Climate-Denying Libertarianism

Exclusive: Libertarianism has gained new followers amid disclosures of excessive government surveillance. But this trendy ideology is filled with hypocrisy on principles and hostility to facts, having evolved from the South’s defense of slavery and now resistant to the science of global warming, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

An inconvenient truth for “libertarians” is that their ideology of a minimalist U.S. government grew out of the South’s institution of human bondage, i.e. the contractual right of a white person to own a black person, and from the desire of slaveholders to keep the federal government small so it could never abolish slavery.

That is why many “libertarian” icons – the likes of Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and the later incarnation of James Madison – were slave owners who understood the link between the emergence of a strong national government and the threat to slavery.

The image of the Earth rising over the surface of the moon, a photograph taken by the first U.S. astronauts to orbit the moon.

More recently, “libertarian” political favorites, such as Ron and Rand Paul, have either opposed or criticized civil rights laws that, in their view, infringe on the rights of white businessmen to discriminate against blacks. And libertarian-oriented Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court and in legislatres across the country are gutting voting rights for black and brown Americans.

But an even bigger crisis facing “libertarianism” now – and why the ideology is particularly dangerous – is the existential threat from global warming and the urgent need for collective government action on a worldwide scale to reduce human output of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping chemicals.

The “libertarian” response to the overwhelming scientific consensus on this life-threatening reality has been either to deny the facts or to propose implausible “free market” solutions that would barely dent the crisis. Some dismiss the threat in mocking tones as some kind of “statist” conspiracy. Typical were sarcastic comments by the Independent Institute’s Mary Theroux, writing: “The climate crisis is real, it’s here, and it’s time for absolute power for Obama!”

There’s also lots of sophistry and quibbling about the science. The preferred “libertarian” position adopts the pretense that the release of carbon dioxide by human activity contributes little or nothing to climate change.

Other “libertarians” accept the science but still can’t bring themselves to recognize that a coordinated government response is needed. Anti-government ideology trumps even the possible destruction of life on the planet, a very real possibility given the likelihood of mass dislocations of populations and the availability of nuclear weapons.

The “libertarians” are further hampered in their thinking about global warming by the fact that many of their principal funders are major energy extractors – and it’s nearly impossible to get people to think rationally about a problem when their paychecks depend on them not doing so.

Most notably the billionaire Koch Brothers who own Koch Industries, a giant oil and natural gas company, have lavished millions upon millions of dollars on “think tanks,” academic centers and Tea-Party-style activist groups to raise doubts about climate-change science and to deflect public demands for action.

Pluses and Minuses

Clearly, “libertarianism” does have its valid points – especially regarding the absurdity of U.S. drug laws, the destructive wastefulness of the American Empire and the excessive surveillance that followed 9/11 – but there are many other crazy elements to the ideology and its resistance to reason.

Its principal tenet of unregulated “free markets” has been discredited again and again, through market crashes, economic depressions and the foisting of dangerous products on customers. There is also the grander lie that “free markets” somehow can or will address broader societal needs when capitalism is really about how to maximize short-term profits regardless of the danger inflicted on the environment or individuals.

There also are legitimate societal concerns that “libertarianism” would essentially ignore, such as how to care for the elderly, how to educate the population for today’s economic challenges, how to ameliorate the suffering of the poor, how to maintain an effective infrastructure, etc.

That doesn’t mean that government has all the answers. But there is a significant difference between adopting a position favoring a government only doing what it needs to do and the “libertarian” insistence on the smallest government conceivable. The former accepts that capitalism can handle many undertakings with minimal government regulation, while recognizing that the failure of “free markets” in other settings requires greater government intervention to “promote the general welfare” as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states.

For instance, the private sector can’t do transportation infrastructure very well. Thus, governments have to step in with spending for roads, rail, airports, etc. Capitalism also has little need for aging, worn-out or sick workers. So, the government is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

On a current topic, the Affordable Care Act represented the government’s recognition that the profit motive behind private health insurance had failed millions of Americans, forcing them to overburden hospital emergency rooms and requiring some government intervention. Yet, “libertarians” still cry tears for the insurance industry.

