About this Issue
Reason senior editor Brian Doherty’s new book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement — the first comprehensive history of its kind — provides a fitting occasion for libertarian reflection. How did libertarians get to where they are today? Where are they going? How should they proceed? Drawing on his book, Doherty kicks off this issue with a lead essay reflecting on the miracle that libertarians are now politically and culturally relevant at all, while appropriately promoting a continued laissez faire attitude to strategy. To showcase the high art of libertarian infighting, we’ve gathered a panel of libertarian luminaries including Cato Unbound’s own Brink Lindsey, author of the controversial “Liberaltarians” essay in the New Republic; George Mason’s most famous blogger-polymath, New York Times Economic Scene columnist Tyler Cowen; Cato’s globe-trotting ambassador for liberty Tom G. Palmer, who was writing libertarian political theory as a zygote; and Atlantic columnist, former Reason editor in chief, and author of The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel.
Libertarianism: Past and Prospects
I recently published a book called Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs, 2007). I always thought the libertarian movement’s story was fascinating and important, filled with vivid, peculiar, and heroic characters with many little-understood influences on American culture. It is also a story sadly undertold, especially when you consider how books about every twist and turn in domestic communist movements, parties, and organizations fill library shelves (though rarely consumers’ shelves).
To the extent that libertarianism’s history has been told, it has mostly been treated as a weird, overenthusiastic little cousin to right-wing conservatism. Rescuing libertarianism from that sad fate was one of my purposes, and one of the reasons I put the word “radical” in its title—as part of a phrase invented by novelist and libertarian inspiration Ayn Rand to identify her own ideological mission.
While working on the book, I met an editor of a prominent northeast university press. When this project came up in conversation, she opined that while she could certainly grant that libertarianism has been important enough to be worth a book tracing its history, surely it was not appropriate that the person who writes it actually believe this stuff. Since this surely was not a principle (that the chronicler of a political movement must not believe in its tenets) she would apply to, say, a history of the civil rights movement, I just took it for a sign of intellectual prejudice against libertarianism.
But such questions of the importance of the topic and appropriateness of my way of handling it hung in my mind, and I was obligated to wonder: did this libertarian movement—this tightly-knit group of economists, novelists, publishers, philosophers, think tankers, and politicians whose story I tell—actually accomplish anything of unquestionable significance?
That question has become particularly relevant, not only for the framing of Radicals for Capitalism, but in the larger world of libertarian discussion about the next appropriate, or likely, step in libertarian influence in actual politics and policy. The extent to which major political parties ought to or must reach out to libertarians has become one of the hottest topics in libertarian discourse, just as my book debuts.
We have seen recently Ryan Sager’s theory from his book The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, that Republicans are losing out, particularly in the Mountain West, because they have abandoned policies that appeal to the libertarian-leaning in favor of outreach to the evangelical religious right. The GOP, in Sager’s telling, especially after the apparent repudiation of Bushism in the 2006 elections, needs to heed and reach out to the libertarian voter.
Cato’s Brink Lindsey, initially in the pages of the New Republic, has taken a different tack, offering up the libertarian voting bloc to the Democratic Party. He’s argued that “A refashioned liberalism that incorporated key libertarian concerns and insights could make possible a truly progressive politics…that joins together under one banner the causes of both cultural and economic progress.” So far, some prominent Democratic partisans have been unreceptive to Lindsey’s offer, dismissing libertarians as opposed to the massive entitlement programs seen as non-negotiable central elements of the Democratic Party, and politically insignificant besides.
Buttressing the Sager and Lindsey message—that both major parties need to think about appealing to libertarians—is a body of research recently issued from Cato’s David Boaz and the American Future Foundation’s David Kirby. They find, analyzing survey data from Pew, Gallup, and the American National Election Studies, around 14 percent of American voters as recognizably libertarian, in the sense of embracing both fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.
What will leap out to anyone who reads my book is that this 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. It has great relevance for how libertarians should view their past, and contemplate their future.
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 in the libertarian movement until the rise in the early 1970s of the Libertarian Party and in the late 1970s of the Cato Institute (a full-service think tank for libertarian analysis and advocacy openly aimed at politicians and major media).
And at the LP’s launch, founder David Nolan did not promise electoral victories. (On the national and statewide level, his lack of promise has mostly been kept.) He suggested, rather, that the LP’s existence could lead to increased media attention for libertarian ideas, which might bring more latent libertarians out from hiding, and create a permanent institution to spur them into action, and help further a breakdown of political dominance by the traditional right and left by providing a pro-liberty home to forces on either end of the political spectrum who might not feel comfortable with the rest of their electoral coalition. (A mutation of this idea has carried on in Sager and Lindsey’s writings today.)
And Cato launched in 1977 in San Francisco, partially because of its president’s desire to live there, partially as libertarian symbolism about deliberately not being embroiled in D.C. culture, before taking seriously the idea that a full-service political think tank aimed at national policy should, for both symbolic and practical purposes, be in D.C. That initial refusal to give in to D.C. was a classic libertarian movement gesture for its time.
Before the 1970s, and even on into that decade, every other prominent libertarian institution or thinker was dedicated openly and specifically to educating citizens and scholars in libertarian principles—or, more colorfully, to helping one personally escape the modern state’s grip, whether through personal survivalist escape into the hinterlands or through quixotic group moves to create new island nations or make common cause with existing separatist movements.
The Foundation for Economic Education, the first national organization promoting recognizable modern-libertarian ideas, founded in 1946, was deeply influenced by Old Right journalist Albert Jay Nock’s notion of the libertarian “Remnant”—the idea that liberty might never win mass public support but its ideas must be kept alive like guttering flames through a worldwide Dark Age—in its frequently monkish soft-sell approach to publishing an assortment of pamphlets on timeless principles of liberty and on current controversies, reprints of 19th century libertarian classics, and eventually a monthly magazine, The Freeman, dedicated mostly to homiletic explanations of the benefits of free markets that stayed above the scrum of specific politics and personalities, gave no marching orders or action items, and in the inspiring phrase of founder Leonard Read, promoted the justice and richness of “anything that’s peaceful.”
But Read was convinced, for good reason, in the postwar context in which FEE debuted that statism was “all around you, preempting the public discussion, and the [libertarian] side is barely audible in the deafening noise.” As Rick Perlstein noted in his book Before the Storm on the Goldwater movement, the first libertarian-themed (in some respects) postwar movement to achieve political traction, the New Deal managerial-welfare consensus that Goldwaterites and libertarians opposed wasn’t seen as some arguable ideology by most American elites and intellectuals—it was reality. (Goldwater himself was diagnosed by hundreds of psychiatrists who never met him as psychologically unfit for the presidency for opposing it.) In the face of this opposition, Read, who nevertheless managed to collect millions in donations from American businessmen over the decades by never explicitly asking for it, had no particular plan or hope for libertarian political victory beyond spreading the word.
