Are "Libertarians" Sincere?
I'm curious about the extent to which they're sincere and the extent to which they're cynical.
“But there is—putting aside my own views about what freedom is all about—a question of how sincerely people believe in this ideology that our society refers to as ‘libertarianism’.”
“So the people who like the current situation want to define the current situation as ‘the market’ and then say that anyone who wants to adjust anything is trying to interfere with ‘the market’. This framing is inaccurate, but it’s a highly useful framing—it hides and conceals and masks the ways in which the current system has been structured and shaped and warped to further enrich the rich and powerful.”
“The point is that we want to set up conversations between Baker and the CAs—these conversations will allow us to find out how many CAs are SBs, and there will be lots of common ground and common cause between the SBs and the left.”
“How can we make these discussions happen? We should contact the think tanks and organizations that call themselves ‘libertarian’—we should make these discussions happen.”
There’s an ideology in the US called “libertarianism”. And there’s a political party in the US called the “Libertarian Party”—take a look at this excerpt from the “Statement of Principles” that appears on the party’s website:
Libertarians want all members of society to have abundant opportunities to achieve economic success. A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner. Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market. The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.
My own view is that freedom has to do with things like what David Ellerman has put forward arguments about. So I personally don’t think that what our society refers to as “libertarianism” has much to do with freedom at all.
But there is—putting aside my own views about what freedom is all about—a question of how sincerely people believe in this ideology that our society refers to as “libertarianism”. So let’s explore this.
Let me distinguish two categories of people:
“SBs”—people who call themselves “libertarians” and are sincere believers in the ideology
“CAs”—people who call themselves “libertarians” and who we’re completely agnostic about when it comes to whether they’re sincere believers in the ideology
Let me emphasize about CAs that we have no idea whether or not they’re sincere—we have zero reason to think that they’re sincere and we have zero reason to think that they’re not sincere, so it’s not like we’re leaning in either direction regarding CAs.
I wrote in my 11 June 2022 piece about:
the fundamental dynamic in the GOP where the party pursues an unpopular legislative agenda—of pouring money into the pockets of the rich and powerful—but mobilizes votes through a lot of nasty and dangerous and poisonous tactics having to do with what’s euphemistically called “cultural issues”
the fact that a great deal of the GOP’s legislative agenda involves using state power to pour money into the pockets of the rich and powerful and the way in which Newt Gingrich is the ultimate symbol of this fact
The GOP’s policies are all about reliance on state power—how many CAs know about this, how many CAs speak out against this, and can we assume that CAs who know about this but don’t speak out against this are insincere?
Common Ground and Common Cause
SBs will have tons of common ground and common cause with the left—the left wants to eliminate the whole apparatus of state power that channels income and wealth upwards, so SBs will be able to work together with the left on that, since SBs will want to eliminate that whole apparatus.
It’s easy to be cynical about CAs. Just look at think tanks and organizations that call themselves “libertarian”—ask yourself how often these think tanks and organizations explore and embrace and endorse the ideas that Dean Baker lays out in his 2016 book Rigged that you can read online for free. I don’t see Baker’s progressive agenda getting much support from those think tanks and organizations—I don’t know how to explain that lack of support if the people in these think tanks and organizations are sincere.
I would love to see Dean Baker discuss policy with some CAs from these think tanks and organizations—that would be fascinating to see, since you’d be able to see if they’re SBs, since you’d be able to see whether they agree with Baker’s agenda in the cases where Baker argues that the path to greater equality is to remove the apparatus of state power that moves money upwards.
I took the following notes on Baker’s 2016 book:
“The point is that we don’t have ‘market outcomes’ that we can decide whether to interfere with or not.”
“Government policy shapes market outcomes.”
“It determines aggregate levels of output and employment, which in turn affect the bargaining power of different groups of workers.”
“Government policy structures financial markets, and the policy giving the industry special protections allows for some individuals to get enormously rich.”
“Government policy determines the extent to which individuals can claim ownership of technology and how much they can profit from it.”
“Government policy sets up corporate governance structures that let top management enrich itself at the expense of shareholders.”
