Confusing Libertarians with Communists

by Don Boudreaux on May 27, 2004

in Myths and Fallacies

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers “a glance at the May/June issue of Society,” featuring a symposium on “The New Communism” – which, according to Berry College Professor Peter Augustine Lawler, might be libertarianism. He says: “What libertarian ideology promises today is strangely close to what Marx promised would come with communism – freedom from alienation and oppression, a life constrained by nothing but personal choice, the withering away of religion, and the withering away of the state.”

Of course, anyone can call himself or herself “libertarian” and then issue all sorts of positive predictions and normative assessments. Perhaps there is somewhere a self-styled “libertarian” whose philosophy and analysis fit Prof. Lawler’s description. But take mainstream libertarianism – represented by scholars such as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, Richard Epstein, Deirdre McCloskey, Virginia Postrel, David Boaz, Tom Palmer, Steve Landsburg, and Sheldon Richman – and you’ll find no such doctrine as described by Prof. Lawler.

Few, if any, of even those libertarians who long for a stateless society actually predict (as Marx did) that the state will wither away. To hope is not to predict. More to the point, not all libertarians (indeed, not a majority of libertarians) are anarchists. As for religion, many libertarians, it is true, are atheists; but many others are deeply religious. And among atheist libertarians, I can’t think of one who predicts the withering away of religion.

Lawler’s most significant misrepresentation is his accusation that, like Marxism, libertarianism promises “a life constrained by nothing but personal choice.” Ugh! Barf! Arghh! Every libertarian whom I know has as part of his or her bedrock understanding of reality that the world is a constrained and constraining place. It is precisely because reality is no utopia, no empyrean dreamland of superabundance, that people must make careful choices – often very difficult and painful ones. It is not our choices that ultimately constrain us; it is the unavoidable scarcity of desirable things in the world that constrain us and that, in turn, oblige us to choose.

Libertarians (unlike Marxists) understand that even the most ideal economic system will never, ever eliminate scarcity and the consequent and constant necessity for each of us to make choices. Furthermore, libertarians (unlike most non-libertarians) understand that the state is a thoroughly human institution that is often asked to work miracles – which, of course, it has no hope of performing, but in its modern guise nevertheless specializes in pretending to perform such scarcity-eliminating feats. That is, it specializes in masking the need to make some choices. In the process, it actually reduces the range of options over which most people can choose.

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