Today I begin a series of posts on the topic of libertarianism, or, more specifically, why I think it is currently a flawed and failed religion posing as a philosophy of governance. I originally intended to entitle this series “The Rotten Heart of Libertarianism,” but decided that would be too combative. Besides, some of my best friends are libertarians.
The reason I will address this topic — and the reason you should care — is because libertarianism represents perhaps the best set of potential political solutions to America’s problems, and is the legacy of a truncated set of the Founders’ beliefs (subtract their belief in God and a strong central government, and you have libertarianism). Thus it is worth knowing something about, if you care about politics.
For those who already know something about libertarianism, it is worth considering what is wrong with it, and thinking about how to fix it. I promise not to be overly erudite or pedantic, though I suspect I cannot extend that promise to the “Comments” section.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, libertarianism can best be summarized in this way: “you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.” It is strongly intertwined with the economic philosophy known as laissez-faire. Libertarians have their own political party, which essentially calls for government to stop doing most things beyond national defense and enforcement of contracts.
I like this philosophy. I am not a Libertarian, but I probably come close to being a libertarian. The upper-case capitalization, as I shall explain later, is critical.
There are several problems with this philosophy. None of these are well articulated by the Left, which still seems to believe that it can set the country on a path toward socialism without ever actually facing the consequences of getting there. In other words, I will say little about their rebuttal to libertarians and conservatives, which amounts to: “If government doesn’t do all these things, they won’t get done.” That causality strikes me as a good thing. I will assume my readers have an appreciation for both economics and the power of the marketplace, and that none of you lie awake at night wondering whether bananas would take inedible form if not for the vigilance of the EU.
Still, though I suspect that libertarians are right in most of their speculation about the proper bounds of government, I think they have yet to do a comprehensive and rigorous job of demonstrating such. Jeff Friedman, editor of Critical Review (disclosure: I’ve been published there) noted this problem in his compelling essay several years ago entitled “What’s Wrong With Libertarianism?” In a nutshell, he observed that libertarians make a moral case for their philosophy (i.e., it is wrong for government to push people around) which they are unwilling to push to the extreme, namely, to the point where they argue that their system of governance would be best even if one could prove that people would be materially better off in some system of stronger government. At that point they switch to what we call consequentialism, and argue that not only is the libertarian system more just by virtue of its minimal coercion, but that it is also produces more prosperity for its citizens.
The problem, Friedman rightly observed, is that we have shown no such thing. To be sure, economists have done a good job of demonstrating that heavy government management of the economy reduces economic growth by destroying property rights and incentives. Nobody has shown, however, that a libertarian system of nearly non-existent government would make people better off. We have anecdotes, we have some notion that we can extrapolate from partial analyses of more ostensibly libertarian times at the turn of the century, and we have the rational profit-maximizer of economics — but we do not have a methodologically rigorous study that can even explain, for example, the inescapable correlation between sizable government (say, 20-40% of gross domestic product) and sustained economic growth.
The reasons for this surprising reality are several. To begin, libertarian scholars largely exist in a dual world of academia and libertarianism (note: this is not true of all libertarian scholars, and is especially not true of the most interesting ones). In academia they publish the esoteric minutiae essential to tenure and advancement within the university system. These works have little to say about the big questions both as a consequence of their form (confinement to a niche of knowledge where the scholar has competitive advantage) and their surroundings (academics tend to value the exchange of ideas less than they value uniformity of thought).
In the libertarian world, ironically, scholars face similar strictures on thought. After publishing his essay Friedman, for example, was held at arms length by many in the Libertarian movement (note: my switch to upper-case is purposeful). Libertarian scholars rarely evaluate their own first principles, even more rarely do they invite non-libertarian scholars to do so. This, unfortunately, is a recipe for academic stasis. It is no wonder, then, that the Libertarian canon is heavily weighted with economic theory (the scriptures), normative philosophy (the catechisms), and polemical, anecdotal history (the sermons).
In keeping with the religion metaphor, it is also unsurprising that Libertarianism has its own heretics, who are often treated with greater disdain than genuine members of the hard Left. Recall Ayn Rand’s latter years, when she held her own secret tribunals by which members of the fold were cast out for being unorthodox. This mentality still pervades the Libertarian community, though in (mostly) muted form.
Anyone with experience in Libertarian circles has witnessed the following scene: during a dinner party someone raises a problem that the market doesn’t appear capable of solving. There is spirited argument about whether it is truly a market failure. Someone ventures that it must really be a consequence of government intervention. Someone else suggests that the market would provide a solution if it were truly unfettered. Eventually the person in the group with the strongest Libertarian credentials refers to some study of 16th-Century private health insurance among wheel-makers in Southern France to prove that the market could solve this problem, too. The relief, when the faith is restored by one of the priests, is palpable. I have never been a communist, but I imagine the Trotskyites have similar dinner parties.
In short, there is libertarianism, the philosophy of governance, and there is Libertarianism, the creed. The persistence of the latter interferes, I think, with the development of the former.
There are other problems. Specifically, aside from the lack of rigor and the religious fervor, libertarianism suffers from a lack of attention to practical politics, and a growing and well-deserved association with libertinism, which is (or should be) another bag altogether. I’ll address these issues in the next essay.