As his friend, economics professor Benjamin Rogge, said of Read: “This aspect of FEE’s thinking has been occasionally irritating…to the more activist-minded of you… Not only does Read not promise us a win in the near future; not only does he not guarantee us a win in the distant future; he has the unmitigated gall to tell us that we still don’t even fully understand the game or how to recognize a win when we see one.”
This was the attitude of the libertarian movement’s acknowledged leader in its early years. Read was not alone in, or the cause of, this attitude among early modern libertarians. Ayn Rand, a central inspiration for the movement, gadfly, truculent sometimes-comrade to the early generation of libertarians, and mentor and inspiration to many in the later ones, believed that when it came to libertarian political change, it was “earlier than you think.” The modern “radical for capitalism” must realize that generations of education are needed before a truly libertarian culture and politics would take hold. This was rooted in Rand’s belief that political change was insufficient if not reached for the right philosophical reasons—which means: by grasping her Objectivist philosophy from ontology through epistemology through ethics.
The world gave early libertarians good reason for thinking of themselves as hated outliers. The biggest financier of libertarian causes and intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, the Volker Fund, had as its main mission finding libertarians worthy of support. As Volker staffer Richard Cornuelle told me, each time they found one they’d encounter “a tearful recognition there there was someone out there [who believed in libertarianism]—everyone thought that they were the last one.”
FEE’s leaders and funders were called to the dock by a pre-McCarthy era congressional committee, the Buchanan Committee, investigating lobbying efforts in 1950. WOR radio crowed how the Committee would, referring to FEE, “rip the cover off one of the biggest best financed pressure outfits in America….who finances these gangs of literate goons?”
As a comic reaction to their grim circumstances, a group of young libertarians in the 1950s centered around Murray Rothbard would try to turn the rhetoric they heard everywhere back on those who spouted it: they’d soberly explain that socialism might have been all right in the primitive conditions of the 18th or 19th century, but in today’s complex mechanized world surely everyone recognized that laissez-faire was the inevitable wave of the future. They once filled the audience at a talk by the governor of New Jersey, aired on TV, and hit him with their questions from all sides, adopting the attitude that their ideological universe was the norm and his some sort of aberration. “What, governor? You are for public schools? Where did you get such strange ideas? Can you recommend any books on this subject?” It was funny because it wasn’t true.
It was the same for the other major libertarian institutions: the Mont Pelerin Society, launched consciously as a club for academics and politicians who knew they were misfits, trying to keep the moribund ideas of 19th century classical liberalism on life support; the Institute for Humane Studies, launched as a deliberately under-the-radar version of the Institute for Advanced Studies for libertarian scholars (which has now shifted to outreach, education, and financial support for young academics, journalists, and artists of libertarian bent); Robert LeFevre and his Freedom School in the Colorado mountains teaching an anarchistic libertarianism (first graduating class: four students) that believed retaliatory force was as wrong as any other kind of force; Joseph Galambos and his Free Enterprise Institute in Southern California preaching radically free-market economics combined with a belief in intellectual property so extreme students were not permitted to repeat their teacher’s ideas.
As the 1970s went on, libertarianism slowly inched inside the pale of acceptability. A wunderkind Harvard philosophy professor, Robert Nozick, in 1974 published Anarchy, State, and Utopia, taking libertarian rights theory as a given and proving rigorously that if we believe in human rights, then there are a set of things government just cannot do—including most things modern governments do do—and offering a vision of libertarianism as a metautopia: a world in which people can join together freely to realize their own vision of the good life. The book was not only not ignored, it won the National Book Award and made Nozick a powerhouse in his field.
Since then, for the movement qua movement, and in some ways for liberty itself, it has been onward and upward. Mont Pelerin founding members Hayek and Friedman won Nobel prizes (as have many more Mont Pelerin members and intellectuals supported by the Volker Fund), and Friedman became one of the most influential public intellectuals of his time, with his handprints on many elements of the modern world—from floating exchange rates to the volunteer army to Federal Reserve policy toward inflation. We see more and more libertarian think tanks, magazines, specialty policy houses, and libertarians in media outlets as prestigious as ABC News (John Stossel) and the New York Times (columnist John Tierney and business section columnists Virginia Postrel and, since her departure for The Atlantic, Tyler Cowen); a huge national presence in talk radio; and political prominence to the degree that our current major intramovement debate is not over which major party a libertarian should support, but over how the major parties need to consciously seek out libertarian support.
The move that caused the Libertarian Party’s birth—Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls—is the sort of anti-market absurdity that seems pretty unimaginable now; various significant areas of the economy have been deregulated and marginal tax rates are dramatically lower than when the libertarian movement arose; the antithesis of libertarianism, communism, has largely disappeared from the world scene. There are reasons to believe that increases in our technological power in such areas as computing, biotech, and space travel are creating a new world in which most traditional need for government will become, and be recognized as, obsolete. (None of this is to say that government depredations in terms of taxation, regulation, warfare, surveillance, and victimless crime enforcement have gone away.)
But while free-market ideas have made much progress, one can’t assume that the Boaz/Kirby use of the term “libertarian” for 14 percent of voters is analogous to the ideas pushed by most of the self-identified libertarian leaders whose story my book tells.
In the 1940s and 1950s, it was a matter of heated debate among libertarian luminaries such as Read, eventual Institute for Humane Studies founder F.A. Harper, and Orange County Register publisher R.C. Hoiles whether coercive taxation has any moral justification. Even though the pollsters didn’t ask, I think it safe to assume that almost all of the libertarians in the Boaz/Kirby data would find that very question bizarre, and certainly never answer it like Harper and Hoiles did: no.
The deal that Brink Lindsey offers the Democrats might be legitimately libertarian in Hayek’s terms—he accepted a government income floor—but not in, say, Murray Rothbard’s, or Leonard Read’s. Libertarianism’s growth in public influence and acceptability is certainly more obvious in Hayekian terms than in those of the more radical anarcho-capitalists who made up a lot of the movement’s leaders and rank and file from the 1950s-1970s.
But as Milton Friedman, the most successful libertarian polemicist of the 20th century, put it when contemplating these intramovement distinctions, for the foreseeable future the anarchist libertarians and the more classical liberal libertarians are heading in the same direction. (Some within the libertarian big tent will claim the other side doesn’t deserve the designation; Friedman did not think so.)
Is there a lesson in where libertarian energies ought to go from here in the history my book tells? I have a very libertarian answer, and a very traditional one.
The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to. The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy. Rand was right: we need to work on root metaphysical and ethical principles about humans and the state. Mises and Read and Friedman were right: we need to educate the public about the operations and richness of an unfettered free-market economy. Hayek was right: understanding the information-spreading functions of the free price system and the reality of spontaneous orders without central control is vital. Rothbard was right: an uncompromising moral passion about liberty and theorizing on how a wonderful social order could function without any monopoly source of force at all is bracing and inspirational. Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation is right: nuts-and-bolts work showing how market competition and deregulation can function and slot into an existing world of state functions can demonstrate that government doesn’t have to, and oughtn’t, do everything it has traditionally done. Libertarian politicos should try to make inroads and progress in both major parties, and all the other ones.
