Is libertarianism fish or fowl?
Many people, even sophisticated political commentators, think that libertarianism is internally inconsistent. How else could you assess this philosophy, they plaintively ask? After all, supporters of this view favor the legalization of prostitution, certainly a left-wing position, as well as elimination of the minimum wage law, a stance not only associated with conservatives, but the far right. Libertarians favor the legalization of gay marriage, again a left-liberal position, alongside opposition to rent control, a view held by most right-wingers. These seeming contradictions can be multiplied almost without end. For example, supporters of the freedom philosophy want to legalize drugs, all of them, pornography (except for children) and gambling, along with their “progressive” cousins, and, also, in step with the right, get rid of the Federal Reserve, the FDA, and privatize the post office.
Political scientists have concocted a left-right spectrum according to which libertarians register as moderates. This is because they tend to answer all the personal liberties questions as do those on the left, and all economics queries along with members of the right. And, yet, take it from me, libertarians are not moderates by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, they are extremists on both sides of this political spectrum.
What is going on here? What is going on is that libertarians are the only logically consistent group in the entire realm of political economy. They support liberty in both the personal and the economic realms, whereas socialists and conservatives register on the liberty scale in only one of these dimensions, one each.
Oregon is the only state to have legalized addictive drugs, in addition to marijuana. They vote overwhelmingly blue. They see so clearly that it is unjust to stop adults from placing substances in their bodies which may well be harmful. But they do not at all appreciate the fact that prohibiting consenting adults to enter into a labor contract stipulating pay of less than $7.25 per hour is also a violation of liberty. Red state voters see so clearly that it is impermissible to prevent consenting adults from conducting commercial exchanges through the financial intermediation of gold, not fiat currency. They appreciate that profit maximization benefits society and that forced redistribution of money from rich to poor does not. But when it comes to the right to provide sexual services for pay, these insights pale into insignificance. Only libertarians favor all sorts of economic and personal rights without exception.
But are not some of these practices vices? Of course they are. Some people consider excessive profit making and addictive drug taking as evils. But the law, at least from the libertarian point of view, is not supposed to stop all of immorality. We all have iniquitous thoughts do we not? If the police could require all of us to be entirely moral in thought and deed, we would all be in jail, including them, of course. Mere vices should not be considered crimes. Our legal system should be a more limited one; it should only stamp out crimes with victims, such as murder, rape, arson, theft, assault and battery, etc.
Another problem with the one-dimensional left-right spectrum is that it is supposed to place people and institutions whose views are similar close to each other, and place great geographical distance between those who diverge in this manner. But what to do about Hitler an extreme rightist, and Stalin, a man of the left? There may not be a “dime’s worth of difference” between the two of them in terms of rhetoric, but on the basis of action, they are identical twins in terms of mass murder. Mother Teresa must be placed on the left side of the one-dimensional left-right spectrum. So must we place her cheek by jowl with Stalin? Perish the thought. Ditto for Ron Paul and Hitler; both can be placed on the right, an inaccurate a placement as can be imagined.
A much better way of looking at political economy than a one-dimensional left right spectrum is a two dimensional cross. The vertical axis indicates “good” at the top (adherence to libertarian principles) and bad at the bottom (utter rejection of them). The horizontal axis is the usual left right spectrum. Then, we can place Stalin at the lower left, Mother Teresa at the upper left, Ron Paul in the upper right, and Hitler at the lower left. Then and only then can geographical placement be congruent with political philosophy and behavior.
Chemists have a table of the elements. Biologists divide up what they study into genus and species. Political scientists need a far more accurate organizational tool than the one which now misleads them.
Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans