The internet has long been known as a hotbed of libertarian thinking—a bunch of rugged individualists sitting in their home offices tapping away at keyboards about their right to live unbounded lives. It has seldom spilled over into modern real-world politics, however, because there’s too much internal disagreement over what libertarianism is really about, and what its proponents’ priorities ought to be.
There are occasional surges of near-relevance—Ron Paul’s dark horse run for the GOP presidential nomination last winter, for instance, which generated much greater enthusiasm from the netroots than from any other demographic—but they always fade away again. (America loves to give lip service to liberty, but starts to squirm when anyone gets serious about the implications.) Thus, the relevance of libertarianism to American politics remains, shall we say, contested.
Most recently, this dispute has been dragged into the open again by the spat between Jacob Weisberg of Slate and Megan McArdle of The Atlantic over the implications of the ongoing financial crisis for libertarianism in America.
Weisberg’s explicit thesis is “How the financial collapse killed libertarianism.” He alludes to recent attempts to pin the crisis (unconvincingly) on 1977’s Community Reinvestment Act, or on 1990s reforms to mortgage-market-makers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and rightly dismisses them—but, without any clear explanation, he then pins the blame for those apologetics on libertarians. (Of the sources he cites, one is a Cato Institute blog, so there’s at least a plausible connection, but the other is fellow Slate journalist Daniel Gross’s critique of arguments made by The Wall Street Journal, The National Review, and Charles Krauthammer, all thoroughly mainstream exponents of movement conservatism.)
Yet Weisberg asks libertarians rhetorically, “Haven’t you people done enough harm already?” He explicitly calls the present situation “a global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas,” and goes on to castigate “the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets.” As he delves into history, he points the finger of blame for deregulation (not without cause) at Bill Clinton, George Bush, and their respective administrations, as well as at former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, former Senator Phil Gramm, SEC chair Christopher Cox, and the entire securities industry, among others. At the end he again draws aim on libertarians, calling them “immature” thinkers who “react to the world’s failing to conform to their model by asking where the world went wrong.”
Yet the more detailed his case, the harder it is to figure why he singles out libertarianism—of all the figures named, Greenspan (a known acolyte of Ayn Rand) is the only one who self-identifies with the label. Weisberg seems to be guilty of using the label at once too broadly (applying it to all capitalists) and too narrowly (applying it only to economic behavior). Indeed, he explicitly equates it with “market fundamentalism” of the sort recently criticized by George Soros.
This is fundamentally misguided. Yes, deregulatory “market fundamentalism” deserves the lion’s share of the blame—but the big-money players in “the market” don’t do what they do out of any ideological principle; they’re guided only by the bottom line. Deregulatory policies are embraced when their goal is to manipulate money as freely as possible, but if circumstances change they’ll turn on a dime and welcome government intervention on their behalf (as recent events show). They’re plutocrats, not libertarians.
What is libertarianism really about, then? Certainly not just economics. It encompasses a broad variety of unconstrained individual liberties. There is free trade in “the market,” yes, but there is also freedom to speak and act and live as unconventionally as one wants—in all cases free of coercion by authorities and institutions. As a school of thought, it’s not wedded to any single party or any particular point on the political spectrum; indeed it’s often conceptualized as perpendicular to that spectrum. It encompasses thinkers as diverse as Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky. Granted it has been relatively easy in recent decades for the plutocrats (and thus the GOP) to co-opt a certain breed of libertarians by insisting that serving corporate bottom lines was really a principled dedication to free markets… but there have always been schisms, as the Republican party never gave more than lip service to “small government”—and even less than lip service to liberty in one’s personal life, especially after the Christian right came aboard the party. More and more thoughtful libertarians have come to recognize that liberty is only meaningful if it’s exercised on a relatively level playing field; and moreover that freedom is more important for actual people than it is for money, and in either case limits are necessary when that freedom comes to the point of hurting innocent bystanders.
One might think, then, that it would have been easy for Megan McArdle, a self-proclaimed libertarian, to critique Weisberg’s essay. Instead, despite an expressed intent to “pile on” in her response to him yesterday, she doesn’t so much dismantle or even defend against his misdirected critique, as offer up a rambling muddle in place of an argument. “Markets are complicated things that rest on a mixture of law, custom, and individual action,” she tells us. “Society has multiple possible equilibria.”