As founding mother of libertarianism Rose Wilder Lane wrote to a despairing libertarian friend in the 1950s, “the whole climate of opinion is changing. And every least little thing that you have done has helped to change it; never think that a bit of it failed, even when it seemed to.” Robert LeFevre gave up on his peculiar Freedom School in the late 1960s. Two of his eager students, a pair of billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, became key financiers behind libertarian organizations from Cato to the Institute for Justice—which has already won two victories for libertarian principles at the Supreme Court.
The very traditional answer is to note that what all the most interesting and effective libertarian thinkers and institutions do is still in line with the Read dispensation: attempting to explain, in culture, politics, economics, or the courts, why solutions that rely on free markets and free choice are apt to have better results, and be more morally correct, than solutions that rely on central control or government action.
The biggest enemy of the libertarian is both optimism and pessimism: short-term optimism that, whether through moral passion or scientific certainty that the state’s actions just cannot go on much longer, makes one so mad for libertarian victory now that any setbacks lead to despair and surrender—and long-term pessimism that refuses to see the enormous strides over centuries toward a more libertarian world of contract over status, of ordered liberty over unbridled tyranny, of individual choice over state pressure, and to recognize that the principles of free minds and free markets are most suited to making a rich and varied and lovable world, and thus are likely to triumph in the long term.
Leonard Read was right: Ultimately, we will have a libertarian world when most people want one (not to say that educated elites cannot make decent progress in a libertarian direction without prior mass support). And the efforts of the American libertarian movement have been unquestionably effective in increasing—by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions—the number of people who understand why we should want that world.
Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World
Brian Doherty’s delightful book has come along at a perfect time, as this is or ought to be a time of introspection and soul-searching for libertarians. What have we really accomplished? And what do we do now?
At present libertarians are in a sober mood. We’ve had to absorb the fact that one of the centerpieces of the libertarian reform agenda – Social Security privatization – was put before the American people and decisively rejected. This disappointing failure to make progress has been accompanied by regress away from liberty on any number of fronts – runaway federal spending, a huge increase in the entitlement state with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, an aggressive federal power grab in education with the No Child Left Behind act, extremist assertions of executive power in the name of combating terrorism, and so on. Check out the recent books by Bruce Bartlett, Ryan Sager, Stephen Slivinski, and Michael Tanner (the latter two work at the Cato Institute, and the former two used to) for all the depressing details.
The situation is even worse than a review of bad policies suggests. Forget about walking the walk; almost nobody even talks our talk in the political arena anymore. The limited-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the bold plans by the congressional class of 1994 to eliminate whole Cabinet departments – all that is just a distant memory. You know things are bad for libertarians when we begin to experience Clinton nostalgia – but can you imagine a current leader in Congress, or a serious presidential candidate for 2008, actually saying today that “the era of big government is over”?
Our soul-searching deepened this past November 16, when Milton Friedman passed away. Now all the intellectual titans of the modern libertarian movement whose stories Brian tells in his book – Mises, Hayek, Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, and Friedman – are gone. How then stands the movement they helped to create?
On the one hand, we can point with pride to an impressive blossoming of libertarian scholarship and intellectual activism. Libertarians are now represented in the academy in numbers that would have amazed the original members of the Mont Pelerin Society. The Cato Institute and other libertarian and free-market think tanks have achieved great success in winning a place for libertarian ideas in the political and policy debate. We have made great strides in getting libertarian ideas taken seriously in intellectual and opinion-shaping circles.
But getting taken seriously by tiny intellectual elites is one thing; winning acceptance in mass public opinion is another thing altogether. As an intellectual movement, libertarianism has come a long way. As a political movement, however, we’re still pretty near square one. The Libertarian Party crested in 1980 with a million votes or so in the presidential election; since then it has contented itself with being a fringe group that is generally scoffed at when it isn’t being completely ignored. And whatever success we’ve had in spreading libertarian ideas, we’ve accomplished very little in the core political task of expanding the number of active libertarians. According to a 2000 Rasmussen poll, only 2% of Americans self-identify as libertarian. To put that number in perspective, according to a 1999 Gallup poll, 6% of Americans believe that the moon landings were faked.
Public opinion surveys make clear that most ordinary Americans hold a whole host of anti-libertarian views. First of all, economic illiteracy is widespread. An April 2006 Gallup poll found that 65% of Americans think increased trade with other countries mostly hurts American workers, while only 30% think it mostly helps them. And a September 2006 Gallup poll found that an astonishing 42% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “the Bush administration deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall’s elections.”
And when it comes to government spending, Americans love their free ice cream: they may tell pollsters they favor less spending as an abstract proposition, but when you get down to specifics they don’t want to cut much of anything. A recent paper [doc] coauthored by Cato adjunct scholar Bryan Caplan and Edward Stringham cites data from the General Social Survey showing strong majorities in favor of increased spending on the environment, health care, education, anti-drug programs, and Social Security. The only genuinely unpopular government spending is for welfare, space exploration, and foreign aid – a drop in the budgetary bucket.
So we have some hard facts to face. We committed libertarians are a very small group of people with very unpopular views. And now that Goldwater-Reagan small-government conservatism has more or less disappeared, we have no effective representation in the political arena.
Believe it or not, though, I’m actually optimistic! Although we live in an unlibertarian world, we have sound reasons for thinking that the world, and our country in particular, are moving in our direction. At any rate, I have now written two books to that effect. In Against the Dead Hand, I argued that the current episode of globalization is the result of the collapse of the old ideologies of central planning and state-dominated economic development. That collapse has triggered three decades of remarkable change in global political economy in a pro-market direction. Yes, the dead hand of the collectivist past still exerts a weighty influence, and yes we see backsliding in Russia, South America, and elsewhere, but the major indicators of global economic and political freedom continue to move in a positive direction.
Now I’ve completed a new book, The Age of Abundance, which will be published in May. It examines cultural, economic, and political change in American society since the advent of mass prosperity after World War II. In the book I argue that, over the past forty years, America has gone through convulsive cultural and economic changes that have left our society significantly more libertarian than it was before. On the cultural front, after the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, we have seen dramatic changes in attitudes about race, sex and marriage, the role of women in society, the permissible scope of self-expression, and deference to authority, all of which have strengthened individualism at the expense of traditional inhibitions. And on the economic front, after the wrenching restructuring of the ’70s and ’80s, economic life has grown dramatically more competitive, entrepreneurial, and globalized than it was during the heyday of the post-New Deal order.
