The term “Vulgar Libertarian” was coined by Kevin Carson to describe certain types of libertarians who use libertarian “logic” to fight for plutocratic interests. This characterization has received a bad response from various libertarians. Some have even gone to the extent of setting up a site called http://vulgarlibertarians.com/ I feel that this bad response was unwarranted, after all we do have a problem of vulgar libertarianism and it is important that we identify it and do not remain in denial. I do not think Carson meant to call all [|right] libertarians (and anarcho-capitalists) as vulgar libertarians, but only a certain fraction of them who argue differently (either wittingly or unwittingly) that makes them sound like corporate apologists (which some of them actually are).
To understand Vulgar Libertarianism we must first identify two types of laws and how they affect the society.
Two types of laws
There may be other types of laws, but for the purpose of this article i will identify two types of laws:
- Type 1 Laws which grant privilege
- Type 2 Laws that control and limit the usage of that privilege
For instance, granting someone the license to distribute food as a part of a Public Distribution System is a Type 1 law. It grants privilege to certain distributors and guarantees them profit. Laws against hoarding would therefore be a Type 2 law which restricts the powers and privilege of the distributors which was granted by the government in the first place. Privilege can also come in the form of land (land acquisition bill), money (RBI), patent and tariff. Corruption of money is perhaps the cause of most of our problems.
In a very simplistic view, vulgar libertarians are those who only argue against Type 2 laws but ignore the Type 1 laws. In the above example, a vulgar libertarian will just argue that a public distributor has the right to hoard as much as he likes because he bought those grains. He will ignore that the distributor was licensed and was allocated those grains by the government.
Result of Type 1 laws
Type 1 laws exist either to support the plutocratic interests or they may exist as a result of misguided over-zealous politicians with the best of public interests in their hearts. Most of the time its a combination of the two.
Regardless of how they come into existence, their result is the same - a large unaccountable corporate empire - beneficiary to usury and theft by the government.
People in a democracy cannot stand to see (and they shouldn’t) such a massive empire that induces massive ‘inequality’. But oddly enough they start asking for Type 2 laws to be introduced instead of Type 1 laws to be dismissed.
Result of Type 2 laws
Most people who identify with the left seem to think that our mixed economy is a fight between two forces - evil corporates and good governments. They seem to think that without the influence of the corporates, government will be good. They therefore conclude that they should support the government (public interests) in this perceived fight against private interests. This is where they start asking for Type 2 laws. However this is a very simplistic view of the government. Government cannot keep corporate power in check - it was never designed to do so.
"Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." - Frederic Bastiat
Unlike Type 1 laws which grant privilege and are partial, Type 2 laws are mostly ‘impartial’. Take minimum wage laws for instance. Minimum wage laws apply impartially for all businesses, be it small or big. Most of the time when you hear a ‘lefty’ argue for minimum wage, he will point out how a giant corporate CEO earns hundreds of times more than a worker. Well that may be true for that giant corporate but it is certainly not true for small businesses and startups. They, as it is, have to work despite Type 1 laws at a great personal risk the left adds more Type 2 laws (like the minimum wage) that demonizes and kills small businesses - maintains the status quo. Big businesses therefore do not oppose Type 2 laws, they just make sure that they are worded impartially.
Libertarians have a good reason to oppose Type 2 laws. These laws do not solve the underlying cause and create more problems than they solve. But vulgar libertarians stop at opposing these laws. For instance one can argue that the CEO deserves that high salary because of the kind of work that he does, which would be true had this salary been decided in a truly free market but that is not the case here. Ignoring the Type 1 laws that resulted in this inequality and defending the current market as if its a free market is exactly what Vulgar Libertarianism is all about.
How to avoid Vulgar Libertarianism
Most Vulgar Libertarians are not so because of bad intentions. They sometimes unwittingly fall into this trap and sound vulgar to the person they are arguing. The only way to avoid this confusion is not only to oppose Type 2 laws but in the same breath oppose a Type 1 law that is the underlying cause of concern.
It is therefore not correct to argue against minimum wage laws without arguing against property titles and property theft. It is not correct to argue against net neutrality without arguing against licenses in telecom industry. It is not correct to defend sweatshops without arguing against patents. It is not correct to argue against low interest rates without arguing against the central banking system itself. Keeping ourselves from falling into this trap is perhaps most important to avoid misunderstandings and misrepresentations of libertarian thought.