Tag Archives: Libertarianism
But if government just doesn’t work, limited government just doesn’t work either. So either go ahead and come out as an anarchist or swallow your iconoclastic loathing of “good government” pap and admit that you want better government.
Generally, we’re more likely to get relatively good government in a cultural climate that encourages good government. Ridiculing as naive norms of anti-corruption and civic responsibility doesn’t undermine belief in the efficacy of government so much as expose the one who ridicules as a defector in a crucial cooperative game, undermining his reputation as a sincere advocate of the public interest. It is valuable and necessary to point out that certain institutional arrangements are unstable and invite corruption, and should therefore be reformed. But people are more likely to listen to you if they believe you believe reform is possible.
Beyond undermining a culture of civic responsibility, belief in an irredeemably corrupt government also forecloses the possibility of meaningful reform. If, for example, you think Blagojevich is exceptional only because he got caught and the political process warps the very best of intentions, there’s not much point to attempting to limit government in the first place because your efforts are subject to the exact same range of malignant political influences.
If, on the other hand, you think that corruption in any large, hierarchical organization can be ameliorated or even extinguished under certain favorable conditions, there’s no reason a reformist small-government program couldn’t thrive in the right political climate. Maybe I’m just a sucker for hope and change and all that jazz, but I find Wilkinson’s approach a hell of a lot more appealing than the alternative.
Have you read Steven Horowitz’s excellent response essay at Cato Unbound? Here’s an interesting nugget:
Libertarians like me who make arguments of the second sort can easily be accused of “vulgar libertarianism.” There might be cases where that claim is valid, but I don’t think the accusation is fair when the analyst tries her best to distinguish processes that characterize how markets work in general from the particular real-world processes that reflect the results of various government interventions. For example, if much of the claimed growth in inequality is the statistical artifact of the way in which people move through the life-cycle of income earnings and/or changes in the demographic characteristics of households, rather than a genuine increase in inequality or loss of mobility, there seems no necessary reason to reject that as being “vulgar libertarianism” and portray it as a defense of the statist status quo. This point is especially important as many of us see such arguments as crucial to heading off proposals that would, in fact, move us farther, perhaps much farther, away from freed markets based on a misinterpretation of the data. That is what I mean by playing defense, and whether or not this is “vulgar libertarianism,” it might well be an effective way to preserve real elements of freedom in the interventionist status quo.
Horowitz makes a persuasive case for pragmatic collaboration, and I think this mindset goes a long way towards explaining libertarians’ historical affinity for the GOP. Comparatively speaking, Republicans are usually a lot better on economic issues than the alternative, which makes the prospect of tactical collaboration on a wide range of domestic policies quite palatable.
The problem with this approach is that once you become closely associated with a political movement, your views are filtered through the lens of that movement’s ideological preferences. So the Cato Institute, despite its self-professed political independence, ends up relying on conventionally Right-leaning outlets for disseminating scholarship and commentary. And while National Review might publish an op-ed from Cato attacking the auto industry bailout, the magazine is a lot less likely to feature a piece that criticizes the Bush Administration’s surveillance regime or favors a less aggressive foreign policy.
Does an unreceptive political environment create a tendency within libertarian circles to downplay opposition to Republican policies? To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. But I suspect that solely relying on pragmatic cooperation has made libertarians a junior partner in an arrangement that is aimed first and foremost at advancing Republican principles.
Having witnessed several noble debacles, I’ve come to believe that principled ideologues have some obligation to outline how their preferred policy choices would function in a real-world setting. It would have been nice, for example, to have had a robust national debate on the merits of occupying Iraq before we started lobbing smart bombs through the desert.
So while I enjoyed reading Roderick Long and John Schwenkler on corporatism and libertarianism, I’m left wondering how exactly one would go about liberalizing a broad range of economic activities in our current political environment. I’ve always thought that the idea of regulatory capture was one of the more persuasive rebuttals to various progressive policies, but I’m not sure why corporations would suddenly cease to influence the political process in the midst of a thorough-going effort to liberalize the economy. Long actually discusses this problem in the context of conflating libertarianism with the interests of big corporations:
Similar concerns apply to that other conservative virtue-term, “deregulation.” From a libertarian standpoint, deregulating should mean the removal of governmental directives and interventions from the sphere of voluntary exchange. But when a private entity is granted special governmental privileges, “deregulating” it amounts instead to an increase, not a decrease, in governmental intrusion into the economy. To take an example not exactly at random, if assurances of a tax-funded bailout lead banks to make riskier loans than they otherwise would, then the banks are being made freer to take risks with the money of unconsenting taxpayers. When conservatives advocate this kind of deregulation they are wrapping redistribution and privilege in the language of economic freedom. When conservatives market their plutocratic schemes as free-market policies, can we really blame liberals and leftists for conflating the two?
This is a real PR hurdle, but corporatism also poses an immense challenge to the good-faith implementation of libertarian policies. Despite our best intentions, the deregulatory process would remain extremely vulnerable to all sorts of political pressures. Given these structural constraints, I sometimes envision deregulation as a sort of libertarian dystopia – think Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit on steroids – where corporate priviliges remain largely untouched while welfare programs are systematically dismantled in the name of “curbing government waste.” If we’re going to be stuck with a massive regulatory apparatus, I’m a lot more sympathetic to saving programs aimed at addressing real social needs, and I worry that libertarians and other small-government advocates risk providing intellectual cover for a political process that isn’t very liberal at all.
UPDATE: Edited for clarity.
JL Wall (possible rap pseudonym alert!) flags this highly-entertaining New Yorker profile of Bob Barr. I can’t say I’ve followed Barr’s campaign with anything approaching real interest or enthusiasm, but I will say this: I’ve never understood the argument that his candidacy is the work of a cynical opportunist. Toiling away on the campaign trail doesn’t seem like particularly rewarding work, and it must be incredibly frustrating for a candidate to get stuck at the margins of mainstream acceptability. Barr’s run has been something of a comedy of errors, but I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity.