As far as criticisms of libertarianism go, I am hard-pressed to think of one quite as shallow and unconvincing as the one presented by philosopher and part-time crying opera clown Massimo Pigliucci. I followed Massimo’s Facebook page for a while, as, despite his statist views on government, he and I share a common interest in the skepticism movement, and he is a sort of third-tier member of the New Atheist movement (he once shared a debate stage with William Lane Craig, the Christian apologist who has also debated the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.)
Most of Massimo’s critique of the libertarian philosophy (which can be found here) is actually not so much a critique as an unflattering description. He writes at length about the various obscure off-shoots of libertarianism, such as anarcho-syndicalism (which is really just updated Marxism), anarcho-capitalism and Objectivism.
Mainstream libertarians find a great deal to disagree with in all three of these ideologies, but there are also many individual issues on which we can find agreement (just as we can with both liberals and conservatives.) None of them make up the mainstream of libertarian thought, which is that government should hold to the three duties prescribed to it in Adam Smith’s 1776 book, Wealth of Nations: 1) The administration of jurisprudence, 2) The defense of the nation against outside enemies, and 3) The provision and maintenance of a very narrowly defined class of public goods.
The fact that Massimo so heavily delved into the offshoot movements without having much to say about mainstream libertarianism tells me that most of his “research” was done by reading through the Wikipedia series on libertarianism.
After describing the various tangential movements in libertarianism, Massimo goes on to fight dirty:
“There is the dark side of things, the infamous episode of the “Chicago Boys,” a group of libertarian economists trained at the University of Chicago who provided active, and in fact crucial, assistance to the illegitimate government of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, thereby supporting a tyranny that ended up being responsible for the death of 3,000, the incarceration or torture of another 28,000, and the suspension of civil liberties in that country for a decade and a half.”
Now, it is worth mentioning here that libertarians despise infringements on personal liberties just as much as we despise infringements on economic liberties. To try to blame government oppression on libertarianism is like trying to blame a fire on the firefighters trying to put it out.
The influence of libertarians on Pinochet was strictly economic. The ‘Chicago Boys’ plan laid out by Jorge Cauas, Sergio De Castro, Pablo Barahona and other Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago dealt with three things: The elimination of trade barriers, the privatization of government-owned enterprises and the stabilization of inflation. None of these have anything whatsoever to do with incarcerating or torturing innocent civilians.
These reforms did produce a prosperous economy, known to economists as ‘the Chilean Miracle’, as Massimo goes on to admit, which ultimately led to a vibrant and politically empowered middle class, which in turn led to the expansion of political and civil freedom alongside the economic freedom, as Milton Friedman predicted it would when the ‘Chicago Boys’ reforms were implemented. It is very rare in the course of human events that economic freedom does not go hand-in-hand with political and social freedom and Chile was no exception.
The opposite is true of collectivist societies like the USSR or Yugoslavia. It was impossible for those nations to maintain state-control of the economy without also using force to suppress dissent and they emerged from oppression not as the result of increased prosperity but as the result of complete economic collapse and violent turmoil.
Rather than look for single data points to confirm his bias, I would suggest to Massimo that he look for the rule of history, and the rule has always been this: Wherever we see an increasing degree of economic freedom, an advance in civil and political freedom soon follows.
After slinging the mud about Pinochet, Massimo lapses into using ‘anarchism’ synonymously with libertarianism and starts punching a straw man. He says that human nature is “still too darn selfish and greedy for [anarchy] to work.”
Problem is, most libertarians aren’t anarchists. We just believe the government should keep taxes as low as possible, should not tell people what they cannot eat or drink or smoke, should not invade other countries, should not take on the role of a charity, should not tell you what kind of products or services you can and cannot buy and sell and for what price, should not subsidize junk food, should not debase the currency and should not, above all else, bail out failing multi-billion dollar corporations with our tax dollars! We’ve got no problem with a government that protects people from directly harming or lying to one another, we just believe that government’s role should be limited to that. After all, the bumper sticker says “less government”, not “no government”.
Massimo goes on to argue for a state-run economy by saying that “modern societies are made of millions, often hundreds of millions, of individuals, and on that scale a society simply cannot exist without a functional government.” But this argument works both ways—the bigger a society gets, the more difficult central planning of its economy becomes. A small village may be easily run by a central planner. A medium-sized town would be more difficult. A nation of hundreds of millions? Why don’t you ask the people who would wait hours in line for bread in the Soviet Union how well their central planners did?
A free market economy is organized by people trading the goods and services they can produce most efficiently for the goods and services they desire the most. No central organization is needed because it is organized from the ground up. For someone who consistently argues that the complexities of the global ecosystem emerged without any intelligent designer guiding the process, Massimo displays a surprising lack of faith in the idea of naturally emergent order.
Finally, Massimo comes to what he believes is a knock-down argument—the idea of property rights. He is right that most libertarians consider property rights to be of paramount importance. This is a very simple progression: 1) no other person can have a claim to your mind and your body, 2) property is produced by your mind and your body, either through direct invention/cultivation or through trade, 3) no other person can have a claim to your property that supersedes your own.
In other words, since your property is the product of your mind and your body, to say someone else has a claim to your property that overrides your own is to say that they have a claim to use your mind and body that overrides your own. Even simpler, if someone else can claim your property without your consent, you are a slave.
Massimo thinks that need somehow overrides self-ownership as an epistemological origin of property rights. He cites a hypothetical situation where someone is dying of thirst in front of a man who owns some water. The weak point in the libertarian philosophy, Massimo claims, is that it does not allow for the parched man to have a justifiable right to the water that the other man owns. Massimo dismisses the idea out of hand that the water-owner will voluntarily give the parched man a drink because that, in Massimo’s opinion, is an unrealistic view of human nature (I don’t exactly know where he developed this view of human nature, but remind me never to go to this guy’s house when I’m collecting money for the local soup kitchen!)
But what are the practical implications of Massimo’s idea that need, and not production, justifies ownership? Well, parched and starving people are not just the province of hypothetical stories told by philosophy professors. Believe it or not, they actually exist! And according to Massimo, they are entitled to your stuff. No, you don’t just have an ethical responsibility or a charitable impulse to help them. Just like the parched man is allowed to take the water from the man who (I imagine) dug a well, so too do starving people have a right to take your food (or, by extension, anything you have earned that they can use to trade for food.) This is why Massimo Pigliucci has given all of his worldly possessions to Child Fund and promised to contribute 100% of his future earnings to feed starving children (or at least I assume he has, judging from his positions on the issue.)
It is very easy to see the libertarian basis for property rights—you own your body and mind, therefore you own whatever your body and mind produces, or whatever you get from trading what you produce. But what basis does Massimo offer for need replacing production as the faculty that justifies ownership? Well, and I’m not kidding here, his only justification for this is that thinking otherwise makes you “end up looking mean and uncaring”. Now, I want you to take a second and remember that THIS IS COMING FROM A PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHER!
Okay, so maybe the crying philosopher-clown didn’t really devote much time to his critique of libertarianism. Maybe he thought it was not an influential enough ideology to spend much time thinking about. That’s giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m willing to do it.
Next time, Massimo, try putting a little effort into it.