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The Solipsism of the Libertarian

Posted in Editorials on September 16th, 2011

Amanda wrote about her incredulity that we are still having an argument about whether or not government should exist. As my recent long discussion with some internet libertarians* about the legitimacy of government is winding down, I know very well how much this debate can feel like smashing your forehead into a brick wall.

What I got out of the discussion is that even though libertarians admit that the government does lots of good things that improve people’s lives, they insist they have deeply principled moral objections to the idea of a government that has the power to put people in jail.

It’s similar to what can be observed of pro-lifers – they present themselves as just loving babies but what they really want is to control everyone else’s sex life. Libertarians claim they just love freedom but in the end they are just sullenly complaining that a any authority exists above themselves, no matter how pragmatic or democratic it is.

This prioritizing of one’s own smug self assurance of the moral high ground at the expense of every other person in the country is in no way superior to those who accept the legitimacy of the state to exist. It ignores and demeans all of the work put into our country (and others) by elected representatives and civil servants throughout history. It disgraces the memories of the people who died for the right to self-government. It leads to the questioning of a person’s touch with reality.

A person who denies the need for a government, denies the existence of the commons problem, which has been a subject for philosophers since the days of Aristotle. The solutions that they do offer have no rigor that would stand up to a competent policy analysis and no explanation of how they would be achieved aside from fiat.

Because I support the idea of a democratic republic like the United States, I was called “an authoritarian.” I reject this label outright. I am a liberal. There is a large middle ground between Authoritarian tyranny and Seasteading Solipsism. The argument that there is not goes like this: in a Democracy, some people will not vote for various reasons, and others who vote will not have their candidate or proposition win a majority. Therefore, those people will not get there way. Thus, they are oppressed. That every single person cannot get their way at all times, is not oppression. I do not see a difference between the communal solutions they propose and efforts already being made at a local level by small communities. Even if environmentalists (or any other group) is not getting results at the federal level, policy changes are often quicker at state and local levels. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the granting of same sex marriage rights in several states come to mind.

It was proposed that because a majority of Americans say the government operates “without the consent of the governed” that our government is illegitimate. Another commenter pointed out that the question forced people to speculate about what others think of the government, not whether the person being asked has given their consent. I would add that for the average person not interested in political philosophy the difference between whether or not you agree to the actions of the current slate of elected leaders versus whether you felt that the mere existence of the government in general was contrary to your will is probably lost.

Finally, I want to address the comparison of government to rape. Over and over in the thread, it was brought up that a person saying nothing, laying silently cannot be considered to have consented to sex. I gave this a lot of thought because on it’s face it appears to be a valid argument. But the government is not like a rapist. No one is born being raped, they way they are born a citizen of the United States. Rape is a specific action which one individual takes upon another without the victims consent, or despite her protests. The United States Government is an institution created by its citizens which, while oppressive at times, changes in response to their participation. A rapist can be identified and held responsible for his crime, similar to the way individual corrupt members of an administration may be. But the idea of the United States is not put on trial by it’s citizens in any significant way – even though they would have the power to do so by electing people into office who promised to disband it. That we continue to elect people to use the powers proscribed for them is testament to our consent.

*Some of the people defined themselves as Libertarians, others as Anarchists or Anarcho-Capitalists. As they were all arguing that the United States Government be abolished and not replaces with anything else, I am grouping them together.

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