Sunday, April 01, 2012

Libertarian Shit

Famine India, 1901

A While ago I had a series of exchanges with some Libertarians.1 Here are some of my replies to their nonsense; slightly reworked.

A certain libertarian in reply to questions about Libertarianism and famine said:
This analysis belies a misunderstanding of the nature of the price system. Prices play an indispensable coordinating function in the market. Rising prices do a number of things. First, they encourage people to ration and prioritize based on the current (sometimes tragic) reality. This helps prevent shortages since, if prices were fixed, the first people in line would tend to buy more than they can get by with, leaving those in the back of the line with nothing when supplies are exhausted. Second, they encourage produces of the same (or substitutable) goods to relocate to where prices are rising. This brings the needed goods from far and wide, both increasing the supplies in the famine-ravaged location and simultaneously driving down the high prices. If prices are artificially fixed, the other suppliers can't afford to ship their goods a long distance to fulfill the needs of those in trouble and the shortage is exacerbated. For a similar discussion of this issue, see this discussion between atheist libertarian Walter Block and the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association: Here.
I just don't know what to say. The fact is that your free market has proved to be all too often a failure when famine strikes. Let’s see in Ireland during the famine British soldiers guarded convoys of food being sent out of Ireland for export. Why because more money could be made that way. The operation of price system did NOT lead to mass amounts of food being imported into Ireland. Considering that the huge number of the starving was utterly destitute just how would they pay for it assuming the food did come? The fact is that vastly greater numbers would have died except for various charities and the not sufficient but still important government programs. It also appears that Ireland during the famine produced enough food to feed itself but selling it abroad for various reasons was considered more important than feeding the starving.

The story of the Irish famine has been repeated over and over again. In case after case the operation of price system did NOT bring food to where it was needed but instead it was government and charitable efforts that saved lives it was when for ideological reasons that these efforts were curtailed that millions died. Just look at India in the late 19th early 20th century. The operation of "free markets" and the price system helped ensure when the government was unwilling to intervene massively that millions died in famines. Just read some of Sen's work on famines. The fact is millions of starving people usually can't afford to buy much food in a famine and so often large amounts of food are exported for cash, because there are a lot fewer people able to pay during a famine. As for hoarders, you just don't see a moral issue in that hoarding food for sale while people around you stave might be a bit problematic? The Nobel Prize winning Economist Sen as written some very useful stuff about famines, including the idea that governments should prevent hoarding and grossly inflated prices by selling grain cheap themselves or giving it away thus removing the incentive to hoard and preventing absurd increases in food prices in famine stricken areas. Sen also thinks tax relief is a good idea. Further a famine is a shortage and I can tell you that your vaulted price system has often proved a failure in preventing vast numbers of people from dying. As for encouraging people to ration and prioritize well yes deciding who is going to eat today and who will be adequately fed and what members of the family will have to be written off to die a horrible and painful death is all a matter of priorities and rational rationing! Well frankly NO ONE should have to engage in that sort of prioritization. This entire passage is deeply inhuman. The fact is providing masses of free / cheap food will prevent mass death. Whereas what you are talking about has not, but instead as produced mass death. Again may I point out that in famine stricken places the starving have generally lost much if not all and are not often in a position to pay for the food imported into the region to take advantage of the high prices. In the late 19th and early 20th century there were a series of famines in India where the price system was allowed to operate as the main source of relieving the famine. Vast amounts of food were exported out of the famine areas to fetch higher prices in Europe. The result was 15 million deaths. As the starving could not afford to buy food that was available and the government relief efforts were pathetic. Although various private charities saved many lives by providing food. Their reward in some places was to be attacked for interfering with the workings of the market by providing food at no cost and thus lowering the price food could be sold for.

