It’s not tyranny unless the government does it

This blog post by Noah Smith discussing Ron Paul’s racist beliefs brings up what I’ve always found to be a problem with libertarianism: Libertarians want to remove the allegedly oppressive hand of government, but they have no interest in other forms of oppression, or freedom (Slacktivist discusses this here )
A standard libertarian argument is that laws mandating minimum wages, maximum hours, labor safety requirements and so on are oppressive: They deny business owners the right to do what they want with their business and deny workers the freedom to negotiate their own work terms. What if someone wants to work 60 hours a week with no overtime to make money? What if they’re willing to work as a steeplejack with no safety equipment so that their boss can underbid everyone else and keep paying them? And so forth (as I noted here, that requires assumptions about the freedom of workers to pick and choose jobs and their ability to negotiate that don’t fit reality).
Similarly, if businesses choose not to serve or hire blacks, Jews, gays, women, etc., what right has the government to intervene? This is sometimes matched with arguments that this will all work out perfectly somehow (because lots of businesses will spring up to cater to the minority’s unmet needs, for example).
A few libertarians have also argued that given the huge gains in freedom from restricting government, any loss of freedom is outweighed. Bryan Caplan, for example, asserts that women in the 1800s were much freer than in the 21st century. Sure, they couldn’t vote, but that’s not very important, is it? And true, their husbands had complete legal authority over them and their possessions, but it probably didn’t work that way in practice. And if husbands forbade their wives to work outside the home, that was a reasonable decision, really (Suffice to say, I’m not convinced by his logic).
Smith points out that if government can’t intervene in such cases, we’re vulnerable to all the local bullies in our lives: Homeowners associations, employers, local pressure (I’ve read that some Southern businesses actually wanted the law to force them to serve blacks, because that was the only way the community would tolerate them doing it). What he may not realize is that for some libertarians, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Former Freedom News columnist Tibor Machan, for example, was quite clear that the amount of democracy in this country is a bad thing, because it leads to people voting for politicians who interfere with property rights. What we need, instead, is to privatize everything except the army, the courts and the cops: Firefighting, water service, roads, schools and give the owners absolute authority. Then there’ll be no more debate or argument about what to teach in schools, who can march in parades or assemble on street corners, whether gays/blacks/Jews are allowed to buy a home in a certain neighborhood. True freedom!
The fact that in practice, the vast majority of people will not be free——will in fact have vastly reduced freedom——is irrelevant. In theory, if they make enough money to buy their own road/school/water supply, they could do the same, so we have equal opportunity and equal freedom for everyone! And no messy democracy, no nasty political compromises, nothing that infringes on the purity of the free market solution!
Machan was also prone to warn that we shouldn’t compromise our principles by being “pragmatic.” I have a feeling that means even he knew his ideas wouldn’t work——at least not by the standard of what most people would consider workable.

7 Comments

Filed under economics, Politics, Undead sexist cliches

7 responses to “It’s not tyranny unless the government does it

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