The problem with libertarianism as I see it is that it is based on a far simpler technology than we have today, and includes a hefty dose of what might be called brutal optimism.
Libertarianism is based on the concept that people will purchase (whether it be goods or services) on the basis of enlightened self-interest. This is all very well when the technology we’re talking about is at a level where the average consumer is capable of making enlightened choices. Unfortunately, this is not true of contemporary technology.
Company A may be destroying the local environment such that, twenty-five years from now, the area will not be livable. Love Canal, for example. The problem is, very few people have the expertise to judge that for themselves. If none of the few people who do have that expertise live in the area, how will the citizens ever know?
Similarly, Company B may have labor practices that seriously endanger the health or safety of its employees. But often this is not in any way obvious. The employees may be inhaling substances that will cause cancer 10 years down the road. How will they know?
The regulation of business practices to protect the citizens is, in my opinion, a perfectly valid function of government. The libertarian does not agree.
As far as brutal optimism goes, the libertarian believes that each person is responsible for their own welfare and performance. As do I. However, the libertarian manages to live in a world in which all people start with a level playing field, and have an equal chance of success based entirely on their own abilities. I think that’s a joke.
I’m not even talking the obvious difference between those who inherit large sums and those who do not. I’m talking about the fact that my parents, although financially lower middle class, raised me with a respect and desire for education. I never encountered anyone who thought school was stupid and good students were jerks until I went to school myself, and by then my values were set well enough (and these students were sufficiently in the minority) that I never succumbed to the notion that doing poorly in school was “cool.”
I know people who were “raised” on the streets. They bend over backwards to do the best they can for their kids, but the fact is, their own ignorance prevents them from ever doing well enough to do anything but live from crisis to crisis. Their children attend inner-city schools, and the parents lack the education themselves to help their children realistically aspire to something better.
I know libertarians believe that people should take responsibility for their own choices. But how long does someone have to suffer for a poor decision made at the age of 14? How many generations have to suffer because someone was a lousy drunk and left her kids to essentially raise themselves?
I believe that the government should help the poor, particularly in ways that help them (and more importantly, their children) break the cycle of poverty and ignorance. And, btw, tax breaks aren’t much use to someone living on the margin, who struggles to make their rent and utilities, and falls completely behind if (as often happens) a child gets sick and requires treatment.
The optimism I refer to is two-fold - the idea that the playing field starts off level enough that a normal (rather than truly exceptional) child born to a ghetto family can readily achieve a mainstream, middle-class existence by working hard, and the idea that private charity will cover those who have the misfortune to slip. The brutality is the the idea that not only the people who don’t succeed should suffer the consequences of their decisions (even if those decisions were made in childhood), but that their children should automatically suffer too.
It often strikes me that while libertarians *talk * about individual rights, when push comes to shove they will suffer the curtailment of almost any right they have, as long as they can pay a little less tax. Thus, we see many self-described libertarians who will vote for the current administration this fall, despite John Ashcroft’s apparent mission from God to gut the Bill of Rights.