Libertarianism III: It's All About Me and My Needs
In the last essay I argued that libertarians have the wrong approach to advancing their cause. I could have quoted libertarian godfather Murray Rothbard: "While Marxists devote about 90 percent of their energies to thinking about strategy and only 10 percent to their basic theories, for libertarians the reverse is true." Rothbard observed that the libertarian strategy amounts to an intellectually satisfying but strategically impotent method of talking at people. "Most classical liberal or laissez-faire activists have adopted, perhaps without much thoughtful consideration, a simple strategy that we may call 'educationism.' Roughly: We have arrived at the truth, but most people are still deluded believers in error; therefore, we must educate these people -- via lectures, discussions, books, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever -- until they become converted to the correct point of view."
Libertarians not only suffer from a lack of strategy for winning, they have little to offer in the way of maintaining authority should they some day emerge victorious. This is important to consider because American liberty (and I am largely confining this to be an American question, though many of my comments apply to libertarians in other countries) has enemies both internal and external.
Start with external enemies -- the host of armed authoritarian states that would relish an opportunity to seize American wealth and liberty. There is no gentle way of saying this: libertarians sound like absolute fools when they talk about foreign policy. I have heard libertarian thinkers much smarter than me give brilliant, sophisticated, world-wise discourses on libertarian domestic policy, only to sound like naive sophomores when the talk turns to foreign affairs.
Libertarians like to pretend, for example, that the U.S. could have avoided World War II without consequence for liberty. At best they argue from historical accident rather than principal -- the claim that Hitler would have lost by virtue of his failure in Russia, for example, or that Britain could have survived without the American Lend-Lease program.
Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn't count in the balance).
These arguments against foreign intervention derive from the libertarian principle that coercion is wrong, which is really no fixed principle at all, because nearly all libertarians admit that a military financed through taxation is a necessity for the protection of liberty. Somewhere in their calculus, however, they conclude that this coercion shouldn't extend to financing the liberation of non-Americans. Perhaps this is principled, but it is certainly not the only viable alternative for a true lover of liberty. To tell people languishing in states like China and the former Soviet bloc that our commitment to liberty prevents us from opposing their masters is the height of churlishness and foolishness.
Perhaps the worst is the libertarian position on Israel, which amounts to a replay of Joe Kennedy's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Hitler in the 1930's. Sure, without American support every man, woman, and child among the Jews might have their throats slit by Muslim thugs, but it's not like they got that country fairly in the first place, and really, it's none of our business. That's not a caricature, by the way. At an event in Washington I heard a prominent libertarian argue that we shouldn't support Israel because what happens to them is their problem, not ours. And libertarians wonder why nobody takes their views on foreign policy seriously.
The libertarian response to this critique is to point out examples of failed U.S. intervention. Yes, the CIA sowed seeds of anti-Americanism in Iran by supporting the Shah. Admitted, we supported a tyrant in Haiti. True, we armed the mujahaddin in Afghanistan. But we also dealt the death blows to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and accelerated the self-destruction of the Soviet Union while controlling its expansion. These are not trivial events in the history of liberty. Libertarian academics have developed a cottage industry, however, to produce counterfactual histories which amount to claiming that all of the good things would have happened anyway without American intervention, and probably would have happened faster.
Of course one can just as easily tell a story in which American isolationism leads to the emergence of totalitarian states that divide the rest of the world, restrict trade, and make all of us worse off. The point is that in the area of foreign policy libertarians are most likely to argue from principle, yet this is the area where consequentialism is most required. Nobody cares about principle if it leads to enslavement or death. When libertarians do argue from consequence, they have no experience or expertise to speak from, nor do they associate with people who do. Name the libertarian scholars with serious expertise in foreign or military affairs. Name the libertarian activists with considerable experience in foreign or military affairs. You get the point.
To be taken seriously as a philosophy of governance, libertarianism must grapple with foreign affairs, and with the possible reality that liberty depends on strong military power. Suggest this at a libertarian gathering, however, and you'll hear chuckles of derision. Perhaps they are right. The fact that they chuckle, however, but have yet to answer this question in a convincing manner, is evidence of the libertarian closemindedness on this issue.
But let's assume that most libertarians would support a military large enough to fend off foreign enemies. They would still have to confront the reality that they have no viable model of power maintenance against domestic enemies of liberty. To see what I mean, imagine that libertarians have nominated a slate of charismatic, well-funded, highly networked candidates (indulge me -- it's a Friday) who have won the Presidency and a solid majority of Congress. These revolutionaries proceed to create the libertarian wet dream -- drug legalization, plans for phasing out government schools and Social Security, isolationist foreign policy, no more ATF . . . and did I mention drug legalization?
