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The Libertarian threat

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Author 1773
Message Julian Edney
We are losing ground against a rhetorical assault.

The Libertarian star, hurled by the upward burst of American business which occurred in the Reagan era after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has risen. This global expansion over the last two decades is capitalism's second Big Bang, and it still accelerates. Mercantile missionaries have been flying to remote and backward nations in Indonesia, Latin America and the Middle East to show them liberty, democracy and wealth. The message: business is the solution; as your nation gets richer, it will benefit everybody.

The actual sequence is floridly exposed by writers like John Perkins (1). Ostensibly we send bold venture capitalists traipsing from country to backwater country, nailing freedom into place and unfurling banners of abundance. In practice it takes money to get started. First, corporate reps fly in and propose to arrange gargantuan loans for improvements. The lenders include the World Bank, and the loans may be used partly to bribe local officials, but they come with many rules and conditions that the construction work be done by American contractors. It is big money and it is made clear to local politicians they will get a fabulous rakeoff. The paperwork is set. Next the contractors move in and install concrete ports, iron factories, fences, oil wells, roads, telephones and mines. The factories fill with local workers. The big money loans also come with big interest payments (always in American dollars.) If the loans are not paid off quickly (they never are - these improvements take time) they compound into mountainous obligation. This brings whole sectors of the nation under the control of the foreign lenders. This may be used to extort political changes. Obstructing local leaders may be removed.

The pattern is an old one. On a local scale it used to be called carpetbagging. After the American Civil War northern profiteers traveled south taking advantage of Southern chaos and loss, buying property and plantations from devastated landowners, hiring at starvation wages, getting rich, and leveraging themselves into political office, arguing that the employment they brought benefited all. They were hated as exploiters. A poster from the period shows the KKK threatening to lynch carpetbaggers.

Our international version has brought backward nations in Indonesia, Latin America and the Middle East phones, satellite TV, and clinics, while natural resources are taken under the lender's rules. This was supposed to lead to local wealth but most of the money goes to pay off the contractors and the lenders.

On this side, reports seep back to American shareholders of indigenous people working twelve-hour shifts for five dollars a day in the new concrete sweatshops surrounded by barbed wire and having no standards and no labor laws; walled hells of exploitation – but cheap labor means bonanza profits. Some mansions appear on the hillside. But not everybody is lifted. Years later, there are acres of slums. Instead of gratitude come street demonstrations against Americans.

But challenge the working conditions and you get corporate table pounding: ‘Five dollars a day is much better than the dollar a day they made herding goats.' And if you object that it doesn't look like liberty for the workers – ‘but we saved them from communism.' Perkins goes on to relate how corporate reps, poolside at shimmering hotels, talk about civilizing the savages, the way the colonial British talked a century ago.

Some very wealthy American politicians are entangled in these corporations. When these politicians are interviewed on talk shows or the evening news, it's a familiar line: we bring freedom and economic opportunity to oppressed nations (if they sit on oil fields).

The better known of these politicians are called neocons, or new (born again) conservatives. The rhetoric they use is that a rise in corporate wealth – and their wealth - benefits all. They sometimes must struggle to make these small countries see sense, as well as liberal doubters at home. They must explain. This is where ideology comes in.

Neocon business ideology is smudged, a mix of market principles with a subtext of Social Darwinism, and more subtext conveyed in TV images, and that all this is prayed on in church; clumsy. So Libertarian principles are used.

The Libertarian Party was invented in 1971 and it has never won any national elections. Actually, true Libertarians are against expansionism. They do not want foreign wars. They hate wiretapping, domestic spying, police powers, and big government. At the Libertarian center is an anarchist's desire for as little government as possible. New as it is, the Libertarian movement has a towering advantage: a crisp ideology.

Ultimately, policy is steered by ideas. So while neocons and their lobbyists guide huge money around, they must fall back on quoting an ideology that's not quite theirs. So Libertarians get outsize respect.

Libertarian ideology is both powerful and backward-looking. It is expounded by older authorities like Ayn Rand (2) and new, and its principles may be found in a few quite readable books (3-5). It insists on maximizing personal freedom. It uses ancient concepts like natural law, and its goals are a reversion to the ‘natural state' – simple communities based on the rightness of inequality, and natural selection among humans. It is not democratic. It does not deal with conscience, nor with justice, nor compassion; its single-minded focus is on liberty, and it embraces concepts like survival of the fittest. It claims Adam Smith's principle of the ‘invisible hand,' and it promotes concepts like laissez-faire that businessmen want to use.

Libertarianism is not to be confused with populism, because populism is egalitarian and focuses on the good of the common man. Libertarians avoid anything common; they talk about natural nobilities and elites.

Throw in Libertarians' insistence that the ‘common good' is a deception, throw in their exaggerated assertions of the total failure of socialism, throw in their insistence that taxation is theft - and businessmen are ready to do battle at high pitch.

No matter how they press us with this, and expect us to see sense, we never will. Adam Smith's principles are over two hundred years old. Forcing it on global markets is perverse.

And this is my thesis: Libertarian ideology throws us in jeopardy.

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