Libertarians say we have too many laws, because they’re all about “individual liberty.” But because libertarianism is fundamentally about property rights, you’re only entitled to as much liberty as you can afford. If you need to work for a living, you might well get a whole lot of law and not much liberty. (More)

Whose Liberty, Part I – How Much Law for Whom?

This week Morning Feature examines libertarianism. It’s become a hot topic with the victory of Tea Party Republican Rand Paul in the Kentucky senate primary, but we’re not going to focus on him. Today we’ll talk about whether libertarianism would offer as much “liberty” as it claims, and for whom. Tomorrow we’ll see that its claims of “liberty and justice for all” are based on myths rather than facts. Saturday we’ll offer a progressive concept of “liberty” that is as relevant today as when President Franklin Roosevelt spoke it in 1941.

What “liberty” means to libertarians.

Libertarians talk a lot about “individual liberty,” and the first section of the Libertarian Party platform is all about personal liberty. But surprises can hide in innocuous words. For example:

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose. (Itals added.)

That sounds reasonable, until you ask why they included that word forcibly. Because the section on Personal Liberty starts with this:

Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and to accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make.

Again, that sounds oh-so-reasonable. They then talk about freedom of speech and religion, a view of personal privacy that favors repealing drug laws, support for relationship rights among consenting adults regardless of sexual orientation, support for abortion rights. The platform would limit crimes to force and fraud, and supports self-defense including the unrestricted right to keep and bear arms.

It all sounds almost progressive. Almost … because of that word italicized word forcibly up above, and your freedom to make choices and accept the consequences, and the fact that all of those ideas about personal liberty specify only laws written by government. Libertarians would let you sign away those same rights privately, in the property rights part of their platform:

Property rights are entitled to the same protection as all other human rights. The owners of property have the full right to control, use, dispose of, or in any manner enjoy, their property without interference, until and unless the exercise of their control infringes the valid rights of others. We oppose all controls on wages, prices, rents, profits, production, and interest rates. We advocate the repeal of all laws banning or restricting the advertising of prices, products, or services. We oppose all violations of the right to private property, liberty of contract, and freedom of trade. The right to trade includes the right not to trade — for any reasons whatsoever. Where property, including land, has been taken from its rightful owners by the government or private action in violation of individual rights, we favor restitution to the rightful owners. (Itals added.)

Hrmm. Okay, obviously they think private businesses should be able to discriminate. That’s not so progressive. But the rest sounds good, right? Well….

Welcome to Libertaria.

Ahh, the sweet smell of freedom. You wake up in Libertaria and, despite the claims of those ignorant socialist progressives, it doesn’t look like Somalia after all. There is a government. There are police, and fire departments. Must protect people’s property, after all. There are hospitals, although they’re all private and for-profit. Same with the schools. Not most roads, because business owners have property rights and that includes access for customers.

But you can’t spend the day basking in such thoughts. You have bills to pay and there’s no government help in Libertaria. You need to find a job. Fortunately for you, Libertaria Mill is hiring. You put on your best interview clothes and kiss your partner for luck. He gives you the thumbs-up sign and off you go.

Once at the mill you sign in, find the lone remaining seat in the waiting room, and start to fill out the application form. After a few minutes, the interviewer opens a door and calls a name. A black man stands. The interviewer  shakes his head and crumples up the form. “We don’t hire blacks,” he says. He looks around and adds, “Or Hispanics or women.”

Several others get up to leave. “They could have posted that,” a Latina grumbles on her way out. “I’ve been here all morning and I could have gone somewhere else.”

But you’re a white male and your competition was just cut by over half. After a bit more waiting, the interviewer calls your name. Deep breath. You really need this job. You get up and extend your hand as you approach. Firm handshake. Smile. You can do this.

Their standard employment contract.

You ace the early questions: name, age, education, experience. You feel as if the interviewer likes you. Your partner will be so proud of you. And then the interviewer asks, “What church do you attend?”

Well, none, you say.

“Ahh,” he says. “All of our employees attend First Christian Church. Employees who pray together, stay together.”

You’re not really religious, you say, a bit tentatively.

“That’s fine,” he replies with a wave of his hand. “Agreeing to attend First Christian Church is part of our standard employment contract, but you don’t have to believe the doctrine.”

You offer a non-committal nod. Maybe they won’t notice if you’re not there.

“Are you politically active?” he asks.

You’re a Democrat, you say proudly. You read and post at political blogs, contribute to the candidates whose views you support, and even volunteer.

“Hmmm,” he says. “Our standard employment contract has a political action clause. You agree to vote for the party we support, and to not engage in political discussions.”

Even online from at home? you ask.

He nods. “It reflects poorly on the company if our employees discuss politics. So you’ll need to drop out of the political blogs. We have a list of approved sports and hobby blogs, if you enjoy chatting online. That applies to your wife too.”

You don’t have a wife, you explain.

“That’s okay,” he says. “Our standard contract gives you a year to marry, and another two years after that to have a child. Married employees with children are more stable. And your wife will need to be a white woman. Miscegenation violates company policy.”

You choose your words carefully. Thing is, you’re gay.

To your surprise, he smiles. “Ahh. In that case, we use an different contract altogether. Do you have any debts?”

Well sure, you say. Loans for high school tuition, and a year of college. Your car loan. And your partner got sick last year so you owe about $10,000 in medical bills.

“No problem,” he says. “Our 30-year indentured servitude contract will pay off all of those.”

Your what? you ask.

He reaches into a desk drawer, pulls out a sheet of paper, and slides it across the desk. “We pay off all your debts, and you work for us without pay for 30 years. We can probably place your partner too. Company housing includes your meals, work uniforms, and internet access so you can connect to our approved blogs. We even bus you to church on Sunday.”

Still smelling that freedom?

Most of Libertaria Mill’s standard employment contract would be void for illegality in the U.S. An employer can’t require you to attend a church, vote for candidates of their choice, forbid you joining political discussions on your own time, or require you to marry and have children, as conditions of employment. An employer certainly can’t ask you to work without pay for 30 years. The government says you can’t contract away those basic human rights.

Libertarianism says you should have the choice to contract away those rights, and accept responsibility for those choices. That’s what the word forcibly meant here:

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose. (Itals added.)

Because in Libertaria, laws that forbid Mill’s employment contracts – the standard contract for straight white men, or indentured servitude for gay white men – are “violations of … liberty of contract.” Hyperbole? Read The Libertarian Case For Slavery by J. Philmore, first published in 1982 in The Philosophical Forum. Both Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson and Harvard University libertarian political professor Robert Nozick agreed (pdf link, bottom of page 453). Like any other contract, the terms of these employment contracts would be enforced by government. They would be laws … but not laws written by government. Instead they would be laws written by employers as conditions of employment.

If you’re independently wealthy, you’d have plenty of liberty in Libertaria. But if you need a job to pay your bills, well, you’d get as much liberty as you could negotiate with an employer. The more desperately you need that job, the more liberty you’d have to sign away. Basic human rights like freedom of speech, religion, political association, marriage, parenthood, or even to get paid for your work would be negotiable under “liberty of contract.”

As we’ll see tomorrow, the argument that Libertaria Mill would go out of business because no one would ever work there is based on some economic myths. Companies like Libertaria Mill did exist, and only government-written laws to protect workers forced them to change.

How’s that freedom smell now?


Happy Thursday!