There are a lot of myths out there about libertarians and libertarianism. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of people, with a lot of different views, who go by the name “libertarian”. A lot of those myths can be summed up in the Bastiat quote up above.
For a lot of these myths, you’ll probably find someone, even a lot of someones who fit the “myth” so this is more a matter of general principles.
Myth One: Libertarians want poor people to starve.
Libertarians tend to be opposed to government welfare programs. This is usually interpreted to mean that they just don’t care about poor people, and indeed, are perfectly happy with people starving in the streets.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Libertarians want everyone to be able to live happy, prosperous lives. And most are very much concerned with the plight of the poor. Where they differ from those who make the above accusation is that they don’t believe government is the best, or even a particularly good, way of “helping” the poor. Government, like any other bureaucracy, is subject to the Iron Law (Iron Law: No Exceptions). The bureaucrats who will take charge, write the procedures, and control promotions within any bureaucracy dedicated to helping the poor will be those dedicated not to helping the poor, but dedicated to the bureaucracy itself. It will happen every time. And when it’s government there’s not generally competition to help keep a close match between “dedicated to the organization” and “dedicated to the goals of the organization. And being government, and thus having force of law to provide its funding, they don’t have to be beholden to donors being satisfied that the organization is effectively accomplishing its goals.
Libertarians, in general, are among the kindest and most generous people when they believe someone actually needs help. A friend of mine, who self-describes as “an anarchist of the bomb throwing variety” (and is not far off–he makes me look like a moderate) was there with considerable help available when I was in a bind where I needed moral and physical support. It’s not a situation I’m entirely free to talk about, but he was there for me where folk talking a lot about government “compassion” simply were not.
So, no, Libertarians to not want poor people to starve. They want a strong, healthy economy that spreads prosperity, where anyone who’s willing to work for it can at least provide a comfortable living. And when someone, through no fault of their own (or even as the culmination of errors they made, but are trying to get out of and do better going forward) they will bend over backward to help. They don’t need government to extend a helping hand. It’s just who they are.
On the other hand when somebody continually screws up, relies on others to bail them out, then screws up again, repeatedly, then maybe the best way to “help” them is to let them experience the full consequences of their pattern behavior to give them the motivation to make the changes they need to make to get out of the rut they’re in. As Samuel Johnson said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully” often paraphrased as “The prospect of education concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Now, “execution” might be a bit much, but a pinch of hunger or wondering where one is going to sleep might be a different matter. But taking away the negative consequences of bad behaviors removes the incentive to learn better behaviors.
Those, however, who can’t do better however, who are doing the best they can in a situation beyond their control? Again, most libertarians I know will bend over backward to help them. They just want to be able to decide the help goes to those and situations they agree with.
Myth Two: Libertarians are just Conservatives who want to Smoke Dope
Okay, there’s some truth to this, not because it’s libertarian philosophy but because of two reasons. One is that Conservatism itself (as outlined in Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Concervative”–yes, I am told it was ghost written, but he put his name on it giving his “seal of approval” as it was to it) is pretty libertarian. This is not to say that the Republican Party is libertarian, far from it, for it encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and positions–that Mitt Romney and Rand Paul could both be part of the same party illustrates that.
The other reason is a corollary to Niven’s Law: There is no cause so right that you won’t find fools following it for foolish reasons (often described prosaicly as “there is no cause so right it won’t attract fuggheads”). The corollary is that in addition to the stupid, even the most “right” of causes will attract its scoundrels and ill-workers. There are some people out there who are not really “conservative”, let alone libertarian, who are “there ought to be a law” types (the particular anti-liberty view of the right), who nevertheless want their weed and see libertarianism as a way to get it.
In libertarianism, you own yourself. If you want to screw up your own life and body with what are currently illicit drugs (or legal ones like alcohol and tobacco), that’s on you. As long as you’re willing to accept the consequences of doing so as also being on you (not expecting me, at gunpoint which also means by government force, to protect you from the consequences of your choices), then the choice should be yours.
