What’s Wrong With the New Libertarianism?

Libertarianism (or what might be thought of as right-wing or individualist anarchism) has become the political philosophy of choice for hip, young entrepreneurs in the tech sector. Raised in the free-wheeling marketplace of the internet, they tend to see politics, government, and law as the creaky, old-fashioned machinery of the 20th century.

Business people often see government as nothing but an impediment to the amassing of their fortunes – until, of course, something actually threatens to disrupt the legal system that protects the validity of their contracts, the transportation infrastructure that allows their goods to move, or the financial system that makes the whole thing run. But a few fundamentalists continue to dream of a world in which lawless markets constitute the whole of what was once society – and the wild, wooly internet seems to have created fertile new soil for such dreams to take root.

Like the anarchists, the libertarians also appeal to a type of humanist morality. Their opposition to government is said to be founded on a belief in individual rights: no one should ever be subject to coercion. Yet, the shallowness of that conviction is astounding.

A fitting example is offered by the recently arrested Ross Ulbricht, accused of masterminding an online drug trading empire. According to an article in the New Yorker, Ulbricht dreamed of “creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”  He is also accused of paying a hitman to torture and murder an associate. It will undoubtedly be pointed out that, if true, this would represent a use of force, but not the systemic use of force opposed by libertarians like Ulbricht. This, however, is precisely the problem with the libertarians’ moral opposition to government and law. Significant disparities in wealth create imbalances in power that are effectively identical to the imbalance of power between individuals and government that anarchists and libertarians find so intolerable. Once I accumulate significantly more wealth than others around me, I can seize control of necessary resources, hire armies of coercive enforcers, and assert my will just as would the most tyrannical of governments. The one difference, though, between the power of government and the power of private wealth is that government is at least potentially democratic. Yes, governments can use their power to jail or kill – but under a democratic form of government, citizens have a say in the way the laws are made and enforced. By contrast, no libertarian believes that elections should decide how the wealthy can use their wealth.

Freedom is an undeniably appealing aim. Scratch the surface, though, and it becomes clear that for the new libertarians, “freedom” means the freedom to be a petty tyrant, unrestrained by something as oppressive as democratic government.

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