GUEST POST: That Half-Baked Thought Experiment Cooked Up by Self-Entitled Pricks.

Today we are treated to an infotaining essay on the subject of Libertarians by SJ (Science Junkie), my good friend and self-proclaimed Loyal Subject™ (hahaha. WINNING). Science Blogs-era Pharyngula readers from a few years back might recognize his ‘nym. :D

Please give SJ a warm Death to Squirrels welcome!


[CONTENT NOTE: photographic image depicting a large animal carcass lying in a street, and several impoverished young children; casual ableism.]

Three years ago a I posted a blog at my favorite palace in which I heaped contempt on the Libertarians’ patron saint, Ayn Rand. The vastly overrated novelist and “philosopher” died in 1982, but her legacy of superficial, egocentric “moral principles” lives on as a quasi-philosophy and cornerstone of a mean-spirited and delusional political party that is, at least for now, marginalized. (Warning: Things can change quickly here in Loonyland, so don’t write the Libertarians off.)

The graphic below was the inspiration behind the present title, and also for my earlier blog. As I wrote then, “The only problem with the graphic is the word philosopher, which belongs in scare quotes. Philosopher, my ass. If Ayn Rand is a philosopher, Michele Bachmann is a Constitutional scholar. Rand is the late-night infomercial of political philosophy. In a sane, educated society, she would be a standing joke, à la Bachmann.”


Anyway, and for what it might be worth, my impressions of libertarianism kinda go like this: I got mine; you’re on your own, Jack! If there’s no work where you are, just pack it up and move somewhere else . . . If your wages are too low to support your family, get a second job, or put the kids to work . . . Bootstraps, man! . . . Only the worthy will be rewarded, and the wealthy and powerful (hereafter W&P) will deservedly rule . . . And, as former Republican Congressman Ron Paul explained, if you or your kids get sick, you’ll have to look for a charitable doctor who will let you pay him when you earn your share of the American Dream Pie™.

But not to fear. You see, it’s all gonna work out according to the hallowed magic of the Unregulated Free Market. The libertarian social Darwinist wet dream starts with the elimination of virtually all forms of taxation . . . Then the W&P (acting strictly in their individual self-interest, of course) will start creating an abundance of jobs, and the economy will prosper as never before. Which sounds like good old trickle-down economics, that article of faith if not proven fact among conservatives. Just be ready to run for cover when the trickle is aimed your way, because there won’t be any minimum wage or other protections you might think would be taken for granted in The Greatest Country Ever in the 21st Century. But hey, you won’t have to pay any income tax. Just be sure to read the fine print before you sign on.

In an excellent, recent blog titled, Gary Johnson is worse than Donald Trump, Benjamin Studebaker writes,

Gary Johnson has a tax plan that makes Donald Trump’s plan look left wing. Johnson wants to eliminate the income, capital gains, payroll, and estate taxes completely and replace them all with a flat 23% national sales tax.

That brilliant idea seems to have originated with right-wing intellectual and failed presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, who calls it the “fair tax.” The idea is the wealthy will buy more stuff and pay more taxes . . . what could be more fair than that?

Except that there seem to be a few pesky reality clauses buried in the fine print.

As Studebaker points out, the W&P will pay sales tax on a relatively small portion of their income compared to working stiffs making less than $70,000, who will pay taxes on almost all of their earnings. According to Studebaker, in some places the combined federal and state sales taxes for working people could amount to as much as 50 percent of their income.

Which means that the 23 percent figure can be grossly misleading: The effective tax rate for someone who makes $300,000 and spends $100,000 on taxable goods and services will not be 23 percent but about eight percent of their income! And the effective tax rate becomes vanishingly small as income increases. But never mind that, because the W&P will reward the rest of us by creating lots of jobs, enough so you’ll be able to find a second or even a third job to make ends meet.

Libertarians also intend to balance the federal budget and eliminate government borrowing, immediately. Imagine how virtuous you’re going to feel, knowing you won’t be “burdening future generations with debt they didn’t consent to” (which is immoral, even criminal, according to many Libertarians). And remember their mantra, “Taxation is thievery” (although I’ll go with author Michael Ventrella’s take on that idea).