The United States today stands out as probably the single most libertarian country on the planet. Yes, there may be a few countries that rate slightly higher in economic freedom, but can any country match our combination of economic, personal, civil, and political liberty? From the moment of its founding right down to the present day, American political culture has been blazed by a big, fat libertarian streak. That streak is visible in opinion surveys, according to which we stand out in contrast to Europe in our anti-statism, our commitment to an ethic of personal rather than collective responsibility, and our belief in the possibility of social mobility through talent and hard work.
In particular, it is visible in the roughly 15% of the electorate identified by David Boaz and David Kirby [pdf] as libertarian-leaning. The people in this group are not self-conscious, principled, and committed libertarians; they are the much larger group of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” people in whom untutored and unfocused libertarian impulses run especially strong. They are at present an ill-defined, amorphous, and unorganized lot, but in my opinion they hold significant untapped potential to be a political force for good.
So libertarians have solid grounds for hope, and ample resources in America’s political culture to draw from and build upon. So how do we make the most of our current situation? How, under present circumstances, do we maximize the chances for liberty to be maintained and expanded?
To be as effective as we can be, I think it is vital that we not fool ourselves about where we are and how far we have to go. To be effectively idealistic, we must first be realistic. This means recognizing that libertarian ideals as we understand them are not widely shared by our fellow citizens. Sometimes we like to imagine that under the skin of every American is a libertarian yearning to breathe free. In fact, though, the most we will find are some libertarian instincts, competing with egalitarian instincts, nationalist instincts, moralistic instincts, and various narrow conceptions of self-interest.
I believe we must work simultaneously with two different time horizons – the long term and the short term. Effectiveness in each time horizon is its own distinct problem with its own distinctive solutions. For the long term, libertarians must focus on ensuring that the next generation, and the one after that, has more people like us than there are at present – more committed libertarians, and more people who have a general appreciation of the nature, workings, and blessings of a free society. This is the educational project that Brian Doherty endorses – and, with him, I say let a thousand flowers bloom.
But what about the short term, the here and now? I believe the time has come for libertarians to think anew about political allegiances. For the past quarter-century, since the Reagan Revolution effectively put an end to the libertarian political movement, libertarians have been in a state of dependency on the political right. Under the circumstances, I think it was probably the best we could do, but circumstances have changed and the right has largely abandoned us.
I applaud the efforts of Michael Tanner, Ryan Sager, and others, urging conservatives to return to their small-government roots. I wish them every success. But we should explore other options as well. In a piece for The New Republic I wrote a couple months ago, I suggested that a liberal-libertarian fusionism on the left might replace the old traditionalist-libertarian fusionism on the right. I agree with many commenters on my article that the immediate prospects for such an alliance are hardly promising. But I continue to think the idea is worth exploring further.
And if neither the left nor the right seems hospitable, what about trying to create a political home of our own? Specifically, what about organizing and mobilizing that 15% of the electorate that David Boaz and David Kirby have identified as libertarian-leaning? If these people could come to see themselves as part of a coherent group, with a coherent vision and coherent interests, I think they could exert a powerful influence for good on both left and right.
How might such a thing be accomplished? It’s a predictable enough thing for a think tank inhabitant to say, but I believe that political movements start with ideas. 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. One that recognizes a more expansive role for government than committed libertarians would like, but which nonetheless supports both economic and personal liberty. Here, then, is the way forward as I see it: to articulate an appropriately inclusive political vision that puts freedom at the center of its commitments.
The Paradox of Libertarianism
Brian Doherty asks: “Did this libertarian movement … actually accomplish anything of unquestionable significance?”
Yes: Bigger government.
But no, that isn’t as bad as it might sound to many Cato readers.
I see a few major policy achievements in a libertarian direction. In the United States inflation has come down from unacceptable levels in the 1970s to an eminently livable situation. Marginal tax rates have fallen from 70 percent to below 40 percent. There has not been a major cry to nationalize or otherwise cripple the hi-tech sector. Private capital markets have become more advanced, more liquid, and better able to fund new ideas. Of course on a global scale communism has fallen and many nations have reformed and improved their economies in a freer direction.
Libertarian ideas also have improved the quality of government. Few American politicians advocate central planning or an economy built around collective bargaining. Marxism has retreated in intellectual disgrace.
Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve 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.
I am not so worried about this paradox of libertarianism. Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.
The old formulas were “big government is bad” and “liberty is good,” but these are not exactly equal in their implications. The second motto — “liberty is good” — is the more important. And the older story of “big government crushes liberty” is being superseded by “advances in liberty bring bigger government.”
Libertarians aren’t used to reacting to that second story, because it goes against the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into our brains. That’s why libertarianism is in an intellectual crisis today. The major libertarian response to modernity is simply to wish that the package deal we face isn’t a package deal. But it is, and that is why libertarians are becoming intellectually less important compared to, say, the 1970s or 1980s. So much of libertarianism has become a series of complaints about voter ignorance, or against the motives of special interest groups. The complaints are largely true, but many of the battles are losing ones. No, we should not be extreme fatalists, but the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not.
The bottom line is this: human beings have deeply rooted impulses to take newly acquired wealth and spend some of it on more government and especially on transfer payments. Let’s deal with that.
My vision for classical liberalism consists of a few points:
- A deep belief in human liberty, but seeing positive liberty (“what can I do with my life?”) as more important than negative liberty (“how many regulations are imposed on me?”).
- Accepting the package deal when it is indeed a package deal.
- Identifying key areas where we can strengthen current institutions and also strengthen liberty.
We need to recognize that some of the current threats to liberty are outside of the old categories. I worry about pandemics and natural disasters, as well as global warming and climate change more generally (it doesn’t have to be carbon-induced to be a problem). These developments are big threats to the liberty of many people in the world, although not necessarily Americans. The best answers to these problems don’t always lie on the old liberty/power spectrum in a simple way. Defining property rights in clean air, or in a regular climate, isn’t that easy and it probably cannot be done without significant state intervention of some kind or another.
Yes, I know some of you are climate skeptics. But if the chance of mainstream science being right is only 20% (and assuredly it is much higher than that), we still have, in expected value terms, a massive tort. We don’t let people play involuntary Russian roulette on others with a probability of 17% (one bullet, six chambers), so we do need to worry about man-made global warming.
Intellectual property in vaccines and drug patents also will become an increasingly critical issue on a global scale. The more human biomass there is in the world, the more humans will become a major target for viruses and diseases. No matter what our views, I don’t see any uniquely libertarian approach to the resulting questions of intellectual property. More and more economic value is being held in the form of intellectual property. The new libertarianism will have to be pragmatic at its heart.
Another major problem – the major problem in my view – is nuclear proliferation. What will the world look like when small and possibly non-traceable groups can afford their own nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction? The Cato Institute has pointed out many things America could do to become less of a target for terrorists. We could take in all this good advice and there would still be a big big problem.
In short, I would like to restructure classical liberalism, or libertarianism — whatever we call it — around these new and very serious threats to liberty. Let’s not fight the last battle or the last war. Let’s not obsess over all the interventions represented by the New Deal, even though I would agree that most of those policies were bad ideas.
