Understanding Shallow Libertarianism

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Introduction

When the moderator of a recent event held by the Socialists Students at the University of Cincinnati opened the floor for discussion, a libertarian in the audience was the first to raise a comment from the crowd. Though the evening’s main presentation focused on problems of war, exploitation and austerity, recent eruptions of radical activism and what political formations and openings for exist inside and outside bourgeois electoral politics, the man took aim at philosophical concepts of socialism itself. His points were made in an attempt to draw out contradictions, logical fallacies, and philosophical bankruptcy from socialists and deserve a response. Even if these comments were shallow and evoked laughter from the audience, we should put the commenter’s political and historical naivety aside and be prepared to answer to claims such as these. The statements, which were directed more at the rest of the event’s audience than its speakers in the front of the room, meant to draw the attention to apparent drawbacks of socialist ideas and towards right-libertarianism, and had three main points:

First, he referred to the work of Jerry Cohen, a late philosopher and socialist. Cohen, the man claimed, said that in a socialist society, an “eye lottery” would subject the citizens to randomly give up an eye in case another member of that society was lacking sight.

Second, he warned the students in the room that in a socialist society, the government (or some ruling body—I can’t remember the specific organ) would decide what they would study and what work they would do, resulting in the summary dismantling of any freedom we might enjoy today.

After a response from the speaker, the man’s third claim was that those in the room misunderstood the system we live under. He insisted that he too had reservations about the economy we live under, but that we misidentified this system and socialism wasn’t the correct alternative. He called the broken system “crony capitalism,” under which a small group of wealthy people have managed to gain political power and control of the state and it’s tools, especially the IRS, and were able to direct great pools of money and resources away from where individual citizens might spend it given fuller control over their wealth and profits. A “pure” stateless capitalism would be much superior, he insisted, and in these pure conditions state functions, such as welfare and laws about a minimum wage, would take the form of charitable donations.

These points display both a lack of understanding of  what constitutes socialism and a questionably analysis of the capitalist system both as it exists today and as it functions theoretically. They also come straight from the Mises Institute, which is a right-wing think tank advocating libertarian capitalism. A cursory search of Google for “G.A. Cohen eye lottery” returns a 1998 review of Cohen from the Institute itself and countless blogs that reference this review. Read the piece if you wish, but I wish less to engage with this review than to pivot to the nature of the night’s discussion and what can be drawn from the points made and pose some suggestions for responses for comrades.

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