In this fantasy the economy booms but foreign states are deterred by our minimal armed forces, people are happy, and sales of Atlas Shrugged go through the roof. It is the End of History.
Except, people get older. Memory fades. The Left remains committed to brainwashing children and co-opting public and private organizations. A child overdoses on heroin. Drugs are slowly re-criminalized. Some idiot old babyboomers (sorry for the triple redundancy) starve to death because they could never be bothered to save for old age. Others lose their savings when they invest them all in Bill Clinton Enterprises. Hello Social Security and financial regulation. The schools stay private because the Left realizes how much easier it is to peddle garbage by McDonaldizing it (i.e., by becoming the low-cost provider and pandering to human weakness).
So, in a generation or less, the revolution is slowly dismantled, and libertarians are blamed for the ills of society. They go back to holding their convention in a Motel Six in Las Vegas, and cheering when their candidate for Sonoma County Commissioner comes in a close third in a three-man race.
The Left doesn't face this problem. Deprived of principle, integrity, or honor, they are happy to snip the bottom rungs as they climb the ladder of power. You can already see this in Europe, where EU thugs are slowly transferring decision-making authority from quasi-democratic legislatures to unelected Brussels technocrats. We saw a hint of it in the U.S., when supposed children of the free-thinking sixties proved strikingly willing to use the power of the federal government to punish and stifle opposition.
But libertarians are all about individual liberty. Thus they face a quandary: How to maintain their state once it's built? This question should be especially pressing, insofar as their model implies that government tends to grow and become oppressive.
There appear to be two avenues open: the first is to adopt a variant of the Left's strategy, and eliminate unfavored options for future generations. Libertarians might, for example, replace the Constitution with a mirror document that does not contain any provision for amendment. This would leave the states open to adopt all manner of idiocy, however. Perhaps libertarians at the state level could adopt similarly permanent protections of individual rights as well. Thus libertarians could effectively ban most opposition parties, without suffering the guilt that Third World dictators endure when they do so more directly. I'm not sure if this would be acceptable in the libertarian paradigm. No matter, however, for the point is that they don't discuss it.
The second avenue for maintaining the libertarian state is culture. If children and new citizens are thoroughly educated in logic, economics, and other foundations of libertarian thinking, then perhaps they can be trusted to maintain liberty even in the face of very persuasive demagogues. But then certain topics become central: childrearing, childhood education, individual self-censorship and discipline, community norms, and reciprocal obligations. It would also require a consideration of the place religion plays in all of the aforementioned. Nearly all of these topics, however, are ignored by individualist libertarians, who furthermore routinely deride -- almost as a condition for membership -- those who call for their rigorous pursuit either as policy or personal practice.
Libertarians have less that's interesting to say about childhood education, for example, than does the Democratic Leadership Council. But childhood education is probably the linchpin of the libertarian society. How many libertarians, however, give much thought to where even their own children will go to school? Sure, they want safety and effectiveness, like any other parent, but how many give serious attention to finding or building schools that inculcate in children the ability to think critically, along with a sense of moral responsibility? Precious few.
If libertarians were serious about taking and maintaining power -- truly serious -- then they would drop the caterwauling over drug criminalization and focus every drop of energy on building schools. The latter is hard work, however, and forces consideration of messy things like moral instruction, and self-discipline, and what makes for good parenting. It's far easier to toke up in the discounted hotel room at the Libertarian Party Convention and rail against the DEA. Thus libertarianism remains less a force for change than a tool for self-expression.
This is in part a product of the natural individualistic nature of libertarianism. The solution isn't to eliminate -- or even drastically reduce -- the individualism that underlies libertarian philosophy, but it does require reconciliation with the social nature of human beings. It also requires acceptance of the fact that people are not only communal in nature, but spiritual. I will address this in my next essay.
In the last essay I argued that libertarianism has not been well-argued because it exists more as creed than philosophy of governance. In this essay I will argue further that libertarianism in theory and practice evinces a self-contradictory view of man. As a result, libertarians are largely ignored both by the political classes and by average citizens.