If libertarians were to follow this course (and I don’t expect they will), the libertarian movement would become far more diffuse. It would run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. It would be less of a beacon. Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why. I don’t have any comforting means of outlining how a new liberty movement might look, how its slogans might sound, or what might prove to be organizing issues. We would run the risk of being too kooky and too mainstream at the same time.
In intellectual terms, we are cursed to live in interesting times.
These ruminations bring me back to Brian Doherty’s wonderful book. It is truly an amazing effort of intellect and of love. I can’t say enough good things about the book.
This will sound a little funny, but what I liked most about the book was how little I learned from it. (NB: most readers won’t have this same reaction, but I knew personally most of the people covered.) It felt like reading about me. On a few pages it was reading about me. The book got just about everything right.
The book hearkens back to those good old days when the nature of the fight, “liberty vs. power,” was really quite clear. America in the mid to late 1970s was a wreck, and libertarians indeed had a lot of the right answers.
Not all of those answers were adopted, but the new America is no longer a wreck. Where to go from here?
There is no simple answer to that question, but to understand the future we must confront our past. Doherty’s book is a very important and very thorough step in that dialog.
Read it, and ponder it, but don’t stop there.
Libertarianism or Liberty?
Brian’s book is a remarkable accomplishment and I salute him for it. It’s serious social history (although I do have a few reservations). It offers a satisfying mix of political history, biography, intellectual history and exposition, and evaluation of impact. And it’s fun to read.
Brink and Tyler have pointed out the challenges libertarians face in the first decade of the 21st century. I’ll be a bit more confrontational and start by strongly disagreeing with the conclusion to Brian’s essay, according to which
Leonard Read was right: Ultimately, we will have a libertarian world when most people want one (not to say that educated elites cannot make decent progress in a libertarian direction without prior mass support).
If that were true, liberty would certainly be doomed. (I’ll set aside – but only for the moment – the semantic distinction between a world in which people enjoy liberty and a “libertarian world.”) The claim that you can only achieve liberty when most people consciously want liberty is, in my opinion, as misguided as the claim that markets only function effectively when people understand how they work. The remarkable thing about market processes is that they economize on knowledge; they don’t require the participants to know how the system works for them to make use of it. If markets were effective at promoting coordination only if all of the participants were economists, human beings would still be living in small hunter-gatherer bands, or extinct.
At the root of what I see as Brian’s error is 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. The latter, to the extent one should want to promote it, would be valuable not for its own sake (unless promoting political theories were one’s hobby), but solely as a means to the end of promoting liberty, the value that is at the center of libertarianism. One way to promote liberty is surely to promote libertarianism, but it’s surely also not the only way.
The question of whether one is promoting liberty or libertarianism has been with libertarians for some time. Is it “selling out” one’s principles to promote incremental moves toward liberty without announcing at the same time one’s commitment to a world completely free of coercion, or of the institutions of coercion? (I was a participant in that debate [pdf] — somewhat to my embarrassment three decades later — when I wrote several essays on the topic in various 1970s journals, including the Libertarian Forum.)
Some libertarians were unhappy admitting it (notably Murray Rothbard, who promoted a “cadre” theory of social change), but the libertarian movement can indeed be successful in promoting liberty without at the same time making libertarianism, as a consciously held doctrine of justice and political and social order, the dominant ideology of a time or place. That’s a significant sense in which libertarianism differs from other radical ideologies, which focus attention on their own ascendancy as the goal of political change. Other radical ideologues want to rule others, and therefore in order to achieve their ends, their ideology has to be the dominant one. Libertarians don’t desire to rule others, so whether our ideology is dominant or not need not be a constituent part of the strategy to achieve our goals. That’s why I think it’s a mistake to speak of “a libertarian world,” which implies a world dominated by libertarians, a prospect that doesn’t move me.
Incremental increases in liberty can undoubtedly be promoted through educational campaigns. Such campaigns can encourage people to embrace libertarianism, and thus accept the incremental changes as compatible with their libertarianism, or they can promote those incremental changes irrespective of connection to any ideology, for example, on grounds of material benefits, or even just unsystematic thinking about fairness. But while liberty can be promoted through education, it certainly cannot be achieved through education alone. Achieving liberty entails that coercion be replaced with liberty, that oppressive institutions be replaced by voluntary and cooperative institutions, that rights be defined and institutionalized, and that violations of rights be stopped. Education alone doesn’t do those things. More is needed. Depending on circumstances, “more” may include engagement in electoral politics, litigation, civil disobedience, armed resistance, building of alternative institutions, and other tactics.
That leads me to a second disagreement. Brian writes,
[W]hat all the most interesting and effective libertarian thinkers and institutions do is still in line with the Read dispensation: attempting to explain, in culture, politics, economics, or the courts, why solutions that rely on free markets and free choice are apt to have better results, and be more morally correct, than solutions that rely on central control or government action.
Let’s take one American counter example: the Institute for Justice. IJ is certainly one of the most effective libertarian institutions active in the U.S. today and education is not its primary activity; it takes action in the courts. Brian might say he covered IJ and other groups with the phrase “attempting to explain, in … the courts,” but such a subsumption of legal battles to education could be applied to all forms of conflict (we “explain” to voters when we ask for their votes, for example). A libertarian movement that relied entirely on explanation would not go very far. Someone has to take the cases to court, put the initiatives on the ballot, elect reform candidates, bring demonstrators to the street, and engage in all the other elements of political change for the cause to advance. The explainers are important mainly because they create the menu from which the political actors make their choices. But without customers who choose, the existence of the menu is meaningless.
Other common American examples of non-educational means to advance liberty include initiatives, referenda, legislation to legalize pot, state constitutional amendments to strengthen protection for rights to several property, treaties that cut or eliminate trade barriers, and on and on. If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: “Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.”
“Libertarianism” refers to the theoretical systematization (and radical extension) of a set of principles that had already emerged in practice as the grounds for human cooperation, wealth creation, and peaceful coexistence. Libertarian education does not account for the initial emergence of liberty and thus may have limited explanatory power when it comes to understanding its expansion as well. Libertarian education could not have been the necessary condition for the emergence of liberty in the first place. (Indeed, what emerges first is generally a set of liberties – emphasis on the plural, rather than a single thing, liberty.)
Libertarianism emerges from theoretical reflection on the relationship of liberty to social order and human flourishing, but is not itself the cause of that observed flourishing. Thus, political struggle is a necessary element in achieving liberty, and education is a valuable preparation for such struggle, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve liberty.
Now to a few more quibbles.
In his opening essay for this issue of Cato Unbound, Brian refers to a movement whose history was “filled with vivid, peculiar, and heroic characters with many little-understood influences on American culture.” I fear that, despite a few caveats in his book, his treatment of the periods of the mid to late 19th century and the 1960s to late 1970s is focused more on the “vivid and peculiar” than on the actually influential. For the former period, his reading ignores some of the more significant and broadly libertarian figures of the period to focus on more marginal radicals, and for the latter he relies too much for my taste on Jerome Tuccille’s colorful, impressionistic, highly personal, and rather unreliable period piece, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, which focuses on zany characters (sometimes imaginary or composite) because, well, they’re fun to read about.
