Opinion

Libertarian? You Belong on the Left

Watch out, freedom lovers! Conservatives will build the biggest police state they can.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Jun 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

A few dozen freedom-loving libertarians expressed their ''principled'' opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Anti-Terrorism Act this week. As the Senate's final vote on Bill C-51 is delayed to Tuesday, many are sounding off on Harper's fractured right-wing base.

Historically, libertarians have found themselves lumped in with the far right, presumably because the far right says it doesn't like big government and neither do libertarians. Hey, libertarians just want to do their own thing and be left alone. Isn't that what the right wing wants too?

Not exactly. The basic premise of libertarianism is that adults should be free to act as they choose, as long as they harm no one else: believe what they please; say what they think; work where they like; live where they can afford to; sleep with any consenting adults they choose; eat, drink, inhale, and inject themselves with any substance they enjoy. A society so organized, libertarians argue, needs low taxes and a minimal state -- just as the Conservatives argue.

But if they question a single tenet of Conservative ideology, libertarians find themselves suddenly dealing with authoritarians who class them with child pornographers and terrorists. Low taxes? They cut your taxes and run up your debt. Small government? Conservatives will build the biggest police state they can get away with -- the better to kettle any taxpayers who have second thoughts about Conservative policies.

And those taxpayers have more than cops to fear. Expect the Conservative advocates of lower taxes to launch endless tax audits against you.

Libertarians will grant government at least the power to enforce contracts and defend its citizens with force if need be. Even Ayn Rand, who took the Russian Revolution much too personally and hated violence, admitted as much.

Contracts really are a big deal, wherever you are on the political spectrum. You agree to marry someone, and to pay your share of the resulting costs. You agree to drive on the right side of the road, and to pay for the use of the car you drive. You agree to buy your own lunch, not just walk into the restaurant and take it out of the kitchen.

No free lunch

The famous American libertarian science fiction author Robert Heinlein even coined an acronym: TANSTAAFL -- "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." You work for what you get, or you don't get it. If you don't work, you don't deserve it.

Some libertarians, like a lot of Conservatives, have failed to get Heinlein's point. They even think they deserve a free lunch because their thoughts are so pure and their fellow-Canadians are such layabouts. And they begrudge any taxes that might provide some imagined free lunch for those layabouts.

Libertarians tend to glorify private enterprise, which of course depends on contracts, and private enterprise thrives by minimizing costs and maximizing profits. Every business has its costs, and that’s why we have contracts.

Naive libertarians, especially those raised in relatively easy circumstances, tend to take their circumstances for granted, including the upbringing they received for which they paid only in dirty diapers. (Objectivist libertarians will say they didn't ask for those benefits, so they owe nothing to those who provided them, and they see no need to do their own laundry as long as Mum will do it for them.) If others are not doing as well, that's their fault and they should live with the consequences.

More realistic libertarians understand the immense maze of contracts, written and implicit, in which we all live. We phone our aged mothers even if they have nothing to leave us in their wills. We take our turn in the checkout line. We leave our front doors unlocked if our community has enough social capital to ensure burglars will be rare.

A cost of doing business

For such libertarians, taxes are just a cost of doing business, and politics is just the way we negotiate the lowest possible cost -- whether we're bargaining for police services or private security firms to protect our property.

Realistic libertarians, out to maximize their own personal freedom, belong on the left. An advanced industrial society offers opportunities for freedom undreamed-of by the plutocrats of the 19th century's Gilded Age, but those opportunities come at a high price.

You literally cannot afford to live in a society where the vast majority are illiterate, unskilled, starving and diseased. If you try, you will have to make your own living from selling goods or services to a tiny minority with disposable income. Then you will have to spend most of what you earn on protecting yourself: a house like a fortress, armed guards, expensive but rudimentary medical care, and mediocre food of doubtful cleanliness.

A realistic, businesslike libertarian would run a cost-benefit analysis and decide that Canadian taxes -- however high the Fraser Institute thinks they are -- are a bargain just this side of outright theft.

Such a person might also look overseas to democratic countries where taxes are even higher, like Denmark and Sweden, and take note of the swarms of Scandinavian serfs who console themselves for their oppression on the beaches of Thailand.

Balzac famously said that "behind every great fortune there is a great crime." That was true in the age of the robber barons, but now every great fortune depends on a great contribution of countless ordinary people who wash the dishes, police the streets, write the contracts, and teach the kids.

Those ordinary people are the investors whose work makes billionaires possible (and who get an increasingly poor return on their investment). Without those people working together, the Koch brothers would be just a couple of grumpy old men chasing kids off their lawn.

Bad manners? Bad business!

So for the billionaires to complain about being taxed when those taxes are the dividends for their millions of nameless investors, it’s worse than bad manners. It's bad business, restricting the incomes of people who might otherwise buy the billionaires' products and services. It also forces them into funding public and private armed forces to protect them against those they've robbed.

We all want to be free, if only because following our inner compulsions is pleasanter than obeying the compulsions of others. When we're kids, external compulsion protects us from ourselves, so we're reasonably healthy, educated, and skilled when we become adults -- that is, prepared to maximize our freedom. Our education should also have prepared us to minimize freedom's cost and maximize its extent by recognizing the need to pay the favour forward to our children and our fellow-Canadians.

Our education already teaches us that all kinds of games are intense fun, whether chess or hockey or soccer. Or making money. But how much fun are they when no one blows the whistle on the cheaters?

Ignoring the rules of the game can make us winners if we ditch the referee or the regulator. But that's being a cheater, not a libertarian. Libertarians believe they should earn every buck they make, not steal it.

The Conservatives have pulled a lot of libertarians into their slipstream just as the Communists once attracted a lot of centre-left "parlour pinks." To libertarians, Stephen Harper circa 2005 must have looked like the kind of laissez-faire, small-government messiah they'd been looking for, but they've had a decade to realize an authoritarian autocrat has taken them for a ride.

Now it's time for the serious libertarians to move left and pay to reclaim their freedom. The deadbeat libertarians, who just want another free lunch, can stay with Stephen Harper.  [Tyee]

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