In reading about the fascinating-and-inane-in-equal-measure experiment in private money called “Bitcoin,” I found this post by Timothy Lee, which contained a passage that I found very clarifying:

So one of Bitcoin’s key selling points—a permanently fixed supply—is basically illusory. The supply of Bitcoins, like the supply of every other currency, will be controlled by the fallible human beings who run the banking system. We already have an electronic currency whose quantity is controlled by a cartel of banks. If you’re a libertarian, you might think the lack of government regulation is an advantage for Bitcoin, but it strikes me as highly improbable that the world’s governments would leave the Bitcoin central bank unregulated. So I don’t see any major advantages over the fiat money we’ve already got.

In fact, from a small-d democratic standpoint, once you’ve reached this point of analysis the Federal Reserve System is actually superior because its leaders are appointed and confirmed by elected officials, thus implementing at least some democratic accountability.

But I’m not sure that matters to a lot of self-described libertarians. There is a view, famoulsy summarized by a misquoted Margaret Thatcher, that says “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” In this view, there are individuals and there are those things that intrude on the right of individuals, and the latter is pretty much malicious in every instance.

But there is also a view that there is very much a thing called society, built of networks and relationships, fundamentally rooted in interdependence, and impossible to reduce to the sum of its parts. In this view the entirety of the society produces a certain amount of wealth in goods and services, and how those goods and services are produced and allocated should be determined by institutions elected by society in an accountable and fair and transparent way. This is not to say there is no such thing as individual rights, property rights, etc, but that those who happen for one reason or another to be the lucky few to control the flow and distribution of capitol shouldn’t be the only ones to determine its destination.

And these views are mostly incompatible, though in practice there are some practical areas of agreement (mostly around the necessity of public security and contract enforcement). But it does seem that libertarianism, to the extent that it denies the right of democratically-elected institutions to acquire any meaningful power beyond policing and border defense, doesn’t really lead to any kind of meaningful democratic empowerment.

But if you don’t believe that those who possess capitol have a sacred right to accumulate as much of it as they can, you will probably be more inclined to agree with Abraham Lincoln:

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

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