Libertarian’s Folly: Why Progressivism Provides an Answer
Issue   |   Wed, 10/26/2011 - 01:22

Several weeks ago in The Student , Erik Christianson ’14 wrote an article extolling the virtues of libertarianism. I have no critiques of his position as far as civil liberties and gay marriage go, but the core of libertarianism lies in its view of personal property and its economic ideals. In this, it constitutes nothing more than a justification of shortsightedness and lack of social vision and a defense of the ability of the powerful to oppress the powerless. Followed to its logical end, the philosophy is bared as an excuse for wealthy and powerful interests to shirk their responsibilities, and instead have others pick up the tab for their actions.

A conservative blogger referred to libertarianism as “Marxism of the right.” Where Marxism seeks to run a society on altruism and an extreme sense of community, libertarianism proposes to run it on nothing more than self-interest, greed and extreme individualism. It is stricken by an inability to make the leap from the micro level to a macro one. Nowhere is this more evident than with the environment, where libertarianism falls into the Tragedy of the Commons.

In his 1960’s work, Garrett Hardin used the example of cows grazing on a town commons; each cow herder seeks to maximize his own personal gain, and will allow each successive cow he acquires to graze on the commons. Each individual keeps all of the gains from each additional cow, but the community as a whole shares the negative externalities. Thus, if every individual exercises his “freedom” to use resources as he pleases, the commons will eventually be destroyed through overgrazing.

Of course a libertarian answer to this might be to just privatize the commons, and make each herder responsible for the negative effects of grazing as well as the benefits from the cows. This is entirely impossible for things like the air, flowing water or even land with groundwater, and fails in other cases too, considering the incredible degree to which we, and ecosystems, are vastly interconnected. Consider two towns that share the same river with one town upstream from the other. Should the citizens of this town be “free” to dump any sort of refuse and waste in the river, or would that infringe upon the rights of those who live downstream to drink clean water?

Will people moderate their own behavior and regulate themselves for the greater good? It’s a nice thought, but I’m from Cleveland. For those of you who don’t know, 30 years ago heavy industry had so polluted our Cuyahoga River that it actually caught on fire. In less visible, but just as serious effects, this is what has happened to our various global commons — for example, overfishing the oceans, which Science estimates will cause the collapse of all fisheries by mid-century. Or consider the CO2 emissions we have spewed into the atmosphere that are causing global climate change that we all, polluters or not, will bear the costs of. Ford’s decision to keep producing the Pinto model because payouts for death and injury lawsuits are cheaper than redesigning the car is a logical conclusion in a world where everything is reduced to a cost-benefit analysis; it’s a conclusion made even worse in the all too often cases of commonized losses and privatized profits that define the commons.

My second gripe is that Christianson claims that progressivism lacks ideological cohesion while at the same time remaining vague about just what is included in libertarianism’s “ideological cohesion.” The reason for that would be many of those things are actually not in line with college students’ views — and certainly not the views of most Amherst students.

Libertarianism’s utter fetishization of the market leads to defenses of racial discrimination such as the one proffered by the second craziest Rand in the world (that would be Paul … Ayn of course takes the cake). As the argument goes, because my property rights are sacrosanct, if I own a restaurant, I should be able to deny service to whomever I choose, be they black, gay, Jewish or whatever.

Even though libertarians argue that businesses would be stupid to discriminate because it would lower their profits, the market didn’t end racial discrimination. Progressives and minorities organizing and passing federal laws did. And the market won’t magically fix the bad results in all the other places that it fails either, just like the market didn’t stop the Cuyahoga from burning.

The hackneyed tritisms like “[progressives] hope to ban your SUV” and “outlaw your incandescent light bulb” belie both the complexity and reality of our relation to the environment and to each other. The truth of that reality is that regulation actually protects freedom — both for us, and for future generations. Who reading this really considers herself less free because Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” and sparked the federal regulation of the food industry? Anyone who would rather go back to the robber barons, monopolies, filth in your food, racial oppression, the Pinkertons and starvation of the elderly, please raise your hand.

The progressive movement stands in stark contrast. It’s an ideology centered on human dignity, that acknowledges the subtle necessity of balancing societal needs with individual freedoms, and rests on a solid record of having built the most prosperous and functional states in the world. Instead of Social Darwinism in sheep’s clothing, progressivism offers a vision for achieving together what is impossible to achieve alone.

I would also venture to guess that as far as a political philosophy that fits the needs of college students, most at Amherst would rather believe that truism — “the test of our progress is not whether we can add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little” (Franklin D. Roosevelt) — than defend privilege against the powerless.

Tim (not verified) says:
Sat, 09/15/2012 - 23:49

Upton Sinclair was a liar and a slanderer. The US government investigated his claims and found them to be false. Ralph Chaplin, a socialist who grew up in the vicinity of the yards and packinghouses and was living there when the novel appeared said of The Jungle, "I thought it a very inaccurate picture of the stockyards district which I knew so well." Even the other socialists of Sinclair's time condemned "The Jungle" as a lie.