Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A note on extreme libertarianism

This post is a comment on extreme libertarianism. We encounter it quite often lately on the internet. Extreme libertarians are people who hate government so much that they want to get government of of their lives as much they can. They want it out of public spending, out of 'taxing and spending',out of the money supply, out of regulation. There's a group out there who believe that the best societal order can be achieved by giving maximum liberty to individuals, and respecting property rights over human rights(other people's).

But I fail to see how these people's ideal of a progressive, highly productive society can be achieved by reducing government to the extent that they advocate. Sure, our current crop of government bureaucrats and politicians leave much to be desired, but the the solution to a failure of government is a change of government authorities, not a scaleback of government.

To illustrate my skepticism on the effectiveness of a severely restricted government, I list some highlights from history.

1. Fall of the Roman Empire

The fall of the Roman empire would be a good illustration of what happens when a strong central government, one that dictates the mores and regulations of all facets of the peoples' daily lives, suddenly vanishes. This did not lead to a libertarian paradise composed of men equally predisposed to chase his own individual wealth and success while respecting natural law and other people's rights. No, its fall left a large void that was soon filled by strong regional warlords and potentates, each conquering and defending its territory via a constant readiness to go to war. Those not strong enough to become warlords, or to comprise their immediate circle of vassals and knights, became peasants. Just about everybody in the ensuing new order became indentured servants and slaves of the warlords, in exchange for their protection and patrimony. Liberty did not flourish. The concept of citizenship was all but forgotten, and replaced with a feudal system where those who found themselves born to the peasant class have no chance of ever moving up in society.

The same thing can happen if government gets out of the way completely, and let the free market run the economy as it deems. There will be increased competition, yes. But if you think this will be the sort of gentleman's competition usually seen in a regulated economy, you obviously have never found yourself in the thick of the fight to the death nature of unfettered capitalism.

2. The wild west US frontier

Many extreme libertarians seem to romanticize the conditions found during the 1800's, the time of the Wild West frontier in the US. During that time, there was a mad rush to settle unclaimed lands, and the greatest rewards went to those pioneers who worked hard and braved whatever dangers and difficulties came with settling and taming a wild frontier. A kind of comon understanding was reached to respect each person's settled property, but the land can only be
settled once. Once newcomers found that the most fertile land had already been settled by firstcomers, you 'll find that in the remotest regions not easily accessed by government authorities, you had to be able to defend yourself and your property with a gun. Everybody coming later had to work as servants and virtual employes of those pioneers who can now extort rents on their landholdings from those who would work to till the land.

Similarly, in a market unfettered by prudent regulation, there will initially be a land rush by the earliest and the fiercest, followed by a lack of opportunity for those who come later, as these people find natural monopolies have effectively developed, and erected high barriers to entry to any upcoming wannabe competitors.

3. First Nations people

In my opinion, among the only true people to have achieved a libertarian ideal were the First Nations people. They lived in a world devoid of concepts of property, therefore, they did not know of debt, and the indenture it can put on a borrower. They respected the limits of nature, and never consumed more than was necessary. They did not find the need to maximize 'utility' or profit, and therefore, never found the need to corner a bigger chunk of the pasture or to fish as many as they can without regard for tomorrow. In their society, there was no 'tragedy of the commons' and therefore their chiefs found no compelling need to regulate or enforce individual tribesmen's behavior. They lived like this for generations. Look what happened to them when early European settlers came and claimed all the unclaimed land.

Similarly, just because well-meaning libertarians may choose to pursue their individual liberties without impinging on the rights and liberties of others, it doesn't mean that no one with greater greed will come along at some point and shake things up. Without government to enforce justice and order, where does this leave them?

If you go back to posts up until the beginning of this blog, you will find that I am no central planning advocate. Far from it, I recognize that the best innovation that leads to economic progress usually come from the 'creative destruction' spearheaded by entrepreneurs. But to create the environment necessary for market and social stability that creates a business environment conducive for investment, there should be a strong government, albeit one that doesn't act as a vassal of entrenched interests.


NM Patriot said...

"...the the solution to a failure of government is a change of government authorities, not a scaleback of government."

I'm sorry but as soon as you said that I knew we were not on the same planet.

Rogue Economist said...

NM, you're right. I'm from planet governance. It's about a billion light years away from planet chaos.

Over here, when we don't like what government is doing, we do what we can to effect a regime change. We don't say 'to heck with it, I'm my own government now'.

Anonymous said...

Actually, an adherence to the precepts and principles outlined in our Founding Documents would be a wonderful place to return to. In fact, it's a wonderful document for the ages - past, present and future.


Because, if our Founding Fathers understood anything, they understood that while time, tools and processes change, People Do Not. In other words, the same virtues and vices we had 2000 years ago exist today. Chiefly among them, the desire for men to rule over their fellow man.

We had Control Freaks back then in the form of the Crown and its dutiful henchmen stationed here, just as we have today in our semi-authoritarian bureaucratic state of affairs.

Control Freaks never change. They may suggest that 'if we just do it right this time', that normalcy can return and we'll all 'get along' just fine.


Rogue Economist said...

A, but this is completely my point. If people are free to do what they want, we will soon have control freaks impinging on other people's rights. There will be no accountability for these control freaks if there is no countervailing force against what they do. Hence it would be a race among everybody on who gets the overall control first so no one can else can take it.

Think of traffic in a busy highway. People will travel as fast as they can and cut other people, without regard to the danger to other people, for as long as they get to their destination sooner. A countervailing force so people don't do this all the time is the threat of getting caught and getting a ticket.

w said...

You missed the primary reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire, Mr Rogue...

It was moral and social decay, coupled with ongoing political intrigue and the corruption of the ruling elites, which resulted in political instability ...

Rogue Economist said...

Yes, that, and an inability to control a sprawling empire. But that wasn't the point and focus of the post. The point was what happened after the central government fell.