.   In times of health difficulty, the kind of hyperindividualism that is often glorified in the American myth can quite literally cost you your life.

The progress of a culture often consists of alternating periods in which a self-righteous mainstream or dominant class tries to pull everyone more in the direction of the national myth, followed by a necessary backlash in which part of the populace rebels and brings back some opposing values, thereby allowing people to regain some common sense balance between the extremes.  In the USA one canonical specimen of this is the contrast between the 1950s and the 1960s.  The reason there was a rebellious upheaval was, at bottom, because the enforcers of the status quo were trying to get everyone to live in a way that far too many people, especially women, found unlivable because it denied their humanity.  The lesson of these cycles is that any attempt to inflate one half of human nature and reject the opposite half is doomed to fail eventually.

Libertarianism, as its agenda is currently formulated in the USA, is a philosophy that seems to have swallowed our national myth whole,  adopting the entire mess uncritically and basing all its plans for how society will work on the myth's assumptions about people. The same goes for any other philosophy that elevates the free market above all else.  The articles of faith that underlie the standard Libertarian predictions of how the world will work under their system are largely derived from the capitalist myth, and share all its imbalances in how it understands and defines human nature.  It is my belief that as long as Libertarian philosophy ties itself so closely to idealizing capitalism, or makes itself too absolutist in any other way, an attempt to get people to live by purely Libertarian principles will find itself fighting against aspects of human nature that it doesn't want to acknowledge, and if it doesn't compromise it will fail because it tries to make people only half human.