Smashing the state

The strange rise of libertarianism

Published January 20, 1997 6:52PM (EST)

if there is a default ideology in cyberspace, it is libertarianism. Click on just about any online discussion and sooner or later you run up against a libertarian buzzsaw -- hosts of unseen true believers, all of them seemingly armed with an inexhaustible supply of statistics and arguments, posting away with an intellectual rigor that is alternately awe-inspiring and a little scary. In its ironclad internal logic, its unswerving ideology and the fervor of its disciples, libertarianism, like Marxism, resembles a religion almost as much as it does a political philosophy.

Of course, libertarianism isn't confined to the online ghetto. Although few Republicans would call themselves libertarians, the GOP's decades-long attack on Big Government is based on libertarian precepts: Remember Ronald Reagan's "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem"? And while Reagan merely talked -- in fact, he presided over one of the greatest expansions of government in American history -- his far more cerebral successor, Newt Gingrich, threatens to actually dismantle much of the state. (Unless, of course, the state dismantles him first.)

Until recently, libertarians could reasonably have been dismissed as fringe characters, a few smart semi-cranks about as close to the American mainstream as the Juneau chapter of the Bakuninist Study Group. The number of card-carrying libertarians remains small: Harry Browne, the Libertarian presidential candidate, won about 485,000 votes in 1996. But libertarians wield a disproportionate influence, thanks to their positions in academia, high-tech companies and think tanks. With a confused and demoralized liberalism offering little intellectual resistance to the most ideologically aggressive conservatism since Barry Goldwater's, the movement can no longer be dismissed. And the publication of several high-profile new books, Charles Murray's "What it Means to be a Libertarian" and "Libertarianism: A Primer" and "The Libertarian Reader," respectively written and edited by David Boaz, executive vice-president of the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, is sure to raise the movement's profile. Especially since one of those books is by Murray, the Michael Crichton of social scientists, a man whose instinct for smashing America's hottest buttons with a sledgehammer is legendary.

What is libertarianism? My characterization is based largely on Murray's and Boaz's accounts, which on the major issues are fairly similar. It should be noted, however, that they both occupy a fairly moderate position on the libertarian spectrum, calling for a "limited" government rather than outright abolition and allowing for some notion of the "public good." Other variants of libertarianism are not as tender-hearted: The novelist Ayn Rand's "Objectivism," for example, denies God, exalts the gifted individual and denounces altruism. By comparison to this fire-breathing, \bermensch-gonna-get-yo-mama creed, Boaz and Murray come off (not by accident) as mere kindly Jeffersonian policy wonks. The genial appearance is deceptive, however. Libertarianism shares certain goals with the Gingrich-style conservatism with which it is currently fellow-traveling, but it is a much more radical ideology. That makes it intriguing -- how often does a genuinely theoretical political philosophy come along? It also makes it dangerous.

Libertarians believe that individual freedom is the highest good. They regard all but the most minimal state (and in some versions, not even that) as infringing on that freedom. They deny the moral legitimacy of any use of coercive power, by any person or entity, except to protect against force or fraud. As a consequence, they regard most taxation as simply state-sanctified theft --"forced labor," in the words of a leading libertarian thinker -- and most other government programs as intolerably invasive. Public schools, the draft, regulation of business, national health insurance, Social Security, civil rights laws, drug laws -- all are illicit in the libertarian world. Murray, who is about as soft a libertarian as you can be before you become just another free-market statist, is willing to allow a government 40 percent the size of our current one -- but that still eliminates OSHA, HUD, Energy, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, Commerce, statutes regulating employment and prohibiting discrimination -- and, of course, all welfare programs.

For libertarians, the state is the enemy for two reasons, one conceptual and one practical: It has no transcendental right to use force, and its interventions never work -- indeed, Murray argues, they are doomed to backfire. The bureaucratic state simply gets in the way of the marketplace, which libertarians regard as absolutely untouchable, the paradigmatic expression of freedom. Free trade always has beneficial results: The self-interest of individuals leads them to engage in commercial activities that promote the public good. (This is the famous "invisible hand" doctrine of the 18th century economist Adam Smith.) Left to themselves, individuals in their dealings with other individuals generate what the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek called "spontaneous order" -- a phrase that now pops up as often on the Internet as in New Right think tanks. (Hayek's most famous book, the anti-collectivist "The Road to Serfdom," published in 1944, was assigned by Newt Gingrich to Republican freshmen for reading.)

Underlying the free market, for libertarians, is the concept of property. Property rights are absolute and sacrosanct: Freedom is built on property, and the state has no right to take property without recompense. Libertarians deny not just the efficacy but the moral legitimacy of income redistribution. Following philosopher Robert Nozick's "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (1974), one of the movement's bibles, they reject the idea that justice demands redistribution of wealth. Lest this bald acceptance of inequality offend Judeo-Christian sensibilities, libertarians -- at least "nice" ones like Murray and Boaz -- argue that the free market will ultimately provide more wealth for all than a regulated market: trickle-down economics. They also argue that charity and private social-welfare organizations, like worker's guilds, would step in to fill the governmental void. Even if this did not happen, however, there would be no theoretical reason for libertarians to regulate the market. Freedom is a higher virtue than equality.

