Libertarian Ideology Protects Capital at Workers’ Expense

Jordan Ecker, Contributing Writer

Jacob Britton’s latest attempt at political debate begins, “It was only a matter of time…” Indeed, I suppose it was. I can’t help but feel that the first paragraph of Britton’s latest foray into the wide world of political economy is symptomatic of the bizarre way the right behaves on college campuses: They seem fixated on producing disagreement and then howl with joy and roll around in the mud when they find it (“Positive Rights, Not Capitalism, Require State Violence,” The Oberlin Review, April 14). Britton hilariously echoes the meme “so much for the tolerant left” by accusing me of failing to live up to the left’s “benign” reputation — for the record, I have no interest in treating libertarianism benignly in the public sphere.

Britton attempts to make a coherent case for a minimal state by distinguishing between what he calls “positive” and “negative” rights, an argument that is more familiar to the Western philosophical canon as Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty is affirmative — the freedom to act — as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from coercive forces. Britton argues that I advocate for the former, while a just state protects only the latter. In his view, negative liberty can be secured without coercive activity on the part of the state because it is a natural right. This is absolutely historically and empirically false. Negative liberty — even understood in its most limited dimension, for instance, as the freedom to practice any religion — always requires a state apparatus equipped with police and a military ready to defend that right (heard of Europe’s 30 Year War?). No liberty is simply pre-given, found in nature; every right requires violence and coercion behind it to succeed institutionally, and so any distinction Britton hopes to secure between negative and positive rights on the grounds of naturalness is arbitrary.

Funnily, it’s not quite totally arbitrary — Britton does seem to have one criterium, to distinguish between positive and negative rights. Every freedom Britton associates with positive rights are freedoms the working class needs to resist domination. Strange coincidence — it is almost as if libertarianism’s talk of human rights is designed to be a defense of capital and not humans.

Britton says capitalism is not inherently violent because the “division of labor” ensures everyone will have a job. Not only does Adam Smith’s concept of the division of labor have very little to do with the question of full employment, but Smith himself saw a need for state intervention to help capital function. Further, Karl Marx demonstrated that the unemployed are a benefit to capital; it’s only by having an unemployed worker to replace your currently employed worker that you can push your employees’ wages down as far as possible. Unemployment is as old as capitalism. Rather than acting as though unemployment is a weird fluke, we should live up to that reality and challenge the paradigm that reproduces it.

Finally, the “big” question: Why, oh why, do those merciless lefties want to violently coerce multi-billionaires to give up their hard-earned cash? Or, as Britton puts it: “If Bill Gates has a net worth of $80 billion and my net worth is $90,000, what moral atrocity has been committed?” Let me explain. Gates made his fortune by growing his company Microsoft. That company makes money by selling computer software, among other things. In order for people to buy computer software, they have to own computers. In order for them to own computers, someone has to make the computer. The person who makes the computer is typically a worker living in gross poverty in the global south. This worker contracts with a capitalist to trade their labor for money. If this were a fair exchange, by the end of it, the worker would have money and the boss would have a commodity. In reality, by the end of the exchange, the worker has money and the boss has a commodity and profit. The profit is the difference in value between the amount of money the boss can get away with paying the worker and the amount of money he can sell the commodity for. So yes, Gates’ wealth depends on moral atrocities, and the working class’ poverty is proof.

Libertarianism is a weird ideology. It strings together a bizarre understanding of political economy and moral philosophy and forms a pastiche of entrepreneurial individualism and abstract musings about rights and the legitimate state. In the end though, with its incoherence, internal inconsistencies and empirical failures put aside, libertarianism should be measured in terms of its effects. And its primary effect is to perpetuate a capitalist regime that is built off of exploitation. Capitalism is a machine for changing hopes and dreams into toil and suffering. Libertarianism is ultimately just an abstract weapon, an ideological gear in a larger machine used by the few to dominate the many.