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Libertarianism

If you think that right-wing religious fundamentalism is the most absurd political viewpoint in America today, you're wrong. It may be the most dangerous, or the most repellent, but it certainly isn't the most absurd.

The most absurd political viewpoint in America is libertarianism. Libertarianism is absurd on at least two levels. First, it's absurdly popular for such an extremist political philosophy. (That libertarianism's attack on the entirety of what we call "government" is an extreme position should be obvious.) Most other extremist viewpoints cling to the fringes of respectable society, where their followers manage to maintain a few websites and keep a few mailing lists, but libertarianism is ensconced at the most well-funded think tanks in Washington, and is always threatening to capture the imaginations of this or that senator, governor, or President.

Second, libertarianism is intrinsically absurd. Not because it advocates for a minimalist state (this view has a lot to recommend it), but because it simultaneously argues that, with a minimalist state in place, we would experience an efflorescence of technological innovation, our economic productivity would skyrocket, and our current suburban ways of life would not only remain intact but would be enhanced with more disposable income and more consumer choice.

Folks, I've gotta say it flat out: that's ridiculous.

Even the most devout religious fundamentalists can't top the libertarians' starry-eyed faith in the unregulated "free market" (a mythological construct of the same order of magnitude as Zeus or Santa Claus) to function in the absence of (and even to replace) the web of laws, regulations, rules, taxes, and benefits that comprise the modern state. Ever since I was three years old, I've wanted to be able to fly like Superman, but unlike the libertarians' yearning for the completely "free" market, I've never spoken, argued, or acted on the faith that flying with the aid of a cape was really possible.

The war in Iraq and hurricane Katrina have inspired some writers to lay into libertarianism. I've linked to two exemplary essays below the fold.

Neither of these are completely coherent, but they both give libertarianism the sharp rebuke that it so richly deserves. Ironically, both pieces were published in Europe, not the United States. Jedediah Purdy explains to his German audience why the U.S. looked like a third-world country after Hurricane Katrina:

The pictures seem to confirm Europe’s worst suspicions about the United States. In the desperation and vulnerability they portray, they are images of a failed state, of a Third World concealed just beneath American wealth, and of an armed and violent people primed for guerrilla warfare against their neighbors.

That terrible impression is not the most illuminating. The basic failure is in American political culture’s tolerance of deep and crippling inequality. The more immediate failure is that the country is now governed by people who do not take seriously either the purposes or the tasks of government.
...
...A major strain of American political culture has never admitted that the state has a part in ordering society. This strain is a type of romantic libertarianism: those who hold it believe that private relationships and private virtues--the family, the marketplace, and churches and voluntary associations--are not just important to society, but sufficient to maintain it. They regard the state as a source of intrusion and inefficiency at best, tyranny at worst.
...
The basis of this libertarian indifference is denial that in a complex society, private security and private virtue ultimately depend on the state’s monopoly over violence. Private life, even at its most generous and imaginative and free, is conducted against the backdrop of state power: the power that enforces private contracts, distributes private property, and will jail or even kill the intruder who tries to force his way into a private home. Without that security, people become dangerous to one another--not because most people are predatory, but because some are, and in a world without law, paranoia and preemptive violence grow: man is not a wolf to man, but he can learn to be; the law and the state avert that lesson.
...
After the disaster of New Orleans--the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the social disaster of the failed response--there is no more room for the illusion that the virtues of charity and voluntarism are enough to keep people safe and well. This is to confuse their goodness with their effectiveness. They are virtues precisely because they express recognition that people are vulnerable and fragile, that we need one another to stay safe and alive. But the point of government is very different: it is to make people less acutely fragile, vulnerable in fewer ways. There is no risk--rather, no hope--that we can ever overcome our vulnerability; but the scenes from New Orleans are reminders of why reducing it has been the great purpose of modern government. They are also grim reminders of how imperfectly the world’s richest and most powerful country has pursued that end.

Terry Eagleton's main targets are the neoconservatives who orchestrated the war in Iraq, but his analysis of why they failed so badly implicates the fantasy of "absolute freedom" -- expressed in foreign affairs by the neocons and in domestic matters by the libertarians:

...Absolute freedom eats itself up. Yet its violence, today as in Hegel’s time, continues to infiltrate the daily life of capitalist societies. Absolute freedom means negative freedom: a freedom from all restraint, which can see limits only as barriers to humanity, not as constitutive of it. The world is imperilled not by hard-nosed cynics who insist that nothing is possible, but by wide-eyed, ‘can-do’ idealists for whom anything is possible. Most of these are known as Americans. When the ancient Greeks encountered this kind of blasphemous overreaching, they called it ‘hubris’ and looked fearfully to the skies. And it is from the skies that it has had its tragic come-uppance.