Social Darwinism, Anyone?

And there’s more, much more: Libertarians virtually worship unregulated free-market competition – which I prefer to call all against all – as the formula for the success of all . . . Well, excepting certain groups, like slackers, dummies, and the elderly who weren’t wise enough to sign up for a private retirement plan. And if a stock market crash wipes out all those private retirement savings? Too bad, those losers should have made provisions. But even then they’ll still have their precious freedom and their ever-so-realistic hopes of becoming members of the W&P class. That kind of economic freedom has got to be the most glorious thing there is!

There’s even balm for you liberals out there: Libertarians are socially liberal, maybe more so than you are, though they waffle on a few things, like abortion. Just ask Ron and Rand Paul about that (can’t alienate all those religious-right-zygotes-are-humans voters). But for the most part, you’ll be free to do what makes you happy – so get ready to put on your best new duds, or nothing, and go out there and raise hell, so long as you don’t interfere with someone else’s fun. Might be a good idea, though, to pack a gun in that brave new world, because there will be no gun restrictions – freedom, don’tcha know! You may not even be required to have a driver’s license, if you can afford a car. Just free people being free. What can go wrong?

Studebaker’s blog is a good read, with quotes and analyses of several planks from the Libertarian platform. Gotta love this one:

We favor free-market banking, with unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.

What can go wrong?

And there’s this:

We favor a free-market health care system.We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want (if any), the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care, including end-of-life decisions.

I mean, what can go wrong?

Scenes like this one from the Good Old Days are evidently A-OK with Libertarians.

historic photo 1905 new york

Circa 1905. “The close of a career in New York.” Photo by Byron. Posted at Shorpy Historic Picture Archive. Highly recommended.

Do they really think turning everything over to the “free market” will improve the myriad social, environmental, economic, health, education, and infrastructure problems we face? (Feel free to add your own categories.) Or promote peaceful coexistence among our citizens? Evidently they do. Or maybe they don’t care. Fortunately, they are, for now, marginalized. And let’s hope it stays that way: Their entire program is nothing more than a half-baked, egotistical thought experiment, untethered from reality to a scary degree. I’ll even argue that they’re not a serious political party, that they don’t deserve a place at the table when serious adults are discussing real-world policy issues. Like their guru, Ayn Rand, they have created a caricature of human nature to suit their ideological pretensions.

So please don’t throw your vote away on radical ideologues; and if you’re tempted, remind yourself  that their answer for those who can’t afford health care is charity.

One more quote, from H.L. Mencken, offered here with sadness:

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. . . .

The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

That about sums it up, I’m truly sorry to say.


A smart-ass friend who commented on my first draft wrote, “Sheesh, what do you really think about Libertarians?”

Channeling physicist Wolfgang Pauli, I wrote, “They are not even wrong.” But moments before clicking Send, I had an inspiration and remembered an internet meme I’d slightly modified and saved for just such an occasion.


FRACTAL WRONGNESS: They are not just wrong. They are wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. Zooming in on any part of their world view finds beliefs exactly as wrong as their entire worldview.


SJ (Science Junkie), is the ‘nym of a self-described “older married guy,” a former college psychology instructor and editor at a national magazine. Every stage of his very full life has been dominated by a passionate interest – from chess to distance running to photography (his current obsession). He writes under a pseudonym for fear that the opinions he expresses, particularly with regard to religion, might very well cause real problems for his family in his gawd-fearin’ community. (He plans to “come out” after his wife retires.) In the meantime, SJ promises to do his best to defend and promote science and reason, and to keep power out of the hands of the proto-fascists who have declared war on just about everything he values.


  1. says

    Nonsense! The free market is a utopia for all! All we have to do is look at nations that don’t have minimum wages, unionization, or workplace and environmental regulations. They are full of nothing but good paying jobs and living conditions that are envied by people the world over!

  2. says

    “You have the right to do whatever you want, as long as you do not violate another person’s right to do whatever they want.”