Lastly, Brian states that there are two answers to “where libertarian energies ought to go from here.” One is “the very traditional answer,” i.e., education, about which I’ve made some remarks above. The second is “the very libertarian answer”: “libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to go.” I think he’s made a category error. A libertarian answer says that people have the right to direct their own energies as they choose (without violating the equal rights of others), not that they ought to do this or that with their energies. If I were to ask where I should invest my money, it would be no answer to say, “Wherever you want it to go.” And if I were to ask where I should invest my energies to promote liberty, it’s equally unresponsive to answer, “Wherever you want them to go.” The follow-up question would be, “Yes, but where should I want them to go?” To which a reasonable answer would be, “To where they will have the greatest effect.” And the final question would be, “And where is that?”
That said, a more defensible statement of what Brian is getting at is that there is no pool of “libertarian energies” subject to someone’s central control. Some people like educating (through economics classrooms, policy studies, journalism, novels, film, etc.), others litigating, others leafleting and getting signatures on petitions for ballot initiatives, still others working hard to earn money to support those efforts. In most cases, the nature of the activity will call forth the energy. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to determine where we can, each of us, have the greatest impact for liberty. Among my own activities lately, I was recently a plaintiff in a successful legal challenge to the District of Columbia’s outright ban on private ownership of firearms. I’ve also devoted substantial time to attempting to secure freedom for a young Egyptian blogger I met last year, Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman. I think the former is important because it will secure the legal right to self-defense and the latter is important because it may win freedom for one person who has been deprived of it, and at the same time set a precedent for the liberty of other Middle Eastern bloggers. Both are examples of libertarian activities that aren’t solely educational. On the other hand, I’m engaged in them because I’ve been educated in the tradition of liberty by the many people whose contributions Brian so elegantly and intelligently describes and explains in his book.
An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head
As the editor of Reason, I used to be infuriated at the way the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream publications consistently capitalized Libertarian when referring to the magazine or its parent organization, the Reason Foundation. They wouldn’t capitalize liberal or conservative, republican or democrat, unless they were referring to a political party. (Most Republicans are, after all, democrats, and I’ve never met a Democrat who wasn’t a republican.) Why couldn’t they understand that Reason was not a party organ but, like its liberal and conservative counterparts, a magazine of ideas? Were the copy editors just stupid?
After a decade of hearing me gripe, my husband cracked the code: Maybe newspapers don’t think of Libertarian as a party label like Democratic or Republican, he suggested. Maybe they think of it as a religious description, like Catholic or Presbyterian.
The problem is, I knew he was right. To an outsider, official libertarianism, represented most prominently by the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party, and a zillion website comments posts, does indeed look like a doctrinaire sect with a well-rehearsed catechism. The movement even has a proselytizing tract, the World’s Smallest Political Quiz. Everything flows from a single principle: self-ownership or non-aggression. It’s political philosophy as simple algebra.
Insiders know it’s more complicated, of course. But so is the Catholic Church, and even religious fundamentalists have their quarrels. (Bob Jones thinks Billy Graham is a dangerous liberal.)There’s no libertarian hierarchy to excommunicate heretics, but within libertarian organizations free thinkers do feel informal pressures to conform. It’s safest and most rewarding to stick to a straightforward anti-government script, especially since the government can be counted on to provide plenty of provocation. Nobody comes to libertarians to get complex analyses of tradeoffs or institutions. On TV or op-ed pages, you know what the libertarian representative will say before he or she says it. Donors don’t get excited by subtle arguments or policy details. The libertarianism the public hears is thus very simple: government bad, freedom good.
As a result, some of the most important ideas and intellects of the—what shall we call it?—nameless liberalism that descends from the Scottish Enlightenment don’t qualify as “libertarian.” They don’t adhere to the deductive reasoning promoted by Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard. They aren’t “principled” or “hard core.” In a 1997 Reason interview, the great economist Ronald Coase disqualified himself:
My views have always been driven by factual investigations. I’ve never started off—this is perhaps why I’m not a libertarian—with the idea that a human being has certain rights. I ask, “What are the rights which produce certain results?” I’m thinking in terms of production, the lives of people, standard of living, and so on. It has always been a factual business with me….I don’t reject any policy without considering what its results are. If someone says there’s going to be regulation, I don’t say that regulation will be bad. Let’s see. What we discover is that most regulation does produce, or has produced in recent times, a worse result. But I wouldn’t like to say that all regulation would have this effect because one can think of circumstances in which it doesn’t.
Libertarianism, in this view, is incompatible with empiricism or consequentialism. I don’t believe that, but a lot of people do. Neither Friedrich Hayek nor Milton Friedman would have passed philosophical muster as a Libertarian Party candidate. (A negative income tax? Taxation is theft. School vouchers? Ditto. And let’s not get started on bilateral trade agreements or fiat money.) Yet any definition of libertarian that excludes Friedman or Hayek is useless.
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.
Culturally, the “leave us alone coalition” encompasses two different traditions, outlined by historian David Hackett Fischer in his mammoth 2004 book Liberty and Freedom. (Fischer is an anti-libertarian “vital center” liberal in the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. mode, and these are not the only traditions he limns.) The first and more politically prominent is the get-out-of-my-face-and-off-my-land attitude Fischer calls “natural liberty,” a visceral, sometimes violent defense of self and clan. Think “Don’t Tread on Me” and gun rights. The second is the live-and-let-live ideal expressed by the biblical prophecy “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.” Think “Follow Your Bliss” and gay marriage.
Natural liberty is the heritage of the American South, particularly the piedmont and mountains settled by Scots-Irish immigrants. It is ornery. Fig-tree pluralism is Midwestern, brought by German refugees. It is nice. Despite their contrasting temperaments, both traditions place a high value on independence, which implies personal responsibility as well as freedom, and personal space. Both foster a hands-on pragmatism that can promote entrepreneurship and inventiveness. Mix the two and you get Ronald Reagan’s California, the land of property-tax rebellions and New Age seekers. These two traditions make American libertarianism distinctively American.
Culture, not philosophy, largely accounts for the colorful characters celebrated in Brian Doherty’s book (or books—these traditions are also the heritage of Burning Man). And culture, not philosophy, is more often than not what motivates grassroots activists. Cultural libertarianism says This is wrong before figuring out exactly why. Although often expressed in absolutist rules, the better to guard against government encroachment, cultural libertarianism is, by its nature, empirical and consequentialist. It’s animated by a vision of personal freedom and worried about what happens in the real world. It can also be entrepreneurial and creative, the source of such radical innovations as home schooling and the personal computer.