The argument you give and link too is totally bogus. As proven repeatedly by actual famines. What works is getting food to people, and ensuring costly food is available does not prevent mass death. I did love your use of the word "encourage" people to ration and prioritize. Yup just like Sophie's choice in the movie where she is given the choice of whether her son or daughter is murdered. Your position is morally bankrupt.2

As for this comment:
Certainly violence and compulsion were present all throughout any attempt at capitalism (or any other social, economic, or political undertaking), but it doesn't mean it had anything to do with capitalism. Capitalism is defined as a system strictly prohibiting any form of violence or compulsion.
What a load of crap. First you say violence and coercion were present throughout any attempt at Capitalism then you say it doesn't have anything to do with Capitalism and that Capitalism prohibits any form of violence and coercion. That has got to be some of the stupidest hash I've ever read. Capitalism in order to work, like any other social system requires coercion and yes violence to work at all. After all contracts have to be enforced, property rights enforced all by coercion and yes violence. Corporations are hierarchical institutions that work by coercion. And to repeat property rights are enforced by violence. Like when that thief goes to jail for stealing your TV set. In order for Capitalism to work enforced hierarchies must be obeyed, rules observed and all this requires coercion and violence. When a corporation enforces a contract it is using coercion. When strikers are prevented from picketing by private security officers violence is used. You can define it anyway you want the mundane reality is that it requires coercion and violence like any other social system. The absolute sheer idiocy of this comment is painfully obvious. Don’t Libertarians even think?
I must admit I have not read much specifically about the Irish potato famine, though here's an interesting article claiming that many English government policies contributed to and exacerbated the problems, turning it from a blight to a famine: Here.
That article linked to above is nothing more than a rehash of free market mythology. I've heard it all before. It is in other words a collection of lies. Virtually all modern experts on the Potato famine agree the government did too little and was far too much in the ideological coils of Lassie-faire. The fact is that the British government was much obsessed with leaving the solution of the Irish Famine to the free Market and many people thought, including the British government minister responsible for Famine relief in Ireland, that this represented a great opportunity to modernize and rationalize Irish agriculture by getting rid of "surplus" people. Yup British government did indeed exasperate the problem by A) doing too little and then in 1848 b) during another almost complete failure of the Potato ending virtually all assistance. I note despite the fact you admit you don't know much you still "know" the truth. The website you are referring to is nothing but a collection of crap from true believers. I got nothing but chuckles from them.3
First, while famines are unquestionably tragic, where does one get the right to steal from one group of people to give to another group of people, regardless of the circumstances? While I would agree that it is the moral thing to do to come to the aid of a fellow human in need, I can only do so with my own property, not by stealing my neighbor's property to give to the needy.
Here we see the true Libertarian ethos. The right to property supersedes all other rights including the right to life. And the assumption that taxation etc., is theft. Of course it is argued that it is so because governments use coercion. The coercive powers of private power and property are ignored isn’t it obvious that that too is theft since it involves much of the time coercion.

To get back to famines. I was referring to the situation in which starving people steal food from hoarders and food being taken away from famine areas for sale elsewhere. Do you really think that there is anything moral about hoarding food in a Famine area in expectation that prices will go up? Or exporting food from such areas for sale? Do you seriously think I'm going to get upset over starving people looting such morally bankrupt assholes? But then Libertarians are much more exercised by the theft by starving people of grain hoarders stocks of grain then they are of people starving to death. What I specifically mentioned was procedures designed to discourage hoarding by providing enough food in order to make hoarding in expectation that prices would go up a bad idea. And by the way I do not think that coercing people to disgorge stores of food in order to save their fellow humans from death is stealing from them to me it is simple humanity. Oh and one of the first things the Imperial Chinese governments did in during Ch’ing times, before the administration became corrupt and imbued with Western ideas of Lassie-faire was to forbid the export of food from famine areas and to forbid hoarding in such areas and thus force the sale of such food as was available. That along with tax relief, food supplied, proved quite effective in alleviating famine. Later efforts relying on the free market and the "price system" helped to produce some of the most horrible famines in Chinese history in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.4
Second, coerced charity has a way of crowding out private charity. When someone is already being coerced to give to a charitable cause, they are less inclined to give voluntarily any additional amount. Left to choose what to do on their own, individuals might have chosen to give more or to provide aid in a more effective way than the government did. Further, governments often use aid money in political ways, arbitrarily deciding who to give to or attaching various debilitating strings. Also, when a charitable undertaking is monopolized by one coercive group, other alternative, perhaps more efficient, means of assistance are often not given a chance to compete, as it were.
Yup we have ideological purity here. No evidence is given that public charity crowds out private charity; after all doctrinal purity requires that this be true regardless, so it is. I just love it competition during a famine? No doubt the starving rationally weigh who is going to feed them for top efficiency. I know damn well that governments damn well often have string to their aid. So? The fact is that private charities also frequently have strings, especially Church based charities. May I also point out that I have worked with private charities providing relief during the Ethiopian famine and I can tell you we WANTED government heavily involved because the resources that governments have vastly exceed virtually any private charity. I further point out that giving is very often a fashionable activity and if a charity or famine is not fashionable than there may be very little money available for private charities, (by the way many of the private charities get government money) to do much in a given situation. I just love the conceit so if people are "coerced" they might be less likely to give? Really. Just how are they "coerced"; by paying taxes some of which goes to famine relief? In point of fact the people who are discouraged by taxes and so called "coercion" from giving to charities aren't likely to give anyway.5
Finally, coerced charity, over time, creates moral hazard. It provides people with a dis-incentive to take proper precautions to mitigate risk because they trust that they will be bailed out. This creates a general tendency towards current consumption over savings, which further extends people into unsustainable, risky endeavors and leaves an ever-smaller pool of available savings with which to bail out those affected by misfortune.
You’re not being clear here. You can fantasize about coerced charity all you want. Are you saying that coerced charity discourages people from saving money that they then could give to charity? If that the case you are being disingenuous. Virtually everything in our society encourages people to spend and borrow and discourages saving. Why because it supposedly makes the economy grow. The result is mass debt.