However, we run into a lot of people who are quite content to ban this, prohibit that, restrict this other thing (all choices that should, per libertarian principles, be individual choice), but they want their weed and see libertarianism as a possible way to get it.
One might claim I’m using “No True Scotsman” here but words. have. meanings. Libertarianism is a philosophy. A person who picks one tiny little piece of it but doesn’t hold to any of the rest of it is not a libertarian (they may be a Libertarian, as in a member of the Libertarian party, but I’ve largely decided Libertarian is no longer, if it ever was, libertarian).
Myth Three: Libertarians are just Leftists who want guns.
See above. Everything I said about “Libertarians are conservatives who just want weed.” applies here. In this case it’s Leftists who are all “goodies that other people pay for” (the particular anti-left view of the Left–yes both Left and Right do both, but this is predominantly a Leftist issue) but they want their guns, dammit, and see libertarianism as a way to accomplish that.
Myth Four: We Hate the Government
Once again, there is a slight degree of truth to this. “Libertarian” covers a broad range. There are some who think the government, or more specifically the “State” (although the difference between the two appears to be a bit fuzzy, “State” often simply means whatever they don’t like about government) should be completely eliminated. Others recognize that this is, in fact, completely unachievable. Whenever you have a group of people willing and able to organize to impose their will on others, you have government. And, barring a complete rewriting of human nature there will always be some who are willing. With some willing, the only way to stop them is to likewise organize in opposition, to form a government of ones own.
Government will be. There really is no way short of that rewriting of human nature to make it completely vanish. Thus, most libertarians, in my experience, are less of an “anarchist” variety than of the “minarchist” version–reduce government to its minimum, necessary level, restrict its function to that bare minimum necessary to keep others from imposing force upon the population at large and, thus, maximize liberty. I have argued elsewhere that government exhibits the property of “hormesis”–toxic to the principle of liberty in large doses but actually beneficial in carefully controlled, limited realms.
Libertarians, for the most part, don’t want to completely eliminate government, but to restrict it so that it furthers, rather than opposes, the cause of human liberty.
Myth Five: We Don’t Want Anyone to get Healthcare.
This is similar to the problem of Myth One. Libertarians want people to have affordable, widely available, healthcare. However, we point out that government, generally speaking, is truly awful when it comes to providing healthcare. I have talked in the past about Socialized Medicine and the troubles it has (compared to a more free-enterprise approach).
Look, simply declaring something a “right” does not make it immune to the economic principle of scarcity, that there’s never enough of anything to satisfy everyone who wants it. There will always be rationing. It might be rationing by prices. It might be the State deciding that you will not be saved. But it will happen.
The simple truth is that the idea of government providing healthcare scares the willies out of most Libertarians. Some faceless bureaucrat, subject to the Iron Law (mentioned above) decides who does, and who does not, get healthcare. IF that doesn’t scare you, it should. In a private, free-enterprise, system, one can at least attempt to find alternate funding, someone willing to do charitable work on their behalf, or in extremis to use bankruptcy to get out from under medical debt. People forget that bankruptcy, is not a punishment but a fresh start. Yes, it takes time to rebuild credit after a bankruptcy but it reduces debts to manageable levels and gets you out from under them.
It takes the State to say “no, you won’t be treated here, and we’ll prevent you from seeking alternatives.”
The other factor is that free enterprise and the profit motive encourages medical innovation. It’s no coincidence that the US, despite a lot of government interference in its medical system, is both the “freest” system in the world and also the one that produces the most new medicines, no treatments, and all the way up to the most Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology (as many as the next ten nations combined).
Libertarians want the best possible healthcare not just for ourselves but for those to come after us. And so we promote the system that produces the most advances in the state of Medical Science, by a huge margin over everyone else: Freedom.
