Misrepresenting Libertarianism

Intelligent people, who should know better, are once again attacking "libertarianism" and "classical liberalism" by misrepresenting, selectively quoting, and personalizing a theory.

In Salon, co-founder of the New America Foundation Michael Lind, offers a nonsensical critique of libertarianism by asking "The" question classical liberals cannot answer:

The question libertarians just can't answer
If your approach is so great, why hasn't any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?

The Washington Post's E. J. Dionne, Jr., joins in, repeating the same nonsense.

Libertarianism's Achilles' heel
By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: June 9

For balance, I also recommend the following

The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians
J. C. Lester; JUNE 5, 2013 − 10:01AM

Here is the basic premise, from Lind:
Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

It's not as though there were a shortage of countries to experiment with libertarianism. There are 193 sovereign state members of the United Nations—195, if you count the Vatican and Palestine, which have been granted observer status by the world organization. If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn't at least one country have tried it? Wouldn't there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?

When you ask libertarians if they can point to a libertarian country, you are likely to get a baffled look, followed, in a few moments, by something like this reply: While there is no purely libertarian country, there are countries which have pursued policies of which libertarians would approve: Chile, with its experiment in privatized Social Security, for example, and Sweden, a big-government nation which, however, gives a role to vouchers in schooling.

But this isn't an adequate response. Libertarian theorists have the luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia. A real country must function simultaneously in different realms—defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world.
There are a great many holes in such an argument.

  • The list of "libertarian" traits is not classical liberalism or libertarianism, but a caricature of libertarianism. Lind lists: "…minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?" The problem is, that's not what any classical liberal or libertarian has suggested as an ideal nation.
  • Nations are rarely ideologically pure. That's life. The question is: What is the core, guiding principle behind a social structure? That core isn't going to be perfectly implemented, but it is reflected in policies and practices.
  • There have been "more libertarian" moments in history, just as there have been "more socialist" moments. The United States through Calvin Coolidge was, generally speaking, libertarian at its core.

Caricaturing your opposition is not a valid argument. Adam Smith? He called for progressive taxation and welfare programs. I guess we can't call Smith a capitalist, according to Lind. We might as well call "socialism" the notion that everyone can have everything they need or desire — which is also inaccurate. And we could easily caricature "progressivism" as the misguided faith in technocrats to run a nation. After all, Woodrow Wilson imagined a time of the ideal administrators, men relying on science and logic to administer the needs of the nation.

If you're going to simplify libertarian ideals, we can do the same to any political-economic-philosophical school. The results would be as meaningful, too.

Lind simplifies his point further with this comparison:
While the liberal welfare-state left, with its Scandinavian role models, remains a vital force in world politics, the pro-communist left has been discredited by the failure of the Marxist-Leninist countries it held up as imperfect but genuine models. Libertarians have often proclaimed that the economic failure of Marxism-Leninism discredits not only all forms of socialism but also moderate social-democratic liberalism.
Exactly which libertarians made such blanket statements about Marxist-Leninism? What they, and I, have argued is that Leninism survives only through oppression. It can "succeed" on the surface, though in an interconnected world it faces economic pressures that only China as adapted to effectively as a Communist nation. If anything, China offers evidence that hybrids of statism-capitalism can compete economically — but that doesn't make the system ideal for most citizens.

Does the failure of some "Marxist" nations (which were never "pure" ideologically, either), represent a failure of all of Marx's ideas and theories? No. No more than "bad" capitalism reflects badly on Adam Smith. I don't reject everything Marx wrote — though his scholarship was often sloppy — but I do reject the notion that people are somehow going to evolve in the Marxist "scientific socialism" model. (And, it should be pointed out, that many Marxist models end with a government-less ideal of sorts that is slightly familiar to some libertarians.)

Does China's success make us want to embrace Chinese models? China's "success" represents a near complete disregard for the environment. China oppresses minorities: ethnic, religious, and intellectual groups are persecuted. But, if Lind's logic holds, then we should rush to embrace Chinese central planning (and paranoia) if we want a better government.

When the state is the economy, the leading "corporation" of sorts, it doesn't have to worry about rules and regulations. The environmental disasters around the former Soviet Union and today's China highlight this problem. Libertarians oppose state-centered or state-favored industry; the state should be a balance to economic activity and the potential consequences of purely economic choices.

Arguing based on what social models outnumber others? What nonsense. That suggests we should never try new ideas, since the majority must be right. Success? Authoritarian nations outnumber democracies. Does that make them better? Nations with official religions (or atheism) also outnumber secular nations. Does that make theocracies batter? No.

Libertarians defend an ideal, and they admit it is only an ideal. Yes, it is hard to understand, but it's like embracing any rule or guideline. The abstract changes during implementation. Again, I suggest The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians [http://www.libertarianism.org/blog/three-great-errors-most-libertarians] for an explanation of pursuing an ideal versus living the ideal.

From Dionne:
In his bracing 1970s libertarian manifesto "For a New Liberty," the economist Murray Rothbard promised a nation that would be characterized by "individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government and a free-market economy."

Rothbard's book concludes with boldness: "Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind."

This is where Lind's question comes in. Note that Rothbard freely acknowledges that "liberty has never been fully tried," at least by the libertarians' exacting definition.
I suppose liberals have the advantage of always being willing to change and alter their views. "Progressives" can say, "Progress means evolving our views and our theories." That's convenient.

Libertarians have a simple view, one I trace to John Stuart Mill, from On Liberty:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. 
But, Mill's clear and concise definition of what constitutes liberty is not addressed by progressives. Instead, they resort to suggesting proponents of classical liberalism are fools or fiends.

In the comments to both articles, progressives resort to attacks on Ayn Rand (and Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and few other people). The general claim is that Rand glorified greed. I don't like Rand — she was a lousy human being, but so were many, many other thinkers across the political and philosophical spectrum. But, I at least recognize that Ayn Rand did not glorify greed: she celebrated being true to yourself. The hero of The Fountainhead is not the richest or most powerful character. It is Howard Roark, the architect with a vision, a truly great artist more concerned with the art than money. How can liberals and progressives miss such a clear argument? It isn't about money, it's about the freedom to be true to your desires and talents. Ayn Rand was not a master of subtle plots.

Yes, Ayn Rand was a horrible, lousy, hypocrite. And if we were to list all the philosophical hypocrites, we might have to list every thinker to live on this planet, some much worse than others. That's not an argument against classical liberalism.

And I'm sure Lind and Dionne would quickly reject critiques of progressivism reduced to Woodrow Wilson — a bigoted authoritarian with a streak of paranoia. Or, maybe they wouldn't.


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