If you are saying that it discourages people from saving etc., because if they starve they will be bailed out and thus discouraged from being rational and prudent and this is morally unacceptable. This is of course is an argument against charity which is I suspect the real point. After all private charities might discourage people from being prudent so that alleviating their starvation might encourage them to not be prudent. No doubt starving and watching their nearest and dearest die and suffer would encourage prudence for the next time. (Snark) I can only tell you to fuck off. I've heard this morally repellent shit before. My contempt for it is unbounded. The people who starve during a famine are precisely the marginal, the desperate those at or close to bare subsistence at the best of times. Their capacity to save etc. is stunningly limited. The fact is subsistence farmers and others already have a powerful incentive to be careful and prudent because at the best of times they barely have an enough to eat so risk taking is a definite no-no. The fact is those who have little or nothing have a hard time surviving a famine. During the late 19th early twentieth centuries many British Bureaucrats in India were much excised by the moral fiber of the Indian people being destroyed by food aid and this encouraging them to be wasteful and not plan for the future and be prudent and work hard. They were so concerned that the Indian people not be corrupted that 15 million+ died. I've worked with subsistence farmers in India and Ethiopia and you have no idea how utterly disgusting this passage is if it means what I think it means. Well I guess starving to death might be an incentive to good moral behavior?! How utterly 19th century of you. Only someone deeply ignorant of actual realities in the Third World could utter idiotic crap like this.6

In response to my above comment that the idea Capitalism doesn’t involve coercion is simply asine and utterly divorced from reality. One Libertarian says:
I never claimed that coercion and violence would magically disappear; I merely claimed that it ought to, always and everywhere, be illegal to initiate violence or coercion. A libertarian society would by no means defy human nature or negate the nature of reality. It merely refuses to give a monopoly on the initiation of violence and coercion to a group of ambitious, self-selected, corruptible individuals who, collectively, call themselves the government.
After basically conceding that I was right that Capitalism requires coercion this loon utters the usual Libertarian nonsense. Yup Government = evil, Business = good, Manichean bullshit. Of course corporations and the courts would continue to have the power to coerce. And those institutions do not have corruptible individuals and they are not in any way self-selected. Of course powerful individuals who own vast amounts of property would not be able to coerce anyone and would of course be incorruptible!?

Of course you forget about what happens if the government is Democratic? Isn’t it accountable to the people in some sense? Unlike a corporation or business which has little accountability except to the bottom line.

Do you have any idea why statements like this make people think Libertarians can't help but utter loony-tunes nonsense?