Myth Six: Libertarians want to get rid of the Police and Military
What I said above about government? That applies here. Police to help keep local crime in check and a military to ward off attempts by other nations to come here and take what we’ve got (and especially take our liberty) actually serve the cause of liberty. Both, however, can be extended far beyond their valid roles in serving the cause of human freedom so the wise libertarian, far from wanting their abolition, instead seeks to limit their size and scope to proper bounds.
This is actually to the advantage of both police and military as limiting their scope and roll both reduces the need of each to go “in harms way” but also reduces their conflicts with the citizenry at large. “Officer Friendly” working with the community to help keep it safe from internal predators, and “GI Joe” standing between his beloved nation and those who seek to do it harm are generally loved by their communities. The JBT intent on imposing arbitrary and multitudinous (and often self-contradictory) rules while attempting to cow the populace and a Grande Armee intent on extending national rule abroad can be as despised by their fellow citizens as by the so-called “enemies” they face.
Mind you the latter can be quite complicated. Do third parties attacking our merchants, simply seeking to do business to mutually acceptable terms, justify using military force (the example of the Barbary Pirates comes to mind)? That is a question for philosophers of liberty to debate. I have my own view. (I am in favor–so long as the merchants are going business peacefully, even in if being shrewd, sharp businessmen, then attacks on them are attacks on us). If a nation decides not to do business with our merchants, that’s fine, their choice. If some third party decides to interfere with our merchants going business with a nation that is willing to do business, and do so militarily? Send in the marines.
Myth Seven: Libertarians Want Completely Open Borders
Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to this, but that’s more a matter of the Libertarian Party (big “L”) rather than individual libertarians. Yeah, there are some who, naively thinking that a desire for liberty is a universal human trait, believe that being in favor of liberty also means that we must accept anyone who wants to come here for any reason.
Sadly, however, most people simply are not all that in favor of liberty. Oh, they may want the “liberty” to do the things they want to do, but those other people? How can you possibly conscience something so obviously wrong?
Like it or not, we have a representative government in the US. And as a representative government, it will be swayed, slowly, and often imperfectly, by the aggregate desires of the people represented. People complain about Congress. But the problem is not Congress. It’s the people who keep sending those folk to Congress. The people in Congress make the decisions, promote the policies, that they do because that is what plays well to the people who send them to congress. If the people sending them to Congress wanted different things, those politicians would promote those things instead. If they didn’t, they’d be replaced by someone who would. As the late Milton Friedman said, “The way you change things is not by electing the right people. It’s nice to elect the right people, but that’s not the way you change things. No, the way you change things is by creating a climate of opinion so that it’s politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.”
A lot, “most” I would venture to say, of the people who come to the US, particularly those who come illegally, are not seeking Liberty, not as libertarians view the term. They may come seeking to do what they want, but don’t, generally, extend that to people who want, and believe, other things. They might not be actively opposed to liberty in others, but they don’t support it either. And there are plenty who are actively opposed to the concept of liberty.
Note that in most of the world, through most of history (the US Revolution is very nearly unique in being an exception) revolutions were not to overthrow tyranny to establish a free society. No, they were to overthrow “their” tyrant to install “our” tyrant instead.
The simple truth is, in a representative government you cannot keep importing people who don’t believe in the ideal of liberty and keep a free society. In an ideal world one could simply let people come who choose to come and trust in our own ability to demonstrate the value of liberty to convince at least the majority of those coming (if not them, then their children) that a free society is vastly preferable to other forms. Sadly, we do not live in that ideal world. Entirely too many of our own, native-born individuals and institutions are opposed to the idea of liberty and, thus, importing a great many others also so opposed is to simply bring about the end to liberty in our nation.
