The Moral and Intellectual Bankruptcy of Libertarianism

One of my first exposures to overtly atheistic reasoning was in some required reading for my 7th grade English class.  In the forewords and epilogues of Anthem, a short novel by Ayn Rand, I encountered a primer on Objectivism.  The appeal of a worldview that was not based on any notion of the supernatural and which loudly proclaimed that I was morally obligated to not do anything I didn’t want to do was substantial for a teenage boy who really did not enjoy yardwork.  For a little while, I lived in a frame of mind that would have leapt at the name “libertarian” on hearing it described.  Fortunately, I got better.

For the uninitiated, libertarianism might be thought of as the political outgrowth of Rand’s Objectivism, though it’s actually based on older modes of thought. It is a political philosophy that places personal liberty as paramount, standing in opposition to all forces that would limit or circumscribe that freedom.  At least, that’s what its claimants would like us to think it is.  And that is the last charitable thing I will say about it or them.

It’s no secret that libertarianism is a seriously borked way to run a human society, and we need look no further than this person we’ve met twice before. My conversation with the person who spawned my look at how unsubstantiated beliefs skew moral intuition and my look at how believers don’t understand how definitions work actually began as a conversation about healthcare.  This self-described “Catholic libertarian” insisted that mandatory vaccination programs were an unconscionable intrusion of the government into people’s private decision-making process.  As he tells it, anyone should be able to opt out of vaccinations for any reason, or, even better, the government should get out of the vaccination business entirely, and make the entire concept an “opt-in” service provided by the Catholic Church.
It’s like he doesn’t actually know what vaccines are for.  Or how offensive the Catholic Church is.
Here’s the rundown: Most of the diseases for which public vaccine campaigns are undertaken are relatively benign.  In between the vaccines for debilitating diseases like polio and hepatitis are vaccines for measles, mumps, German measles, and other diseases that are often little worse than the flu for an able-bodied person.  A substantial fraction of people who are exposed to diseases don’t contract them, and even if they do, the disease they get is mild enough that treating it doesn’t even require prescription drugs.  Getting vaccinated will, for most of these people, simply protect them from a few days of feverish bedrest and some skin lesions.  Others will unpredictably experience some serious complications, and German measles can cause permanent disability if contracted in utero, but most people will not.
But here’s the thing: the vaccinations those people are getting?  Those vaccinations are not for them.
When a healthy person gets a vaccine, they’re not just turning a week of sick leave into a day of light coughing—or, in many cases, into immunity to the disease.  They are breaking a link in a chain that leads to their baby cousin, and their elderly upstairs neighbor, and the clerk at the grocery store who had a liver transplant four years ago.  They are turning one person who would otherwise encounter the measles and spread it far and wide during the asymptomatic period into someone who won’t.  Every vaccinated person, in addition to being someone who will not suffer from polio or mumps, is someone who can’t infect anyone else.  And when there are so many people who can’t have the protection of their own vaccinations—such as the very young, the very old, the immunocompromised, and the immunosuppressed—breaking those chains is absolutely vital.  It’s called herd immunity, and it is the only way to protect the most vulnerable people from diseases that hit them much harder than they hit the rest of us.  People who opt out of vaccinations sign the death warrants of people like them.  People like my girlfriend.
But that’s not of interest to the libertarians.  Instead we get this schlock (emphasis mine):
And on your last paragraph, again, I am not saying one person’s life is more important than another. I am saying they are ALL important. And only they can know what is best for them. In the end, my point is that the gov’t should not be telling people what is best for them, they already know. The gov’t is not supposed to control peoples lives and mandate things upon them, those are what tyrannies are for. If there is such a concern for immunocompromised people, then there is a nonprofit out there that will teach that awareness and if it doesn’t do this, another nonprofit will provide free services to determine adverse reactions prior to vaccinations, and possibly even administer the injection for free or at a lower cost price.
Again, you are missing my point. I am responsible for my body. The gov’t is not. If the gov’t forces me to do something against my wishes to my body then they are impeding on my civil liberties. The principle is the same. It does not matter what it’s for. It is my body, and as I said previously, the gov’t does not tell me what to do. The gov’t facilitates me living my life freely, and that doesn’t include telling me what to inject myself with. The same is true with your g/f. The gov’t shouldn’t tell her what is best for her. She is the one who determines what is best for her. Yes, the herd immunity concept is important, but again, the gov’t cannot insist on what is best for everyone else is best for me if I know that what is best for me is not what the gov’t thinks.
That’s all he has to say about that—he spiraled around this point over and over before eventually just dropping the topic.  People refusing vaccines for which they have no medical reason to object KILLS PEOPLE, people who were not at all involved in that nincompoop’s decision to put them in danger—and the libertarian’s problem with this scenario is that SOMEONE IS TRYING TO STOP THAT FROM HAPPENING.  This is a person who hears liberals acknowledge that among the government’s obligations is to protect its population from harm, and groans.
Mandatory vaccinations prevent an ignorant subset of the population from murdering vulnerable people with their stupidity without preventing anyone else from doing anything.  Telling immunocompromised people that they have the option not to get vaccinated is NOT EVEN CLOSE TO SUFFICIENT, and betrays his continuing, thunderous ignorance of what vaccines are actually for.  The very idea that someone ought to get to decide for themselves that not getting vaccinated is the “best for them,” even though the ONLY good reason not to do this is a medical reason that a competent, evidence-based doctor would have to decide, speaks to the very same spirit of over-privileged, contrarian selfishness that pervades libertarian thinking. He may as well argue that laws against drunk driving are an affront to people getting to decide what blood alcohol level is “best for them,” danger to others be damned.  Fortunately, he wasn’t THAT dense.
Like all libertarians, his dearest axiom is that he finds people’s freedom to be ignorant jerks is more important than my girlfriend’s life.  And they want to be regarded as a serious political movement.
Here’s a fact: You don’t get to put the people I care about in danger because you don’t like people telling you what to do. You just don’t.  That’s part of the social contract that binds our society together: we regard putting each other in danger as something that we ought to avoid.
Unless you’re a libertarian.  Then you have gems like this to offer about the social contract:
What social contract are you referring to? I never signed a social contract. I was born into this institution. I did not agree to it. Sure, I can leave, but the foundation of the gov’t, our Constitution and Declaration are things I agree with. Why should I leave?
Again, I never agreed to contribute to their well-being. And they never agreed to it either. Some other person did. And that person made decisions for both of us. And while we may benefit, we may also not benefit. And if I’m gonna take a 50/50 shot on something like my life I’d prefer that I pick heads or tails and not somebody else.
My acquaintance thinks that, since they weren’t born at the beginning of time, and all of society was not submitted for their approval at the exact moment that they arrived on this earth, that they can and should get to opt out of paying for whatever aspects of said society they don’t feel like paying for.  When one dissects down to the core, the libertarian position is that every society’s entire system of government, from how it picks its highest level of leadership to what time the dogcatcher makes his rounds, should be placed on the table for reevaluation every time someone new enters that society, just in case that person is confused about how societies work and thinks that the fact that they weren’t there when this or that decision was made means that they should have veto power over everything that happened before them.  Because the existence of a society was imposed on them, dagnabbit, and it’s just not fair that they don’t get to control absolutely everything about their own lives without “going Galt.”  These are people who take the idea that they have to acknowledge other people’s needs, and indeed their very existence, as a personal affront.  They seriously expect the entire world to drop everything every few seconds and make sure that they’re happy with how things are going, just in case they feel like stopping someone else from doing something that may or may not affect them.  But no one else gets that privilege, because FREEDOM!  Or something.
This kind of person is the worst kind of moocher—the kind that refuses to recognize the massive, MASSIVE extent to which they have benefited, and continue to benefit, from what has come before, and that therefore thinks that not paying for it is okay. That one did not personally agree to some fraction of it could not possibly be more irrelevant. This is privilege-blindness as a political movement and a slow-motion temper tantrum as a campaign strategy. 
And that’s perhaps the most salient trait of the libertarian movement: privilege-blindness.  The most charitable interpretation is that these people don’t see, or don’t wish to see, that a world without government institutions, without the great equalizer of equal access to various resources, privileged groups would run roughshod over everyone else.  That is what anti-discrimination laws are for; that is what labor laws are for; that is what environmental laws are for; that is what truth-in-advertising laws are for.  And every one of those protections is something that libertarians would gladly replace with a plutocratic model where the rich can do as they please and the rest of us have to suffer the results.  Do you really trust the big businesses who managed to convince the world that “Made in USA” stickers on clothing mean they weren’t produced with sweatshop labor to simply do the right thing just because?  Libertarians do—or rather, they’ve defined the “right thing” to be whatever a multinational corporation that would gladly subject generations of people to occupational cancers to make t-shirts for $0.03 less per thousand would do.
Less charitable, of course, is the interpretation that libertarianism is basically sociopathy as a school of politics, drawing in genuine sociopaths along with people who (like many) find the personality attributes of sociopaths admirable and who genuinely believe that the weak should be at the continuous mercy of the powerful.   But for that to be the case, there’d have to be evidence that self-described libertarians are less empathetic, more ego-driven, and less altruistic than other people.


