“But what about the roads?”, It’s the idea that if a libertarian society were implemented, then all infrastructure would cease. It’s the assumption that libertarians are all extremists who want the complete destruction of all government. It’s reductio ad absurdum. And it’s low hanging fruit. But, they do have a point. What does infrastructure or even basic society look like for a libertarian? Well, What about the roads?
In this essay, I will outline what libertarianism is, what its merits are, and how I would implement libertarianism in a modern society. It won’t be nearly as radical as some might hope. Sorry if that’s what you wanted.
Locke and Capitalism
“Life, Liberty, Property.” ~ John Locke
John Locke wrote the modern thesis on natural law and duty rights ethics. His work inspired the continental congress as they built their framework for a representative democracy in North America. Locke’s work introduced the western world to the concept of liberty. His foundation built the freest, wealthiest, and strongest economies and cultures on earth. His work also laid the foundations of modern capitalism. And this is where everything gets messy. In today’s society, capitalism is a dirty word. It is seen as the great evil. Well, what is capitalism?
The official definition from Webster is as follows:
An economic system characterized by privateor corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.
This is an amoral concept. It’s neither good nor bad. In the same way that we look at a collection of gears and say that they are neither good nor bad. It’s a machine that can be used or abused to do what we want with it. At times, capitalism has been a great boon for society. And at times, it has destroyed society. Without capitalism, there would be no commercial automobile. There would be no household computer. There would be no cellphone. But, the same system also gave us the radium girls, superfund sites, and the military industrial complex. So, what do we do with this? How do we create an equitable system which allows us to enjoy the generative nature of human creativity and industry, while avoiding the bent to corruption which plagues our human relationship with power and wealth? That’s the deeper question. Not whether or not libertarianism can or can’t work, or whether or not socialism should be attempted. Rather, the question is simply this. How do we provide the greatest opportunity for flurishing, while limiting abuse?
The Perfect World
In a perfect world, everything would be managed by a benevolent dictator and a staff of ethical experts. And before you say this is impossible, remember that many of the golden ages of history were modeled from this exact framework. Frederick the Great of Prussia, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Peisistratus the Tyrant of Ancient Greek, and Catherine the Great of Russia, all dictators. All strong leaders. Each of them brought in a golden age for their people. All of them are respected to this day. But, Prussia became Germany and Fredrick’s nationalism helped produce World War 1 and World War 2. The dynasties of Catherine’s children in Russia became corrupt and totalitarian, ushering in the communist revolution and the greatest loss of life in human history. Benevolent dictators are few and far in between, and the result is often a second or third generation going off the rails.
So, dictatorships aren’t a good option, even if the man on stage actually cares about you and would use his power to improve your life. This was the fundamental theory of Locke. Totalitarian governments corrupt and loose their mandate. The foundation of a good society is a free society. Life under a benevolent dictator is still a form of slavery. Slavery which can be tolerated easily, but only for one or two generations. So, we invented representative democracy. Democracy drastically slows down progress. It does not allow for an inspired leader to usher in their utopia. But it also provides protection against evil totalitarians leaching from their people. Also, one person’s utopia is another person’s hell. Representative Democracy aims to provide each sector of society the opportunity to voice their needs and desires. In the end, Representative Democracy is not the perfect world. In fact, nobody likes the outcome. But, it’s rarely as bad as the alternative.
In the United States, we took this framework for representation and took it a step further. We introduced property. In the United States, free people (whole other conversation for another essay) were allowed to own property. This was a relatively new concept. In European economies, the products of your labour was owned by the land owners. If you built a bookshelf, that bookshelf belonged to your lord. If your lord was benevolent and wealthy, this was a good gig. You would have food in your stomach and shelter from the cold. But god forbid you live in Ireland during the 1840s.
