Libertarian to Liberal

Mike Bast

Part of the "Critiques of Libertarianism" site.

Last updated 10/25/07.

I used to be a libertarian, for about 15 years or so, now I consider myself a liberal. Why did I decide libertarianism was wrong for me?

First, I've always been the type of person who questions everything. For a long time, libertarianism seemed right to be, but even then, some of the things I was asked to accept as "right" didn't seem to be. Some things were simply assertions (taxes ARE theft, government IS evil) with no nuance and no ability to see that the real world is more complex than theory often accepts. Other things seemed less than complete, especially ideas on why the Great Depression happened. Noticing things like this made me begin to question more and more.

Next, I am an atheist. Now, many libertarians are also, so that isn't the issue. What is is the amount of libertarian rhetoric that maps almost exactly to christian evangelism. I've actually taken an article on a libertarian site on capitalism, replaced the word capitalism with "christ", and then (with minor editing for consistency) had friends read it. They couldn't tell it wasn't originally written for religious purposes. I don't like the idea that so many people in a movement seem to think their system has all the answers. It blinds you to seeing things outside the system. It's part of my problem when people begin to repeat the "free-market solves all" mantra. It's simply not true. It is the best system we've created, but it's still a human creation.

Another problem I had was that of lack of historical knowledge. Not only in myself, but in the movement in general. People would make claims about historical events, and then I'd find out later they were simply wrong. One example is that the west was settled with railroads built entirely at the expense of capitalists. To find out later how much public money had gone into it was embarassing. The same with computers, originally funded by the military, though touted as the ultimate free-market area of the economy.

Another historical problem was the attempts to say that changing one historical event "would" give libertarian-friendly results. The problem with this is that there is simply no way to know. Events happened as they did, there is no way to even guess how any factor would affect anything.

Libertarians often fall back on "morality" when they can't use data to support their theories, and I find that disturbing. Given a movement made up of so many different people, to assume all use the same language for morality is just wrong. Claiming that even if you can't prove something, it's immoral is simply not thinking to my mind. To use specialized forms of words in common conversation in an attempt to equivocate your way through an argument is deceptive, and I don't want anything to do with it. This is often done in conjunction with "moral" claims. To claim that "taxes are theft" in the same way that being mugged is is ridiculous, but I heard it all the time, and even said it.

Probably the biggest provocation to change is the realization of just how selfish most libertarians are. They've already gotten all the benefits of their station and country. Having been born into wealth, they see no need to share it with others, even though they didn't earn it. They didn't build this country, they didn't design the laws, build the roads, or anything else. But, they then feel free to declare the "playing field" level, and that all should follow their rules. And, this just seems wrong to me.

The last thing I might mention is the idea of rights. Libertarians talk about "natural rights" as the source of much of their theory. The problem is that natural rights are a religious idea, and that idea simply can't be sustained without god. I've seen people try (claiming natural rights flow from "human nature", as if human nature is that clearly defined) and it just doesn't work. It falls back, as do many things, on the "we have special knowledge" idea that so many libertarians seem to have, that they know things that others don't and that that is why their ideas are rejected. Others are afraid of the truth. Since I didn't accept the idea of natural rights without god, I must be one of "them". If I were a real libertarian, I'd understand.

I still value a lot of the ideas of libertarianism, but I simply no longer believe that it has many answers for the real world. Liberalism has a track record, with actual real-world accomplishments. This seems to me to be the best way of making the world better.

"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you. "
-Pericles, statesman (430 BCE)

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