Libertarian Island

Though I have lately found myself making common cause with libertarians on a wide variety of issues (we both agree that the current government does too much of what it shouldn’t), I am not myself a libertarian. Part of the reason why I’m not can be found in something I’ve noticed in my personal interactions with libertarians.

If you took me and every serious libertarian (or even outright anarchist) I have ever met, and stranded us on a desert island with instructions to live strictly according to libertarian/anarchist/anarcho-capitalist principles, I have no doubt whatsoever that it would go perfectly fine. I am sure that I would have no cause to fear for my safety, I am sure that if I worked and contributed that I would eat and be comfortable, and I am sure that mutually-respectful relations and robust commerce would be the order of the day. This is because every such person I have ever met is exactly the sort of person with the discipline, initiative, self-reliance, and level of personal responsibility necessary to be able to handle living by such principles.

The trouble would come as soon as anybody else, who was not ardently committed to those principles, arrived on the island.

The limit that libertarianism faces is that (much like democracy) it could only ever have any chance of working if practiced by a certain specific sort of people, and that will never be more than a relatively-small subset of the general population. Thus, Libertarian Island would work – but only so long as residency was strictly limited to those who thoroughly understood its founding concepts, were completely committed to living by them, and were prepared to suffer the downsides and consequences of them.

The problem with people who advocate libertarianism on a large scale is that they suffer from what Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, termed the “I Am The World” fallacy – the mistaken belief that everyone is pretty much like you are, and that given the same set of circumstances, everyone would make pretty much the same decisions that you would. Libertarians tend to be bright, motivated, entrepreneurial self-starters. Like Muslims and Marxists, they believe that if everyone in the world just had the advantages of their ways of thinking explained to them carefully and thoroughly enough, they couldn’t help but want to live according to them.

But this just isn’t the case. Most people can’t handle, and deep down don’t even really want freedom. Take, as just one example, our welfare class, who have been granted a certain kind of freedom – freedom from the necessity to work for their daily bread. Given this freedom, the exceptional would use it to its fullest: they would spend their days reading or writing, hiking or going to museums, volunteering at soup kitchens, tinkering with inventions, or perhaps learning HTML or Japanese or American Sign Language. Instead, the vast majority of the welfare class sits on their asses all day watching Judge Judy and stuffing their faces with the kind of fat and sugar-laden junk food that has made the top health problems of the American poor not hunger or malnutrition but obesity and diabetes. They don’t have the self-discipline to handle the freedom they have, and without the structure and, yes, the external controls they need, they have atrophied in a way destructive to both themselves and the society around them.

And this is just one example. There are more.

Libertarianism may work as an elitist thought experiment by people who yearn to be granted the amount of freedom that they have personally demonstrated that they can handle. There’s nothing wrong with that – “elitist” certainly isn’t a dirty word so far as I am concerned. But as a blueprint for the foundation of a large-scale society, it’s a clunker – yet another project of Enlightenment philosophers doomed to crash upon the rocks of debased, yet inescapable, human nature.