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Six Ways to Argue With A Libertarian

A New Beginning By Ed Clark Caroline House, $1

By William E. McKibben

LIBERTARIANS are a self-righteous lot; knowing full well they carry in their hip-pocket more political principle than most people have in their whole beings, they tend to press their advantage. And when they engage you in conversation, it's no well-who-do-you-think-is-more-dangerous-Carter-or-Reagan sort of argument; before you can blink they will be talking natural right theory. Without some preparation, you might be embarassed; worse, you might be converted to a school of thought as noxious as any that exists. But libertarians can be beaten, or at least fought to a draw. What follows are a few simple suggestions, with thanks to Mr. Clark, Libertarian candidate for president.

Cede the Post Office

[1] Be Prepared. Libertarians, unlike most Americans, believe what they are saying, and are apt to get emotional. What you call taxation they will call "stealing." When Clark writes of the draft, he can't restrain himself: "A government that would try to draft (young people) would be little better than a kidnapper," he states. When they talk about the ideal society, they're apt to point to Espiritu Santo, a few square miles of sand that an American businessmen tried to turn into a bite-sized tax shelter earlier this year. If you leave yourself open, the tendency to analogy can overwhelm: "So you can steal (tax) the products of my body if you need them for something? Then why can't you rape me if you need my body? What's the difference?" As I said, libertarians believe. It's better to let them call it theft. Just don't forget you're talking about form 1040. And always grant them the post office: as Clark recounts in his book, "In Rochester, New York, in 1976, the husband-and-wife team of Paul and Patricia Brennan started up a mail-delivery service. Originally motivated by frustration with the inefficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, the Brennans found that they could deliver mail within the city more quickly and at a lower cost than could the government--and still make a profit." You won't win this dispute, since everyone has had a letter lost by the U.S.P.S. at some time or other. Give up this ground; maybe your libertarian will get cocky.

A Minor Problem

[2] Foreign policy--here is where you can start to draw blood. Libertarians follow a strict non-interventionist line, but they will allow business to do as it will. If their argument is that America should not force its beliefs on other peoples, ask them why they'd allow corporations to form their own armies (Clark promised they would have that privilege). And if they defend--as in most cases they will--the rights of companies to sell their products without control or review, ask them about the sale of nuclear weapons to foreign lands. "I guess I'd allow them; libertarianism is so good, it has to have a few flaws," Clark said in a recent interview. Point out that it is only a few flaws of this magnitude that make this particular philosophy an unlikely candidate for long-term practical application.

Enlightened Self-Interest

[3] Domestic Policy--here is where you win. Libertarians believe in the deregulation of business, worshipping the free market as a sort of God. Remind your opponent that before regulation of business, industry did not exactly serve as an enlightened force in society. Upton Sinclair had plenty to write about when he turned his attention on the meat-packing industry; immigrants tended to die in apartment fires. If they want to argue that the present system is somehow different or if they start talking about how consumers can band together and start class action suits, then turn to Clark, P. 57: "I will remove the government from the nuclear fuel cycle, and utilities will be liable to any damage to life and property resulting from the conduct of their business and the disposal of spent fuel. One of two things will happen: Either a safe industry will emerge in the free market, or, if that is impossible, no industry will emerge. Either way, we will be safer than we are today." Either that, or an unsafe industry will emerge in a free market, everyone will make buckets of money for a few years, and then a few midwestern cities will disappear in puffs of radioactive fog. Courts and all.

In addition, libertarians advocate the end of the minimum wage. The guaranteed floor of $3.10 per hour is described by Clark as "legislation framed by politicians who seem to think it's better to be on welfare than to hold down a low-paying job." Or, you counter, by politicians who understand that it is impossible to eat on $1.75 an hour.

Cheap But Effective

[4] If you're a liberal, the libertarians think they will get you on civil liberties. After all, no one stands more philosophically opposed to government discrimination no matter what a person's religious, sexual, racial, or ethnic status than the libertarians. You can take two tacks. The first is cheap but effective: ask where Ed Clark, or his corporate vice-president or any other libertarian, was hanging out when the march on Selma was requiring the skulls of dedicated humanitarians. All those socialists, for chrissake, and no executives in any corporations. Or you can take the high road, and show how ridiculous the libertarian solution to the problem of discrimination is.

Ask if they want to make life easier for the average, say, homosexual. If they say yes, then quote Clark once more. While he advocates "an end to all laws that make crimes of voluntary homosexual acts and an end to police persecution of gays," he also "opposes any legislation forcing the individual who is prejudiced against gay people to employ them in a private business, rent or sell an apartment or house to them, or allow them into his establishment." So they're allowed to screw (and how many are really prohibited from that today?) but if the owner of the corner store decides he hates "faggots" for whatever irrational reason he wants he can stop selling them loaves of bread. Don't like Blacks? In Clark's world, you set up your own school or bus company or mail service and announce that Black people's letters will not be carried, their bodies not transported, their children not educated. If your libertarian opponent will admit that prejudice exists, he will be hard-pressed to show that segregation would not be the inevitable result of his perfect free market economy. Compare the benefits of segregation--freedom to hate as one wishes--with its disadvantages. Grab some passing minority-group member by the elbow, and ask if he'd enjoy living in a system that guaranteed his political freedom but allowed some rich white WASP to, say, exclude him from Harvard.

You Can Lose the Argument...

[5] There are, of course, the unwinnable arguments. Chief among them is the libertarian notion that self-interest is at the root of all actions, and, for example, working for other people's happiness can be explained away solely as an effort to assuage your conscience. You will not win this stage of the quarrel. Libertarians, many of them, wear dollar signs on their ties. They read Ayn Rand, and think happiness is this valley where everybody makes profits--unless they're unfit and hence lose money. Don't bother calling them bloodless assholes, because they think that being bloodless is a virtue. They may even accuse you of being captive to your emotions; good libertarians don't have any emotions, except rage that they're being kidnapped, stolen from, raped, and so on.

...But Not the Election

[6] Argument is not like a model submarine, and you've probably lost despite all the instructions. But if you still truly believe libertarians are wrong, there is an escape hatch. Sometime in the course of the conversation, make them admit that the liberties of the individual are paramount ("Ah, so you're saying the liberties of the individual are paramount?" "Exactly!"). Then ask them how they could possibly consider voting in a presidential election. I mean, after all, is the tyranny of 50 per cent plus one any better than the tyranny of one? How can a group of people impose their will on any individual? Don't you think it's incredibly hypocritical of you to vote and give your support to a system that imposes its authority on individuals? Libertarians would rather be stolen, raped and kidnapped than hypocritical. Ed Clark will never win

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