Here, my friend Dave Weigel responds to my post on Chris Beam’s New York article on libertarianism. (Follow all that?)
A few comments on Dave’s post.
Beam’s “thrashing” is based on what’s happened as the current crop of libertarian politicians have been tested by the electorate, gotten burned, and walked back a little. “Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter,” he argues. Their ideas are never really tested, and when they’re tested, they crumble, because voters like the trains and the Social Security checks to be on time. “Libertarians can espouse minarchy all they want, since they’ll never have to prove it works.”
I suppose that last part is true. We’ll never have a minarchist government. I’m not sure how that’s a failing of libertarianism, though. But there are plenty of libertarian ideas that have been tested, and have worked well. Deregulation of airlines, telecommunications, and trucking in the 1970s, for example. Drug decriminalization in Portugal. Free(r) trade and the decline of protectionism. And generally speaking, the industries that are least regulated and influenced by government have the highest rates of customer satisfaction. The fact that politicians half-assed libertarian ideas like Social Security privatization or electricity deregulation in California doesn’t disprove those ideas.
Beam’s history and etymology are going to be useful to outsiders, who don’t pay attention to this stuff.
I don’t know what Dave means by “useful”. I found some of it to be trite. Not all libertarians cut their teeth on Ayn Rand. I’ve never been much of a fan. She was important in many ways, detrimental in many others. The drug references were a bit too cute, too. Beam’s reference to Somalia was also silly and cliched. Somalia isn’t a libertarian paradise any more than North Korea is a progressive paradise. That is, libertarians don’t advocate the absence of government any more than progressives advocate all-powerful government. We advocate the rule of law. There is no law in Somalia. (That said, the country is still doing better than many of the corruptly run countries that surround it.)
It’s a better case against libertarian policy, if you want that, than a shouty “investigative” blog post at some liberal site that connects a congressman’s staff to the Koch family with the assumption that evil has just been uncovered.
Not sure why it has to be either/or. Beam still couldn’t resist mentioning the Kochs, though it obviously wasn’t the central theme of his article. And yes, his piece was fairer and more respectful to libertarianism than other treatments I’ve seen. And yes, I still had some problems with it.
Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure.
No, they don’t. People use the utopia canard to make libertarianism seem creepy and cultish. Look, politics is a dirty, corrupt profession that rewards people who display the characteristics you least want in someone in whom you entrust important decisions about your life. The general premise of libertarianism is that people should be free to make their own decisions about their lives—that as much of our lives as possible should be kept within the sphere of civil, voluntary society, and out of the sphere of political society. There would still be problems in a libertarian society. There would still be crime, income inequality, acne, nu metal, and reality TV. Most libertarians merely believe that in a libertarian society, most people would be better off than they are now—that being free to make more of your own choices is preferable to having politicians make them for you. Most conservatives and liberals also believe that most people would be better off if their own policy preferences were implemented. That isn’t in the same ballpark as promising utopia. People will still make bad decisions. They should be free to do so.
If anything is utopian, it’s the idea that the world would be much better off if only we put more of society in the hands of a few very smart people who somehow know all the answers. And that somehow the political process will ensure that those all-knowing people always end up in a position to make all the decisions.
In the 1990s, the new, libertarian-minded Republican congressmen and governors discovered that fast growth allowed them to cut taxes and grow budgets for services that voters liked.
Come on, Dave. There was nothing “libertarian-minded” about Newt Gingrich & Co. Yes, the Contract With America had some language about eliminating a few federal agencies. And those plans were jettisoned almost as soon as the new GOP freshmen were sworn in. The 1990s GOP held firm on a few economic issues that had some culture war resonance (welfare reform, for example), but there were no guiding libertarian principles on display during Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker. They were primarily social conservatives.