COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Libertarianism, the Dictatorship of Wealth

Today’s libertarian movement, markedly characterized by Tea Party Republicans, stems from an anti-government revolt that exalts private property over any concept of the public good, as pursued by the people’s representatives in government. It is hostile to any government regulation of the use of private property in the public interest, as, for example, in protecting the environment which we all share. English common law, which American colonizers brought with them, posits a commonwealth or public sphere of interest that must be maintained, protected and enhanced by government. Having arisen from traditional ideals of the good of the whole, this is the truly conservative concept. In that important sense, modern libertarians are not conservatives at all, but free market anarchists. All the original colonial governments in British North America held to a concept of the common or public good and legislated to protect it. In Massachusetts, for example, this meant laws regulating the market by protecting the public from profiteering, or gouging customers on a necessary commodity.

But in contemporary radical libertarian parlance, private property, however it is held, and not the public good, is sacrosanct, and any governmental regulation of the use of property to preserve the public well being, is anathematized. For libertarians, government does not consist of duly elected people’s representatives making laws, through negotiation and compromise, to “promote”, as the Constitution puts it, “the general welfare.” For them, it exists to protect private property, which translates into giving it total license, as in the deregulation of banking, which led to unbridled speculation, crash and ensuing depression.

Earlier participants in modern libertarian pseudo-conservatism backed Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Unlike the mainstream moderates who dominated the Republican Party during the Eisenhower era, Goldwater boldly repudiated New Deal measures to ensure the common good by protection from poverty, as in the Social Security Act. He went on to oppose legislation coming out of the African American Civil Rights Movement, such as the 1964 Civil Rights, or Public Accommodations Act. This law prevented establishments that serve the public, such as hotels and restaurants, from practicing racial discrimination. Goldwater’s fellow Arizonan, “conservative” activist William Rehnquist, who would later gain tremendous power as chief justice of the Supreme Court, campaigned against passage of that act. His and Goldwater’s opposition to such civil rights legislation was based on their belief that property owners have an absolute right to do whatever they want with their property. And if that means excluding blacks or anyone else, for that matter, from one’s place of business, so be it.

In libertarianism, the bedrock rights are individual property rights, and a property owner has the right to dispose of property in any way he or she deems fit, or profitable. No social obligation exists. This was the sentiment that underlay the Jim Crow system that marginalized African Americans and other groups, while in effect making propertied white males America’s overlords. The unfinished succession of rights movements, based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability have sought and gained new federal protections bringing groups historically facing discrimination into the mainstream. These movements have strong parallels with the modern labor movement, wherein impoverished workers gained the right to collectively bargain with their employers for living wages and benefits. They first gained these rights in the National Labor Relations Act, passed during the New Deal.

The equal opportunity New Deal liberalism came to stand for in the thirties was soon challenged by the Liberty League funded by the DuPont’s, America’s wealthiest family. Their espousal of property rights over human rights led to the corporate funded libertarianism of today. Don’t kid yourself. Libertarianism has nothing to do with the traditional American promise of equal opportunity and everything to do with dictatorship of wealth. That is what the Citizens United case means in giving money control of our elections. Americans are awakening to the fact that libertarian “free market” anarchy gives domination to the one per cent and subjugation to the ninety-nine. That is what the Occupy movement is about.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.

One reply on “Libertarianism, the Dictatorship of Wealth”

Congratulations, this is a clear and concise explanation of the real goals of libertarianism. US politicians and the mass media have confused ordinary folks into believing that conservative and libertarian goals are similar, in the same way that they have been made folks believe that socialist and communist goals are similar and therefore un-American. For example, we Europeans are distressed to see how health care reform in the US is labeled “socialist medicine” by libertarians and therefore deemed abhorrent, rather than focusing on the rational goal of universal coverage. In reality, the current health care reform is merely insurance reform essential to achieve cost control. Unfortunately, the proponents of health care reform here have failed to explain it in language ordinary folks can appreciate and support.
Keep up the great work!

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