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What America Would Look Like if Libertarians Got Their Way

What if you cut all benefits? What if all of public life were a giant competition? What libertarianism would look like in real life.

These four libertarian/conservative dystopias are offered, as Rod Serling used to say in “The Twilight Zone,” “for your consideration.”

The “Libertarian/Conservative”

I’ve qualified my previous writings on libertarianism with disclaimers explaining that I’m addressing a specific, popular subset of libertarian thought. But I’ve still run afoul of dozens of people who say, “I’m a libertarian and I don’t think those things.” I’ve still received comments like those from David Brin, who correctly notes that I’m not addressing libertarians like Friedrich Hayek in my criticism.

True. But Hayek ain’t in the saddle these days. Ayn Rand is leading the posse, to the extent any intellectual figure is. But I’ll put my disclaimer upfront this time: I acknowledge that, as libertarian-friendly writer John Danaher puts it, “’libertarianism’ has come to denote a broad, often fractious, group of political theories.”

I suppose it’s only fitting that a philosophy celebrating competing markets would, to a certain extent, be a set of competing markets itself.

But it seems even clearer that a “libertarian” in today’s political environment is almost always someone who ascribes to certain core philosophies: He abhors government, hates taxation, and is hostile to collective action on behalf of the less fortunate. Name any prominent modern libertarian—Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, Peter Thiel, Rand Paul—and they are likely to fit this description.

These figures represent a singular and increasingly dominant libertarian vision. To avoid future confusion, I’ll give their brand of thought an admittedly imperfect name: “libertarian/conservative.” It is that vision, and their future, which I address here—and it’s a frightening future.

1. What if you cut all benefits?

You’ve heard it from Sen. Rand Paul and other conservatives this winter: unemployment benefits increase unemployment. It’s an enormously destructive idea, though absurd on its face. It’s like the argument that hospitals create sick people; after all, there are so many of them there.

We usually consider such thinking “primitive” in modern societies.

Yet that’s exactly what libertarian/conservatives are arguing when they say that unemployment benefits increased or extend unemployment. There is no credible evidence to suggest that this is true. There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that unemployment is caused by other factors, including poor consumer demand and lack of business confidence.

Right now there are nearly three job seekers for every job opening. That means there are no jobs available for two out of the three. They will not “go out and find work” once their unemployment benefits stop. They will simply plunge into deeper economic misery. They will become like accident victims who are denied hospital care because it would “foster an attitude of dependency.”

But, as absurd and unkind as this thinking is, there’s something even more frightening about it: This kind of thinking never ends. If you believe that unemployment benefits cause unemployment, you’ll cut those benefits off. That could throw millions of people onto the welfare rolls. But if you believe that welfare causes dependency, you’ll cut those benefits off, too. That will leave people utterly dependent on programs like heating oil subsidies, food assistance, and even homeless shelters.

But if you believe that those programs create dependency, too….

It never stops: Close down the homeless shelters. Shut down the Salvation Army. Make it illegal to throw a starving person a coin or toss a blanket over them as they lay on the sidewalk. This logic only ends one way: in a hellish dystopia where the underclass is starving, homeless and dying in droves.

If that seems melodramatic, ask a libertarian/conservative this question: When will you know that your theory is wrong?

2. Nothing but competition.

This idea lies at the heart of libertarian and conservative thinking. The argument says that human beings excel when they are competing with one another for dominance. The free market is the best economic system in the world, we’re told, because private enterprises compete with one another for market share.

This is the thinking behind the movement to privatize government services. In fact, it’s the very same thinking which led the conservative American Enterprise Institute to design the set of policies the world now knows as “Obamacare.”

It’s also wrong. We saw that in the ignominious failure of libertarian Eddie Lambert, the Sears CEO who drove his company into the ground with the misguided notion that internal competition among his company’s departments would cause each of them to function more efficiently. That proved to be an enormously frustrating experience for customers, and ignominious failure for the corporation as a whole.

These ideas, along with a number of other misguided notions, have caused Sears stock to lose more than half its value. (Lynn Parramore has a good roundup of the Lambert fiasco here.) Eddie Lambert’s biggest mistake was believing that, in the words of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly… they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.”

Wrong. It turns out that people who are motivated to act out of self-interest will do whatever it takes to enrich themselves, even if that means damaging the entire society—in this case, the Sears “society”—in the process. Sure, competition “works,” sometimes, for some things. But the Sears experiment showed us that it works best when there is a fabric which knits the competing parts together into something more than the sum of its parts.