Of course, even among those holding a pragmatic view toward the need for government, there can be legitimate differences over policy prescriptions, whether a certain rail project makes sense or how best to care for the sick. But “libertarianism” and its ideological hatred of “guv-mint” has an irrationality to it, which only makes sense if you reflect on the origins of the philosophy, born in the intensity of the South’s resentment toward the federal government’s intervention to end slavery and later to stop racial segregation.

Slavery’s Interests

Some “libertarians” get angry over anyone making this connection between their supposedly freedom-loving ideology and slavery, but it is historically undeniable. Any serious study of the U.S. Constitution, its ratification and its early implementation reveals intense Southern fears about the Constitution’s creation of a vibrant central government and its eventual implications on slavery.

For instance, as historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in Madison and Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason, two “libertarian” heroes who opposed the Constitution and its strong central government, warned plantation owners at the Virginia ratification convention that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected.”

“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia. …

“Madison rose to reject their conspiratorial view. He argued that the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’

“Madison was doing his best to make Henry and Mason sound like fear-mongers. Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”

Despite the success of Mason and Henry to play on the fears of plantation owners, the broader arguments stressing the advantages of Union carried the day, albeit narrowly. Virginia ultimately approved ratification by 89 to 79.

Key Framers of the Constitution – the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the earlier incarnation of Madison – had envisioned an activist federal government that would address the needs of the young nation, from finances to road-building. However, after Thomas Jefferson returned from France in 1789, he emerged as the charismatic leader of the “small government” faction dedicated to protecting the “rights” of Southern whites to own blacks.

Jefferson pulled Madison, his central Virginia neighbor, from Washington’s orbit into his own as Jefferson fashioned what became known as the Virginia Dynasty of three consecutive presidents, Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe, all from Virginia, all defenders of the South’s slavery. By the time Virginia’s grip was broken in the late 1820s, the young United States was on course toward the Civil War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]

This marriage of “small government” ideology and racial bigotry has never been broken. It was reaffirmed during Jim Crow days and during the battle against racial integration. Even today, advocates of “libertarianism” are among those pushing for new restrictions on voting rights with the obvious (though usually unstated) goal of suppressing the votes of black and brown citizens who are seen as likely to vote Democratic. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Marriage of Libertarians and Racists.”]

Global Warming’s Threat

But the most serious threat posed today by the “libertarians” is their resistance to serious government action to curb global warming. Surely, individuals can take personal action to reduce their own carbon footprints, but the scope of the crisis requires aggressive intervention by governments to maintain the livability of the planet.

In his June 25 speech on climate change, President Barack Obama began and closed his remarks with references to the famous “Earth rise” photograph taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronauts circling the moon and looking back on the blue globe that holds the only life that we know to exist in the universe.

Obama’s speech echoed one given by President John F. Kennedy a half century ago, on June 10, 1963, at American University, in which Kennedy said, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

What astronomers have also come to understand in recent decades is how extremely rare – possibly unique – the circumstances were that let advanced life forms develop over four billion years on Earth. The planet has a stable, circular orbit around a small-to-medium-sized star, not too close to burn up but not too far away for a permanent ice age. Plus, there were other lucky breaks, like the giant Jupiter circling outside the Earth and absorbing asteroids that otherwise could have made the planet unlivable.

Peering around our galaxy and deep into the universe, astronomers have found scientific conditions intensely hostile to the development of life as we know it. Interspersed through the frigid void of space, there are powerful stars crashing into one another, exploding as pulsars and collapsing into black holes that then drag other stars and planets to their doom.

Most planets that have been detected are spinning too close to their stars or revolve in irregular orbits that go from searing heat to intense cold. The relatively gentle and nearly perfectly circular orbit of Earth around the Sun is extremely rare.