In the United States, every man was his own lord. His property was his kingdom. The product of his labour was his own property. Property created property. Goods and services became property. Freedom prospered. For some. But, though we may have left Europe, the European way of doing things did not leave us. A serf class quickly developed in the United States. People who could afford property owned everything. They became the capitalist class. To survive, people would find work under one of these capitalists, working substance wages in harsh conditions in brutal factories. And that is to say nothing of slavery. There was little opportunity for upward mobility among these day laborers. Their hours were long, access to education was limited, and their wages were never sufficient for their needs. Sounds like Europe. But, there was one major distinction. Under a lord, even your labour was not your own. Your existence was functionally a benefit of your lord. It’s a half step away from slavery. But, under capitalism and representative democracy, the day laborers had a voice. They had the option to leave and find better employers. They also had the ability to vote. The Capitalists worked hard to stop them, attempting to pass laws blocking their access to the voting booth. But, over time, our free market and democratic society worked to end the evils of wage slavery, and create a free society where people owned their own property, owned their own labour, and had a voice in determining their government.
In a perfect world, this would be the end of the story. Hard working, driven, and intelligent people, owning successful business of all sizes, with a work force of well educated, happy employees who work without complaint, because their employers are blocked from unethical treatment by appropriate laws voted on by both the employees and their business owners. In this system, hard work would be naturally rewarded by advancement and success. Lack of effort would lead to poverty and a bad life. But in both cases, it would not be luck or manipulation. Just the good old protestant ethic at work. Capitalism as it was meant to be.
The (Im)Perfect World
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, the rich and wealthy opted to buy politicians, spend massive capital on campaigns to influence their employees, and generally forced themselves into a modified form of lordship over the rest of us. They replaced Representative Democracy and Simple Capitalism with Bought Politicians and Crony Capitalism. And they introduced our society to debt. Property was replaced by monthly payments. No longer were laborers able to simply leave their employer for a less abusive workplace. The missed monthly payments would destroy their credit and their lifestyle. And that’s not even breaching the conversation around healthcare.
What we have created no longer looks like John Locke. It looks like totalitarianism with more steps and a false promise of independence and freedom. The greatest restriction on our freedom is our tax system. Is private property private if it’s taxed? Taxation assumes that you owe someone something. Private property in the United States is not private. If I don’t pay my car loan, my car will be taken from me. Because I don’t actually own the car, it belongs to the bank. If you don’t pay your property taxes, your property will be taken from you. Sounds to me more like a long term loan with more steps.
Here is where libertarianism comes in. Unlike my socialist counterparts, I do not see the abolition of private property and the nationalization of corporate assets to be the solution to the abuses of crony capitalism. For one simple reason already discussed. Totalitarianism. How can we assume that the government will be benevolent in their management of our assets? My previous essays have given many examples to their lack of trustworthiness with the taxes I already pay. I don’t think providing them with even more power and assets is the solution. No, the answer is restructuring the relationship between capital and representation. No more bought politicians. No more military industrial complex. No handouts to corporate entities because of lobbyist actions.
My goal in sharing all this is simple. I want to speak freely about the values, ethics, and logical framework I possess, without any name calling or putdowns. I freely admit that the socialists have a point. Crony capitalism isn’t working for the majority of society. And it hasn’t worked in a long time. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are amassing huge amounts of capital. I believe that it is perfectly good and noble to become fabulously wealthy, but only if that wealth is accumulated fairly. Capitalism is amoral. It is neither good nor bad. In the same way that evolution is amoral. It is a framework for understanding reality. Evolution describes change in biological design through adaptation over time. Similarly, capitalism describes change in economic prowess through adaptation over time. Capitalism can be expressed in free markets or in closed markets or in hybrid markets. No rational person would be upset by a poor person becoming wealthy by working hard and creating new products that help people. That is the definition of the American Dream. That is the model of free-market capitalism. But we don’t exist in a free-market. Our current crony capitalist context is a hybrid market where new successful projects are generated through hard work but are sustained and multiplied through a combination of corruption and graft. Furthermore, the opportunities for upward mobility and innovation are becoming more and more difficult to find.
