Among other common accusations, we libertarians are accustomed to the charge that we "worship the market." We are lumped in with conservatives, Republicans, and big businessmen, all of whom ostensibly have turned private enterprise into some sort of god to be honored and obeyed regardless of the consequences for humanity. To oppose state interventions in the economy — especially in the form of regulations or welfare — is supposedly the sign of dogmatic fanaticism, but without the saving grace of spirituality. No, our worship is that of cold, hard, inhumane materialism.
Ironies and confusions abound from this gross mischaracterization. First off, we do not, as libertarians, categorically have to have any position toward the marketplace other than that it should be free from coercive intrusion. Our only necessary moral take on capitalism is that it should be separated completely from aggression. To say that libertarians worship the market is no more correct than saying that drug policy reformers worship drug abuse because they question the notion that government force is the proper remedy. At a minimum, libertarians only tolerate the market and wish for it to be separated from state violence. This is the presumed liberal position on religion — that government should neither actively promote nor restrict religion — yet this does not mean all liberals worship every faith that they wish to see isolated from coercive sanction.
Of course, most libertarians happen not to be neutral on the market itself. We do, not out of first ethical principles, but from other considerations, tend to positively favor the market. Some of us would say we love it, even if we would come short of admitting any sort of religious devotion to it.
This is where understanding economics comes into play. Although the voluntary nature of the market alone makes it necessarily more attractive to libertarians than the government, economic science and simple empirical evidence make the bulletproof case that we owe much more to the market than is realized by most people, including — and here’s one of those ironies — conservatives, Republicans and big businessmen.
It is not an exaggeration to say that civilization itself depends upon the free exchange of goods and services, rooted in private property rights and freedom of association. Without private property, there would be no commerce, no culture, no society of which to speak. There would be no food and clothing for the masses, no medical technology, no comparative frivolities such as musical equipment, athletic gear, art supplies, nor the leisure time during which to indulge in them. There would, for nearly all humans living today, be no life. To reject private property and the right to buy, sell and trade is to reject the foundations of economic progress, out of which comes the time for men and women to engage in charity, to improve themselves in matters scientific and spiritual, to philosophize and better all of humanity with insights that bring us closer to the civil ideal.
Now have I just conceded that which I have set out to refute? Some might read my above words and conclude that I indeed worship the market, that I see in materialism the salvation of humanity. How crude. How vulgar. How oversimplified.
Well, consider the socialist alternatives. Economic interventionists of all stripes wish to hamper the market, to constrain it, to force it into their own mold. It is clearly no small institution in their assessment. They seem to see it as a bane nearly as much as we see it as a blessing. What’s more, they understand that wealth is required for all their central planning schemes, whether the ones that will one day achieve utopia or the ones that will inject some pragmatic order into the chaos of the marketplace. How do they seek to fund their beloved government interventions? By stealing from the market.
Whether by inflating the money supply, seizing land and resources outright, or confiscating the fruits of production, labor and exchange, all government programs have depended upon preying on the private sector for their budgets. Even as those who question the majesty of the market can conceive of only one way of funding their alternative institution — by robbing from that which they disparage.
Thus do all regulators, welfare workers, public schoolteachers, police officers, soldiers, bureaucrats and politicians get paid by looting the demonized and misunderstood voluntary sector of economic life. Thus do all who depend upon government handouts ultimately depend ever more fundamentally upon the market that produces the wealth in the first place. While the market does not need politicians and social workers in order to do its magic, without the market as host the parasitic state would have nothing on which to prey, and it would die instantly.
The socialists used to believe markets could not produce wealth for the masses, feed and clothe them. Now they have mostly abandoned that argument and focused on the inequalities and obscenities of mass production. They even belittle those of us who defend the market as being beholden to materialism, commercialism, and mere things as opposed to people. Yet at the core of all their demands for a thousand new government programs is a demand for material goods. Those who chant that health care is a human right are really talking about bottles of antibiotics, surgical tools, hospitals and beds for the infirmed. Those who demand more money for schools are similarly talking about books, chalkboards and other physical goods. They are just as materialistic as we are. They see dollar signs on everything too. For them, all of social life also revolves around commodities. The only difference is how they seek to get goods to those who need them. We see cooperation and voluntary exchange, rather than robbery, as the answer.
Yet there is another element in economics that cannot be forgotten, without which no physical good can be of use to anyone. That is the human component — the labor, the organizing, the mental work it takes to get things done. All the hospital beds are nearly useless without nurses or doctors, to say nothing of those who truck them around, deliver them, and assemble them.
As socialist programs continue to violate and loot from the market in order to achieve their supposed goals, they eventually run into a fundamental problem. You can move beds around. You can transport chalkboards. You can steal money. But what about the people involved? The human beings? The doctors, nurses, teachers, and workers of all kinds? They must either be bought off with stolen wealth or, failing that, coercion must be applied on them. The more socialism persists, the more society moves from voluntary means to compulsory means. Ultimately, Herbert Spencer was all too right when he said, "All socialism involves slavery," for the more the voluntary means of the market are discarded and replaced with the political means, the more people are enslaved to the socialist project.
Even leftists understand on some level the connection between human rights and free markets. Many of them decried the sanctions on Iraq, for example, a cruel imposition of political priorities to the fatal detriment of millions of people’s inalienable rights to own property and trade it voluntarily. The Iraqis did not need handouts from the US government, only to be left alone to trade. Yet conservatives who pay lip service to free trade had little problem defending these unspeakably wicked violations of Iraqis’ human right to trade. Oddly, the left didn’t learn the lesson that every such government violation of the market order has terrible effects, both seen and unseen, for those who need material goods and thus property rights just to live healthy and be adequately fed.
Do we worship the market? Nah. But we do recognize that we owe to it all the wealth around us, the material progress that the socialists call superficial even as they expropriate it and try to mimic it with their own violent institution, the state. We do recognize that civilization could not exist without economic exchange. We also recognize that as imperfect as the market might be, just as humanity itself falls short of perfection, it is infinitely superior to the intrinsically violent and dehumanizing organization known as the state.
I would make a wager to all the statists: We’ll see how well we fare with just the market, without the state constantly imposing its edicts and robbing from its product. Then we can see how well we would do if we eliminated voluntary exchange, production and private property altogether — see if the state could even survive not having something to feed off of. Of course, this wager is unnecessary since every time socialism has been seriously attempted, the burdened civilization simply couldn’t handle it and something had to give way. In the process inevitably come enslavement and impoverishment on a wide scale. Eventually the state itself collapses as the host can no longer support it.
So instead I’ll just pose a question: If the market is so horrible, why can’t the state create its own wealth and achieve its goals without robbing the market? Of course, if it could, it wouldn’t be a state at all, but just another voluntary, market institution. Is it really any wonder that we prefer that which is necessary to humanity and inherently productive to that which can only live violently at its expense?
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.