Salon Columnist Asks Why There Are No Libertarian Countries

In a column for Salon.com, “radical centrist” Michael Lind asks why, if the libertarian approach is correct, there are no “libertarian countries”?

The short answer to his question of why no country has tried libertarianism is that libertarianism–as a philosophy that seeks to minimize government–is not particularly appealing to those in charge (the State).

Libertarians often compare the State to an organized crime syndicate, and I believe that comparison is appropriate here as well. In the same way that no gang has ever voluntarily stopped committing crimes, no State will ever voluntarily stop doing what the State does, which is: asserting control over a geographic area and establishing a monopoly on the use of aggression within that area, while at the same time aggressing against private citizens and forbidding them from fighting back.

It should be obvious why governments around the world always seem to gain power–seldom relinquishing it except as a result of popular revolutions or uprisings.

Even if the deck were not so heavily stacked against reforms that would shrink the size and scope of government, political offices responsible for shaping policy tend to attract those who seek to expand, rather than constrict, government. Lawmakers are on the government payroll, after all–so they have an incentive not to bite the hand that feeds them.

Lind continues:

“A real country must function simultaneously in different realms—defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world.”

Lind is missing the point here. Many if not most minarchists (libertarians who support a minimal state) are deontological libertarians, meaning that they believe in minimizing government for moral reasons (although many of them may also make consequentialist or empirical arguments as well).

Deontological libertarians believe that the state is at best a necessary evil, and that the role of coercion in public life should be reduced to a minimum. (Anarchists like myself go a step further and say that any and all coercion is undesirable, and since States necessarily employ coercion, the State must be abolished.)

It seems that a good percentage of libertarian arguments on the Internet can be summed up as “x is bad because it infringes on individual rights, therefore x should be abolished” (replace x with the War on Drugs, immigration controls, gun control, etc.).

To use drug prohibition as an example: libertarians don’t claim so much that society would “work better” if drugs were legalized, but that drug prohibition is a gross infringement on individual freedom and is therefore morally repugnant.

And what empirical goals are we talking about anyway? What does it mean to say that a philosophy can “work in the real world”? Does it mean that it will stabilize the economy, raise incomes, eliminate poverty, and decrease crime?

Except for consequentialists, libertarians seldom argue that a libertarian society is desirable because of the societal or economic outcomes it would lead to. Libertarianism is a philosophy of means, not ends.

Libertarians are not utopists; we make no promises that a libertarian or stateless society would be more prosperous, more efficient, better educated or more charitable.

Of course, Lind doesn’t seem to understand libertarianism at all, as evidenced by this question:

“If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?”

Libertarians don’t claim to know “how best to organize a modern society.” The whole point of libertarianism is that no one–least of all the government–knows “how best to organize” a society.

Lind clearly lacks a fundamental understanding of the very political philosophy he is attacking.

There are no libertarian countries because there are very few libertarian politicians. There are few libertarian politicians because libertarians don’t claim to have all the answers–they only claim that some answers (those involving voluntary relationships or contracts) are better than other ones (those involving coercion or violence).

And the fact that there has never been a “libertarian country” doesn’t really matter to libertarians, anyway. Libertarianism is primarily a deontological ethical philosophy, and as such it’s adherents are concerned only with minimizing or abolishing coercion.

Considering that all modern nation-states are built on, and sustained by, the systematic coercion and oppression of their citizens, is it any surprise, then, that there are no libertarian states? Asking why there are no libertarian countries is like asking why there are no PETA-owned burger chains. It just wouldn’t make sense.

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