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What Libertarianism Is and Isn’t

David Boaz

Here we go again. Another “obituary” for libertarianism. While Salon Magazine declares that we all live in a “libertarian dystopia,” and a new brand of big‐​government conservatives promise to free the Republican party and American government from their libertarian captivity, Barton Swaim declares in the Wall Street Journal that a new book “works as an obituary” for libertarianism. That’s not a characterization that I think the authors—Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi—would accept of their book, The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism.

Swaim notes that the book surveys many different kinds of self‐​styled libertarians over the past two centuries, and that the authors lay out six “markers” that libertarians share: property rights, individualism, free markets, skepticism of authority, negative liberties, and a belief that people are best left to order themselves spontaneously. Not a bad list, significantly overlapping with the list of seven key libertarian ideas that I laid out in the first chapter of my own book, The Libertarian Mind.

He goes on to argue, following the authors, “In the 21st century, the movement in the U.S. has consisted in an assortment of competing, often disputatious intellectual cadres: anarchists, anarcho‐​capitalists, paleo‐​libertarians (right‐​wing), ‘liberaltarians’ (left‐​wing) and many others.” Somehow he leaves out actual libertarians, such as those who populate the Cato Institute, Reason magazine, the Objectivist world, and much of the Libertarian Party. Indeed, a few lines later he cites the “diversity” of “the priestess of capitalism Ayn Rand, the politician Rand Paul and the billionaire philanthropist Charles Koch”—none of whom would fall into any of the esoteric categories that he suggests make up modern libertarianism and in fact belong to actual libertarianism or its penumbras.

The whole review is ahistorical. Swaim never mentions classical liberalism, the revolutionary movement that challenged monarchs, autocrats, mercantilism, caste society, and established churches beginning in the 18th century. Liberalism soon swept the United States and Western Europe and ushered in what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls the “Great Enrichment,” the unprecedented rise in living standards that has made us moderns some 3,000 percent richer than our ancestors of 1800. The ideas of the classical liberals, including John Locke, Adam Smith, and the American Founders, are those that animate modern libertarianism: equal rights, constitutional government, free markets, tolerance, the rule of law. Zwolinski and Tomasi say that “what sets libertarians apart is the absolutism and systematicity” with which we advocate those ideas. Well, yes, after 200 years of historical observation and philosophical and economic debate, many of us do believe that a firmer adherence to liberal/​libertarian ideas would serve society well. We observe that the closer a society comes to consistent tolerance, free markets, and the rule of law, the more it will achieve widespread peace, prosperity, and freedom.

Swaim insists that libertarians do not engage “with ultimate questions—questions about the good life, morality, religious meaning, human purpose and so on.” He’s wrong about that. Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. F. A. Hayek stressed the importance of morals and tradition. Ayn Rand set out a fairly strict code of personal ethics. Thomas Szasz’s work challenged the reductionists and behaviorists with a commitment to the old ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, and responsibility for one’s choices. Charles Murray emphasizes the value and indeed the necessity of community and responsibility. Libertarian philosophers of virtue ethics find the case for limited government to be based on the search for the good life. Swaim would be on more solid ground to say that libertarianism does not presume to tell individuals what to believe and how to live. Separation of church and state and all that. As I wrote in a letter to the Journal (not yet published), Swaim refers to the “studiously amoral philosophy of libertarianism.” A popular summary of libertarianism, “don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises,” is just the basic morality that allows human beings to live together in peace.

As for his claim that libertarianism is dead, that this book is an obituary, I refer Swaim again to all the people who complain that we’re living in some sort of libertarian world. Libertarians often feel depressed; they believe the world is on “the road to serfdom.” But in fact the world is far freer in this century than ever before in history. Free markets and free trade, an end to slavery and caste societies, representative government, and the rule of law now govern the Western world and much of the rest. Most of the Cato Institute’s website comprises complaints about the malfeasance of the U.S. government. But in the bigger picture, libertarians have had much success. In the roughly 50 years since I started thinking about politics, one could point to such successes as:

the end of conscription in the United States
social, economic, and political equality for women
dramatically lower marginal tax rates
freer trade
deregulation of major industries such as airlines, trucking, communication, and finance
the almost total demise of communism
and the consequent discrediting of socialism and central planning
the reorientation of antitrust policy to a consumer welfare standard
expanded First Amendment protections
expanded Second Amendment protections
the progress of gay rights and gay marriage
growing opportunities for school choice
a slow erosion of the war on drugs

I could go on. None of these are total victories. No ideology achieves all of its sweeping vision, at least not without a military conquest of the government and the ability to rule by decree—and those experiments are nothing to emulate. In various parts of the world bad ideas are back—socialism, protectionism, ethnic nationalism, anti‐​Semitism, even industrial policy. The libertarian challenge is to join with other liberals—Reaganite conservatives, free‐​speech liberals, people who are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal”—to push back against these bad resurgent ideas. But this record of accomplishment is no obituary.

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