Socialism is not about reaching for the stars, but reminding us of our frailty and mortality, and so of our need for one another. In contrast, absolute freedom regards the world as just so much pliable stuff to be manipulated in whatever way takes its fancy. This is why postmodernism, or some aspects of it, is one of its latest inheritors. For all its consumerist greed, this uncompromising freedom is a virulently anti-materialist force; for matter is what resists you, and absolute freedom is as impatient with such resistance as the US is with the resistance in Iraq. The world becomes just raw material to cuff into shape. Michael Jackson’s nose is its icon. It is only when such raw materials begin to include whole people and nations that it becomes a form of deadly terror.

Most of the time, this ravaging beast called absolute freedom is kept safely caged. It is hemmed in by laws, procedures, obligations, regulations, the rights of others. Yet the dream of being the only individual in the world (for this is what such freedom would finally involve) never quite fades, given the narcissism of the human species. From time to time, then, this madness, which lurks at the very core of conventional middle-class society, breaks out anew. It is like a lunatic who gives the slip to his keeper and goes on the rampage. This is how Burke saw the Jacobins, who ended up disappearing down the black hole of their own sublime negativity.


Michael Jackson's nose is the icon of American postmodernist absolute freedom. Heh.

Via political theory daily review.

Comments

Whoa! Hold on there.

Libertarianism is not to be confused with Anarchy. Both essays you have excerpted are equating Libertarianism with Anarchy. Libertarians do not believe that there is no role for government. Rather, libertarians (like me) believe that government is necessary for the dispensation of public goods, such as national defense, public safety and infrastructure. Govt also has a part to play in fairly adjudicating disputes and in speaking with a national voice.

Our position is not that of no government, but rather government limited to those areas where there are problems with collective action or for public safety. This is a far cry from wanting a minimalist state. Libertarians simply believe that government should play no role in regulation of other things than that which it must. Morality and a perfectly functioning market are indeed areas in which libertarians do not believe that government should interfere. However, we do recognize that there is no such thing as a perfectly functioning market, and as such, recognize that some form of government intervention is necessary. However, we feel that the intervention should be as minimal as possible to solve the problem and go no further.

That is the essence of libertarianism -- that government should stay out when unnecessary. How much intervention is minimally necessary may be a matter of debate, but the libertarian position is that government should only intervene minimally -- not that government is unnecessary or unwanted.

I agree with Ming.

Purdy's article provides an example of the kind of thinking that makes my libertarian heart shudder. He seems to think that government is inherently perfect. Yes, a peaceful society depends on the state's monopoly on violence. But the continuing necessity of the criminal justice system shows just how imperfect that monopoly is. If the monopoly is not perfect, why should the government act like it is?

On the other hand, there is nothing anti-libertarian in Eagleton's suggestion that "The world is imperilled not by hard-nosed cynics who insist that nothing is possible, but by wide-eyed, ‘can-do’ idealists for whom anything is possible". One only needs to recognize that governments are just as fallible as individuals, a position reinforced both by the current administration and by many past ones.

One last thing. You characterizate the libertarian belief in minimally regulated markets as "blind faith". There is a lot of deep thought behind that belief, and to ignore it is unfair.

Wow Carey,
I drop into your comments section and I find more eloquent defenses of Libertarianism there than I find on supposedly Libertarian sites.

You picked some sharp supporting essays, but your readers smelled the problem right away: your supports confuse anarchy with libertarianism.

I believe our nation's libertarian bent derives from its genesis - a series of European colonists intent on forming communities where they could freely practice their religions, in a milieu of expanding international trade and industrialism. IMHO, the civil libert-ies we enjoy, like freedom of speech and association are simply guarantors of the hard-fought ideal of "Freedom of religion."

I support libertarian ideals because they inculcate personal responsibility, incite self-determination, act as an antidote to the welfare-state, and underpin a non-interventionist economic policy. And also because their call to individualism seems like a natural adaptation of the modern man to the "Enlightenment."

Unfortunately, they routinely serve up really batty candidates, so as a national party they are a null force. But their ideals inform all modes of American government - from "states rights" to bankruptcy law, and welfare reform.

