The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
It’s worth noting that the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, was once famous for more than just his book The Wealth of Nations. Smith was not just an economic philosopher, but a moral philosopher, too. He was one of the brightest minds of what is now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Smith was crucially concerned with what we might call the psychology of emotion, which he wrote about extensively in his earlier work, a Theory of Moral Sentiments. There he argued for the importance of mutual sympathy, or compassion, for tempering (or at least working in tandem), with our natural inclination to look out for our own interests. Today, extreme adherents of Smith’s economic philosophy–or Libertarians–have ignored Smith’s moral dimension. Libertarians confuse the morality of the market with the morality of our shared commitment to one another.
Why have Libertarians abandoned Smith’s Moral Sentiments? Probably because it is just too empirical. In their search for pure ideology, Libertarians have settled on Ayn Rand instead of Adam Smith–and in doing so, their sense of moral obligation has fallen away.
Libertarianism holds human freedom as its highest good, even if that means some people will necessarily suffer. But these days it is hard work talking to a libertarian about suffering. And why? Because for libertarians, suffering exists because of government interference. According to libertarians, a market economy, left to its own devices, will allow a completely free and and just society to flourish. What libertarians seem to ignore is that nations are made of people, not markets.
Libertarianism functions under the illusion that political interference, or government, is what makes society so unjust. However, politics is really the art of humans using their agency to act in concert with other humans. When Libertarians decry government interference, they’re decrying human agency.
“All this human meddling! If only we’d let the market exist supremely, then we would have a just society!” Says the ardent libertarian.
Can you detect the error in this line of reasoning? Libertarians would create a society in which the freedom of the individual is the highest good, but then defer all control not to individuals and their capacity to reason and deliberate, but to the market’s mysterious, nameless, perfect invisible hand. Libertarians imagine a society of free individuals but eliminate any cooperative role for those individuals other than the local shopping mall.
The truth is, humans exist in a world where not only economic decisions are made–How much for this car, this piece of fruit, this house? But where political decisions are made, too–What makes a society fair and just? How should public resources be distributed? Libertarians would have these political choices settled not by individual agency, but by the market economy. The Libertarian’s obsession with individual freedom creates a society where, quite frankly, individuals don’t matter.
Let’s call libertarianism what it actually is: a shared delusion in the belief that a utopia is possible on earth without having to do anything very Utopian. The freedom to discriminate, the freedom to ignore the poor, the freedom to take advantage of your neighbor. These are the so-called virtues of libertarianism. It may be naive to have faith in the capacity of humans to do good, but the libertarian’s alternative of blind faith in a theoretically just market is more than naive, it’s foolish.