One of the top right-wing illusions about reality (there are so many) is that high taxes and regulations are always bad for businesses, and reducing both will attract them. It comes from their apparent incapacity to think in contexts: what do those regulations do and for what do those taxes pay.
Ayn Rand famously preferred New York City to anywhere else on earth. Anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard lived in New York most of his life. His most important teacher, Ludwig von Mises, was a leading advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. After arriving in the US as a refugee from Nazism, Mises lived in New York. David Koch, who has more money than just about anyone on earth, and has funded libertarian causes for years, lives in New York City. And New York is characterized by lots of regulations and high taxes.
One wonders why these libertarians and such didn’t all move to Jerome, Arizona, or maybe Bird City, Kansas. None moved to some equivalent of Galt’s Gulch, where they could live “free” and with a minimum of taxes and regulations. They demonstrably prefer high tax and high regulation New York. Why?
Well, let a libertarian explain. Brian Doherty, an editor for the Libertarian magazine, Reason, wrote in 2007
In its concentration of grand human achievement, in its cosmopolitanism and grace, combined with a winning self-assured pugnaciousness, New York is the living embodiment of the openness, dynamism, and sheer human will that energizes the free markets that libertarians celebrate — and that makes New York the richest, biggest, wildest metropolis in human history.
And yet in 2007 the Mercatus Center, a Koch funded libertarian outfit nestled within a state funded university in a region made wealthy by government, published a study of the freest and least free states. Three were tied for first place: New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Colorado. New York was “the least free by a considerable margin, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, and Maryland.” In 2011, the most recent version of their study, the freest are New Hampshire, South Dakota, Indiana, Idaho, and Missouri. The ‘least free’ are Massachusetts, Hawaii, California, New Jersey, and again last, New York.
Does anyone recognize a bizarre pattern here? Many of libertarianism’s most important thinkers and funders prefer living in a place that violates nearly all of their strictures as to how a society should exist. New York state is the ‘least free’ of all states and New York City is characterized by high taxes and lots of regulations. They are key elements of New York life.
These libertarian leaders tell us that “freedom” is their most important social value and that high taxes and regulations are enemies of freedom. Then, they move to the place where, by their lights, in the entire US they are least free. Given their rhetoric it is a bit like West Germans choosing to live in East Germany when given the chance. Yet New York does not have to build a wall to keep people in. More often it prices people out.
There are two possible explanations to understanding the glaring incoherence between the personal lives of these ‘free market’ advocates and the ideology by which they want everyone else to live.
First, they do not understand freedom, and their actions prove it.
Second, they do not understand cities, and their arguments prove it.
I happen to think both explanations are true.
Libertarians and those like them love to extol the virtues of “negative freedom” That is, freedom from any outside limitation on one’s actions, at least in so far as they involve voluntary relations with others. As an ideal “negative freedom” is in profound error. We can see why when we reflect that the most perfect negative freedom would be living like Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, along with Friday. So long as each interacted voluntarily with the other, libertarian negative freedom would be 100%.
Very few people would wish to live that way and would almost universally regard themselves as freer in New York City. Even libertarians.
Cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco offer more opportunities to trade with the world, more amenities to enjoy while living there (which is also why tourism is such an industry in most). They have excellent universities either within them or near by. They are vital cultural centers for music, the visual arts, and writing. They are also centers of scientific and technological innovation. The Bay Area and Boston disproportionately gave us the computer industry. Missouri did not, nor did Texas nor did New Hampshire. It is not for nothing that these cities disproportionately attract the most creative and productive Americans.
These cities and others like them also largely dominate the states within which they exist, making them ‘unfree.’ Indeed, these ‘unfree’ states are far more urban than the supposedly ‘freest’ states – and the cities that do exist in those ‘free’ states are far more liberal and open to governmental regulation than are the less urban regions.
Which brings me to the second point: many libertarians are so blinded by their ideology that they miss the contradiction and the reasons for it.
As people interact more frequently with one another in ever more crowded contexts actions which were harmless in one context become harmful in another. Burning trash in early LA had no impact on anyone else because there were very few people there. But as more people moved there once water was cheap and plentiful, activities once harmless became harmful. The very proximity of people that enriches life also means activities once harmless can become harmful. They go together.