Because the universe is so vast, one might hope or assume that other planets exist that have been lucky enough to have the combination of factors that makes life possible on Earth. But so far scientists haven’t detected such a place. As far as we know, Earth may be the only place where complex life forms have ever evolved.

Thus our current understanding of the universe makes protecting this remarkable planet even more of an imperative. It would be a tragedy beyond measure if some anti-government ideology – especially one that sprang from the evils of slavery – were allowed to serve the interests of the Koch Brothers and thus doom the one habitable sphere spinning in the universe.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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29 comments on “Climate-Denying Libertarianism

  1. Ethan Allen on said:

    Thanks yet again Robert, especially for shedding the light of factual history on the present incarnation of Libertarian ideology and its adherent’s particular brand of obfuscation and dissembling. Their rhetoric is attracting a large portion of our uninformed, disappointed and disenfranchised youth; and leading them to believe in and practice some ill-fated concepts of anarchy predicated upon such Libertarian propaganda.
    As Usual,
    EA

    • Mack on said:

      Here comes plenty of butt-hurt in the comments. I’m beginning to believe most youths are attracted to identifying as Libertarians because it grants them license to act like utterly arrogant know-it all a%%holes.

    • Lots of bold statements and assertions here with absolutely no evidence to support them. Libertarianism was solely to protect the system of slavery, as was belief in small government. Absolute tosh. Parry also knows what Jefferson, Madison et al were ‘thinking’. A first year History student would get a big FAIL if he put that in an essay. Also, his claim about some of the funding for climate “deniers” coming from corporations is fair enough but if he was honest he would inform his readers about the funding given to universities to spout the Global Warming, sorry Climate Change, science. A look at the Climategate e-mails should put paid to any trust you might have in these institutions.
      Here’s another question he does not care to answer; How come climate change science is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation? Work that one out.

  2. simplulo on said:

    If George Mason were such an evil pro-slavery guy, it would certainly be ironic that one of the most prominent libertarian thinkers Walter E. Williams, a black professor of economics at George Mason University. If libertarians were so anti-reason, it would certainly be ironic that our most famous magazine were titled Reason; it publishes lots of un-shrill articles on climate change. If this article were true, it would certainly be ironic that I am a black libertarian, and that my car license plate is REASON. ;)

    • Mack on said:

      >If this article were true, it would certainly be ironic that I am a black libertarian
      Sure you are Mr. Nystrom. Sure you are.

    • lexy677 on said:

      “simpulo”. As the author stated..”Clearly, “libertarianism” does have its valid points – especially regarding the absurdity of U.S. drug laws, the destructive wastefulness of the American Empire and the excessive surveillance that followed 9/11″

      I am assuming that you are an adherent of libertarianism’s valid points…otherwise you are just a fool of the “Clarence Thomas variety”. As for that black professor at George Mason University. Please try to understand that being black doesn’t automatically translate into being astute enough on racial matters to understand what serves your interests; and being a professor doesn’t mean you are necessarily intelligent ESPECIALLY when you are black because the managers of “affirmative action” usually made sure that only the most mediocre and sometimes downright stupid blacks made it in academia and business. Just so they could point out and say “THIS IS the best they got”

      All things being equal, a black person calling himself/herself a libertarian…. in America….. of all places…well the less said the better.

      • Psylocyber on said:

        Who is this lexy677?
        HE (I’m guessing male based on obnoxiousness) seems unable to participate in meaningful dialogue without being disrespectful and condecending, as illustrated by these comments:

        “Obviously you lack elemtary reading comprehension”

        “You are not being thoughtful at all. You appear not to even understand libertarianism.”

        Even Worse, while defending this subjective article that tries to dismiss Libertarians, & Libertarian Principles because they are supposedly based on racism, he posts the most racist comments I’ve seen on this site. Talking to a person whom identified themselves as black and referring to an opinion from a black Professor he states…

        ” Please try to understand that being black doesn’t automatically translate into being astute enough on racial matters to understand what serves your interests”

        AND….