  1. Although doctors are evidence-based, they are not necessarily basing their opinions on the best evidence available. For example, based on my observations, a surprisingly large subset of doctors seem to be unable to accurately compare risks and benefits.

    There are certain vaccines which are not as effective as they are generally perceived to be. For example, I believe the flu vaccine is only 40% effective, partly resulting from such a wide range of potential influenza strains that one could contract.

    It is unlikely the majority of the population has received a net benefit from government intervention in a number of domains, including military, agriculture, land use, transportation, drug use and trade, religion, and immigration. Big businesses have generally benefitted from these types of government intervention.

    A proportion of those who have a disproportionately large amount of resources would have fewer resources if they did not use government mechanisms for their accumulation of wealth.


  2. You are not going to impress anyone by prefacing statements of this sort with “I believe…”–least of all when you're talking about situations with as many built-in caveats as the annual flu vaccine. Every year's installment is prefaced with the fact that a given flu shot is based on a prediction of what the likeliest array of strains this year will be, a prediction that so far is fairly accurate and based on a substantial body of information. Whether the general public notices that every flu shot comes with this caveat is another question. Likewise, not all vaccines come with the promise of immunity–quite a few are explicit about NOT rendering a person impervious to a particular pathogen, or for having expiration dates.

    I will not, likewise, claim that the invention and enforcement of rules on a particular sphere of human endeavor is innately a good thing. History has too many examples of governments imposing shitty rules, or using the rule of law to reinforce rather than mitigate preexisting inequalities, or even create new ones. This does not change the fact that government, and the collective action it represents at its best, remains our most potent possible weapon against this particular menace.


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