The pure property rights models libertarians love have a hard time dealing with issues like air quality, urban transportation, public safety, city parks, and the like. It is why they are irrational on the issue of global warming. The issue cannot be solved by pure market mechanisms, therefore it is not real.
The growing net of regulations need not detract from the economic and cultural value of a city. In fact it can increase them.
Here is another relevant point that I am surprised people claiming to be as economically minded as libertarians and their sympathizers completely ignore. Property prices reflect a region’s desirability. The more people want to live there, the higher the value of land and housing. The fewer who want to live there, the cheaper. New York is one of the most expensive cities in America. Boston and San Francisco are two others characterized by very expensive real estate. According to libertarians, even those living in big urban regions like the folks at Mercatus, they are dens of oppression compared to South Dakota or Missouri. Yet for some reason a lot more people want to live in these oppressive environments than in these contrasting oases of liberty, and they are willing to pay through the nose for the opportunity to do so.
Libertarians and their sympathizers tell us to “trust the market,” but here they ignore it completely. The market tells us that in terms of creating an environment people actually want to live in and will pay for the opportunity to do so, their ideologies are worthless. Some genuine insights exist there to be sure, but they have no monopoly on them and when taken in the libertarian package, the valid insights are submerged in a murky intellectual swamp.
Taxes and regulations are the price we pay for a quality civilization with a rich array of opportunities for its citizens. To use a Randian phrase, ironically it is the libertarians and their sympathizers who are moochers on this civilization, seeking to indulge in its riches while undermining those same values for everyone else.
Am I not contradicting myself as well?
At this point someone might say- “But Gus, you like living in smaller communities close to nature. Aren’t you also contradicting yourself?”
Without getting into this rather different issue very deeply, I’d say no I do not. Most importantly, I do not say people who differ from me on how they think their community should exist are wrong. But there is another point.
The communities I am attracted to are all college towns profoundly impacted by the culture of a decent university or regions deeply within the cultural orbit of big urban regions, particularly San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston. Places such as Taos, Silverton, and Nelson, BC, are centers for artists and writers. In Taos this has been true for close to 100 years. These smaller and more isolated art and cultural centers exist because they attract and are supported by people with urban values which they then (to my mind) enrich further due to where they live.
Were it not for the importance of wild nature to me, I’d be in a city.
Historically over time cities enlarge the mind, break down ethnic distrust, stimulate creativity, and in the process bind human communities ever more tightly, requiring taxes for public services and regulations to prevent toxic spillover effects onto others. They don’t do it perfectly and like anything else, they provide opportunities for human parasites to engage in corruption. But even with these problems today they far outshine less urban areas as magnets for business and for people to develop their capacities in ways they wish. And that is why the leading thinkers among libertarians are vastly disproportionately located in the kinds of American communities they claim are most oppressive.
13 thoughts on “Cities and the incoherence of libertarian theory and practice”
It’s important to distinguish between the unknown ideal of freed markets proposed by free market anti-capitalists.and the contemporary corporate capitalist regime called a “free market”. The former is much more amenable to non-state forms of community and pooling resources without compulsory taxation…I hope it isn’t a pipe dream. I just can’t bring myself to be comfortable with helping jail people for not paying tribute to government, but I can see the benefits of community you describe here.
The best qualities of cities are not due to regulation and taxation. They are the result of cosmopolitanism — the exchange and admixture of ideas, culture and trade.
You have mistakenly lumped all libertarians in with the Ludwig von Mises Institute crew. They are avowedly anti-war and anti-state, but that is about the only issues that this right-leaning group shares with the vast majority of libertarians. Outside of the U.S., “libertarian” is taken to mean “anarchist.” It was in the 1970s that the U.S. libertarian movement took off, and was later co-opted by Randian neoliberal thinkers.
I am hugely enamored with city life, but as an anarchist I believe this:
People are capable of resolving present social ills without resorting to force, which characterizes state power. I.e., I do not wish to invoke pseudo-elected officials to point the gun or prison guard baton at anyone to entice them to behave in a way that I prefer.
What functions does the state serve within the city that cannot be accomplished voluntarily?
First recall that state-capitalism has rendered the great mass of laborers poor, despite their tireless work, and the wealthy permanently conformable though they need not work at all.
