Collectivism Isn’t in Our Genes

Brian has been on a manic schedule of traveling and speaking this week (including a fine talk today at Cato), and as a result he’s been delayed in responding to the reaction essays. He should be weighing in tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ll invoke editor’s privilege and get the discussion started. In particular, let me join the dogpile at the bottom of which lies Tyler’s provocative essay.

I agree with Tyler insofar as he makes this ironic yet reassuring point: that the bloated expanse of contemporary government reflects the strength of freedom as well as its fragility. If relatively free markets were less productive than they actually are, then the burdens imposed by government regulations and transfers would be correspondingly heavier or at least more noticeable – and thus the incentives to organize and lobby for smaller government would be sharper. Sam Peltzman argues along similar lines in his essay on “Regulation and the Natural Progress of Opulence.” A big, strong dog can carry a lot of ticks.

But should we really just declare victory in the contest of liberty vs. power and move on to other things, as Tyler suggests? I don’t think so.

Tyler says that “the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not.” I agree. But the question is: what kind of welfare state are we going to have? Is the status quo – in which the welfare state is dominated by universal entitlement programs that mostly shuffle money from one cohort of the middle class to another – really the best we can hope to achieve? Or is it possible to restructure the welfare state so that its primary focus is on the poor and temporarily distressed? The incentives for carrying out such a restructuring will be sharpening considerably over the coming years, as the costs of the existing commitments under Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid escalate dramatically. At which point we will face a stark choice: either overhaul these programs substantially, or else endure a massive tax hike (increasing tax revenues as a share of GDP by several percentage points or more) to pay for them. I can’t imagine libertarians, Tyler included, sitting out that fight.

Tyler roots his welfare-state fatalism in evolutionary psychology, as he spells out in this podcast elaborating on his Cato Unbound essay. I find this analysis even less persuasive than the conclusion it generates. Yes, we may be hard-wired for sharing resources within our tribe, but quite clearly we can be acculturated so that this impulse is satisfied in ways other than a big national welfare state. Isn’t the history of the United States until the 1930s decisive evidence on that score?

Tyler’s confusion stems from the fact that our hard-wired ethos of small-group personal exchange is mirrored in the cultural ethos of small-group personal exchange that has prevailed for the vast majority of people throughout history. Liberalism flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries as an individualist ethos developed among Europe and North America’s middle and upper classes – and as the large majorities in the rural and laboring classes who still hewed to the old ethos lacked political representation. Democratization came, though, before the individualist ethos became widespread, and the rise of collectivism was the result. Here in the United States, the absence of a sizeable peasantry or proletariat allowed liberal institutions to flourish even with democratization – until mass immigration of southern and eastern European peasants, combined with the cataclysm of the Great Depression that delegitimized economic individualism, gave us our own (relatively limited, compared to Europe) dose of collectivism.

Collectivism isn’t our destiny. It’s an episode in the history of industrialization, caused by cultural lag. I would argue that the richer we get, the more culturally individualist we become – I’ve just written a book to that effect, anyway. Accordingly, I am optimistic about continuing the liberal revival that began in the 1970s – and about the role for libertarians in promoting that revival.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over — the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas — is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “the notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered — well, it was not really considered at all…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • Things may look bleak for libertarians these days, but there are grounds for hope, says Cato’s vice president for research (and Cato Unbound editor) Brink Lindsey. Though few Americans self-identify as “libertarian,” there is nevertheless a deep libertarian streak in American culture and a large group of voters who say they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the long term, Lindsey argues, the goal for libertarians is to multiply the number of libertarians, and he concurs with Doherty in saying “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, Lindsey argues that in the short term “what needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity — there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity — one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum.”

  • According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • In his reply, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer maintains that Brian Doherty is guilty of “a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order.” It is possible to promote liberty without promoting libertarian philosophy. This distinction motivates Palmer to dissent from Doherty’s emphasis on education. No amount of libertarian education will make a difference, Palmer argues, unless someone acts to make change for liberty. “If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: ‘Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.’” Palmer also quibbles with Doherty’s focus in his book on zany libertarian characters and with his laissez faire approach to promoting liberty.

  • Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”