Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Fundamental Flaw In Libertarian Thinking

Of course, the first question is why am I bothering to address this? Isn't the whole 'Libertarian' thing a flaky outcrop of the loony Right of the US?

Possibly. But I found out yesterday that it's also taking root in Australia, which is disturbing. And while I'm at it - when I was a kid, reading Robert Heinlein (who might as well be one of Science Fiction's patron saints of Libertarianism) the philosophy seemed to have some good points to it. And is it not axiomatic that "...that government is best which governs least"?

Except that the so-called Libertarian philosophy is built around a fundamentally unsound basis.

The basic ideal of Libertarianism is: you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone, and we'll all be better off. Libertarians oppose government assistance schemes, government interventions of just about any sort, and "impositions" on personal rights, such as seatbelt laws. It's a basic ideal of the movement that one should be permitted to choose actions which may lead to self harm if one is aware that the harm is possible, and one desires to do so. Whose life is it anyway?

Unfortunately, that only really works if the whole world is composed of Libertarians, each fully self-sufficient and in no way beholden to any other. To show exactly how it falls down, consider the question of immunisation.

There are plenty of people who oppose immunisation of children. Despite the claims of harm being long since debunked; despite the removal of mercury-based preservatives (thiomersal) from childhood vaccines - despite all evidence to the contrary, there are people who insist that vaccines are potentially dangerous, and they shouldn't be required to subject their children to them.

There are enough such idiots (and I use the term deliberately, because anyone whose behaviour flies in the face of a century or so of scientific research and successful, effective medical practice, and endangers their own children in so doing is manifestly an irresponsible idiot) that recently we've seen a minor epidemic of whooping cough in Victoria, and if I recall correctly, there's now a measles epidemic going on in New Zealand... despite the fact that both these diseases are eminently preventable.

Lets take the Libertarian line, shall we?

* * *

"The government has no right to impose this on me, or my family. I can protect my own family."

Oh? How will you do that?

"If there's an outbreak, I'll isolate myself and my family. We'll wait until it passes. We'll be fine. We've made preparations."

Aha. So somehow, you're going to get your entire family into complete isolation before the first symptoms of the outbreak occur in your local community. Because, of course, many -- if not most -- diseases are communicable before they're symptomatic.

"I'll read about it in the newspaper. On the Internet."

Interesting. Given that an outbreak can last several months or longer, you're prepared to wait that long in complete medical isolation?

"... That's a worst-case scenario, right?"

No. It's pretty common. So - what will you do if your children catch this disease? Will you refuse medical treatment and let them die?

"Of course not. Libertarianism embraces the exchange of valuable skills. I can pay for medical treatment. We're not unreasonable. Nobody can have all the necessary skills and resources on their own."

Really? Doesn't that make Libertarianism kind of... untenable?

"No. No. We accept and understand a society in which all participants are involved on a voluntary basis, where everyone knows and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions."

All right. What will you do if your child requires hospitalisation? Let's say - for something like Whooping Cough? You know - because the outbreak arrived before you got word, or because you didn't stay in isolation long enough. Will you permit your child to enter a public hospital, if necessary?

"We're not monsters or idiots. We've got nothing against hospitals as such. They're necessary. If a child needs to be hospitalised and we have the money or the means to make that possible, then of course we will do what is needed to save the child. Who wouldn't?"

I see. So... how are you going to explain that to the other people whose children may have to visit that hospital? Babies, for example - too young as yet to be immunised against Whooping Cough. When you send your righteously non-immunised (but now desperately sick) child to the hospital, you're exposing an entire community to the disease. And yes: you're exposing children too young to make the choice about vaccination - even too young for the option. In fact, by insisting on your right not to immunise, you are now endangering the youngest, most vulnerable members of your community.


Tell me: what's the Libertarian philosophy on people who deliberately endanger, harm, or kill small children? I'm just curious, you understand...

* * *

Our fable ends there, but the principle which it illustrates remains. I know perfectly well that not all (in fact, probably not most) people who call themselves 'Libertarian' are stupid enough to refuse vaccination. But under the Libertarian "philosophy", it's their right to refuse vaccination for themselves and their children. Because the Government has no right to intervene, and impose these things on people.

The truth? "Libertarianism" is little other than a nice six (or is it seven? How many syllables in "-ism"?) syllable word that is pretty much absolutely equivalent to another six-syllable construction: "Fuck you, Jack. I'm all right."

I'm happy to concede that there's a need for greater personal responsibility in the society we've built. I'm appalled by a lot of the crap we've imposed on people who are really not endangering anyone else, nor even themselves. But 'Fuck you Jack, I'm all right' is no basis for a civilisation.

It's a shared world. The resources of the earth are finite. We are interdependent, both upon the people around us, and the world and environment which supports them. The 'philosophy' of Libertarianism is a stupid, shallow, meaningless mouth-noise used to provide a shiny disguise for the worst kind of venal, greedy, self-centred, mean-spirited xenophobia...

...and I say let the Americans keep it, if they really want it.