Libertarianism Is "The New Communism"?

The always interesting Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek criticizes a forthcoming article which suggests that libertarianism is "The New Communism":

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.

Not only is this a snowclone, the comparison isn't very original. It's a common criticism lobbed at libertarianism, as is the comparison to religion. In fact, these two criticisms are closely connected. Both attempt to reveal libertarian hypocrisy by showing how libertarians are guilty of the very things they despise. While many libertarians are deeply religious, as Boudreaux notes, most tend to be atheists or agnostics and pride themselves on their rationality and aversion to mysticism.

I've dealt with both of these issues in previous posts. Liberty Worship and Human Action, Not Human Design addressed the religion claim, while Utopia is Not an Option discussed the socialism charge. Regarding the comparison of radical libertarianism to radical socialism I wrote,

Of course, this observation is a function of any radical political ideology. That doesn't necessarily mean that radical political positions should be rejected; after all, liberal democracy and abolition of slavery were both considered radical utopian daydreams at one point in history, as were many other progressive political visions which we now accept as commonplace and desirable.

Any and all viewpoints outside the mainstream are going to share some similarities: displeasure with the current system, a desire to change that system, and a hopeful vision of what society would look like if the proposed changes are implemented. Mainstream views, on the other hand, tend to support the status quo and advocate only minor, non-systematic changes.

The central question of economics is how to use scarce resources to satisfy unlimited wants. Libertarianism addresses this question directly, which is why economics is so central to libertarian thought. Libertarian ideology does not promise a world of "freedom from alienation and oppression." Rather, libertarianism acknowledges that there will always be scarcity and unlimited human wants, and there will always be alienation and oppression. Getting rid of or reducing government will not solve these problems, but can at best only alleviate them.

Marxism, on the other hand, often denies both parts of the economic question: it denies that resources are scarce and it denies that human wants are unlimited. Marxism accuses capitalism of creating unnecessary wants that would not need to be satisfied in a world devoid of consumerism and flashy marketing. Marxism accuses capitalism of fostering vast inequalities, and claims that by redistributing resources from the haves to the have-nots, there would be more than enough to go around.

Recognizing the different approaches to this central economic question is fundamental to any discussion of libertarianism and Marxism.

John Coleman partly agrees with the comparison, at least in terms of the psychology motivating both ideologies, and argues that "some of our libertarian impulses should be tempered and moderated by our humanity with our own human nature in mind." This is all well and good--libertarians should indeed recognize the limitations of human nature and the need for social institutions to act as a bulwark against the more destructive elements of human desire--but I think Coleman misses the fundamental difference between Marxism and libertarianism when he claims that the psychology of each is "one that espouses nature as the enemy of man and progress and freedom as the highest goods."

Nature, from the standpoint of economics, consists of both the available resources at our disposal and our natural human impulses. Libertarianism does indeed view nature as an enemy, or at least a serious problem that needs to be addressed as best as possible. Resources are limited and we need to figure out how to use them most efficiently. Human nature is often selfish and venal, and society needs to have some way to either direct these propensities towards nondestructive ends or else minimize the damage they can cause. Marxism, on the hand, often idealizes nature - both in terms of resources and human tendencies. Instead of looking at nature as the central human problem, Marxism views capitalism, with its unequal distribution of wealth, as the enemy. Get rid of capitalism, and the rest falls into place.

Everyone likes progress and freedom, so it?s no surprise that both Marxism and libertarianism are guilty on this count. But Marx went to great lengths to disparage what he considered "bourgeois freedom." The argument over whether true freedom is better described as the freedom to truck, barter and exchange or the freedom from want is ultimately circular, but one would think that if Marxism espoused freedom as the highest good, a Marxist society would allow people to form their own libertarian communities if they were so inclined, as a libertarian society would permit Marxists to do.

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Yes, it certainly is a one

Yes, it certainly is a one sided equation. Libertarians have no problem harbouring communists or marxists, while the other side could never envision allowing us to exist on our terms.

Great article Micha. I like

Great article Micha.

I like to say that Marxism is the political equivalent of perpetual motion, where Libertarianism is the political equivalent of attempting to minimize friction.

I was explaining it to a

I was explaining it to a liberal friend of mine like this:

Socialists look at people and say, "Man, people suck. Let's change their material circumstances through governmental action and force them to change into better people."

Conservatives say: "God, people suck. Let's use the security apparatus of the state to ensure law and order." (Leading quite logically to the man who said, "As a Christian, I know it's wrong, but the prison officer in me loves to see a grown man piss himself.")

Libertarians say: "Man, people suck. Let's make some money off that."