If you remove the almost visceral animus against the state, none of this sounds much different from a Reagan speech or Gingrich college course/GOPAC fundraiser. Where the libertarians differ from traditional conservatives, however, is in their refusal to countenance the use of state power to impose morality. Individuals in a libertarian utopia can do pretty much anything they want, as long as they don't harm others. Conservatives may rejoice at a world in which a business owner can refuse to hire blacks simply because of their race, where there is no state provision for the poor and where no regulations of any kind, save perhaps on monopoly, are placed on business. They may find it less congenial that homosexuality is completely tolerated, the military is cut back (libertarians hate wars because they increase state power like nothing else) and you can walk merrily down the street bare-assed naked smoking a non-medicinal spliff.

For this reason, the current marriage of convenience between conservatives and libertarians is certain to founder -- just as it did in 1969, when an anarcho-libertarian faction of the college conservative group Young Americans for Freedom denounced the war in Vietnam, burned a symbolic draft card and screamed "Sock it to the State!" at their enraged Buckleyite peers, who responded by screaming "Kill the Libertarians!" and "Lazy fairies!" (The episode is recounted in Jerome Tuccille's "Radical Libertarianism: A Right Wing Alternative" [Bobbs-Merrill, 1970]).

Perhaps the best way to sum up the libertarian world is that it is a world with less rules. As Boaz puts it: "Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult."

If 20 years ago you had predicted that the dominant ideology of the most cutting-edge, dynamic industry of the late 20th century would be libertarianism, you would have invited suspicions that substance legalization had come early to your house. Why is this particular belief system so popular among the cyber-elite?

Paulina Borsook, in a provocative, passionate and widely discussed essay in Mother Jones, "Cyberselfish," argues that techno-libertarians are callous nerds -- "violently lacking in compassion" as well as any knowledge of history or politics. They are ingrates: Although they "are the inheritors of the greatest governmental subsidy of technology the planet has ever seen," they take that fact for granted, like "privileged, spoiled teenagers everywhere." Libertarianism attracts them, in Borsook's view, partly out of economic self-interest and partly out of a desire to take revenge on a society that has failed to respect them. Libertarianism is simply the right fit for a heartless, youth-dominated culture that believes, with some reason, in its own economic invulnerability.

In another much-discussed article, "The Californian Ideology," two members of a research center at a British university, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, describe techno-libertarianism as emerging from "a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley ... the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies." McLuhanite mystification allows the subscribers to the Californian Ideology to believe that the power of technology will result in a resurgence of Jeffersonian democracy.

Both essays make telling points. (The latter piece is flawed, however, by a ludicrous academic-Marxist claim that high-tech libertarianism somehow represents a recrudescence of racism. "Following the L.A. riots, [white Californians] increasingly fear that [the] 'underclass' will someday demand its liberation," they intone. "If human slaves are ultimately unreliable, then mechanical ones will have to be invented." Uh, OK.) It's true that naiveti, I've-got-mine-Jack selfishness, ahistorical thinking and techno-mystification probably all play a part in the rise of libertarianism among the computer classes. But I think there are some additional explanations for libertarianism's appeal, some of which are not quite as unflattering to technolibertarians.

First of all, there is the simple fact that, frequently, government really is inept to the point of incompetence. One need not subscribe to libertarianism to recognize the validity of one of its central arguments, the critique of non-local power. Working in fields in which decisions must be taken and implemented with lightning speed, it's understandable that new media types find top-down bureaucracies cumbersome and dream of a universal electronic marketplace.

And, of course, there's the fact that many technolibertarians are successful entrepreneurs who have learned firsthand that business isn't as evil as people who listen to hip music once thought. There is no convert like a former sinner: For some, libertarianism may simply be knee-jerk countercultural anti-capitalism flipped over.

But legitimate impatience with governmental snafus, and inverted Marxism, aren't enough to explain technolibertarianism. Its appeal also depends on a quality that is simultaneously its greatest strength and greatest weakness: its disembodied nature. No libertarian state, after all, has ever existed in the world. (America, incessantly denounced by libertarians as a Great Satan of regulation, is, ironically but not surprisingly, much closer to being that free state than any other developed nation.) This gives libertarianism a futuristic allure that resonates with high-tech visionaries -- but it also raises suspicions that the whole thing is a pipe dream, a vaporous, almost psychotically elaborate "system" that resembles an elaborate science fiction alternate universe, or that plan labored on by Swift's Lagadan "projector" for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers. When something has never been attempted, it may be because mankind has not evolved sufficiently -- or it may be because it can't be. (Of the libertarian belief that all social difficulties would vanish if a perfectly free market system could be established, the Burkean conservative Russell Kirk wrote, "This was very like saying that if only the Sermon on the Mount were universally obeyed to the letter, sin would vanish from among men. The trouble is that the Sermon on the Mount will not triumph until the end of all things earthly. There exist reasons for believing that the ideal universal free market is nearly so difficult of attainment.")

