There has been much amusement in Canada in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision on “Obamacare,” tapping into a longstanding Canadian tradition of smirking at our neighbours to the south. This amusement has been largely spurred by a Buzzfeed article that compiled Twitter comments by Americans threatening to respond to their newly socialized healthcare system by moving to Canada in protest. This article was so widely shared that several publications that should know better, including Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post, referenced it on their own websites.
The fact that under two dozen people in a country of 300 million don’t know how a specific foreign country’s health care system works shouldn’t be a surprise, particularly in light of the fact that they are most likely Republicans. However, these Tweets do point to a larger, more notable fact that is often overlooked in American political theatre: America is something of an anomaly in its bizarre attachment to libertarianism.
You have Little Merit
With all due respect to my libertarian friends, the increasingly common view of libertarianism as gospel is disturbing considering how little evidence there is of the ideology’s merit. The majority of the developed world has a heavily socialized system when it comes to areas like health, welfare, and government intervention in the private sector. The libertarian assertion that the least fettered free markets will necessarily perform the best does little to explain the success of long-standing members of the rich world like Germany, Australia, and Canada. Nor does it explain the fact that, despite widespread implementation of free market policies across the developing world, the biggest development success stories—like China and South Korea—used a heavy amount of government intervention in the private sector. When confronted with the unfortunate fact that their ideas have never actually been proven correct, they will usually claim that this is because their ideas have never fully been put into practice.
Which brings me to 2008. The 2008 financial crisis had multiple causes and can be plausibly blamed on multiple catastrophic decisions by multiple irresponsible decision-makers. However, one of those causes appears to be the fact that the financial sector was deregulated to the point where extremely risky and (possibly intentionally) destructive business practices became legal, possible, and put into practice. Libertarians, when confronted with this fact, will not admit that there are indeed some areas where the private sector should have to answer to someone other than fate and economic math. They will usually double down, and make the baffling claim that 2008 was a result of too much government regulation.
Life is More than Numbers
Many libertarians come from an economics background. This explains much about their beliefs. From a purely economic standpoint, libertarianism makes sense. Unfortunately, by ignoring politics and the need for government, economists are not only ignoring other disciplines, they’re ignoring reality. Take, for example, a recent suggestion by economist Daniel Altman, also writing in Foreign Policy, that Greece weather the financial crisis by selling off its “assets,” including its cultural artefacts and the very ownership of large chunks of Greece itself. Wars have been fought over less. Much less. A purely economic view of politics is one that doesn’t account for the very important factors that economics doesn’t have room for. Such as culture, security, and the quality of life provided by a socialized healthcare system, a social safety net, and other areas too vital to be thrown into the snake pit of a for-profit competition.
The anti-government hysteria of libertarians ignores the fact that is the government, not the private sector, that is under popular control and more accountable for its actions. Not to mention the fact that the private sector has no accountability whatsoever without government intervention. Libertarianism cannot be put in place without reducing accountability among the powerful. As such, libertarianism is a gift to the powerful, and its spread among the powerless has caused otherwise reasonable people to vote directly against their own best interests. The lower you are on the socio-economic latter, the more you have to gain from a responsible welfare state—tempered by a healthy and robust private sector, of course. Also, economic power in the hands of the middle class and lower class is more likely to be put right back into the economy, spurring growth.
I Welcome Ron Paul
No matter what Republicans say, a person who makes 100 times your salary does not buy 100 times more stuff. I hate to sound like an Occupy protester, but the fact is that they horde that wealth, or even channel it overseas, and we don’t get all that much of it back. As long as there is a free market (and there always should be), there will be an incentive to work hard and acquire wealth. It is reasonable to require the wealthy to use their assets to contribute to the betterment of the country that gave them the opportunity to become wealthy to begin with. The country that will send a cop or ambulance or fire truck to their door if they need one.
Most frustrating of all, libertarians don’t just vote against their own best interests. They also vote against their expressed beliefs. Take Ron Paul. Why is the man that you claim stands alone in representing your values willing to join and bolster a political party that runs counter to most of them? At the risk of angering the legion of humourless and overly sensitive libertarians who rain dogmatic fury down on any who dare question Mr. Paul on the internet, it is worth noting that Ron Paul will never be president of the United States of America. The American political establishment, including nearly everyone else in Ron Paul’s own political party, will not stand behind his plan to legalize drugs, completely overhaul America’s monetary system and practically eliminate most key aspects of its foreign policy.
I’m happy that Ron Paul exists. He is a lively addition to American political theatre, and unlike many politicians he may actually be an earnest person with some semblance of consistency and personal integrity. However, if he were serious about his goals he would run again as an independent, and not as a useful tool of a political party that runs counter to most of his core beliefs. As it stands he has been reduced to a brilliant political hat trick by the Republicans. He is rebel-bait, a mechanism by which libertarians and people disillusioned with mainstream politicians can somehow be lured into voting for the political party least interested in their political freedoms and most interested in foreign wars. At least they won’t raise taxes, right?
Just Like Extreme Socialists?
That, ultimately, is the main problem with libertarianism—other than the unfortunate fact that it has never been proven to work. Libertarians claim to be rebels who reject the status quo, while usually supporting the economic policies that mainly benefit those at the top of the socio-economic hierarchy.
They are certainly right about the benefits of a free market and the mind-boggling inefficiency of government. But where they fall short is their dogmatism and unwillingness to compromise. Just like extreme socialists, they are unwilling to accept that their ideas make more sense as a contribution to the system, and less sense as an alternative to it.