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The 7 Strangest Libertarian Ideas

We must challenge libertarians on the extreme nature of their ideology.

Few movements in the United States today harbor stranger political ideas than the self-proclaimed libertarians. The Rand Paul school of libertarianism is at least as far outside the mainstream on the right as, say, a rather doctrinaire old-school form of Marxism/Leninism is on the left. The difference is this: The mainstream media isn’t telling us that we’re in the middle of a “Marxist/Leninist moment.” Leninist politicians aren’t being touted as serious presidential contenders. And all the media chatter we’re hearing about a “Libertarian moment” ignores the very harsh, extreme and sometimes downright ugly ideas that are being disseminated under that banner.

It’s great to have allies like Rand Paul working alongside other Americans to defend our right to privacy, restrain the NSA and reduce the military/industrial complex’s grip on foreign policy. It’s possible to admire their political courage in these areas while at the same time recognize that we may not care for the environment they inhabit.

There’s another reason to challenge libertarians on the extreme nature of their ideology: A number of them seem determined to drive competing ideas out of the free market for ideas—which isn’t very libertarian of them. There has been a concerted effort to marginalize mainstream values and ideas about everything from workers’ rights to the role of government in national life. So by all means, let’s have an open debate. Let’s make sure that all ideas, no matter how unusual they may seem, are welcome for debate and consideration. But let’s not allow any political movement to become a Trojan horse, one which is allowed to have a “moment” without ever telling us what it really represents.

Obviously, not every self-proclaimed libertarian believes these ideas, but libertarianism is a space which nurtures them. Can the Republican Party really succeed by embracing this space? Why does the mainstream media treat libertarian ideas as somehow more legitimate than, say, the social welfare principles which guide Great Britain or Sweden?

Here are seven of modern libertarianism’s strangest and most extreme notions.

1. Parents should be allowed to let their children starve to death. We’re not making this up. From progressive writer Matt Bruenig (via Sean McElwee at Salon) comes this excerpt from libertarian economist Murray Rothbard:

“a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also … should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.”

Note the repetitive use of the word “it” to describe the child. This linguistic dehumanization of helpless individuals is surprisingly common in libertarian literature. (See Ayn Rand and the young Alan Greenspan for further examples.)

Rothbard is a member of the so-called Austrian School of economics, cofounded the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and is widely admired among libertarians. He continues:

“The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)”

In other words, society may have moral values, but it may not impose those values on anyone.

To his credit, Rothbard preaches a form of libertarianism which is internally consistent. That’s a virtue some of his peers in that community lack. But people should understand: this idea isn't an outlier in the libertarian world. It is, in fact, a logical outgrowth of the philosophy.

2. We must deregulate companies like Uber, even when they cheat. So-called ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber are actually taxi services using unlicensed contractors. They’re heavily promoted by libertarians who tout them as ideal examples of the free market as a counter to bureaucratized, more traditional taxicab services.

We now know that Uber is as ruthless in its anticompetitive tactics as it is hypocritical in its public statements. A recent report from the Verge shows that Uber employees frequently hire drivers from competitor Lyft for short, relatively unprofitable rides in an attempt to recruit them. Uber promised to “tone down” these tactics. Instead, in a related move, its employees made and then canceled 5,493 Lyft reservations, reducing the availability of Lyft drivers and hurting its drivers.

Yet here’s what Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had to say about taxis:

“The taxi industry [is] trying to protect a monopoly that has been granted them by local officials, so they're trying to slow down competition."

That sounds a lot like what Uber is doing. In a Twitter exchange this week, Kalanick insisted that Lyft drivers were welcome to sign with Uber while keeping their Lyft affiliation. But Uber lied to its own drivers about that recently in New York, when it sent out a text message falsely claiming that New York regulations barred them from signing with Lyft.

Have libertarians expressed their outrage with Uber for its dirty tricks, or for its assault on the idea of competition? Not at all. In fact, libertarian Nick Gillespie wrote in Time last March that, "Letting markets work to find new ways of delivering goods and services isn’t just better for customers in the short term, it’s the only way to unleash the innovation that ultimately propels long-term economic growth.”

Of course, “letting markets work” is precisely what Uber isn’t doing. Gillespie also expresses outrage that California has imposed regulations that include “mandatory criminal-background checks for drivers, licensing via public-utilities commissions, and driver-training programs.”

Which one of those things don’t you want to have in place when a driver comes to your house at four in the morning for an emergency drive to the hospital? But Gillespie equates regulators to “mobsters.”

(Update: Gillespie has been silent about these recent Uber revelations. For its part, Uber has hired former Obama aide David Plouffe, which means nothing politically but will help them leverage their market dominance and suppress competition even more. Expect further radio silence from the libertarian front.)

3. We should eliminate Social Security and Medicare. Libertarian/Republican icon Rand Paul holds with the libertarian faith in his steadfast opposition to both Medicare and Social Security. “The fundamental reason why Medicare is failing is why the Soviet Union failed,” says Paul. “Socialism doesn’t work.”