Cultural libertarianism can only survive ideological challenge, however, if it develops intellectual underpinnings. The 20th century proved that much. Against arguments for the fairness and efficiency of central planning, “I don’t like it” struck most people as impossibly old-fashioned. Why not make everyone better off? What’s the harm of a little more regulation? The cultural argument misses the indirect threats to people who aren’t in view, the unseen versus the seen effects of bad policy.
The answers were supplied by two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions. The more visible offered a libertarian version of the Continental quest for certainty. It was supremely modern—as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris. Here are the answers, promised the schools of Rand and Rothbard. Everything you need to know follows from the nature of man and the definition of freedom. A libertarian society is not relative but absolute. You either have one or you don’t. There is no compromise between food and poison (news to toxicologists). We are working for utopia.
Like the modernist ideologies it opposed, this deductive libertarianism could be inspiring, especially in the pages of a novel. It was comfortingly absolute. It promised a world made new and better, a future worth striving for. It had glamour. But how could a deductive libertarian work for a better future, if “better” implies accepting incremental change? Short of privately financed space colonies, libertarians weren’t going to get a chance to build a new society from scratch. (I’m not so sure about those space colonies either. No human culture starts from scratch.)
For decades, the deductive tradition has defined libertarian identity and dogma, while the empiricist tradition has achieved libertarian goals. For parallelism, we can call this second intellectual strand the Hayek-Friedman tradition, though that unnecessarily truncates the list of Nobel laureates it has produced. (It also understates the cultural libertarianism of Friedman’s popular works and the Continental influences on Hayek’s thought.) Libertarianism need not be formulaic. There has long been a lively, open-ended libertarianism for inquiring minds, whether curious about the results of trucking deregulation, the consequences of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the incentives that shape bureaucratic action, the neurological basis of interpersonal trust, the causes of the Islamic world’s economic decline, or the predictive potential of idea futures markets. Not all this work has been empirical. The tradition has produced great theorists, including Hayek, Coase, James Buchanan, Armen Alchian, and Richard Epstein, to name just a few. But their theories are informed, tested, and revised by empirical observation, just as Adam Smith’s were. Most of the libertarian movement’s persuasive and policy triumphs have come from this non-utopian, empiricist approach.
Instead of the Continental quest for certainty, this second intellectual tradition is inspired by the Anglo-Scottish heritage of skeptical inquiry. It is the tradition of Smith and Hume, animated by a love not only of liberty but of the learning, prosperity, and cosmopolitan sociability made possible by a society in which ideas and goods can be freely exchanged. It looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems. Its distrust of grand plans and refusal to embrace the one best way—even the one best libertarian way—made it out of place in the 20th century. They make it essential for the 21st.
In the 20th century, the greatest philosophical challenges to classical liberalism came from its socialist offshoots, with their claims of fairness and efficiency. As I’ve discussed at length in The Future and Its Enemies and more concisely in my 1999 Mont Pelerin Society speech, those are no longer the primary threats. Markets have demonstrated that they can deliver the goods, even to the poor. Calling for a small increase in the minimum wage or the earned income tax credit is very different from nationalizing industry, imposing wage and price controls, or enacting confiscatory tax rates.
Now I worry that libertarians will fight the old battles with the old allies and lose a new war—possibly a literal one. To quote the Mont Pelerin address:
The most potent challenge to markets today, and to liberal ideals more generally, is not about fairness. It is about stability and control—not as choices in our lives as individuals, but as a policy for society as a whole. It is the argument that markets are disruptive and chaotic, that they make the future unpredictable, and that they serve too many diverse values rather than “one best way.” The most important challenge to markets today is not the ideology of socialism but the ideology of stasis, the notion that the good society is one of stability, predictability, and control. The role of the state, in this view, therefore, is not so much to reallocate wealth as it is to curb, direct, or end unpredictable market evolution.
Stasis alliances have solidified over the past eight years. Today no one thinks it a bit unusual to find “progressives” arrayed with “conservatives” to oppose international trade, biomedical technologies, or the general idea of consumer choice.
And since 9/11, we have all become hyperaware of the Islamist quest for certainty, purity, and absolute stasis—a 21st-century version of utopian absolutism, promulgated largely by a nimble, decentralized non-governmental organization. Not only have ideologies shifted, but so have institutions. While the last century’s greatest threats to liberty, prosperity, and peace came from totalitarian nation-states, today’s come from transnational organizations—ranging from imperialistic regulators (the European Union) to violent religious crusaders—and from “failed states” where warring gangs have superseded governments. Focusing on the nation-state as the source of all threats to liberty is anachronistic. Oddly enough, promoting liberty may in some cases require libertarians to work at state-building, or at least state-reforming. I don’t know that he would agree with the characterization, but that is how Tom Palmer spends much of his time, spreading libertarian ideas in countries with little to no experience of liberal institutions.
Against these ideological and institutional challenges, liberal society will need the practical lessons of libertarian scholarship on decentralized order and knowledge sharing. It will need the cultural libertarianism that knows liberal society is not just familiar but good. And it will need the 18th-century wisdom that lets skepticism happily coexist with civility and reason. Surviving the 21st century with our sanity and civilization intact will require less Nietzsche and more Hume.
At a more mundane level, countering the arguments for stasis requires a vigorous defense and deepened understanding of open, dynamic, learning societies—not only from libertarians but from new allies. Brink Lindsey’s call for a liberal-libertarian coalition may sound crazy when you look at the Democratic Congress, the 2008 presidential field, or the Democrats’ reflexive demonization of pharmaceutical companies. But if you want to defend cosmopolitan individualism, including commercial freedom, creating such an alliance could prove essential.
The trick is to find genuinely shared values. A political movement, as opposed to a tactical alliance, must be united by more than agreement on a single issue (“I’m against farm subsidies. You’re against farm subsidies. Let’s get together.”) Frank Meyer’s fusionists shared the conviction that expansive government threatened both liberty and virtue and that those ideals were intertwined. The values that could similarly unite (some) liberals and (some) libertarians are those that most irritate stasists of all stripes: self-definition, knowledge and discovery, free exchange across national or tribal boundaries, the ability to take personal risks and the responsibility to bear the consequences, the pursuit of happiness. We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?
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.
Liberaltarians, the Non-Inevitable Welfare State, the Value of Libertarian Kooks, and the Limits of Consequentialism
Here are some scattered reactions to the first round of thoughtful comments, which I hope are the beginning and not the end of the conversation.
Brink Lindsey: I recognize the factual reasons for the pessimism he expressed; I share the optimism he expresses. I think it likely that the (short term) strategy he proposes toward the end of his essay about trying to forge what might be called a libertarianish (or “liberaltarian”) political movement—one with a reasonably solid Hayekian pedigree, one that recognizes the powers and richness of free markets, and believes in a dynamic social and business world—is worth pursuing (without believing it is the best or most important path to pursue.) While such a movement would not do everything that I think should ultimately be done when it comes to politics, it sounds like it could accomplish a lot that I’d be pleased with in comparison to the status quo. It could achieve social and political results worth cheering for.
