Grow up, Libertarians!

Your philosophy is superficial, juvenile nonsense. Here's what you should focus on instead

By Michael Lind

Published June 13, 2013 3:06PM (EDT)

Ron Paul                     (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
Ron Paul (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

Since I published my Salon essay, “The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer,” true believers in the libertarian cult have been struggling to answer the simple but devastating question I asked: If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?

Writing in Reason, Ronald Bailey cites the spread of particular liberties since the eighteenth century as evidence that the entire world is becoming libertarian. But he ignores the fact that the welfare state and business regulation have grown up together with democracy and civil liberties. The citizens of democracies prefer to vote themselves generous social insurance benefits. They also insist on using government to police business firms while benefiting from a market economy.

Most of Bailey’s examples assume that this or that trend of which he approves will continue forever. For example, he points out that cross-border migrants now constitute one in 33 people (putting it this way makes it sound more impressive than “no more than 3 percent of the human race”). He doesn’t mention that even this surprisingly small amount of global migration has produced anti-immigrant backlashes in most developed countries, including the U.S., where comprehensive immigration reform may fail once again.

Writing in The Economist, a libertarian-leaning magazine, Will Wilkinson tries to answer my question in a different way:

One doesn't have to be fond of libertarianism to imagine perfectly sound answers. When I was a libertarian, I might have said that there are no libertarian countries because too few people have been persuaded to become libertarians, just as at one point in our history too few men had been persuaded to support women's suffrage. When enough have been persuaded, it will be tried.

Wilkinson is confusing policies and systems. In my essay, I took care to distinguish the two. I pointed out that particular useful policies favored by libertarians can be adopted by modern countries, without fundamentally altering the dominant mixed-economy model that blends markets, government and the nonprofit sector in a compound that will always be too “statist” for libertarians.

American progressives in the tradition of the two Roosevelts have never been doctrinaire “statists” or “socialists” and have no objection to promoting markets, where that serves the public interest.  A progressive can favor privatizing the Post Office and expanding Social Security at the same time. Or vice versa (progressive arguments against Social Security privatization are based on its practical problems). I recently co-authored a proposal to use vouchers for eldercare in the U.S., without thereby becoming any less a sinister statist enemy of human freedom, from the perspective of the libertarian cult.

You never find similar pragmatism among libertarians. They are always against any public option and always for a real or imagined private option. Libertarianism is dogmatic, not experimental. Any maverick libertarian who suggested a deviation from orthodoxy — say, expanding Medicaid, on efficiency grounds -- would be expelled from the cult as a “statist” heretic.

Bailey and Wilkinson accuse me of discouraging potentially useful social experimentation.  But it’s not an experiment if you know the result in advance.  Libertarians, like utopian socialists and utopian anarchists, think they already know the desirable end state of human social evolution, even if they are content to move toward that utopia incrementally.

Most liberals would approve of the philosopher Karl Popper’s distinction between “piecemeal social engineering” and “utopian social engineering,” symbolized by the lethal attempts of Jacobins, fascists and communists to remake whole societies from scratch on the basis of this or that theory. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper wrote that “the piecemeal engineer will adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evil of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.” In some cases, fighting urgent evils requires the expansion of particular liberties, like abolishing slavery and segregation and securing the right to vote. In other cases, it requires limiting particular liberties, like the freedom of employers to buy and sell slaves, use child labor or pollute the environment.

Libertarianism poses as a comprehensive public philosophy promoting the “greatest ultimate good” of individual freedom, not just a list of particular policies, like private toll roads instead of public highways or vouchers for schools. So it is not enough for libertarians to point to discrete measures that have been adopted by systems based on other principles, like social democratic progressivism or conservative welfare capitalism. Libertarianism as a system will be hard to take seriously until there are at least a few functioning, systematically libertarian countries in the world.

Maybe at some point in the future some country will take the plunge and unilaterally adopt the gold standard, replace police and soldiers with private contractors, abolish all taxation except for a flat, regressive consumption tax, eliminate all public safety net programs, eliminate most or all environmental and occupational regulations, allow foreigners to move in and out of its territory without registration or regulation, and so on. And maybe that regime will even endure for a while, instead of quickly collapsing or suffering rejection by voters with buyer’s remorse.

Meanwhile, in today’s world, the focus of the political mainstream — moderate conservatives and centrists, along with progressives — is on modifying the inherited model of the twentieth century mixed economy, to adapt it to the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century. While there are substantial costs and benefits at stake, the reforms that are at issue are essentially incremental — cut Social Security or boost it, slightly increase or slightly lower legal immigration, increase progressive income taxation or add a federal consumption tax like a value-added tax to the mix.

And what exactly does the libertarian movement contribute to contemporary American debate? Here are a few of the ideas that the rest of us, from center-left to center-right, are supposed to treat with respectful attention: calls for a return to the gold standard; the abolition of the Federal Reserve; the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service; and the replacement of all taxes by a single regressive flat tax that would fall on low-income workers while slashing taxation of the rich.

My critic in The Economist, Will Wilkinson, writes:

The ideal of anti-theoretical experimentalism leads me to a preference for policies that promote the sort of cosmopolitan pluralism in which cultural synthesis and invention thrives. It leads me to favour decentralised authority over monumental central administration. It leads me to suspect that it would be better if America were twelve separate countries, or had 200 states. It leads me to think seasteads are a great idea. 

Ron Paul, who merely wants to abolish the Federal Reserve, looks like a boring centrist, compared to Will Wilkinson, who thinks it might be worthwhile to abolish the United States, subdividing it into a dozen separate countries. (My Southern ancestors who supported the Confederacy would have been satisfied with two).

And the seasteads that Wilkinson favors? A few years back, libertarian guru Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri Friedman argued that, because they are too unpopular ever to win political power in contemporary democratic nation-states, libertarians should migrate to abandoned oil derricks offshore to create the stateless libertarian community (if that is not a contradiction in terms).

Friedman has now abandoned the seastead project, in favor of promoting autonomous “charter cities” to promote free markets and the rule of law in poor countries on the model of Hong Kong (an undemocratic British colony before it became an undemocratic satrapy of China’s communist dictatorship). Honduras has revised its laws to accommodate such autonomous zones. According to Details: 

One potential model is something Friedman calls Appletopia: A corporation, such as Apple, “starts a country as a business. The more desirable the country, the more valuable the real estate,” Friedman says. 

Let us hope Appletopia is a kinder, gentler place than Apple’s Foxconn supplier company town in China, where netting had to be placed around dormitories to catch unfree workers seeking to escape from serfdom to multinational corporations by committing suicide.

But let me close on a conciliatory note. While libertarianism as a philosophy is superficial, juvenile nonsense, particular libertarian proposals are sometimes worthwhile on their merits. The seastead and charter cities movements are examples. If libertarians want to move to converted offshore oil platforms or multinational-owned company towns in the jungles of Central America, I for one will wish them well.

Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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