“And government policy determines whether highly paid professionals enjoy special protection from foreign and domestic competition.”
“Pretending that the distribution of income and wealth that results from a long set of policy decisions is somehow the natural workings of the market is not a serious position.”
“It might be politically convenient for conservatives who want to lock inequality in place.”
“It is a more politically compelling position to argue that we should not interfere with market outcomes than to argue for a system that is deliberately structured to make some people very rich while leaving others in poverty.”
“Pretending that distributional outcomes are just the workings of the market is convenient for any beneficiaries of this inequality, even those who consider themselves liberal.”
“They can feel entitled to their prosperity by virtue of being winners in the market, yet sufficiently benevolent to share some of their wealth with the less fortunate.”
“For this reason, they may also find it useful to pretend that we have a set of market outcomes not determined by policy decisions.”
“But we should not structure our understanding of the economy around political convenience.”
“There is no way of escaping the fact that levels of output and employment are determined by policy, that the length and strength of patent and copyright monopolies are determined by policy, and that the rules of corporate governance are determined by policy.”
“The people who would treat these and other policy decisions determining the distribution of income as somehow given are not being honest.”
“We can debate the merits of a policy, but there is no policy-free option out there.”
So the people who like the current situation want to define the current situation as “the market” and then say that anyone who wants to adjust anything is trying to interfere with “the market”. This framing is inaccurate, but it’s a highly useful framing—it hides and conceals and masks the ways in which the current system has been structured and shaped and warped to further enrich the rich and powerful.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is an extremely powerful organization in US politics—Wikipedia describes the organization as “a libertarian conservative political advocacy group”. Take a look at AFP’s self-description:
Americans for Prosperity is dedicated to the belief that every person has a unique set of gifts and the ability to contribute to society in their own way, an idea that has inspired progress since our country’s founding.
Driven by this belief, Americans for Prosperity engages in broad-based grassroots outreach to advocate for long-term solutions to the country’s biggest problems that prevent people from realizing their incredible potential—unsustainable government spending and debt, a broken immigration system, a rigged economy, and a host of other issues you can explore.
American for Prosperity activists engage friends and neighbors on key issues and encourage them to take an active role in advancing a free and open society, where every person can realize their American dream. We recruit and unite concerned individuals in all 50 states to advance policies that will help people improve their lives.
I’m interested in this part of the self-description:
a rigged economy
I wonder whether someone from AFP would talk to Baker about Baker’s 2016 book Rigged—Baker’s book is obviously relevant to the issue of “a rigged economy” and the book is even titled Rigged, so you would think that there would be some common ground there and some common cause there.
Charles and David Koch
Everyone should definitely read Christopher Leonard’s 2019 book Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America—I took some notes based on a description of the book:
“The annual revenue of Koch Industries is bigger than that of Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and US Steel combined.”
“Koch is everywhere: from the fertilizers that make our food to the chemicals that make our pipes to the synthetics that make our carpets and diapers to the Wall Street trading in all these commodities.”
“few people know much about Koch Industries and that’s because the billionaire Koch brothers have wanted it that way”
“If you want to understand how we killed the unions in this country, how we widened the income divide, stalled progress on climate change, and how our corporations bought the influence industry, all you have to do is read this book.”
Leonard comments in a 2019 interview about what he wants people to get out of his book—I took notes:
“I truly would like the readers of ‘Kochland’ to see how complicated America’s economic and political system really is.”
“There is so much going on beneath the surface, beyond horse-race politics and the 24/7 news cycle.”
“That is where the real action is.”
“It would warm my heart if people walked away from the book with that new perspective.”
“I would also love it if readers understood that the shape of the economy is not incidental or organic.”
“It is absolutely formed by humans and by policy choices, such as those made by Charles Koch.”
It’s hard to get across just how much influence Charles Koch and David Koch have had on American society and politics and life. I mentioned AFP previously in this piece—David Koch apparently founded AFP:
Founded by billionaire businessman and conservative/libertarian political activist David Koch, Americans for Prosperity has emerged as one of the most influential conservative issue advocacy groups on the national and state political scene.
