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Libertarianism does not equal liberty

BY ZACH WAHLS - GUEST OPINION | MARCH 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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Liberty: the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.

So the Oxford American Dictionary defines “liberty.” Is that acceptable for everyone? If so, great — keep reading. If not, don’t waste your time.

Like so many things in life, libertarianism is a great idea in theory. Minimal government allows the invisible hand to do its work, the motivated rise to the top, and society as a whole benefits. Libertarianism allows the individual to do what is in her or his best interest and, therefore, society’s best interest.

I do my research. The Libertarian Party of the United States keeps a tidy website, and it maintains an up-to-date platform. I agree with a good number of its planks. In fact, I agreed with every single aspect of two of its three core themes, “Personal Liberty” and “Securing Liberty.”

On “Economic Liberty,” (Notice a trend here?) however, I take exception. I realize that I’m setting myself up to being labeled a communist, so let me just say that I’m a business owner. I run a peer tutoring company called Iowa City Learns LLC. I’m planning on getting an M.B.A. I’m a capitalist.

That being said, I think we can all agree that there are some flaws in the guiding principles of this economic system. I’m going to discuss three of them and how they fly in the face of what libertarianism stands for.

“Out of sight, out of mind.” Usually, this is an explanation on why I try not to look into the kitchens at Burge (I do love watching the omelets get made, though). But this axiom also explains why environmental degradation is common in most capitalist systems. From the Libertarian Party’s platform: “We support a clean and healthy environment and sensible use of our natural resources. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources.”

I completely agree. Unfortunately, when I can’t see the environmental consequences of my actions or purchases, it’s awfully hard to keep them in mind, especially because we aren’t really considering the long-term effects of our actions. Businesses aren’t concerned with global impacts a century down the line; they’re concerned with the next quarter.

As such, they don’t really have an incentive to inform us of the long-term effects of their products. And this flies in the face of another tenant of modern economics: perfect information.

The capitalist model assumes that consumers have perfect information and that we know everything there is to know about the products we buy and all the other products in the market. All too often, unfortunately, businesses mislead us about their products, and finding the true information is impossible. (Predatory lending, anyone?)

The final aspect is this whole “big” thing. Capitalism trends toward monopoly. The most successful business will buy up its competitors. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. But then you run into “too big to fail,” which I think we can all agree isn’t good. Monopolies, like welfare, breed dependency and limit choice.

So, given these three properties of capitalism — that it operates with a focus on the short term, that it has an incentive to not be entirely truthful, and that it trends toward monopoly — I think it becomes pretty clear that capitalism, without some government regulation, limits choice, limits opportunity, and creates markets in which citizens are oppressed by negative externalities such as, say, a depleted environment.

The “free” market does not go hand in hand with liberty. And liberty does not go hand in hand with libertarianism.

Zach Wahls is a UI freshman.


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