In the abstract, Libertarianism is indispensible to American discourse today.
-Steve

The idea of a very small-sized state is very appealing -- in that I don't think I disagree with any of you.

My complaint about libertarianism isn't that it advocates a small government and champions liberty. Rather, it's that most libertarian pundits seem to think that IF we instituted a minimalist state tomorrow, the only changes we'd notice would be a drop in the tax rates. Life would be just like it is now, except that we'd have more money in our pockets.

That's a little absurd.

You might reply that I'm setting up a straw man here, but I'd respectfully disagree. I believe that most of the "deep thinkers" (and I don't mean to suggest that they aren't) at Cato or the Reason Institute haven't thought deeply enough about how many things would change under a libertarian regime.

This is, imo, a side effect of their failure to recognize that many of the things we observe today have resulted from affirmative governmental policies of one sort or another. It's true that the libertarians are often the first to argue that all the "bad things"-- poverty, homelessness, infant mortality -- are the result of or are exacerbated by government "interference." In my view, though, the libertarians have been blind to the same influence of government policies on the "good things" -- technological innovation, the suburban lifestyle, consumer choice. Their preexisting ideological commitments prevent them from seeing government as anything other than the cause of problems and plagues.

What's absurd about the libertarians isn't their ideals. It's their inability or unwillingness to think seriously about how profoundly different the world be if their wishes came true.

Well, that's a very reasonable response. I think a lot of things would be different in a more libertarian state. You mention governments influence on the good things, but consider how much our thinking is shaped by the governments decision of what is good. Just to take one example from your list, we might ask whether the suburban lifestyle really is a good thing? That's clearly up for debate and I'm not taking sides on that, but the huge expansions in suburbia over the past 50 years or so were hugely influenced by government policy. Suburbia certainly could have evolved with a more neutral policy. But would it have?

Technological advancement and consumer choice are qualitatively different from a social choice like that. In my opinion, basic scientific research is one of those things that needs to be paid for by society as a whole, like roads and the national defense. I forget what economists call it, but you know what I mean. Libertarians recognize the need for government in cases like that.

As for consumer choice, it's the market that causes it! Sure, the government is needed to prevent unfair competition, price fixing, and things like that, but the government doesn't produce consumer choice. Free enterprise does.

You still seem to be thinking of libertarians as crazy anarchists, though. Destroy the government! I think the problem with libertarianism today, if I may use that phrase, is that most people who label themselves as libertarians are rather radical, while a lot of the true libertarians find themselves aligned with the Republicans because that's the closest major party. The current administration has clearly made the correspondence much weaker, but that's a topic for another day. So you are addressing your arguments to what I consider the radical wing of libertarian thought.

Sorry about the grammatical errors in that last post: I hit "Post" when I meant to hit "Preview". But I think my point is clear. I just wanted to add a caveat.

It could be that I'm wrong about libertarians. Maybe they all want to destroy the government and live by themselves in the woods. Maybe not. I don't. I'm just operating under the assumption that I'm a reasonable libertarian and explaining how I feel. :)

Two things Carey:

First, when do pundits and crazies ever speak for a party? It happens regularly on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, but not CSPAN. The representatives of the think tanks that you are so critical of make their point on CSPAN at conferences where thoughts and research are dissminated in something other than 5 second sound bytes. Speakers sometimes go on for over 30 minutes -- sometimes an hour. The horror! People having an intelligent discussion about the need for government intervention in various aspects of our lives that can't be condensed into a clip for CNN. Perhaps if you paid a little less attention to the Rush Limbaugh's of the libertarian wing and more on those who are actually thinking about what happens if government should stop some program, you might come to the conclusion that these are well thought out theories.

Second, you claim that libertarians are have not given enough thought to the good things government intervention has created. An initial question would be, how do you know? How does one determine giving "enough thought" to a question? You give credit to the deep thinkers at Cato for thinking deeply. How do you then come to the conclusion that these people have not given enough thought to what happens should government step out of a particular area. That is precisely what people at these think tanks are paid to do -- evaluate the consequences of a particular policy. I'd like to hear about instances where Cato's "preexisting ideological commitments" have espoused a policy that does not take into account the good as well as the bad. It may be that you are correct that those policies have not taken into account the good that government does, but I would ask for evidence other than your belief that espousing a minimalist government is absurd and therefore these thinkers have not thought enough about what happens in the absence of government action in certain areas.

L may be a libertarian, but reasonable ... ?

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