On another thread a Libertarian stated:
To my knowledge, no one here is advocating social justice supported by philanthropy. What I am advocating is that the ends of social justice (improving the quality of life for people who currently do not have as good of a life as I am privileged to have) are best achieved when we are both free to produce, consume, buy, sell, trade, employ and work free from the coercion of others.
Of course what you are describing here is Anarchism. However I do not think that is your intention unless you oppose the coercions of private power. But then to some elements of the Libertarian mindset the only EVIL power is public or government power. Private power, in these cases Corporations or Businesses are by definition good and virtuous and by implication have no coercive power at all. In a situation of corporations and businesses being given maximum freedom people would in this type of idiot thinking have maximum freedom from coercion. But then to so many libertarians businesses and corporations by definition have no coercive powers at all. The other thing is that so many Libertarians believe devoutly in judicial tyranny. In any conflict of interests just sue and sue and sue. Giving the courts vastly greater powers than they have today. If your neighbour is poisoning the water you drink just sue, if the goods you bought are shoddy or dangerous just sue. Of course those with deep pockets will have has they do now preferential access to this type of justice. The fact is that so many Libertarians go to incredible lengths to justify and excuse the behavior of vicious and greedy corporations like Wal-Mart. What far too many corporations want is the ability to regiment and control their workforces that of course means a massive increase in private power over individuals. The other thing is that Libertarians are remarkably clueless about the origins of state regulation of business and employment, which arose precisely from the abuses of private power.8

But then it appears that by definition to so many Libertarians private power does not exist and only government has the power to coerce.

This type of Libertarianism is just brainless. I much prefer my Libertarianism to be against both public and private power, i.e., Anarchism.

Another Libertarian made the following comment:
A far more balanced view of what a functioning Libertarian society would have to look like can be found in Ursula LeGuin's excellent book The Disposessed. I highly recommend it to people that wish to engage Libertarians on the Internet.
I've read LeGuin's The Dispossessed several times the Utopian society described on the moon Annares is an Anarchist society with virtually no notion of private property and distinct aversion to accumulation of any kind. Market forces do not operate. It is NOT a Libertarian society. It is a society of free individuals all right, but without markets or the drive to accumulate and strong ethos of doing things for each other. In other words it is Anarchist.10

It is clear to me that the person who uttered the above comment has all too likely never read the book or read it so long ago that they see it through ideological blinkers.

That is all for the time being about Libertarian nutcases.

1. From Pharyngula Here

2. For the Irish Potato Famine see Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger, Signet Books, Toronto, 1962, Rubenstein, Richard L, The Age of Triage, Beacon Press, Boston, 1983, pp. 98-127. For the Indian Famines see Davis, Miles, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, London, 2001, pp. 141-175. The Sen referred to is the great Indian Economist Amartya Sen. For his work see Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981, see also his popularized view, Nobody Need Starve, in Granta, 1995, No. 52, pp. 213-220. See also O’Grada, Cormac, Famine a Short History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009, pp. pp. 1-68, 90-128, 129-158.

3. See IBID, Woodham-Smith, Rubenstein.

4. See Miles, pp. 341-376.

5. The idea that relief during Famines causes “moral corruption” of those who receive the aid has a long history see, Woodham-Smith, Rubenstein, For a look at public versus private action see O”Grada, pp. 195-228.

6. See Miles, especially, pp. 26-59.

7. From Pharyngula Here.

8. See Chomsky’s criticisms of Libertarianism in Chomsky, Noam, Understanding Power, Editors, Mitchell, Peter R, Schoeffel, John, The New Press, New York, 2002, pp. 199-200.

9. See Le Guin, Ursula K,The Dispossessed, Avon, New York, 1975.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. Anonymous1:54 am

    I guess the best way for a libertarian to argue about the Irish famine of 1840's and the Indian famines of 1870-90's is stating that these were the ultimate result of British conquest and colonialism, and violent conquest by any government is not a libertarian principle. Thus, while government non-intervention was an immediate cause for famine, it had its ultimate genesis in government intervention.

    Such an argument would certainly require a more discontented approach towards history then some libertarians are willing to use, but I've seen some use similar arguments.

  2. That is of course special pleading. It is of course very clear that Imperialist economic policy did in fact undermine the economy of India. It is for example a little known fact that from c. 1780 to c. 1920 the per capita income of the average Indian did NOT increase. Much of the wealth of India flowed into England.

    Of course it is also an admission that government intervention to alleviate the famines in question was required at the time. Finally I should point out that surprise, surprise India had, considering the climate remarkably few famines before the British came.

    Of course how the British government was responsible for the potato blight or drought in India is a little mysterious.