A Libertarian Thought Experiment

Anarchy Symbol

I have quite a few libertarian and anarchist friends. They are infinitely correct on the horrific degradation of civil liberties and American imperialism, which are out of control, unsustainable, and completely immoral. With our incessant aggression and drone strikes upon nations that never attacked us, regularly killing civilians including women and children, the United States is the largest terrorist organization in the world today. And we all pay for it with our tax dollars, as we eat our submarine sandwiches and watch men in tights pummel one another on giant screens for our distracted enjoyment.

Here, however, I will explain why libertarianism/anarchy is not a tenable societal arrangement. I use those words interchangeably here, although I realize on the margin there is a distinction. Other than that, feel free to point out the errors in my thinking, if you find some.

To begin: libertarianism, like all minority positions, has the luxury of being an argument-in-principle, and never a practical policy. And minority position you libertarians are: have a look around your cohort. You are, as a general rule — subject as are all generalities to exceptions — young, able-bodied persons, or older persons who have already accumulated wealth to be protected (whether by chance-of-birth or a combination of good genes and motivation). Generally, you are white males. I do not encounter many poor libertarians; aged libertarians without money; disabled libertarians; libertarians of racial or ethnic minority backgrounds; mentally retarded libertarians; mentally ill libertarians; sick libertarians; etc. Yet the total population is an amalgam of all these types. So minority position you will remain, and thus you can argue in principle forever, because you will never make actual policy.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s put libertarians in power. They must now make the policies by which our entire grouping of humans, called a ‘nation,’ lives. The first libertarian principle translates to an easy-enough policy: ‘everyone is free to behave as they see fit, because everyone’s life is their own.’ Great!

But then anyone with a lukewarm I.Q. asks: ‘wait, what if you murder someone?’ The libertarian policy responds deftly: ‘. . . . so long as you do no harm to others!’ Great! Now we have fleshed out libertarian policy #1, the only law: ‘do no harm to others.’

But then the three questions arise which sink the political ship. The questions that someone arguing in principle can avoid with abstract axioms, but someone making actual policy must actually deal with: (1) what is ‘harm to others’? (2) What do we do when persons break the one law? (3) What about potential harm? How on earth do our libertarian policymakers handle these questions? In turn:

1. Overt harm to others is easy. One person invades another’s bodily autonomy. Great! This is illegal in our libertarian nation. But what about less direct harms? The secondhand smoke of cigarettes? Can we smoke in bars? Perhaps ‘smoking bars’ and ‘non-smoking bars,’ so persons can freely choose what type of bar to patronize. How about public parks, or the sidewalk, where someone might pass who does not want to inhale the secondhand cancer? Or what about the peddlers of cigarettes? We know this product is deadly. Should an ‘I just sold it and nothing more’ argument protect the vendor? How about a vendor who builds a nuclear bomb packaged with deft instructions on how to smuggle it into a metropolitan center? Is an ‘I just sold it and nothing more’ defense airtight?

2. Second: in our libertarian reality, someone breaks the one law of ‘no harm to others.’ Perhaps he harms someone with some uncommon weapon, like a personally-owned tank or fighter jet (after all, all weapons are legal and available on the anarchic market). How do we stop him? Must the citizenry band together with their own weapons? Grandma included? And if the Kitty Genovese effect takes over, and no one stops the criminal, is he free? Or do the citizens pool their money together to pay something akin to a police force that has a mandate to stop such criminals? Who oversees this force for corruption, and who commands it? Once the criminal is caught, do we have a public court system? Who pays for it? Do we have prisons, executions, or something else, and who pays for those? Or are all crimes merely punishable by fines? What if the perpetrator does not pay? Who decides what kinds of crimes get what punishments, and by what process? If you’ve instituted a police force, courts, and legal concepts, you’ve just created a government bureaucracy with authority and force, out of necessity. Perhaps much smaller than the current mess, but government nonetheless.  Un-anarchy.

3. Finally, what about potential harm? In our libertarian world, am I free to build weapons of mass destruction in my basement, if I can figure out how? Or am I free to shoot bullets perpendicularly across a busy highway to my heart’s delight, so long as no bullet actually strikes a motorist? Libertarian thinking is wholly reactive, and never regulatory or preventative. The axiom ‘no harm, no crime’ implies any number of such absurdities should be legal: building nukes in home kitchens, shooting wantonly across freeways, suspending toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in a giant vat above the town’s drinking water with a single string of dental floss, so long as the dental floss does not break . . . . There is no limit to this for the imaginative. Or, for a real-world example, should that mentally ill and suicidal man in Ohio a few years back have been allowed to keep a private zoo of tigers and lions?

This is why libertarianism/anarchism can never be more than a tug affecting policy. It is not a tenable social policy on its own, because all actualized policies must answer complex questions. It is a useful anchor in the social dialog to drag the policy towards more freedom and less bureaucracy, but it is not itself a policy. It is a mere principle. When advocating for actual policy, you must answer the above questions and countless more somehow, concretely, and realize other self-described libertarians will answer them differently.

We are on a spectrum, not living in a binary world of the ‘free’ and the ‘unfree.’ Real life is infinitely complex, and common sense demonstrates that the ‘actual freedom’ of one individual in many cases is less valuable than ‘freedom from potential harm’ for the many. So I say: raise your valuable voices to move the marker on the spectrum toward freedom. But stop thinking, implying, or stating as though an anarchic form of societal arrangement can or will ever happen among we humans, who are, after all, a tribal, social, and hierarchical species that depends on one another to survive. Not happening.