For months now I’ve planned to write a post about why I am not a libertarian but when I finally turned to the task it quickly gained great length so rather than attempt to leave out the details I’ve decided to split it up. I think libertarians are modeling the world incorrectly and as a result my look at libertarianism isn’t even mostly going to be a clash of competing values, as many political discussions tend to be.
So, after the jump, I begin at perhaps the most fundamental error I think libertarians are making, ignoring human irrationality.
We Aren’t Actually Rational
I think one fundamental error of the libertarian worldview is that they tend to push for a world which would only work if we were all rational. However because we aren’t close to rational building a model of the world that ignores human biases and irrationality is doomed to fail. For example, the economic underpinnings of libertarian ideas, are largely based on models in which humans have perfectly rational behavior in their self-interest. It’s fine to have such models so long as you remember they are merely tools but when, as some libertarians do, you use them to justify policy, especially policies which aren’t purely economic, you are no longer accurately modeling reality.
Libertarians often endorse the legitimacy of all decisions made without explicit threat of force on any of the parties involved, even decisions which greatly hurt the parties involved. Ignoring for the moment all such choices aren’t really free, even if they were the acceptance of them as fair because they were free presumes humans can accurately model the future to a degree which is empirically false. We are specifically poor at imagining our future selves and we make repeated, systemic mistakes in judgment about essentially every topic. Simply put, as individuals we largely think about the present and short-term future. So if you acknowledge this but still say we have no grounds to collectively attempt to limit our mistakes you must be arguing to do so would infringe on the right of the individual to behave irrationally, despite the fact it would be individuals hedging against their future selves.
Ironically, libertarians favor banning the right for individuals to collectively decide to ban certain destructive behaviors, specifically long-term destructive behaviors. Of course the degree to which each of us wants to allow irrationality is necessarily a value judgment but libertarians tend to categorically deny any right to collectively hedge against our own irrationality. As a result libertarians line up on the heavily on side of the gradient which would allow, among other things, kidney selling, mutual cannibalism and sometimes even selling yourself into slavery. Such a position must value the ability to make these choices no matter what the outcomes are and as a result must ignore that such policies have lots of room for abuse, or declare that the added agency is more valuable than the bad outcomes. This strikes me as particularly bizarre because if we were going to sign a social contract I find it hard to believe anyone would hold out on their “right” to sell their kidney.
In a world where individuals can’t collectively decide to make these types of binding decisions the ability to make binding decisions is largely left to only those with the economic might in society. In other words, the very rich effectively monopolize this power. Now you may value a select few having such power but the idea that sacrificing such power to a select few is better for society than having the decisions collectively made by the public is, to me, a horrible idea which undermines the individual freedom libertarianism is supposed to be built on.