    It sounds simple, but is actually immensely complicated, and that’s why Ayn Rand Objectivists (those in the Libertarian party today… has anyone told these people that Ayn Rand hated Libertarians?) fail.

    Can you believe in that sentiment and support left-wing/socialist regulation?

    Wonderful, wonderful blog post, by the way. Loved it.

  3. Hoosier X says

    When the libertarians find out abut this post, you’ll be up to your neck in tone-trolling.

  4. enkidu says

    The post is incredibly overoptimistic about the amount of tax W&P will pay. They will buy most of their goods in sales tax free economies. Their services will be done by slaves (see PZ’s post “Please, Please go Galt again”)

  5. says

    Fractal wrongness – that’s great (there’s an ‘l’ missing from ‘resolution’ in the poster. perhaps that was deliberate, so the wrongness would even be in the caption?)

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I think there’s a good chance that we’ve got a huge spot of libertarianism coming down the pike. If Trump sinks much farther, there may be a tipping point where a whole bunch of elected officials jump to Johnson, which might lead to a general stampede. If he ends up anywhere in Trump’s vicinity — say in the 18% range, with Trump in the 20s — the Republicans in their post-mortem will figure they have to win those voters back, and will reshape their platform to suit them. The only good thing about that is that the religio-fascists will get shut down– on the other hand, we may end up missing them compared to the libers.

  7. says

    The nice thing about libertarians as opposed to religio-fascists, is you can just blame them for smacking them down, and they can’t (in good faith) complain when you do. You’re just acting under the orders of the invisible hand of the market.

  8. says

    Libert-aryans are not interested in “free markets” or “freedumb”. They want a return to feudalism combined with Mussolini-style corporatism, themselves as CEOs and no king to answer to. They want to own everything, including the serf class which are disposable, killable without consequence. They employ toadies (e.g. cops, corporate managers, politicians) who bow, scrape, do their bidding, and carry out their interests with the hope of maybe having a better life than the serfs. Such people are one step up from kapos.

    It’s funny how those who advocate Rand’s twaddle completely ignore the only notable thing she ever said. From the foreward to her book, “Anthem”:

    The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default; the people who seek protection from the necessity of taking a stand, by refusing to admit to themselves the nature of that which they are accepting; the people who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas need not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated by keeping one’s eyes shut. They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: “But I didn’t mean this!”

    Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name. They must face the full meaning of that which they are advocating or condoning; the full, exact, specific meaning of collectivism, of its logical implications, of the principles upon which it is based, and of the ultimate consequences to which these principles will lead.

    The emphasis is mine. That part sounds all too familiar.

  9. MSkyweir says

    While I disagree with the pure-Libertarianism that some advocate, I take issue with the complaints made by Studebaker about the fair tax. He claims that a person making $300,000 may only spend $100,000 so pays an effective 8% tax relative to their income, but he makes no mention what happens to the other $200,000. Does it just magically disappear from the economy never to be spent? No, it gets invested or saved, but it will eventually get spent. Some year, that person may buy a large or second house or other expensive item and spend that money at which point it would get taxed. In that year, the person could be paying 100% (or more!) of their income in taxes. Over time, their average tax rate would be the expected 23%. Combined with tax exemptions for necessities, such as food, (or prebates as proposed) and perhaps additional taxes on luxury items, a fair tax can be just as progressive over time as the current income tax.

  10. Ron Skurat says

    I haven’t read the Johnson platform (weak heart, too dangerous) but does it perchance exclude financial transactions from this 23% sales tax? Just asking!

  11. flex says

    Over time, their average tax rate would be the expected 23%.

    Assertion not demonstrated, and contradicted by today’s reality.

    Simple thought experiment: the $200,000 saved over time becomes a greater amount, through interest, investments, etc. That pile is now greater, significantly greater, than any pile of savings from someone who only makes $100,000/year in total and spends almost all of it.

    Take this $200,000 savings over 10 years, at a 3% rate of return, the sum is 2,561,559 and is earning $76,846/year through interest alone. In 13 years, that $200,000 saved per year is making over $100,000/year.