We call that something a nation.

Eddie Lambert’s Sears is a nation in microcosm. When its common purpose was lost, the entire enterprise collapsed. Eddie Lambert taught us that that when people act solely out of self-interest, they act destructively toward others, and hurt themselves as well. Everybody loses.

Lambert wanted Sears to teach the nation a lesson, and it did. Selfishness is one of the roads to dystopia.

3. Free-enterprise zones.

The concept of the free-enterprise zone was first popularized by Republican Jack Kemp. Kemp, a football star-turned-House member and vice-presidential candidate (with Bob Dole in 1996), adopted the concept, also known as “urban enterprise zones,” as a campaign theme during his initial rise and a 1988 presidential campaign. It’s based on the belief that economically disadvantaged areas—inner cities or impoverished rural areas—would be revitalized if regulations, minimum wage requirements and tax levels were eased.

This concept is based on two separate but related theories. The first is that employers are likely to be attracted to these struggling areas by the lower cost of doing business there. But a deeper, less frequently articulated theory cuts even closer to theoretical libertarianism: that regulations and taxes are themselves economy-killers. Free-enterprise zones, it was thought, could therefore become laboratory experiments which would demonstrate how much better an economy functions without them.

It didn’t work out that way. A few of the zone’s tools, such as targeted tax breaks, have provided temporary relief in some instances. But overall the experiment has been a singular failure. As one roundup of research on zones put it: “Most of the more sophisticated studies show no increases in employment or per capita income.”

Instead, the one consistent finding across all studies appears to be this: zones typically made money for one or more corporations, but the promised social benefit in jobs and income never materialized.

That hasn’t killed the zone idea, or the many variations on its theme. Statewide initiatives, offered as tax breaks or other incentives, have been equally unsuccessful. The most spectacularly unsuccessful track record in this regard belongs to New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has offered nearly $2 billion in tax incentives to spur job growth. The result? Job growth in New Jersey lags behind most of the nation, while hundreds of millions in tax breaks went to giant casinos and to large corporations Prudential, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Verizon, and Panasonic.

The zone idea is truly dystopian in scope, and that’s the idea which refuses to die. The premise is this: The regions inhabited by low-income brown, black, or white citizens should become places where basic worker protections are nullified, and the financial obligations of the wealthy are relaxed even more than they are today.

If this idea is pursued, the zones will become Third World nations within nations in the North American landmass, de facto colonies which have been insourced for corporate convenience. They’ll belch out poisons in their unregulated mines, farms and factories; under-bid one another for jobs and underpay workers while placing them in increasingly unsafe conditions; drain revenue from local, state and federal government; and lower the overall standard of living.

4. The absolute rights of private ownership.

I turn again to Sen. Rand Paul on this issue, because he expresses these ideas clearly and directly (just as he does when I agree with him, on issues of civil liberties and drone warfare), although he has been known to recant somewhat afterwards.

Paul said that he opposed the Civil Rights Act because, he said, “I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”

Here’s the dystopian dimension of Sen. Paul’s argument: Governments exist to uphold the law and, at the federal level, to uphold the Constitution. The Civil Rights Law serves both purposes. If “private ownership” is a barrier against these governmental prerogatives, where does it end? If you can’t outlaw discrimination on private property, what can you outlaw: Fraud? Theft? Murder?

In Paul Randian libertarianism there is no limit to the deeds a business owner can commit inside the confines of his own business. Even if laws against theft and murder are upheld, that would almost certainly mean an end to all workplace safety laws, much less minimum wage laws. As with free-enterprise zones, workers (and anyone in the vicinity) could be subject to the dangers of a Bhopal or a Bangladesh clothing factory, and government would be powerless to stop it.

This time the mayhem wouldn’t be limited to some designated places on the map. The entire country would be placed at the legal, economic and environmental mercy of property holders. The nation would be divided into Owners and Others, with the Others given no ability to enforce societal values—even matters of national security—over the Owners.

The counter-argument will often be made that “it can be settled with the free market.” Sen. Paul made that argument himself, when he said he “would not go” to the Woolworth’s which refused to seat African Americans during the civil rights struggle. But people lack alternatives, in an economy increasingly dominated by a few corporations. And they’re unlikely to hear about most of these crimes and injustices, in an era where corporate media are also under “private ownership.”

The unaided needy. Selfishness run riot. A North America dotted with Third World colonies. And a blighted landscape where Others are subjugated to Owners.

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