She adds “I see many people who do not know very much about finance demanding that we reverse the much-vaunted deregulation of the 1990s. I see very few of them proposing a coherent regulatory framework that will get us to that happy state.” That must be a result of willful blindness, since a great many thoughtful people with considerable expertise have been proposing just exactly that sort of framework, as I’ve discussed and linked in several posts. She reiterates, “the regulators became overconfident in the same way, and for the same reasons, that the bankers became overconfident… [thus] it is meaningless, in a mixed economy like ours, to attribute a massive failure like this to either ‘the market’ or ‘government regulation’.” She disputes both a straw-man “doctrinaire libertarian” and a straw-man “doctrinaire liberal” (thus actually duplicating Weisberg’s error of equating libertarianism with conservatism). A pox on both their houses, in other words. In the end, she can only conclude “The farther I go into this crisis, the more leery I am of any neat narrative explanation of financial panics–or indeed, many other rare phenomena.”
Perhaps this is because McArdle herself has never quite seemed to grasp the implications of her self-professed ideology. After all, she’s almost alone among libertarians (and reasonable people in general) in opposing same-sex marriage, paying tribute to a great many arguments that have everything to do with social control and absolutely nothing to do with personal liberty (and in the process again appealing to social “complexity” and combating straw-men of her own devising).
On this issue as on that one, she has achieved nothing more than to cast a pall of confusion over the entire situation. The job of a writer is to make difficult things clear, not the other way around; she fails utterly.
In the meantime, however, there are more clear-thinking libertarians about, people who are not the markets-über-alles, let-everything-crash-and-burn types both Weisberg and McArdle caricature, and who are instead offering some sensible perspective on our current political moment. And those perspectives seems to be pointing in a fairly singular direction, judging by two separate but related pieces also published yesterday, both entitled “Why the Republicans must lose.”
Reason‘s Radley Balko writes,
First, they had their shot at holding power, and they failed. They’ve failed in staying true to their principles of limited government and free markets. They’ve failed in preventing elected leaders of their party from becoming corrupted by the trappings of power, and they’ve failed to hold those leaders accountable after the fact. … As for the Bush administration, the only consistent principle we’ve seen from the White House over the last eight years is that of elevating the American president (and, I guess, the vice president) to that of an elected dictator.
Independent blogger Abhishek Saha puts it even more bluntly:
There are at least two good reasons why libertarians should not be supporting McCain this election.
One of those is fairly straightforward: Obama is better. I have written several posts in the past elaborating on this point. To put it briefly, Obama is no libertarian, not even close, but on some of the most important issues facing us — foreign policy, civil liberties, war on drugs, thwarting the Christianist agenda — he is better than McCain…
The second issue is one that I have not posted on as often but it is as important, if not more. The libertarians and the country need to teach the Republicans a lesson. The party of Goldwater and Reagan — once a friend to so many libertarian principles — is in its present avatar a populist, dogmatic, anti-intellectual, collectivist nightmare.
They are both, perhaps, too idealistic by half in imagining that the GOP was ever sincere about “principles” like limited government, much less in supposing that time “in the wilderness” might bring it back to that sincerity of purpose. Still, they do at least express a clear and unfiltered vision of the current political moment.
I have a strong libertarian streak myself (albeit far more on personal issues than economic ones, befitting an understanding of the dynamics of institutionalized power). So did this country’s founders, for their time. So did John Locke and John Stuart Mill; the abolitionists and the suffragettes; the progressive movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement; Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It’s a worthy tradition both intellectually and morally, and we should not let it be claimed as the exclusive property of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, or Wall Street, much less caricatured by pundits who fail to understand it.
At its heart, this tradition is radical, not conservative. Authoritarians fear it. It is embodied in the Constitution that the current GOP has been so aggressively undermining, and it achieves arguably its most eloquent expression in one of the most famous and influential passages in American history: the one that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”Tags: Ayn Rand, conservatism, financial crisis, internet, libertarianism, Noam Chomsky