So, how do we fix it? Here is my approach, broken up into a few distinct sections.
Deploying Libertarianism – The High Level
The government is not the solution to the problem. The government is the problem. I’m not a huge Ronald Reagan fan (sorry Dad), but Reagan was on point when he said this. In my perfect world, the government would be flipped on its head. What we have right now is a majority of the power going to the federal government, a minority of the power going to the state government, and approximately zero power going to the local government. I would see this completely flipped.
Local governments are directly responsible to their tax payers, and they are the easiest to vote in and out of office. I would like to see local government possessing more of my tax money, especially since local government is going to be directly responsible for spending my money in areas that are applicable to my needs. Local government would still be responsible for fire suppression services, EMS, and some aspects of healthcare. They would also be partially responsible for the protection of physical property (Their jurisdiction would not supersede the rights of private citizens to protect themselves and their property) and the maintenance of a local militia. If the local community wants to have a social safety net, with advanced support for homeless shelters and food security distribution, then the local community can incorporate that into their taxes. Since significantly less tax money would be going to the state and federal government, there would be much more budgetary room for local government to build these kinds of programs. The underlying philosophy here is super simple. Those closest to the problem generally have the best knowledge of the problem and can therefore resolve the problem most effectively. Massive federal level programs are wasteful and ineffective when compared to grassroots movements. Furthermore, if the local community sees that the projects and approaches of their local government aren’t meeting the needs of their local community, they can simply vote out their elected officials and replace them with different people who may be more effective in the role. Lobbying would be legal, but loopholes for graft and corruption would be closed (this will be its own essay). Local government would be funded by sales taxes on traditional goods and services. These taxes would be voted on by local citizens.
State Government would have less control than local government. State government would be responsible for maintaining state wide road networks, maintaining law and order (prisons and courts), the protection of the environment, and the protection of workers. The state would also be responsible for maintaining a state guard which would deploy to defend and protect their own state or other states if voted by the state and federal congress. They would not be responsible for healthcare, or programs managed by local governments. State Government would be funded by sales taxes, vehicle licensing fees, gas taxes, and energy bills. Lobbying at the state level by private persons (or companies) would be illegal.
The Federal Government would have even less control than State Government. The federal government would control interstate highways and airways, the protection of the environment, the standardization of workplace safety, the protection of intellectual property, and the protection of the United States through a defensive military comprised of donated resources from state guards. There would be no overseas wars. The federal government would also be responsible for maintaining major infrastructure alongside the states. For example, if a major industrial project (such as the building of a dam) would bring energy resources to three separate states, the federal government would act as a committee chair and resource pool for the states as they work to build the their new infrastructure. Some projects are massive in scope and require central management. The federal government would be funded by gas taxes and energy taxes. Lobbying at the federal level by private persons (or companies) would be illegal.
There would be no property taxation of any kind. No income tax. No land tax. Only taxes on goods and services. This is the most fair and equitable solution. If you are poor and can’t afford fancy clothes or big vehicles and you drive public transit (potentially subsidized by your local or state government), cool, your tax burden is close to zero. Or, if you are a wealthy business owner who loves fine dining and drives a different sports car every day? Well, you and the three other billionaires in your city are the primary source of funding for your city’s public transit system.
So, what about the roads? City streets are paid for with municipal and regional taxes. State roads are paid for by state taxes. And interstate highways are paid for by federal taxes. So innovative. So brave. But really, it’s a dumb question asked by people who don’t actually understand libertarianism. I’m not a shill for crony capitalists. I look like, vote like, and spend time with people who look more like hippies than Wall Street bankers. This essay is the starting block of a series of essays on the implementation of an ethical and liberal society. In future episodes, I will dive in deeper to some of the problems of my own framework (as I find them) and some of the solutions to those problems. I’ll also continue to rant about the injustices of our current system. That will never change. ¡Viva la Revolución!