Tippie Economist Imagines What a Libertarian World Would Look Like
Ron Paul's continued prominence as a Republican presidential candidate has brought ongoing public attention to his low-tax, small government libertarian views.
His mantra is well-known. Government is too big and too intrusive and needs to be shrunk. Taxes are too high and need to be cut. The market can make better decisions than sclerotic bureaucrats or corruptible politicians. A libertarian philosophy, he says, would make Americans freer and cause an economic boom.
But what exactly would a libertarian world look like? David Barker, an economist at the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business and former economist for the Federal Reserve, says the question is not often discussed among his fellow libertarians.
"The goals of libertarianism have always been unclear, and so we always wonder, how far can we go," says Barker. "Some people say 'we have to have some government, but ' But what? How much government is too much? We don't talk as much about that."
Unlike libertarianism's left wing cousin--Marxism/communism-- the philosophy has never had a guidebook that presents an end goal. Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto diagnosed not only the economic problems he saw in 19th century Europe, but also explained how they could be fixed and outlined a way to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. Although his work was vague about the details and justified murder as part of the economic redistribution process, it inspired Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, and other revolutionaries to create what were promised to be workers' paradises in the 20th century.
But Barker said libertarianism has no equivalent to Marx or his Manifesto and so the road to a libertarian paradise and what shape that paradise takes has always been left to conjecture. Curious about how far the no-government argument could go, Barker started writing down some thoughts that eventually coalesced into a book,Welcome to Free America. The book's conceit is that it's a handbook for immigrants to Free America, a nickname given to the geographic area that used to be the United States, before the country collapsed in the mid-21st century.
Barker's book imagines a near term, dystopic future for the United States not too far different from something out of a Mad Max/Cormac McCarthy/Hunger Games scenario (pick your dystopian cultural allusion). After decades of political and economic paralysis, an ill-thought out speech by President Sarah Palin pushes the country over a cliff. Markets collapse, businesses go bankrupt, institutions fail and, eventually, all levels of government completely fall apart.
Emerging from that rubble is a libertarian world free of any kind of government, with functions once provided by government now the domain of private companies or nonprofit organizations. In the absence of police or other government agencies that protected individuals, people who sign contracts with protection firms that function much as insurance companies do today. Free America has no military. Its defense is maintained by a nonprofit organization that operates a fleet of nuclear missiles to deter other countries from invading.
In Free America, gays are free to marry, whites are free to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods (and vice versa) and different currencies are in use. Streets are safe, and with no government to issue business-slowing regulations, innovation abounds and the economy booms.
Also, "Free America has the best recreational drugs in the world," he writes, drugs that are safe, effective and produce a "bewildering array of effects."
But Barker doesn't see his book as a libertarian version of The Communist Manifesto, nor himself as a libertarian Marx. He doesn't endorse armed insurrection or murder, for instance, and he also knows his imagined world has its negatives as well as positives. Marx actually believed his philosophy would lead to a perfectly equal worker's paradise, but Barker says his world is far from perfect. Privacy is expensive, workers are bound to employers through the terms of their contracts and everything -- including streets, sidewalks, and even parks -- is privately owned. It could even lead to a de facto form of slavery.
"I'm not advocating this as a goal, just exploring a vision," he says. "There are things about a loss of government that would make a better world, but it would create a lot of problems, too."
Barker said his book might prompt advocates of libertarianism to think more about the direction of their philosophy.
"Making the transition to a libertarian world will be costly and we have to ask, is it worth the cost of the transition? Are the benefits worth that cost?" he says. "Sometimes, shrinking government may not be a good thing."
Contact: Tom Snee, UI News Services, 319-384-0010