MEMBERS ONLY: History is the Libertarian’s Worst Nightmare

by Justin Rosario

Libertarians of every stripe all agree on one thing: Government regulation is bad and if the wicked Feds would just get out of the way, the free market would solve everything. It’s an appealing philosophy that feeds into the libertarian belief that they are the masters of their own destiny; an island unto themselves.

Of course, for every “self-made” zillionaire that resents paying taxes is another several hundred thousand people who made their success possible: The police that keep them safe. The military that protects our borders. The doctors that cure disease. The janitors that keep everything clean. The laborers that grow our food. And so on and so forth. “Self-made” is the single most delusional lie the libertarian clings to but the real blind spot is their utter ignorance of history.

The conceit of libertarian philosophy is that the free market is the key to prosperity. History is very clear on this point, however. Whenever the market is not constrained by the rule of law, things get ugly. Every. Single. Time.

Adulteration

My personal favorite example of “the free market” at work is adulteration:

During the 18th and 19th centuries, as the United States shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy and urbanization disconnected people from food production, the debasement of food for profit became rampant. Milk was often watered down and colored with chalk or plaster—substances which were also added to bulk up flour. Lead was added to wine and beer, and coffee, tea and spices were routinely mixed with dirt, sand or other leaves. Although a number of laws forbade harmful substances from being added to food, they were tough to enforce since there were no dependable tests to prove the existence of pollutants.

Curiously, libertarians seem completely unaware of how badly the “free market” failed then and now. In China, which until recently lacked their own version of the FDA, thousands of children got sick and several died from drinking adulterated milk. It had become a widespread practice to water down milk to meet demand and in order to fool spot tests for that very thing, people were adding a chemical named Melamine that turned out to be poisonous in high doses. They poisoned children for money. Freedom, indeed.

Child Labor

Child labor is another fun benefit of the libertarian dream. Nothing says “laissez-faire” like putting little children to work:

Young children working endured some of the harshest conditions. Workdays would often be 10 to 14 hours with minimal breaks during the shift. Factories employing children were often very dangerous places leading to injuries and even deaths. Machinery often ran so quickly that little fingers, arms and legs could easily get caught. Beyond the equipment, the environment was a threat to children as well as factories put out fumes and toxins. When inhaled by children these most certainly could result in illness, chronic conditions or disease.

Of course, these little wonders of industry didn’t have time to get an education so assuming they survived to adulthood, they were trapped in a cycle of poverty. 

Fun fact! Many developing nations still allow child labor and, surprisingly, it’s still a terrible life of misery and toil. Heck, we still do it here in the United States because we don’t have enough people enforcing child labor laws. Libertarians would argue we need even less enforcement but, hey, it’s not their kids losing fingers in heavy machinery.

Monopolies

Before it was an ode to unfettered capitalism in the form of a board game, monopolies were (and still are) one of the most destructive expressions of the libertarian dream. By controlling most or all of a particular industry, companies would destroy competitors by underselling them for a loss, threatening potential customers, or simply buying enough politicians to do the dirty work for them.

The result of this lack of competition would be price gouging, poor quality, stifled innovation and artificially limiting supply in order to force prices even higher than they were already inflated. In no conceivable way would this be considered a free market but libertarians still chafe at the idea of preventing monopolies. The theory is that the market will naturally correct itself but that presumes the monopoly plays fair, a naive notion completely unsupported by history.

When the rich take control, they do not let go. For a relatively recent example of this, look at the war the auto industry waged on electric cars back in the 90s. Forced by California to start selling emission free vehicles, GM developed and leased (but never sold) the EV1. It was a huge success and immediately sent the auto and oil industries into a panic.

GM had accidentally produced a car that rarely broke down (thus hurting GM’s profits from selling replacement parts), didn’t need highly lucrative oil changes and didn’t use gasoline. As soon as they were able, GM reclaimed the cars, canceled production and literally destroyed them all so people would forget about the EV1. 

The entire sordid story is chronicled in 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and makes for a perfect picture of how corporations will act in their own best interest at all times without regard for the public good.

Pollution

This one is easy. The following picture is the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. It was so polluted by industrial waste, it used to regularly burst into flames.

Can you smell the freedom?

Corporations will dump toxic chemicals anywhere and everywhere with zero concern for the well being of the environment. The standard libertarian line is that people can sue for damages and that will force corporations to clean up their act. First, that doesn’t do much for the people who got cancer from being deliberately exposed to carcinogens. Second, corporations have millions of dollars to spend on lawyers and, true to libertarian philosophy, the right leaning Supreme Court has been making it even more difficult to sue them; a task that was already herculean to begin with.

The 2008-2009 Economic Collapse

Ask a libertarian what happened to crash the world’s economy and they’ll tell you a sad tale of how the government encouraged Wall Street to gamble so, really, it’s not the fault of the market at all. On top of that, they’ll complain about something something Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They’ll also tell you that the bailout was immoral and the banks should have been left to collapse.

That’s all bullshit they tell themselves to avoid admitting that Wall Street greed was completely unregulated and their scams blew up in their faces. The 2008-2009 collapse showed the world exactly what the libertarian dream looks like: The rich and powerful recklessly gambled and left billions of people to pick up the tab when it all went wrong. Without the steady hand of government to keep them in check, the rich cannot control themselves because, fundamentally, the rich do not believe they should be constrained by petty considerations like morality or ethics or pesky “laws.” They certainly don’t believe that they should pay for their mistakes which is why none of them went to jail or even went broke despite wiping out trillions of dollars of other people’s wealth.

In fact, because of the way they rigged the system, the very people who created the collapse ended up with more money and power than before they destroyed the lives of millions of innocent people. The 1% are now further away from the rest of us than at any point in American history. Libertarian “freedom” always leads to oligarchy and, frankly, that’s the point although libertarians will never admit to outsiders.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Libertarians

Hop into a libertarian chat room and you’ll quickly notice that pretty much every single one of them is white and male and most likely comfortably middle class. Libertarian women and minorities are few and far between and for good reason: Libertarians base their ideology pm the premise that they, personally, would be one of the vaunted masters of the universe if only the wicked government would get out of their way. It’s a mindset that can only exist in a world that has been free from the systemic discrimination women, Latinos, blacks and other minorities have faced for generations. Being unable to conceive of institutional bias (libertarians naturally refuse to acknowledge white privilege exists), they wander through the world tut-tutting at all the “lazy” people holding they, the cream of the crop, back from their rightful destiny as a leader among men (emphasis on “men”).

This is how they have built an elaborate fiction based on Ayn Rand’s risible flights of fancy that has absolutely no basis in the real world. This is why they take great pains to ignore the history of unregulated Capitalism and the sheer scale of the horror it inflicts whenever it’s allowed to run rampant. If they admit that government regulation is absolutely necessary to keep corporations from murdering children for a profit, they have to abandon their deeply cherished belief that they are “self made” and don’t need “we the people” to push back against dangerous corporate greed. Better to cling to the fantasy world of “free markets” and noble Capitalism that never have, and never will, exist.