Monday, January 27, 2014

Not Merely a Theoretical Deduction

Libertarians wish to limit the role of the state to specific, sharply circumscribed tasks, among which the protection of property rights is by far the most important. It is therefore not correct to assume that libertarians are calling for a smaller state since the imperative need to protect property calls for any means necessary and that often includes a much larger state. No doubt Libertarians would prefer a tiny state, indeed one small enough to drown in the bathtub, but that’s a utopian goal impractical for the foreseeable future for existing Libertarianism, aka Libertarianism in one country. In fact, under contemporary circumstances, the Libertarian program is a recipe for a greatly enlarged state. That’s because the greater the degree of inequality in a society, the more pressing the need for a powerful government to protect the possessors of great wealth by maintaining an enormous military, by hiring additional police and giving them a freer hand, by making the justice system more punitive and arbitrary, by building more prisons and filling them up, by instituting comprehensive surveillance systems, and by infiltrating possible dissident groups with spies and provocateurs. Of course, one could hope—one could have hoped—that inequality would not grow to the point that all this would be necessary; but here’s the problem. While libertarianism is keen on the state’s police power, it insists that government has no business doing anything that would effectively lessen inequality. Unfortunately, the existing economic system has a built-in tendency to increase disparities of wealth and income if only because the best way to acquire money is to already possess it. This built-in positive feedback loop has profoundly destabilizing effects, which is why all the developed nations have developed mechanisms of income and wealth redistribution, not to destroy capitalism, but precisely to allow it to continue. Libertarianism maintains that all of these mechanisms—progressive income and inheritance taxes, welfare, public education, social insurance schemes, universal health insurance—are illegitimate. In the absence of effective redistribution, the only option is greater state power to protect the haves from the have nots. Libertarianism, for all its advertised hostility to government, promotes a larger state much as the Bolsheviks created a totalitarian state in the name of a philosophy that called for the withering away of the state.