The Heartless Libertarian

Most people think of Libertarians as either big-wig top-hat-wearing heartless Scrooges or militant gun-toting white supremacists. So why, as a Greens voter and generally left-leaning guy, do I consider myself a Libertarian?

Well, here’s some things libertarians believe which may surprise you. Libertarians are

  • anti-war
  • pro-immigration
  • pro-gay marriage
  • pro-democracy
  • pro-science
  • pro-free-trade
  • pro-drug legalisation
  • pro-abortion
  • pro-equality regardless of race, sex, sexual preference, country of birth, religion or just about anything else

Some Libertarians (like me) are also

  • pro welfare
  • pro public education
  • pro public health

Can you see why I vote for the Greens yet?

OK, so what is Libertarianism?

The core concept of Libertarianism is that everyone is best placed to make decisions affecting their own lives. As David Boaz puts it

Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others"

Everything else stems from that. That sounds OK, right?

There are a of a lot of strands of Libertarianism: everything from complete anarchy to social liberalism. It’s sorta hard to pin down.

So why the bad rep?

There are two big reasons that Libertarians have a bad name.

Firstly, the massive number of strands mean that it’s pretty easy to find a variation that you don’t like. The vast majority don’t do much for me at all (I’m a classically-leaning social liberal, if you must know :–) ).

On top of that, the ‘personal freedom’ thing attracts nutters who don’t want anyone interfering with their right to own WMDs, to not pay taxes, or to be racist fuckheads. These people aren’t Libertarians in the real sense of the word because they generally believe that they can and should assert their will over others.

If you’re so good, why are you pro-Capitalism?

Oh yeah. That.

There are two reasons, at least for me. Firstly, on a fundamental level who you trade with and how you do it very much falls into that “personal decision” space, so Capitalism is a particularly liberal-compatible way to organise an economy.

The other, and much less obvious reason, is because it’s the best way we know of to get people out of poverty (more on that in a sec). When societies move out of poverty they become more free, more democratic, more respectful of human rights, live longer, and are healthier.

Capitalism has its downsides, no doubt about that. But it’s the least worse system we have.

But aren’t Libertarians all greedy and soulless?

Libertarianism and Capitalism allow for selfishness and greed, but they do not require it. An individual’s best interest may very well be served by helping others – in fact it’s human nature to do so.

As I said, Libertarians believe deeply in human rights and equality. If you spend much time studying history it becomes clear very quickly that the quickest, most efficient way to get people our of poverty is to encourage Capitalistic free trade.

But that is a hard argument to make.

The Right will both point to specific groups of people (farmers, factory workers) and say that free trade is costing those people their jobs.

The Left will point to specific groups (the ultra-poor in developing Capitalist nations) and say that they are getting a massively inequitable slice of the growth while the top X% get the majority of the spoils.

Both of them are right.

But here’s the thing: despite its flaws Capitalism is still the best way to improve people’s lives over the long term. The short term costs are real and often devastating – but without them long term growth is incredibly difficult.

What the Right don’t tell you is that when the factory work moves to Mexico, the Mexicans get much more benefit in aggregate than the Americans lose. What the Left don’t tell you is that, although wealth disparity is growing, in absolute terms those ultra-poor are becoming much less poor – just at a much slower rate then their richer countrymen.

It is long term, sustained growth that in 200 years has taken the West from $5/day and a life expectancy of 40 to $100/day and a life expectancy of 75. It has taken the Chinese from $5/day to $30/day. If you haven’t already, you really should watch Hans Rosling’s 200 Years demonstration. It’s one of the most compelling, unbiased and optimistic things I’ve seen.

And so…

If you truly want to help people, you should choose the best data-backed method we have to do so. There’s a lot of things you can do to make it feel like you’re helping, but compared to the benefits flowing from a robust Capitalist society, you’re pissing in the wind at best. At worst, you’re holding back the progress that will change people’s lives at an almost unfathomable scale.

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