        “being a professor doesn’t mean you are necessarily intelligent ESPECIALLY when you are black because the managers of “affirmative action” usually made sure that only the most mediocre and sometimes downright stupid blacks made it in academia and business.”

        My question is…..Is it only black people that might not be astute enough to know their own “Best Interests” or is it all of us “lesser peoples” that need your elitist help ?

        In a later comment he ends with….

        “I do not suffer fools lightly.”

        Hey lexy677!
        Go look in the mirror U f…ing hypochrite

  3. Evan Rogers on said:

    The number of mistakes in this article is atrocious and discredits your entire organization.

    Libertarianism did NOT “stem” from the “South’s institution of human bondage”. In fact, libertarianism dates back to Adam Smith, John Locke, Cantillion and others even before them.

    Libertarianism in NO way assumes that climate change doesn’t exist. To pair the two together is simply to misunderstand libertarianism.

    In reality, a libertarian government would one of the harshest punishers of polluters: you’re NOT allowed to dump trash into your neighbors property, ergo spitting crap out of a tail pipe would be likely illegal.

    In the future, I would suggest you understand that which you criticize before doing so.

    • Suzanne on said:

      Re. Evan Rogers, I agree wholeheartedly. After reading this incredible smear of Libertarianism, which is as I say, so far Left it is Right (Truth and Liberty loving) I regret sending Consortium News any money. I thought they were honest truth seekers. I don’t get it. This article sounds like someone drank some crazy rant kool-aid and have allied with some particular political camp, making mis-informed attacks on other labeled political camps justified.

    • lexy677 on said:

      Evan Rogers,

      You are not being thoughtful at all. You appear not to even understand libertarianism.

      “In reality, a libertarian government would one of the harshest punishers of polluters: you’re NOT allowed to dump trash into your neighbors property, ergo spitting crap out of a tail pipe would be likely illegal.”

      This is nonsense. First of all not being allowed to dump trash into your neighbor’s property is not an exclusively libertarian concept. Spitting crap out of your tail pipe is illegal in the “civilized” areas of the U.S…like California for example.

      Secondly the author was refering to Libertarianism as it evolved or its “peculiar” manisfestation in the Unites States where it became a convenient “crutch” for slaveholders. Don’t sully the Libertarinism of John Locke and other 18th century philosophers by comparing or mentioning American libertarianism in the breath. It appears that America is where good concepts and ideas come to be sullied by association with racists and other societal pathogens.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      Replace “libertarian” with “Ron and Rand Paul” and your entire argument falls apart. Replace it with “Randianism” and your argument turns into the crap coming out of your tailpipe.

  4. Ben Koyl on said:

    Your lack of reply commentary should demonstrate how little people care about your writing, but I’ll reply none-the-less.

    Your attempt to connect the existence of slavery with modern Libertarianism is fairly easy to dismiss because there is no connection. Just go on the Libertarian Party website and look up the Statement of Principles. Part of it states, “We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

    Website is lp.org. Look it up so you can write an informed article next time.

    • lexy677 on said:

      Ben Koyl,
      Obviously you lack elemtary reading comprehension. Nowhere in my commentary did I connect slavery with libertarianism. To say that slave holders used libertarian ideas as a “crutch” does not in anyway connect libertarianism; as an ideology; with slavery. Please spare me your responses to any commentary I make. I do not suffer fools lightly.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      Oh, thank you so much for condescending to write to us “people” who do care about Mr. Parry and admire his scholarship. What an arrogant “libertarian” you are! Your little statement of principles is entirely meaningless in the context of the real world and politics.

  5. FoonTheElder on said:

    The Libertarian philosophy has been taken over by the opportunists with last names such as Koch and Paul. They conveniently jettison items from the list of Libertarian principles when they want more profits or fundamentalist Christian votes.