And AFP is just insanely powerful and influential and prominent:
To bankroll Americans for Prosperity and other outfits that advance their ideological agenda, the Kochs built a political machine that in size, scope, sophistication, and fundraising prowess rivals the Republican Party itself.
So the Kochs have had a huge influence—it’s amazing to think that Americans know so little information about a “political machine that in size, scope, sophistication, and fundraising prowess rivals the Republican Party itself”.
And the question arises as to the extent the Kochs have been sincere about opposing government intervention in the economy—Leonard addresses this question in a 2019 interview and I took some notes:
“Tea party voters were super angry at what they saw as a rigged system that gave bailouts to Wall Street.”
“Koch would hold rallies. Koch would help them organize.”
“But when they attended those rallies, Koch would give them the message: Regulating greenhouse gases is a form of tyranny.”
“And they’ve really reshaped the debate in the Republican politics.”
“And I think you see Donald Trump responding to that.”
“Donald Trump was just promoting liquid natural gas from fracking”
“The federal government subsidized fracking for decades, through basic research, tax breaks, all the rest of it.”
“The federal government built the fracking business.”
“But now that the federal government wants to stoke competition to fossil fuels with windmills or solar, it’s crony capitalism, so to speak.”
“And the Koch network is seeking to destroy it.”
And Leonard also addresses this question at the 39:00 mark in the following video of a different 2019 interview—just watch until the 44:16 mark:
It’s pretty hard for me to say that Charles Koch is an SB if it’s the case that his businesses are “deeply enmeshed”—and/or have been “deeply enmeshed”—with the government in the way that Leonard describes. It might be possible to be an SB despite this kind of deep enmeshment, though—I’m not saying that there’s no way to reconcile the apparent contradiction.
Here’s an excerpt from Kochland:
The weekly meeting was led by Koch’s top lobbyist, Philip Ellender. He didn’t share the habits of a typical lobbyist. He lived in Atlanta, working out of Koch’s offices there, and commuted to DC by airplane. While most lobbyists arrived for work around nine thirty or ten in the morning after spending late nights at dinner parties, Ellender operated on Wichita time. He arrived early and spoke frequently on the phone with colleagues in Kansas. He was also a true believer in Charles Koch’s philosophy. “We’re a bit philosophically more pure,” Ellender explained, “in that we recognize that we are unabashedly free traders, that we believe in profiting by the economic, not political, means. We’re against cronyism. We’re against subsidies. We’re against mandates.” He peppered his speech with the vocabulary of Market-Based Management.
As Koch Industries became more politically influential, it became increasingly insistent that its lobbyists were pursuing a purely ideological mission. Koch’s lobbyists and public relations teams said their goal wasn’t to boost Koch Industries’ profits, but to champion the ideas of freedom and prosperity. Ellender and others were quick to highlight the times when Koch lobbied against subsidies or tax breaks that might benefit the company. Still, Ellender and his team focused overwhelmingly on the issues that did matter to Koch’s business, such as arcane rules about chemical safety, rate billing, and taxes on oil companies. Koch Industries also accepted the subsidies and tax breaks that were in place for it—Ellender said that refusing to do so would put Koch at an unacceptable disadvantage to its competitors.
So it’s hard to know what to make of this:
Still, Ellender and his team focused overwhelmingly on the issues that did matter to Koch’s business, such as arcane rules about chemical safety, rate billing, and taxes on oil companies. Koch Industries also accepted the subsidies and tax breaks that were in place for it—Ellender said that refusing to do so would put Koch at an unacceptable disadvantage to its competitors.
I have to say that I’m highly skeptical about how an SB could (1) selectively go after “arcane rules about chemical safety, rate billing, and taxes on oil companies” and (2) accept “subsidies and tax breaks”—I have a lot of questions about how an SB could do these things.
Setting Up Discussions
The point is that we want to set up conversations between Baker and the CAs—these conversations will allow us to find out how many CAs are SBs, and there will be lots of common ground and common cause between the SBs and the left.
How can we make these discussions happen? We should contact the think tanks and organizations that call themselves “libertarian”—we should make these discussions happen.