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…”

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6 Responses to “Whither libertarianism? And why does it matter?”
  1. Morgan Wick says:

    Which is why “pure” libertarianism is basically a synonym for anarchism.

  2. michael says:

    Chris, you write: “The point here isn’t about “saving” any doctrine, it’s more about recognizing a valuable strain of thought (not the only one) from our history, properly acknowledging its worthwhile aspects, and figuring out how to apply them to current challenges in politics and policy. It’s about avoiding misplaced blame, which after all is just the distorted reflection of exculpatory apologetics. It’s about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    That sounds fine, as far as it goes. I would argue, however, that every doctrine is intrinsically polemical, so there is really no merely analytical way to “properly acknowledge its worthwhile aspects.” What is proper will always already depend on what one is trying to do—not the other way around. Libertarianism is not a philosophy but a politics, one which enjoys whatever salience it may have because it aids in the achievement of particular ends. The baby and the bathwater are, in effect, one.

    Then, you write” “To say “for libertarians, government is the enemy” is to adopt an oversimplified view akin to Weisberg’s. It should be clear from everything I’ve written that I think good government is an essential ingredient in a just society, and certainly there’s more to what it does than mere “coercion.””

    First, note that I said libertarians regard gov’t as the enemy *of liberty*, which is the central concept in their politics of unfettered self-interest. Good governement is, from this vantage, something of an oxymoron. Of course it does more than coerce; but everything else it does is made possible by the threat of enforcement. Thus everything it does is per se coercive. In any case, nothing it does originates with the free choice of individuals, whose liberty is to be secured because their choices invariably diverge. To grant that gorvernment is an instrument of liberty is to dispense with the bedrock tenet of libertarianism, so that a “libertarian socialist” is truly an absurdity.

  3. Bryan-
    Your tone is a touch condescending (“continue my education”?), but I’ll let that slide. Let’s just say we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’d point you to Hume or Kant. I’d say that property rights aren’t foundational, unlike, say, freedom of thought or expression. They’re not intrinsic, not fundamental, not possible to derive from “natural law.” Property rights are *contingent.* They’re a social construct, dependent on mutual consent and a socially contracted infrastructure of laws. Without that—without government—your “right” to property ends with what you personally can hold in your hands at any given moment.

    There are, of course, many sources of value. The fact that economists like to categorize them as (e.g.) financial capital, human capital, intellectual capital, etc., doesn’t actually mean that the economic point of view underlies everything else. And I tend to think that my status as an individual with freedom and dignity, an autonomous agent with the right not to be used as a means toward others’ ends, amounts to a lot more than “ownership” of myself. Ownership is at best an awkward metaphor in that context.

    To mention a more modern thinker, if you want to ponder the ins and outs of how a just society is constructed and how different kinds of rights interact and intersect, I’d suggest some time reading Rawls.

  4. Michael-
    Find me a “doctrine” that isn’t “self-defeating” if left to its own devices. Capitalism? Check. Socialism? Check. Democracy? Check. Conservatism? Can’t even figure out what it is any more. I could list a lot of “isms,” every one with its own fatal flaws.

    The point here isn’t about “saving” any doctrine, it’s more about recognizing a valuable strain of thought (not the only one) from our history, properly acknowledging its worthwhile aspects, and figuring out how to apply them to current challenges in politics and policy. It’s about avoiding misplaced blame, which after all is just the distorted reflection of exculpatory apologetics. It’s about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    To say “for libertarians, government is the enemy” is to adopt an oversimplified view akin to Weisberg’s. It should be clear from everything I’ve written that I think good government is an essential ingredient in a just society, and certainly there’s more to what it does than mere “coercion.” However, the last eight years have shown us in vivid ways what can happen when our government *lacks* a serious regard for personal liberties. (“The Constitution is just a goddamn piece of paper.”)

    Obviously, not being an idiot, I agree with you (and Weisberg, and Soros) that abdicating democratic control of our society to “the invisible hand” is self-defeating. We’d have no dispute if that were what this discussion was about. It’s not.

    And FWIW, Chomsky is by his own description a “libertarian socialist.” Your mistake is imagining that those two sets of values are mutually exclusive.

  5. michael says:

    I find it amusing that you think of yourself as a libertarian, given that this requires you to “save” libertarianism from many of its exponents who, apparently, don’t understand what they themselves espouse. Isn’t it simpler just to acknowledge that libertarianism is a self-defeating doctrine which, in any case, you don’t actually espouse?

    After all, how is maximum individual liberty from coercion to be secured and defended? By a coercive power, of course! And you have long defended government as an instrument of such defense. But for libertarians, government is the enemy, not the provider, of liberty.

    From another perspective, it is easy to see why the same self-defeating logic fails in the libertarian rationale for free markets. The invisible hand can only be regarded as a coercive force, and moreover one which can only function if we deliberately surrender any collective control of it. But the abdication of control does not liberate us; on the contrary, it subjects us to an indifferent force we ourselves thereby empower. This, by the way, is why Chomsky is a socialist, not a libertarian. But then, neither are you.

  6. Bryan Morton says:

    Sheldon Richman’s assessment of Weisberg’s comments;

    By the way, if you continue your libertarian education long enough, you’ll find that personal issues, with regard to rights and the violations thereof, are all grounded economically. Each rests on the foundation of property rights. Your right to life is based on the fact that you are your own property, not the property of others, as is your liberty. Violations of “personal” rights manifest themselves economically. Once you get past the idea that economics is about money, and get to the roots, you’ll find that economics is a much broader subject dealing with your wealth and your capital whether that capital is your material property, your time, your talents, or your energy. Until I learned how inseparable economic liberty was from personal liberty I had absolutely no interest in economics.

    You’ll like this one too:

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