Myth Eight: The Libertarian (Big-“L”) Party Represents all libertarians (small-“l”)
Sorry, but it doesn’t. I’ve alluded to this above. The Libertarian Party represents only a tiny fraction of people holding libertarian views and, frankly, has gone oddly astray in recent years. The 2016 Presidential slate was particularly egregious in that regard. Gary Johnson, the Presidential candidate, went on record claiming that it was proper for government to force a baker to custom bake and lend his artistic skill to decorating a cake for a cause that he was morally opposed to. (Full disclosure: I have been pro “marriage equality” for, literally, decades.) The actual libertarian view would be to note that absent government force, a bake deciding not to bake a cake for a particular customer is simply a business opportunity for someone willing to do so. (The problem with the Jim Crow laws was less that businesses discriminated, than that the law required them to discriminate.) After all, somebody will be willing to take that person’s money. It spends just as well as someone else’s. Worse, his running mate Bill Weld, was all about banning certain classes of firearms from private ownership. Neither were actually “libertarian” views. Yet both of these men gained the nod from the “Libertarian” party.
A lot of libertarians, myself included, were disgusted by that.
Myth Nine: Libertarianism Means no Roads
Okay, can we put this one to rest? Traders were laying out, improving, and building roads long before any governments were involved. It is true that governments have certainly been big about road building. That was one of the “peacetime” activities of the Roman Legions back in the day.
And, yes, a libertarian argument can be made for using government to build roads. In other posts I’ve talked about “external costs”, that is costs imposed on parties other than those that are party to a particular transaction, and how that can be an area where government can, with advantage, intervene (however, just because government can intervene with advantage doesn’t mean that government won’t end up fouling it up even worse; considerable care must be exercised). The flip side of that is “external benefits”, benefits received by those other than the parties to a transaction. You will generally end up with more of something that has large external costs than you would have if all the costs were paid by the parties to the transaction. Similarly, you will generally get less of something with large external benefits than you would have if everyone paid for the benefit they received.
Roads are something with large external benefits. A business might build a road to a concentration of customer because it benefits from the access to markets. It can adjust its prices so that the customers end up paying for the road that made more goods and services available to them. However, once the road is there, other people are more than willing, more than able, to use it. They receive benefits for which they do not pay. If they did, then more roads could, would, be built, carrying more goods and services to more people in more places. This would benefit far more people. The use of tolls can help tie the benefit to the cost, but only imperfectly–a truck carrying expensive electronics gains more benefit, in terms of profitability, than one carrying cabbages. Assigning tolls based on the actual benefit to users of the road becomes a particular challenge.
Thus, roads is an area where government can intervene with advantage, where some form of government power can produce results to advantage over the free market. However, as economist Thomas Sowell is wont to say, just because the government can exceed the free market doesn’t mean that it will. Thus, arguments about roads and other items must be looked at with an extremely jaded eye, and a ready hand to curb government intervention at the slightest provaation.
This is a libertarian view.
Myth Ten: Everybody is Really a Libertarian
Okay, this one is actually a fallacy presented mostly by the Libertarian Party. You see it in highly slanted “political position tests” which are designed so that the vast majority of people, regardless of their actual overall position on politics will choose “reasonable” answers which “prove” that they’re really “libertarian.”
The blunt truth is, most people are addicted to some combination of two anti-liberty propositions:
- There ought to be a law. This thing that I don’t like should be prohibited and government, with force, should stop people doing it.
- Goodies that other people pay for. I (or someone else) am entitled to this stuff/benefit and government, with force, should collect the resources from others to provide it to me (or the someone else).
Libertarianism really cannot begin to make headway until they/we recognize this and start working at the bottom end. It’s not Presidential candidates we need. It’s convincing more people that what other people do is not our business to interfere with (less “there ought to be a law”) and that voluntary compassion is better than government mandated theft and redistribution combined with the overall economic improvement that comes with economic freedom (less “goodies that other people pay for”) is better for everybody.
Entirely too many “Libertarians” are more interested in virtue signaling how “pure” and “no compromise” they are than in actually advancing the cause of human freedom.
And that, perhaps, is the biggest myth of all.