But social services must be provided, like, healthcare of protection against crime (which would not be so prevalent if not for the war on drugs and the war on poor people, both of which could not occur without state action). Mutual aid societies were formed by the poor (in New York during the early 20th century in particular) to deal with health care, insurance, and legal disputes.
Consider this example of a free-society forming within an American city, Seattle 1919, when workers took over the city during a General Strike.
“In an empowered society, people do not need written laws; they have the power to determine whether someone is preventing them from fulfilling their needs, and can call on their peers for help resolving conflicts. In this view, the problem is not crime, but social harm — actions such as assault and drunk driving that actually hurt other people. This paradigm does away with the category of victimless crime, and reveals the absurdity of protecting the property rights of privileged people over the survival needs of others. The outrages typical of capitalist justice, such as arresting the hungry for stealing from the wealthy, would not be possible in a needs-based paradigm.
During the February 1919 general strike in Seattle, workers took over the city. Commercially, Seattle was shut down, but the workers did not allow it to fall into disarray. On the contrary, they kept all vital services running, but organized by the workers without the management of the bosses. The workers were the ones running the city every other day of the year, anyway, and during the strike they proved that they knew how to conduct their work without managerial interference. They coordinated citywide organization through the General Strike Committee, made up of rank and file workers from every local union; the structure was similar to, and perhaps inspired by, the Paris Commune. Union locals and specific groups of workers retained autonomy over their jobs without management or interference from the Committee or any other body. Workers were free to take initiative at the local level. Milk wagon drivers, for example, set up a neighborhood milk distribution system the bosses, restricted by profit motives, would never have allowed.
The striking workers collected the garbage, set up public cafeterias, distributed free food, and maintained fire department services. They also provided protection against anti-social behavior — robberies, assaults, murders, rapes: the crime wave authoritarians always forecast. A city guard comprised of unarmed military veterans walked the streets to keep watch and respond to calls for help, though they were authorized to use warnings and persuasion only. Aided by the feelings of solidarity that created a stronger social fabric during the strike, the volunteer guard were able to maintain a peaceful environment, accomplishing what the state itself could not.
This context of solidarity, free food, and empowerment of the common person played a role in drying up crime at its source. Marginalized people gained oppor- tunities for community involvement, decision-making, and social inclusion that were denied to them by the capitalist regime. The absence of the police, whose presence emphasizes class tensions and creates a hostile environment, may have actually decreased lower-class crime. Even the authorities remarked on how orga- nized the city was: Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and so orderly.” The strike was ultimately shut down by the invasion of thousands of troops and police deputies, coupled with pressure from the union leadership. 4
– From Anarchy Works, available free here: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/peter-gelderloos-anarchy-works
Also read about the Paris Commune and the numerous cities run by Anarchist/Socialist consensus during the Spanish Civil War — both projects occurring in the midst of wars and would have survived if multiple armies had not used considerable force against them.
You should check out Freetown Christiania, Mondragon, Exarchia in Greece and the hundreds of anarchic intentional communities and communes throughout the world. Also read Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber, or The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott.
You are quite right to critique “vulgar libertarians” like Rand, but keep in mind the fact that libertarianism is not monolithic. The type most are familiar with is the vast minority worldwide:
“Anarchists have been using the term ‘libertarian’ to describe themselves and their ideas since the 1850’s. According to anarchist historian Max Nettlau, the revolutionary anarchist Joseph Dejacque published Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social in New York between 1858 and 1861 while the use of the term ‘libertarian communism’ dates from November, 1880 when a French anarchist congress adopted it. [Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, p. 75 and p. 145] The use of the term ‘Libertarian’ by anarchists became more popular from the 1890s onward after it was used in France in an attempt to get round anti-anarchist laws and to avoid the negative associations of the word ‘anarchy’ in the popular mind (Sebastien Faure and Louise Michel published the paper Le Libertaire — The Libertarian — in France in 1895, for example). Since then, particularly outside America, it has always been associated with anarchist ideas and movements. Taking a more recent example, in the USA, anarchists organised ‘The Libertarian League’ in July 1954, which had staunch anarcho-syndicalist principles and lasted until 1965. The US-based ‘Libertarian’ Party, on the other hand has only existed since the early 1970’s, well over 100 years after anarchists first used the term to describe their political ideas (and 90 years after the expression ‘libertarian communism’ was first adopted). It is that party, not the anarchists, who have ‘stolen’ the word.”
