I’ve already commented many times on this blog about the fundamental cruelty underlying Libertarianism, voluntaryism, and other related ideologies. The root of this cruelty is their refusal to acknowledge so-called “positive rights,” i.e. rights which obligate other people to provide something. They believe that we all have rights, but that we can have no guarantee of access to the resources that make the expression of those rights possible. The end result is that Libertarians only really believe in human rights for those who can afford them. Children, women, people in emergency situations, and poor people, are basically useless and should be left to suffer or die, because the free market resolves everything and anything that’s left is not worth resolving (or is not even a problem).
This leads to problems with Libertarians who actually have some empathy or compassion. They are left with three possible resolutions:
1. Disagree with the cruel conclusions without disagreeing with the logic that leads to them. This seems to be the tack that most Libertarian commentators take on this blog. Unfortunately for them, it is nonsensical, because they can’t point out why the conclusions are wrong. All they can do is complain loudly that we’re misinterpreting their ideology, without actually telling us what the misinterpretation is.
2. Declare that those cruel conclusions are exceptions which should be dealt with using different rules. These people can both maintain the validity of Libertarian logic while asserting that it can lead to a just society if we just patch it up correctly. In this view, the free market is the best economic system that exists, it’s just slightly imperfect.
3. Agree with the cruel conclusions but reframe them as being kinder “in the long run.” The free market is perfect and expanding it can only bring positive changes to everyone. Some people just have to be left by the wayside. Once all the poor people with the bad time preferences die out, you see, everyone will be better off.
This leads me to an entry called Why Did Hayek Support a Basic Income?, by Matt Zwolinski. Zwolinski takes the second option: while he believes that most problems in workplaces are justifiable, he believes that there are some exceptions, and that these exceptions should be patched using a minimum income program (mincome).
Now, it may seem that a Libertarian could never contort themselves enough to justify supporting mincome, which is, after all, a socialist idea. Zwolinski has managed to do it, although it all hinges upon an equivocation on the word “freedom.” Let me first look at his definition of freedom:
A slave is unfree because his every decision is subject to interference at the will of his master. To be free, in contrast, is to be able to act according to one’s own decisions and plans, without having to seek the approval of any higher authority…
This is why Hayek saw a powerful regulatory state as a threat to individual freedom. The state’s regulations are always implicitly or explicitly backed by threats – “Do this or else!” – and thereby coerce citizens into acting in accordance with the will of the regulator (or the will of the special interests served by the regulator), instead of their own.
This, coupled with the fact that Zwolinski sees nothing wrong in principle about business owners telling their employees what to do, leads me to believe that Zwolinski is talking about freedom1 (i.e. freedom from physical coercion and nothing else). Obviously it is true that the slave is unfree, but this does not therefore mean that everyone else is free. An employee in a capitalist workplace is not “able to act according to [their] own decisions and plans.” People who grew up in a strict religion or cult, when they become adults, do not become magically “able to act according to [their] own decisions and plans.” Being “able to act according to [our] own decisions and plans” implies freedom1,2,3: the absence (or potential absence) of external determinism acting upon them.
Hayek’s commitment to freedom and opposition to coercion also explains his libertarian belief that free markets and private property are a necessary precondition of political freedom. After all, one of the most important functions that rights of property serve is to provide individuals with a domain in which they need not seek the approval of any other person in order to act as they wish. Property rights provide individuals with a kind of jurisdiction over which their own will is law.
Again, a very clear signal that Zwolinski is solely talking about freedom1. Anyone who proposes that free markets and private property are a necessary precondition of freedom is clearly not talking about freedom from the “kind of jurisdiction,” by which people control each other, provided by private property. If you believe in freedom1,2,3, on the other hand, such a statement is contradictory. Clearly anyone who is ruled by the will of another, whether through government programs or the threat of force of arms brought about by private property, cannot be free1,2,3.
This is the basic paradox of Libertarianism: they claim to believe in freedom from tyranny, but at the same time they advocate another form of tyranny, that of private property owners forcing everyone else to bend to their will in order to access their resources. Basically, private property owners in a Libertarian system are nothing more than tyrants in miniature, exerting a monopoly of power over a territory. Instead of one all-powerful and sporadically accountable government, they believe in hundreds of thousands of all-powerful and completely unaccountable governments who can still collude and establish cartels, which is not much of an improvement.
The fact that property rights provide individuals with “a domain… over which their own will is law” is precisely what’s wrong with property rights and why they are anti-freedom. Freedom cannot exist at the expense of other people. Rights which authorize coercion against other people are not real rights.
Zwolinski quotes long lists of wrongdoings by businesses against their workers, and then proceeds to whitewash most of them by saying that they are “necessary cost-control measure[s],” whatever that’s supposed to mean (necessary for what?). But then he says:
Are we really willing to say that each and every one of the outrages documented by Bertram et al. is the product of workers’ free choice, rather than (what they appear to be) something imposed on workers against their will by those who wield power over them?
If libertarians are concerned to protect the freedom of all, and not just the freedom of most, we will want some mechanism that catches those who fall through the cracks left by imperfect market competition. We will want, too, some mechanism for protecting individuals whose economic vulnerability renders them vulnerable to domination outside the marketplace – the woman, for example, who stays with her abusive husband because she lacks the financial resources to support herself without him.
You will note here that we have now completely switched gears. “Imperfect market competition,” in Libertarian theory, is an oxymoron. Most importantly, the equivocation has now come into play, as he’s now clearly talking about freedom1,2,3. In fact, his examples perfectly demonstrate this fact. The previous examples, which are “imposed on workers against their will,” concerned compensatory power. And the example of the woman who stays with her abusive husband is a case of conditioned power as much as it’s about money, if not more.
That was the magic trick. He’s equated a defense of freedom1 with something based on freedom1,2,3, which means that he can pretend to be compassionate (i.e. a supporter of freedom1,2,3) while still supporting a cruel and evil system (one based on freedom1). So, in a sense, his argument is not in the second category as I said before, but also just a logical fallacy. Because he doesn’t expect people to realize this, he thinks his readers will think of him as being a Libertarian of the second category. Well, he is, after all, addressing other Libertarians, and presumably he knows how smart they all really are.
And now, the conclusion:
Cases such as these point the way to a freedom-based case for a Basic Income Guarantee, of the sort that Hayek might very well have had in mind. A basic income gives people an option – to exit the labor market, to relocate to a more competitive market, to invest in training, to take an entrepreneurial risk, and so on. And the existence of that option allows them to escape subjection to the will of others. It enables them to say “no” to proposals that only extreme desperation would ever drive them to accept. It allows them to govern their lives according to their own plans, their own goals, and their own desires. It enables them to be free.
The point of a basic income isn’t to give everyone the same amount of wealth. It is to ensure that everyone has enough access to material wealth to render them immune to the coercive power of others.
From a Libertarian standpoint, this is pure nonsense, because the free market is the optimal state of the economy and gives the greatest amount of freedom and prosperity to everyone. This is a socialist argument. Zwolinski is only able to make it because he’s switched his conception of freedom to freedom1,2,3.
From a socialist standpoint, I would say that these are all good points, but if your goal is freedom and prosperity for all, then why bother with a capitalist economy at all? Capitalism has always been about funneling these things towards the elite classes, the minority, against the majority. There is no point in patching up the free market with a mincome if you could just not have a free market and be better off in most, if not all, regards.
But his goal here is not to present a correct account of freedom, his goal is to present an account of compassionate Libertarianism. Unfortunately for him, he is only able to do so by stealing the radical conception of freedom. This is only another practical demonstration of why Libertarianism is a bankrupt ideology.