The Political Class

Liberty v. Utopia

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski Recently by James Ostrowski: Remarks to the WNY Tea Party on July4th

Note: this is the introduction to Political Class Dismissed, now back in print on Amazon.

These essays apply libertarian ideas to current political problems. The first section deals with politics in Buffalo and New York State, and, by implication, the Northeast "Rust Belt." The second section concerns domestic policy issues of national concern. Foreign policy comes next, with a heavy emphasis on recent events such as the war in Iraq. Following that come several essays about well-known public figures, past and present. Finally, there are two essays that provide a fair summary of my views: one about libertarianism’s polar opposite, communism; the last about the relevance of libertarian views in a post-9/11 world.

Libertarianism holds that the only legitimate function of government is to protect the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property. These are negative rights. Our rights are respected if others leave us alone, that is, do nothing to us. They are not positive rights. We can’t use government to force others to give us things we want without violating their own right to be left alone.

I did not invent libertarianism or any of its major elements. I merely apply its insights to understand and explain how politics and politicians have worsened our world and our lives. Libertarianism is a simple philosophy often accused of being simplistic. It is not. It does not deny the complexities and difficulties of life. It does not purport to solve all problems through political means, or even anti-political means. It is not utopian, though it is commonly thought to be so. Libertarianism is simultaneously accused of being utopian and not being utopian enough. We are thought by some to be callous towards the multifarious problems that can plague free people. Both criticisms cannot be true. Actually, neither is true.

The charge of utopianism is easier to refute. Libertarians do not say, and have never said, that all of life’s problems will be solved if society operates on libertarian principles. Human nature and the human condition being what they are, there will still be crime and conflict and the occasional war. Given the finitude of existence and the gap between dreams and reality, there will always be tragedy, frustration, loneliness and violence in human affairs. Libertarianism offers no solution to these problems. It is not a religion or personal philosophy.

The notion that libertarianism is utopian is itself explainable by reference to the limitations of human nature. Calling it utopian is a lazy way for people to dismiss an alternative view they cannot refute in any other way. Laziness is a feature of human nature that libertarians do not purport to solve. People also resist libertarianism for many other reasons arising out of human nature such as fear of change, ego investment in long-held, if flawed, ideas, and fear of losing politically-derived power, prestige and wealth if radical political change occurs. Again, these are natural human tendencies flowing out of human nature that libertarians cannot change. Unlike many other political philosophies, libertarians take human beings as they are and require no changes in them to make their vision workable.

Ironically, it is the various philosophies ranged against libertarianism that are guilty of the fallacy of utopianism to varying degrees. The utopian fallacy is committed when a political ideal is posited which cannot, in the nature of things, be achieved. Such schemes ignore the basic unalterable facts of human nature and the human condition. They contain internal contradictions, and, since contradictions cannot exist outside the mind, such schemes, in their intended form, cannot exist. It is not that people are not good enough for these utopian schemes to work; rather, these utopian schemes are not good enough for them to work with real people.

For example, communism was utopian, among other reasons, because it abolished private property in capital goods. As Ludwig von Mises demonstrated, without a market in capital goods there will be no market prices for such goods. Without prices, we cannot know whether we are taking lesser-valued goods and converting them into more highly-valued goods (i.e., producing wealth), or taking more highly valued goods and turning them into less highly-valued goods (i.e., destroying wealth).

One of the underlying premises of utopianism is that there is a political solution for every human problem. This is why utopians insist that libertarians detail how they will solve every conceivable social problem. On the contrary, not only is there not a political solution for most human problems, there is not an earthly solution of any kind for many human problems. Similarly, it is typical for utopians to require a complete blueprint for the future, "the five-year plan," which provides for all contingencies. The politicians who could not assure us that on September 11th America would not suffer a devastating attack, insist that libertarians set forth every tiny detail of how a libertarian society would work.

This is utopian folly. All that can be done, and that needs to be done, is to set forth the essential logic of the system, and to show that all competing political schemes have failed. Libertarianism will work, or not work, according to the nature and character of the people in a given society. Should we continue to operate under a system that has failed — and whose failure was inevitable given its internal contradictions — and never for all time find out if there is a workable alterative? Is it possible there will be problems under a regime of libertarianism? Yes, and what else is new? The relevant question is: will the problems be worse than the problems of Big Government? It is difficult to see how they could be.

The statist system itself is based on utopian thinking. We are told that a strong central government is necessary because, human nature being what it is, the public needs to be protected from evil miscreants. We are then asked to assume these same miscreants will not do everything they can to gain control of the state apparatus. This is contrary to all theory and experience and is thus utopian. Logic tells us that evil people will gravitate to positions of state power so they can lie, cheat, steal, and murder with the impunity granted by their legal monopoly. See, “Why the Worst Get on Top,” F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. Experience tells us that liars, cheats, thieves, and murderers such as Hitler, Stalin, Nixon, and Clinton have in fact gravitated to politics to fulfill their foul agendas.

Statists assure us that irresponsible people will act responsibly. That is, state officials, who are given power over us, and who therefore are not responsible to us, will act responsibly. All logic and experience tell us this is false, and thus utopian. Statists tell us that no one should be the judge of his own cause because injustice would result, but that the state may be the judge of its own cause because its judges will ensure that justice is done. We know, however, that systems which contain internal contradictions cannot exist and are thus utopian in nature.

It is not libertarianism but Big Government that is utopian. In order for Big Government to work, we must assume that the people who staff it are better than those they govern. We must assume they are angels, to paraphrase the mixed-up James Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." Not only is this false, but the opposite is true: the people who staff the state are, on average, worse than those they govern! What kinds of people spend their whole lives plotting to get power over others? We may say, in reply to Madison, "If the government was staffed by angels, it might work."

On the other extreme, libertarianism is attacked for not being utopian enough. That is, libertarians, in their truncated view of what political action can accomplish, leave a whole host of problems unsolved and unresolved. That’s true. Libertarians can solve only those problems created by the mistaken use of positive state action to solve human problems. The state cannot solve problems in this sense; it can only exacerbate them. Let us not, however, underestimate the enormity of the problems governments cause and that libertarianism can therefore solve. The 20th Century was a laboratory for the study of the problems states cause or worsen: war, mass murder, genocide, racism, systematic starvation, poverty, terrorism, economic stagnation, and cultural decline.

In addition to offering a plausible solution for these mega-problems, libertarianism presents a framework for how people can solve their own micro-problems through the free market and voluntary private institutions and organizations. Our opponents are not satisfied with this state of affairs; they have a love affair with the state and complain that without a large state, many problems will not be solved. They thereby commit the fallacy of utopianism. There is no way to simultaneously solve all human problems and it is folly to try. Various forms of statism, from liberalism to fascism to communism, have also failed to solve all human problems, to say the least. So the utopian attack on libertarianism is a spectacular failure, as is the attempt to label libertarianism itself a utopian fallacy.

Libertarianism is very simple and commonsensical — everyone owns himself and any property acquired by honest work or voluntary trade — but reaching this simple conclusion is very complicated. You first have to unravel 2500 years worth of philosophical, political, economic, and historical fallacies and propaganda. Most libertarian writing, including these essays, involves not an exposition of the positive doctrine of libertarianism — I just did that in one sentence — but rather a dissection of the numerous and proliferating justifications for some form of Big Government statism. When all the other political ideologies, factions, classes, and parties have been revealed under our withering analysis to be the frauds, shams, scams, daydreams and nightmares that they are, one is left with the thought: old John Locke was right after all: "every Man has a Property in his own Person; this nobody has any right to but himself."

October 28, 2009

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website.