    That is why the business wing of the Libertarians are against doing anything about global warming and why the elected Libertarian politicians are always against gay marriage and abortion, even whey basic Libertarianism is not.

    • lexy677 on said:

      FoonTheElder……At last a small breath of fresh air in a cesspool of stupidity. Thanks

  6. Snowdog on said:

    Let go, and your fear will leave you.

  7. Frances in California on said:

    I can only say that Libertarians I have known in my 62 years are definitely prejudiced and would seem to be an indication that the movement came out of some kind of White Supremacy effort-Seem isn’t facts; I’ll be the first to assert. I don’t have proof but I don’t doubt that Robert Parry has. All you trolls do is reassure him he’s struck a big, raw, throbbing nerve.

  8. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The first ten amendments were adopted by the first Congress, which met March 4, 1789, and ratified December 15, 1789. The first amendment would have never become part of the constitution if it stated: Congress shall make no law respecting the ethnicity of the people.
    The bias and bigotry of individuals is not simply a matter of race or religion. It is the identity with a cultural group through a common historical mythology, a common religion, speech, dress, language and moral code. The ethnic identity is expressed as unique and superiority to others. It is the basis for such feelings as patriotism, pride, superiority, and paranoia. the fear of other ethnic identities.
    It may any belief, ethic, scientific, economic, or kind of government that distinguishes one culture from another. In a multicultural population the competition is between beliefs, the interpretation of evidence, not of any rational condition of multi-cultural unity or equality in law.

  9. ctyankee on said:

    Straw man arguments… The author has penned a piece of fiction and tries to pass it off as objective fact. Utterly useless, but damaging to low-information voters.

  10. Marilyn Frith on said:

    Defining politics is almost as difficult as it is useless. It only exacerbates the divisions. It pains me to see how divided we remain on crucial matters that should be obvious.

    Global warming’s real cause and effects, for example…at geoengineeringwatch.com

    …Dane Witington’s video on chemtrails as culprit is most edifying, rising above partisan agendas. He is a lead scientist researching the phenomena of how chemtrails are changing climate and destroying organic life on earth.

    Hardly a ‘libertarian’ or left/right issue….

    http://memoryholeblog.com/2013/06/25/the-most-important-topic-of-our-time/#more-4998

  11. Dennis Berube on said:

    Yes Libertarian ideology is terribly dangerous, especially economically. But so is neo-liberalism, which is where human caused global warming comes in. Some liberals will justify chemtrails to retard global warming and make statements that amount to hatred of humans due to their belief that people are suddenly causing this problem. This is garbage, the sun is responsible for heating the planet as always, and it has cycles, as it always has.

    • Sancho on said:

      “Libertarianism’s” link to pro-slavery anti-federalists is real, as well is their link to climate deniers such as the Koch’s. However, a couple of pointers:

      1) so-called libertarians are not anti-government. In fact, they even believe in a central government, just one with weakened powers comparatively. Moreover, they, unlike anarchists, support all the trappings that come along with governments, such as borders and armies, although they are strongly anti-interventionist.

      2) Governments have yet to be representative on the issue of climate change, not even in the United States where support for environmental initiatives is not quite as high as in many other nations. So, the solution is not government. The solution is more democracy. For example, if most of the world instead had participatory democracy (real libertarianism, not “libertarianism”) then we would already be doing what was in the public interest. Of course, what “libertarians” favor is the opposite of that: instead of participatory democracy, they favor privatizing institutions of government, moving them out democratic reach, thereby merging governments with corporations. It is specifically the merger of corporations and government that has been the main catalyst for the climate crises and prevented people from doing enough to stop it.

  12. Pgathome on said:

    It is clear that it is going to take a “full” effort to solve the climate change problem. This will require collective effort. Because collective effort is needed the “Libertarianist” deny global worming because their philosophy is more important.