Most libertarians believe in some version of public choice theory, which suggests that government grows because state officials: 1) want more money, power, and prestige; and, 2) spread the costs and concentrate the benefits of government (except when targeting unpopular minorities). The latter insures that citizens will not oppose government, either because they are direct beneficiaries, or because the costs of organizing people to eliminate a particular program far exceed its cost to the individual. In short, libertarians largely accept the economic model of man as a rational maximizer of personal utility.
The libertarian model of social change, however, is to convince citizens (mostly by use of logic and data) why they should oppose big government. In other words, while their explanatory model assumes that most citizens are rational maximizers, their political model assumes that people can be talked out of their own self-interest.
I'm not saying this expectation is misplaced. The economic model of man doesn't do a good job of predicting things like the American Revolution, so we shouldn't let it constrain us from hoping citizens will rise up and return their government to its Constitutional boundaries. The inconsistent libertarian model of man, however, (and more importantly, the failure to recognize it) has two very costly consequences for the libertarian movement.
First, by portraying government officials as simple-minded vote and budget maximizers, it ensures a steady drumbeat of shrill attacks that demonize agencies and officials. As a result, the choir is entertained while key audiences are alienated. This is a recipe for ensuring perpetual work for libertarian essayists and think tank wonks. It is not an effective recipe for social change.
The second consequence of not recognizing the self-contradictory libertarian view of man is that it leads to the wrong kinds of messages. If it is true that most people believe it is not in their self-interest to oppose government programs, then appealing to them with logic and data is a losing proposition. If you have concluded that it isn't worth spending five dollars to buy a ten percent chance of saving one dollar, then I won't change your mind with a math lesson. But this is precisely what many libertarians do. They focus on the cost of government, its inefficiency, its abuses -- but their own model of human behavior posits that government grows because the majority of citizens believe that the costs of opposing it outweigh the likely benefits.
Libertarians also talk about the costs of inaction (the state will grow), but have virtually nothing to say about the benefits of acting, or, more specifically, about the probabilities of winning. Remember, the economic model implies that every potential actor adjusts the perceived benefit of action by the odds that his action will produce a desired outcome. This yields what economists call an "expectation." Well, the very model employed by libertarians posits that the expected cost of opposing the state exceeds the expected benefit. Until libertarians can show that the expected benefit of action makes it worthwhile, they will not, by their own logic, persuade significant numbers of citizens to adopt their agenda.
Unless, that is, they are willing to use a language other than logic (which defeats them by their own reasoning) or rights (which is either irrelevant or easily opposed by alternately contrived individual philosophies). To borrow a phrase, libertarians need a language of poetry, as opposed to a language of calculus. There are very few decent libertarian poets, however. Most of us with an interest in politics have been buttonholed by a pedantic libertarian overly eager to set us straight on how the bastard statists are persecuting pot smokers and tax dodgers. But how many of us have had a conversation with a libertarian who can describe the encroachment of the state in a way that makes the average citizen ready to pick up a pitchfork (and not as a handy means of self-defense in case the libertarian lecturing him comes completely unhinged)? Better yet, how many libertarians have painted a compelling picture of the libertarian society?
I'm sure some of you right now are thinking "Ayn Rand!" I could be wrong, but I believe you are out of touch with human beings. I know about the 1991 survey of readers which listed Atlas Shrugged as second only to the Bible in terms of influence. What most people forget is that all of the books after the Bible were, according to the Library of Congress, a distant second. (Unfortunately, there is no data I can find on how the sample was drawn, or what the actual responses were.) In any event, Rand's portrait of utopia is most compelling to healthy young people without children, and to old curmudgeons with an overly exaggerated sense of their ability to create value.
In short, libertarians do not know how to talk to normal people. They can talk to the tech-savvy, to the politically conscious who aspire to high incomes, and to students of history who are exceedingly well-grounded in a philosophy of rights. Unfortunately, some portion of the other 99% of society must be persuaded as well. To be fair, the Libertarian Party website has essays that sound much better than listening to the typical libertarian talk. But words not spoken often matter more, and even the well-designed Libertarian Party site makes little reference to things very important to people, like community and faith. Libertarianism in practice largely consists of a homogeneous group of people talking to one another about a narrow set of things that matter most to them (legalized drugs, lower taxes), and hoping that the rest of America will wake up and elect them to office.
Libertarians can fairly ask at this point for my alternative. What, in other words, should libertarians be saying? I'll discuss this in the essays to come. In the next essay I will consider an additional problem, which is that libertarianism not only has no viable model for taking power, it also lacks a model for maintaining power.
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.