Well, it finally happened: I finally read a libertarian post so silly I couldn’t resist a response.
To simplify, the libertarian in question claimed that no decision was legitimate unless he had consented to it, and that no prior decision could compel his compliance as he had not consented to it.
There are at least three profound things wrong with this argument: it’s wrong on its face; it’s wrong on social institutions; and it has no promise for building a real world social order. Let me take each in turn.
First, as to the premise: it’s just wrong. For example, I have an 8 1/2 month old son, and I make decisions for him all the time that are entirely legitimate and (probably) appropriate. Likewise, we generally don’t advocate letting crazy people kill themselves, or allowing gunmen to walk into crowded rooms and open fire. There are all kinds of circumstances in which one legitimately has one’s right to make a specific decision taken away, and in which one’s freedom to consent to an act (such as your incarceration) is denied. A blanket statement “never” is, well, silly.
Now, anticipating the objection that what the person meant to say—but didn’t, even in a follow up post—was that all RATIONAL people should have absolute freedom of choice, let me state that the politics of determining who is and isn’t “rational” are fraught with bias. Ask any woman in history who was denied the right to vote on the grounds that they were “emotional” not “rational,” or any ex-slave who was deemed (by their former masters) to be too “child-like” to be a full member of society. “Rational” is a lovely word. It’s also a tool of repression.
Second, as to the way social institutions work, the simple fact is that by the time my son is of an age where he might choose to be, god help us, a libertarian, he will have benefitted from a vast array of social goods and services that depended on inter-generational commitments of time and labor and money. He will have drunk, bathed and played in untold gallons of safe water. He will have breathed safe air and eaten food that (basically) was safe. He will have not been electrocuted each time he turned on a light switch—which delivered power across an array of regulated mechanisms over large spaces of territory. And he will have enjoyed much, much more. Here’s the thing, though: all of it—ALL OF IT—will have been organized and paid for at least by his parents’ taxes and fees, his grandparents’ and fees, and his great-grandparents’ taxes and fees.
The simple fact is that if you wish to have any kind of structure, institution or practice that lasts more than the time it takes two people to exchange whatever good or service they are exchanging, then a commitment beyond a one-to-one agreement is necessary. This need only grows more significant and more complex and social organizations expand in size and scope. Of course, as an adult one can choose to live outside these social orders: go and become a hermit. But if you wish to enjoy the benefits of society, you have to pay some of the costs of society. At least in a democracy you (ideally) get to have some say over those costs.
Third, on what should we do instead, let me say that I have never, ever heard a libertarian even vaguely hint at an answer to this. I have seen an endless number of “the government sucks” posts from libertarians but not a single answer to the question: how do I get electricity in a libertarian world? Where everyone has to consent to everything all the time? How do I get safe water? How do I make NASA and a national park and, yes, how do I make sure that actual enemies don’t attack?
It’s one thing to critique the way the US does these things now. Indeed, I do it all the time. But it’s quite another to think through an alternative. And I have never seen a libertarian do this in even a vaguely compelling, real world way. Until you can answer these questions, and address my first two points with more than a mocking tone and a fantastical story, please, libertarians, I beg you:
stop claiming no decision or action taken by anyone else can ever be legitimate over you in any way. Just stop.