    The only way your assertion would work is if saved money did not generate any return. No interest, no investments, just placed under the mattress and stored. At that point, when it is spent it would generate the same average tax rate as the money earned by someone who spends every dime they make immediately.

    I am aware that inflation can impact the value of money against the cost of living, but the impact of inflation affects everyone, rich and poor alike. If a rich person loses 1.5% of the value of their money to inflation, so does the poor man. The absolute values may be different, but the relative impact is the same. That is, assuming saved money generates no interest. If the rich man can save money and get a 3% return, while the poor man has no money to save, the poor man loses more due to inflation than the rich man.

  12. says

    I was saying to someone else that the fact that our government felt a need to impose particular business regulations is proof that the free market is incapable of righting itself on its own. OSHA and the EPA, minimum wage, minimum age for working, maximum work hours, equal employment laws, anti-discrimination laws, sexual harassment laws and more are all regulations that were put in place because left un-regulated, businesses would never put the wellbeing of their employees, customers and the environment before their profits. The best arguments I hear from libertarians basically amount to “just wait and see how great it will be” and to that, I can only say that we have ample proof it doesn’t work, show me where it is working and I’ll listen.

  13. Raucous Indignation says

    @ MSkyweir What you’re describing is trickle down economics. That additional untaxed wealth goes missing, hidden away in tax havens. It does not get spent. It does not get re-invested. It does not create jobs. It is never taxed. This is already happening. There is a substantial fraction of the developed world’s wealth, estimated at 8% of it’s total wealth, that is sequestered away. It is not re-invested in infrastructure. It does nothing except increase the wealth and income inequality of the world. The concentration of wealth and capital in a few super wealthy families is harmful to the world at large. This is well documented and researched. It’s almost as if you don’t allow your foolish, shallow thought process to come in contact with facts or reality, you miserable crotch stain.

  14. MSkyweir says


    The only way your assertion would work is if saved money did not generate any return. No interest, no investments, just placed under the mattress and stored.

    Return on investment is irrelevant to the issue here. Whether collected via income tax or a consumption tax, the increased value of the $200,000 investment to $2,000,000 goes untaxed under either system. Under an income tax it gets taxed only when the investment is converted to cash while for a consumption tax it has to also be spent, which is usually why you would convert investments to cash. And if the entire investment is liquidated and spent, the full $2,000,000 gets taxed at 23%, the same (short of exact tax rate) as it would today.

    The apocalyptic claim in the article that “the effective tax rate becomes vanishingly small as income increases” is a misleading interpretation of how a fair tax works and how it differs from an income tax.

  15. invivoMark says

    To believe in Ayn Rand’s “philosophy,” you have to believe that most people are weak and therefore deserve to be miserable. At that point, you are literally on the dark side. And not even the cool, red-lightsabers-and-finger-lightning dark side. You’re on the angsty-Hayden-Christensen-murders-children-off-screen dark side.

  16. flex says

    @MSkyweir says, @19,

    You are changing your original argument. You argued that the residual money would eventually get spent. My point was that because of ROI the original money is not spent, may never be spent, and the original money remains untaxed. This is not true of money which is taxed as income prior to investment.

  17. freemage says


    Your argument ignores the effect of inherited wealth. The person making $300K a year is going to leave a considerable portion of that to their children, who will build upon it, and so on. THe original earner will die with a stack of money that has never been taxed. This allows the wealthy and super-wealthy to hold out on contributing to government programs needed today. Instead, the bills get paid by the money taken from the poor, working class and middle class. (And remember, the Glibertarians also insist on no government debt–so there will never be a time when the imbalance is corrected.

  18. says


    Socialism – if you give everyone equal shares, they will all do what is best for everyone around them.

    Libertarianism – Rich people, who lie, cheat, steal, beg, borrow, etc., are “more likely” to do what is best for everyone, including the people who they have absolutely nothing in common with, especially problems, limitations, lack of resources, poor luck, lack of education, or anything else that they have never experienced themselves. Right…. Makes perfect sense…. lol