I’ve written about Libertarians before. It’s a topic I usually like to avoid. But part of this blog’s purpose is to write down my thoughts so that irksome people in the future can argue with words I no longer need to keep in my head. About five years ago this topic was really irritating thanks to the obnoxious Tea Party Caucus. While that flea circus promoted fiscal and social conservatism and right-wing populism, they talked about themselves as if they were Libertarians. Loons (or Machiavellian artistes) like Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann fomented popular support by casting all problems as the result of taxation. Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot more Libertarian anarcho-capitalism chatter recently coinciding with the current president’s tenuous appreciation of a stable government.

Ok, fine. Dumb people are easily convinced that taxes are always a form of immoral robbery. The bee that really got in my bonnet was the fact that so many technical people took up that cause. Sure tech people like civil rights. I think all intelligent people do. Tech people like encryption and Bitcoin. They like free speech. They say they don’t like surveillance. All good. Then they dabble in the interesting idea of seasteading or dream of pioneering Mars. But all too often they go from this kind of thinking to believing that all government is bad always.

That sounds absurd to normal people, of course, but I’ve met a lot of otherwise smart people like this. People who should know better! I once talked to a woman who works in the technology sector who told me about her childhood in foster care; when later she revealed that she was a Libertarian, I asked her if she’d been mistreated by her foster families. She seemed shocked by the suggestion since it turned out that the people who took her in were not just good people, they were exceptionally good people. When I pointed out that statist intervention to protect the welfare of children is not usually a cornerstone of Libertarian philosophy, she admitted that she had never thought about it. And that is exactly the problem. I met another tech guy, a "programmer", who claimed to be a Libertarian and it was delicious to be able to ask him in person how he reconciled that with working for a government defense contractor. To his credit, although he also hadn’t really thought it through, he was open-minded about reassessing his position. (Funny side note: he told me about the project he and his team of two dozen programmers were working on and I said, "Ah, so it’s almost exactly like rsync then; what does your system do that rsync does not do?" and he said, "What’s rsync?" Alas, the best Libertarian argument, but made inadvertently.)

The funny thing to me about tech people getting all overly Libertarian is that I believe that the legal code is basically just a primitive precursor to computer code. When you ask a tech person how much software should a computer use, the normal answer is not zero. I’m using minimalist text-only Gentoo right now to write this and I don’t even think that the goal is to minimize the amount of software involved. For me it seems obvious that what’s worth working toward is getting the correct amount. Yet these tech Libertarians think that erasing all of our societal code is the smartest option.

This to me seems especially stupid because, as I mentioned in my other post, Libertarians do envision strong property rights, but without a strong stable government to uphold them, what’s the point? Error!

Some might argue that I’ve simply characterized the ideals of Libertarianism incorrectly. They would back pedal that they don’t want to eliminate government, just minimize it. To me those are the same thing. If you want to sound like you don’t want to eliminate government, you must say that you want to optimize it. That may entail making it smaller today, but if there is never a perspective where it can be made larger when truly needed, then it is essentially heading inexorably toward zero. And if you are ok with optimize, I encourage you to distance yourself from those who still think only in terms of minimizing. The way to do that is to simply stop calling yourself a Libertarian. Because you’re not. (You might also believe in an unpolluted environment, workplace safety, airplanes not having mid air collisions, scientific discovery, justice for crime victims, etc.)

I really wish there was a better word for the smart things that smart people believe in when it just happens to coincidentally call for government to be reduced (in a specific time frame, in a specific policy area, for a specific outcome). I am thinking of a super genius like Tyler Cowen who sometimes makes noises like he is sympathetic to Libertarian ideas (his sidekick Tabarrok is insufferable). But Cowen is the opposite of the facile Libertarian I’m talking about. There is no way Cowen believes that eliminating all taxes and/or government is a great idea. He is, in fact, a master at seeing both sides to arguments. Understanding the technical trade offs and doing the best thing or the least bad thing is what programmers should be good at.

Another problem I personally have with Libertarianism is that it just makes you look like a dick. Imagine you’re on vacation in a tropical place and some kind of small furry animal you’ve never seen falls from the trees onto your balcony. You can see by its ribs that it is not well-fed and its breathing is labored. As long as the animal is unaggressive and just pathetically lying there, a normal human being will feel some pity for it and perhaps bring it some water or peanut butter or whatever. A psychopath will stomp on the poor creature just for lulz. A Libertarian will, with best intentions, kick it off the balcony to help it rediscover its evolutionary entrepreneurial spirit. Attaboy!

Although I believe strongly that it has been utterly refuted, let’s say for a moment that we have a hypothesis that independent self-interest beats coordinated cooperation. We are going to scientifically do an experiment and we want volunteers to live in two groups. One group, is the anything goes Libertopia, the other group is going to work together (using policies, rules, laws and governance if necessary) to achieve the best effect. Regardless of which hypothesis is correct, which group would you like to be in? I’m a notorious do-it-yourself extremist and even I would find it depressing to find out that working together is not the optimal answer. The implication for true John Galt Libertarians is if those stupid people (everybody else in the world) would just drop dead, the world would be a better place.

If you’re reading this because you told me that you’re a Libertarian and I subsequently referred you here, you may think you’re done. If you’re no longer a Libertarian, great! Glad to have helped. But maybe I’ve not made my point. You may even be loading bullets into your own text editor to blast me with some confirmation bias. Before you do that however, understand that this post is just my personal reflections about the stupidity of Libertarianism. Before dismissing my argument as incomplete you need to understand that it is "inherited" (using that word in the object-oriented programmer way) from much more thorough treatments on the subject. If you want to tell me how sensible being a Libertarian is I need you to read this extremely wise article where super genius Scott Alexander crushes Libertarianism like last year’s wine grapes.

If you think I’m prolix, his post is 29000 words of extreme reasonableness. If you balk at reading so much, take consolation that it is less than a tenth of Ayn Rand’s ghastly work of bad fiction, The Fountainhead. And obviously it is much more enjoyable to read.

Even more entertaining and less than 4 minutes, John Oliver covers the topic nicely too.

UPDATE 2020-03-21

The government has completely imploded in the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus. I unluckily LARPed this blog post by buying a used car last week; now with the DMV gone, I can not transfer the title rights to myself. We’ve moved out of mere thought experiments my friends. Oh, and that whole public safety in a health crisis thing — what exactly is Libertarianism’s brilliant plan? If a Libertarian is healthy, it usually involves gun fantasies. If a Libertarian is sick, it probably will involve a cowardly change of perspective.