  13. Will on said:

    Thanks Robert Parry, enlightening. From my experience it certainly rings true.

  14. Henry the Ogre on said:

    Well written article.
    Of course, libertarians SHOULD oppose dump gigatons of CO2 into their less-consuming less-polluting neighbors’ atmosphere, according to libertarian philosophy. But the practical reality is that they won’t stop until they are forced to. If not by government, then they’d better not complain about individuals taking action themselves to stop the burning of fossil fuels. Libertarians should applaud action by non-government groups. Mandatory vasectomies to stop runaway overpopulation and outlawing breeding billions of animals for meat (which should be outlawed for the animals’ health) are 2 necessary first steps.

  15. Psylocyber on said:

    I too am offended and disappointed with the unnecessary (and blatently BS) labeling on the part of the author lately. I’ve considered myself a Libertarian for almost 30 years, as well as a scientist. I’ve never heard or read any Libertarian doctrine that supports or promoted “racism” anti-science or even unregulated capitalism. The most radical doctrine of the libertarians I’ve read is that some don’t believe they have to pay income tax. (Which I don’t agree with)

    The basic tenents of libertarianism (As I understand them) is almost the opposite.
    We believe
    EVERYONE is EQUAL AND POSSESSING OF BASIC “unalianable’ RIGHTS.
    EVERYONE should be free (from unecessary laws too) up to the point that U start infringing on SOMEONE ELSE’S Freedom or Rights.
    Of Course this will attract a small element of every disagreeable outlook/philosophy imaginable, justifying itself under liberty. And that’s OK. As long as they’re not imposing their “Crazy” philosophies on someone unwilling, they can THINK whatever they want.

    This is also the REAL essence of “States Rights”. If a majority of like-minded people (crazy or not) want to live together under certain rules, they should be able. (ie if a majority of people in Utah want to allow poligamy, let them. As long as they’re not kidnapping woment from other states or holding their own women hostage, Leave them Alone.

    ps The idea that ONLY southern slave states were afraid of too much central power is total BS. Many people in the North (especially those NewEngland Yankees) were skeptical of an overly strong central government.
    Look Where We Are Now. Illegal Wars (Const. says 2/3 vote of CONGRESS)
    Unwarranted Searches & Spying (Spying on what library books U read, even)
    Indefinite Detention and/or Death by Decree
    Torture

  16. Psylocyber on said:

    I don’t know who’s claiming to be Libertarian these days because I don’t pay attention to the Main Stream Media anyway (Not since 911). But I never thought of industrialist like the Koch Bros as being Libertarian. I can claim to be the queen of england, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to give me the crown jewels.
    All U people bashing Libertarians like they’re all rich, Escalade driving, anti-environmental, capitalist, obviously have never met many “Real” Libertarians.

    Most of the libertarians I know are More likely to Be:
    Poor
    Off the grid / Attempting Alternative Energy stratagies
    Truly Environmental as far as re-using and recycling
    More open minded and Less Judgemental than;

    Many Self Proclaimed Liberals whom talk a good talk, but still drive 2 blocks to the store. Just like everyone else.

    Politically I’m always registered as Independant, but I’ve been an active supporter of both the Libertarian AND Green Parties Nationwide & in NM, I believe Alternatives are needed for the failed “one” party system.

    Mr Parry still lives in the Fantasy World where he believes there is actually a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Psshaa! The difference is between the Obscenely Wealthy and the Rest of Us. The One Percent control both parties, as they always have. They just don’t have to hide it anymore.

    I DID have real hope for Mr Obama. But he’s led a Repressive Regime of Secrecey and Facism that Dick Cheney only dreamed about. At least George W. didn’t Bullshit us first with ….what was it??? Hope?? Change??
    Just more of the same old shit with a different wrapper.

    Really, U can’t blame him. The last President that tried to buck the System; got Asassinated by It And the scarey part wasn’t that they would kill our own President, but how easily they manipulated the masses afterwards.