Above all, libertarianism appeals to the children of the '60s (and their children) because it embodies one of that era's most treacherous seductions: the idea that the personal is political. Libertarianism elevates a psychological state -- an ineffable feeling of constraint, a dream of pure freedom or perhaps merely an anger at having to pay taxes -- into a politics that transcends politics. Like so many '60s credos, it aims at authenticity: the abstract, one-size-fits-all moral judgments of government feel like bad faith to those who crave immediacy. Cutting through the compromises and mediations of shared power, libertarianism promises a world without restraints, a universe in which the individual ego can expand without limit. A universe, in short, oddly like the Internet, where all too many posters, secure and increasingly maniacal in their solitary cubicles, manifest all of the social grace of a creep who stares insolently at you while picking his nose behind a rolled-up car window. As Borsook suggests, there is something adolescent about this thought process: Those who have taken their lumps in life and moved on -- i.e. adults -- are less likely to blame society, or government, or the state, or the bossa nova, for problems that are eternal.

Libertarianism's cold, Platonic perfectionism arouses suspicions. (Plato's Republic, like the libertarian utopia, is divided hierarchically -- and it's a safe bet that few libertarians believe that when the great Free Market Future dawns they will find themselves shoveling coal in the Race of Iron Steel Mill.) There is something lab-coaty about this philosophy, something that conjures up images of '50s scientists with wire-rimmed glasses and crew cuts: "3:05. We removed all governmental controls. Seventeen subjects died of malnutrition. Three became wealthy. Plague broke out in the southwest quadrant. The experiment continued without further incident."

Perhaps the most depressing thing about libertarianism is its almost unconscious aversion to the notion that in a representative democracy, we are the government. Of course, our democracy is plagued with big-money corruption and a thousand other problems, but when a significant percentage of people begin to think of government as "them," democracy itself is in trouble. There is a discomforting family resemblance between libertarianism and the militia movement.

The libertarian insistence on seeing government as a malevolent or at best obstructionist external force fails to acknowledge its organic, changing nature. Government does, of course, set policy and attempt to dictate the course of events, but much of what it does is respond to, and referee, conflicts in society. Far from being a reified Other, government exists precisely to grapple -- through the instrument of law -- with issues that individuals cannot resolve by themselves. The libertarian failure to recognize the flexibility of law gives a scholastic, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin quality to many of its arguments. When property rights clash with environmental rights, for example, who adjudicates? Government does, through law: No libertarian solution would produce a different framework. Government will not resolve those problems to the liking of all interested parties -- but neither would any other process. We have big government in large part because we live in an enormously complex society -- because we have big problems.

Libertarians are fond of saying the regulatory welfare state is somehow a continuation of despotic power -- as if there were a historical thread running between the Sun King and Sweden's social democracy. This tendentious view, verging on paranoia, is not only ahistorical, it ignores the role modern governments play in moderating corporate power. How odd that for libertarians state power is always coercive, whereas corporate power is always beneficial.

In fact, libertarianism simply cannot deal with the ramifications of corporate power. In Boaz's entire book, as far as I can tell, the word "corporation" never appears once. In the brave new libertarian world, what's good for Microsoft is good for America. But one may be permitted a small degree of skepticism as to whether profit maximization always benefits workers as much as it does shareholders.

Libertarianism's arguments are no more persuasive at a macroeconomic level. Libertarians blame the welfare state and high taxes for slowing economic growth, but their claims have no basis in fact. As Ira Katznelson points out in his eloquent defense of a hard-headed liberalism, "Liberalism's Crooked Circle" (1996), "There is no systematic relationship between the size of a country's welfare state and its trade relationship or growth rate ... the United States has one of the worst growth records and trade imbalances in the West yet one of the smallest welfare states and comparatively low rates of taxation."

Confronted with the enormous social problems facing the country -- the most pressing being income inequality that is rapidly reaching Honduras-like proportions -- libertarians shrug and talk about free markets and "spontaneous order." It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that their theories are right -- and it's not as if the two political parties have advanced a viable solution to America's declining productivity, enormous debt and stagnant wages. But the gamble is simply too great. The mixed system we have now is flawed and inconsistent, as it tries to honor both the risk-taking ethos of individualist capitalism and the Judeo-Christian tradition of community and justice. But it may be that this awkward balance is the best system available, particularly to hold together a nation that is so large and heterogeneous as to be virtually ungovernable.

And the alternative is -- unknown. One need not be a Hobbesian to fear that absolute economic freedom might lead to social stratification and inequalities so great that absolute chaos would ensue -- a "spontaneous order" more reminiscent of a tribe of nasty, brutish baboons than a civil society. In its faith that a world without rules will not degenerate into a war of each against each, libertarianism leaves the uncertainties of history for the clarity of theology.

Americans hold nothing more holy than freedom. But the libertarian vision of freedom is too narrow. The freedom to be left alone is vital, but it is ultimately more suited to bears than to human beings. Civilization requires something higher -- an embodied freedom, a freedom that enables us to live in peace, but also in justice. That ideal should always stand before us. Imperfect as it is, government -- of the people, by the people and for the people -- must help hold the banner.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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