I have read most of what you recommend. I have personally been to Mondragon, studied it, given talks on it, and admire it. I have also written an book on how “contractual federalism” through cooperatives can handle many problems better than government. It was a PhD dissertation (Berkeley, Political Science, 1984) plus other published refereed articles – and was never reviewed. Particularly by libertarians. Deal with my arguments and save your recommendations – because I probably read most of the works you recommend long before you did.
Yes, left libertarians are better to my mind than right libertarians. Did you bother to pay attention to what I actually wrote? Apparently not. Libertarians increasingly seem to me like Christians and Marxists. When ever I mention a problem, they say – ah, but we are not THAT kind of libertarians. An ideology with out content beyond slogans.
One thought I had on what you wrote above was the big cities also have better chess communities, but that is difficult to tie into taxes or regulations…
Not sure if your comments are addressed to both of us, but I wanted to say I did read the post. I’ve also read your PhD book from cover to cover. I appreciate the arguments within it for contractual alternatives.
I was replying to the Verbose One. Your post simply reiterated a point you have made before outside this blog – without addressing my replies to it.
More broadly, I give arguments for why ANY form of libertarianism that sees all just human life in explicitly contractual terms will NOT work. You as well as the Verbose One reply that there are other as yet untried forms of libertarianism not discussed by me that will work. But you have yet to tell me how they deal with the explicit examples I have given. It really is like arguing with Marxists or Christians who always deny the nasty record of the past as not being by “real” Marxists or Christians. It is frustrating because I give very concrete examples as challenges.
I could give concrete examples of substance about what I am referring to such as working class mutual aid or fraternal societies based on lodge practice for medical care, but I think it best that I respond to your explicit arguments first.
Yes. I know about all those, or many of them, and so far as I can tell they have zero impact on my criticisms.
Ok. I haven’t done a good job articulating the specifics. That’s a fair criticism.
And that IS the issue. I contend that the reason libertarians have not taken me to task for my concrete examples is because they CANNOT. That is leading with my chin about as far as anyone can in an intellectual debate. So far my chin is unbruised.
They start out by assuming the magic existence of property right because we all can agree such rights are useful- without ever confronting the hard problems of how we define them and how we define them when circumstances turn something harmless into something harmful. They assume a “libertarian law code” as if even libertarians can agree on what such a code would look like in detail. Each in their heart of hearts is a radical constructivist even as their traditions of thought demonstrate its weaknesses. And they never ever assume those with more resources will use their resource advantage to game the rules or the enforcement of the rules, despite thousands of years of evidence that it is the powerful and rich who game systems far more than the middle class or the poor. Libertarianism is an ideology that appeals to smart young people without much concrete life experience who think theory alone can comprehend the world, older people who get so enmeshed in an ideology they cannot allow it to confront the hard problems that demonstrate its limitations or cause them to expand their understanding, or both, and people with problems caring about or even appreciating anyone but themselves so the theory is useful only because it justifies their doing what they would do anyway. That is my experience anyway, and I was one who was going from the first to the second, but then became fascinated by the hard problems. If you cannot address the hard problems and no one else does either, the ideology should be considered wrong. Period.
Have you read any of Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s work on dialectics and libertarianism or just dialectics? That was what sparked a lot of left-libertarian thinking. It was meant as a reformation of Objectivist thought, but the orthodox Randians threw Chris out for his heresy of comparing Rand’s methodology to Karl Marx’s. A lot of what he says is similar to your critiques about context and concrete evidence or research. His critique of Rothbard’s concept of a libertarian law code is similar to yours.
Chris is still a libertarian, but you may enjoy his critique of the aspects of Rothbard’s thought he considers utopian nonetheless. His challenge was for libertarians to embrace a contextual approach or concrete research approach with an emphasis on the specific facts. If you’re interested; I recommend Total Freedom: Towards a Dialectical Libertarianism. You’re quoted in it on overarching contexts, value neutrality, and so forth. As I said on FB; I am not defending libertarian ideology anymore unless I can rebut your explicit arguments or can offer a specific vision of a left-libertarian workable model that can address your criticisms adequately. I may still discuss issues from the perspective of the non-aggression principle, because I can see it as being separate from libertarian ideology as currently defined.
*value neutrality and issues with it