Except that Medicare isn’t failing. It provides healthcare at lower direct cost, lower administrative cost, and with lower cost inflation than equivalent private-sector insurance. Its biggest efficiency problem stems from the runaway profit motive in the delivery of healthcare. Medicare must purchase goods and services from for-profit medical corporations, hospital chains and pharmaceutical companies. (Conservatives have forbidden it from negotiating prices with Big Pharma.)

In other words: It’s the private sector, not government, which is causing our country’s healthcare problems.

Social Security is entirely self-funded through its own contributions. It has far lower costs than any equivalent private program. Medicare and Social Security annoy libertarians, not because they don’t work, but because they do, putting “free enterprise” in the dust.

4. Society doesn’t have the right to enforce basic justice in public places of business. From Rep. Ron Paul, Sen. Paul’s father:

“… the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.” 

This was Rep. Paul’s reasoning in voting against a resolution which praised the Civil Rights Act. The libertarian position, as articulated by the Paul family, appears to be this: a business owner’s rights, even in a public place of business, extend to the ability to discriminate solely on the basis of skin color.

That is a violation of the United States Constitution, and of federal law. The libertarian position is that some laws cannot be enforced on private property. But which ones? If the government can’t forbid discrimination, can it forbid theft? Assault? Murder?

As with so many libertarian positions, the reasoning seems murky and the differences appear arbitrary. After all, won’t the free market eventually make a murderer’s business unpopular and force a correction to the killer’s behavior?

5. Selflessness is vile. From libertarian avatar and prophet Ayn Rand: “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.”

Aid workers. Doctors Without Borders. Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. Mother Teresa. In this libertarian view, all of them are “parasites” who make parasites of those they serve—because, of course, the free market would eventually eliminate poverty. (Never mind the millions who would starve in the meantime.)

Not only are these good people “parasites” in this libertarian view, they are deliberately parasitical (“in motive”). They lack the nobility of character needed to act purely out of self-interest, like the murderer Ayn Rand so admired. As Mark Ames reported in 2012, Rand,

“became enthralled by a real-life American serial killer, William Edward Hickman, whose gruesome, sadistic dismemberment of a 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation. Rand filled her early notebooks with worshipful praise of Hickman. According to biographer Jennifer Burn... Rand was so smitten with Hickman that she modeled her first literary creation... on him.”

Rand described the child-killer as a “genuinely beautiful soul.” But that aid worker sweating in the Darfur heat, spooning food into a skeletal child’s mouth? Despicable.

This is not fringe libertarianism. Ayn Rand is its heart and soul.

6. Democracy is unacceptable, especially since we began feeding poor people and allowing women to vote. This isn’t a fringe idea, but one that was proclaimed in a prominent libertarian outlet by one of the movement’s leading funders:

Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

In the face of these realities, one would despair if one limited one’s horizon to the world of politics. I do not despair because I no longer believe that politics encompasses all possible futures of our world. In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called “social democracy.

Translation: Things have gone to hell with all those black and brown poor people around, especially with all those weak-willed women feeling sorry for them and voting to feed them. This isn’t your lunatic uncle talking. These are the words of Peter Thiel, PayPal billionaire and leading libertarian, not spoken in a drunken rage at Thanksgiving dinner, but published in Cato Unbound, perhaps the nation’s leading libertarian outlet.

Thiel clearly felt the heat on this one, since he was forced to append a statement at the end saying, “It would be absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us,” adding: “While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.”

Thiel’s prescription? “Escape” democracy by using technology to create spaces where the democratic process cannot go. His ideas include ocean colonization, or “seasteading"; outer space; and inevitably, “cyberspace.”

Unfortunately for the libertarian ethos, cyberspace is a government creation. The Internet, and the core technology which enables us to access it, were both created at government expense using government resources. But Thiel’s dream, the libertarian dream, is one in which publicly created tools, which should rightly be considered the modern “commons,” are usurped by a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals for their own undemocratic and noncompetitive purposes.

7. We can replace death with libertarianism.If they can’t bend us to their will in this lifetime, they’ll achieve the goal by other means. Thiel begins his Cato essay this way:

“I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.”

That’s right. The new libertarian ideology insists that private entrepreneurs will conquer death. Then they’ll force us to bend to their will in the new dominion of eternal life, whether in biochemically preserved flesh or as uploaded spirits in a digital netherworld. Either way, their freedom won’t be ours. Based on their past behavior, they’ll “monetize” our afterlife with advertising and by manipulating our artificial-life experiences.

Life extension has its merits, if handled humanely and justly. But an eternity of “curated content” governed by Silicon Valley billionaires? I’d rather die, thanks very much. And if the Republican Party accepts the “libertarian moment” as its new ideological covering, it apparently has a death wish too.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, a consultant, and a former musician.