I am curious about further exploring exactly what elements of the more widespread—radical, if I may say so—libertarian set of positions such a “liberaltarian” movement would stand for or advocate, and which they would not, and why. As Brink agrees, perhaps turning the current so-called welfare state into something that is only a welfare state instead of a hugely complicated round robin series of confusing and highly regulated income transfers across generations and classes that consumes huge portions of entire industries (like health care) is a good start. And, given the reactions to Brink’s reaching out so far, I’d wonder how many of these not-quite-libertarian liberals there are and what the political mechanism for bringing their power to bear might be.
Tyler Cowen: Tyler points out a fact—growing freedom in some directions, growing government in others—but I’m not convinced of the causal mechanism that makes them necessarily connected. There is a certain intuitive plausibility to “the richer we are, the more government we can afford”—but might we not, with more economic freedom, be richer still? So the questions raised by Tyler’s very thought-provoking words are: why must it be a package deal if education in libertarian principles along the classic Leonard Read lines continues? Is that sort of ideological education meaningless in terms of political and cultural change? (I know it changed the lives of, to name two completely random people, Brian Doherty and Tyler Cowen.) And even if there does seem to be some necessity to it, why need libertarians “embrace” it rather than fight against it? Given the changes we’ve seen in attitudes and practice in the past 30 years regarding inflation, regulation, and, yes, even welfare (the welfare state of today is a far different thing than the one of 20 years ago), why is Tyler so confident that “the welfare state is here to stay….like it or not.”
Tom Palmer: My wording about having a libertarian world only when people want it seems to Tom to mean that no progress toward liberty can be made without a world of people who think just like Leonard Read. He is correct that that isn’t so. But I do believe that any social or political progress in a libertarian direction does require that, at least as it applies to those areas, people who are thinking more or less like libertarians—to that degree. We can’t, for example, have a workable consensus about things like medical marijuana or gay marriage without people who have some sense that, at least in some areas, it makes sense to allow people to make their own choices with their lives as long as others aren’t being harmed—a libertarian principle. The same for changes in regulation and the welfare state.
For various complicated reasons about elections and public opinion, it may well be the case that in more abstruse areas—deregulation probably being one of them—the opinions of educated political and economic elites are far more important than mass opinion. I doubt most voters are even aware of, say, what sort of trucking regulation we used to have, what we have now, and why they should care.
But this does not make me think classic Read-style ideological education isn’t vital to a workable and stable libertarian world. Tom’s second interpretation of my “libertarian” answer about strategy is correct: I don’t know what will prove the best and most effective strategy for liberty. I think a lot of actions that are less than “best” or “most effective” are still worth doing, and that the inclinations and beliefs of each specific libertarian will be the best guide toward what will make them most effective at what they are doing—even if that particular thing isn’t the most effective thing!
To turn his metaphor around, without an intelligent and well-crafted menu, the customers are in danger of choosing a bad meal. The people whose stories I told—even the kooky and disreputable ones—were trying to create that very necessary and well-crafted menu, though intelligent libertarians will of course disagree about the extent to which they succeeded. Tom’s last sentence–” On the other hand, I’m engaged in them because I’ve been educated in the tradition of liberty by the many people whose contributions Brian so elegantly and intelligently describes and explains in his book”—is the kicker, and exactly what I would have said to him in my own defense if he hadn’t said it himself.
A modern, sober libertarian might think that, say, a Robert LeFevre was an ineffectual kook; however, I think it very unlikely we would have had any of the accomplishments related to the philanthropy of Charles and David Koch without him. One might think Murray Rothbard’s contributions to political philosophy not worth noting; but without them, we would not have had the contributions of Robert Nozick to political philosophy. The big answer to Tom’s cavils about color and kookiness over effectiveness in advocating liberty is that my book was consciously a history of a libertarian movement–people who were, or were seen as, pushing an overall libertarian vision within a specific world of self-conscious institutions and communities of affinity, not just everyone whose ideas or efforts were positive for liberty. That’s why the book has more about Andrew Galambos than, say, Armen Alchian. And while I adore Tuccille’s book, I deny that I relied on it “overmuch”; I don’t think more than a handful of pages out of over 600 are directly and specifically quoting it or relying on it alone for my interpretation–but reasonable men can disagree. I was trying to write a book that was accurate and true to the spirit of the self-conscious libertarian movement (as well as, yes, being entertaining and fascinating), and I think a fair amount of attention to people that most Americans—even most current libertarians—might find kooky was absolutely necessary for that.
Virginia Postrel (who first hired me at Reason magazine in 1994) is certainly that kind of libertarian who would find many of my major characters not worth taking seriously. Her very thoughtful comments point out that there are strains combined in the larger libertarian coalition that aren’t really philosophically compatible—and that is absolutely true. I was being descriptivist rather than prescriptivist in my book, dealing with those who, however incompatible from a larger view (and many of them recognized this themselves) were bound by a similar set of institutions, publications, supporters, and advocates.
I am not confident that a purely consequentialist libertarianism will create a world as free as most libertarians would like to see the world to be; and I don’t see how we can even judge consequences adequately without an underlying moral vision of what is right and wrong to do to people. Specifically, I’m not entirely sure (though I’m open to being convinced) that Virginia’s inspiring list of “self-definition, knowledge and discovery, free exchange across national or tribal boundaries, the ability to take personal risks and the responsibility to bear the consequences, the pursuit of happiness” can be fully defended in the larger social conversation about what kind of world people can be convinced to want without going beyond “just the facts.” I suspect it may also be necessary to appeal to and embrace certain values that may not always clearly be best in consequentialist terms.
Oddballs vs. Scholars, For Negative Liberty, Against the Welfare State
There are so many threads crossing one another that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll just pick on Brian, our author (of a terrific book) and then go on to disagree with my other commentators.
For Brian: I do think that Armen Alchian has had a big influence on libertarians, much bigger than the obscure Andrew Galambos, although many couldn’t name Alchian. (Come to think of it, I think that fewer could name the late Mr. Galambos). Alchian’s pioneering work on institutions has had a huge impact on the way that libertarians (and those they influence) see the world. (I read his co-authored textbook, University Economics, back in 1973 or so when, as a high school student I took night classes in economics and it had an impact on me and on lots of others who were introduced to economics through his work.) Galambos was a bit of a nutter, but charismatic, whereas Alchian is a sober scholar, but not so charismatic. I think that Alchian will prove to have had the greater impact. It’s not easy to sort things like influence out. Lefevre had an influence on some people who did not accept many of his ideas, but who were enthused about many of them and went on to have great influence. But Lefevre’s own odd contributions didn’t survive. So in a political history, he’s important (if only by accident). In an intellectual history, his “line” peters out, so to speak, that is, his unique contributions were not carried on. I’ll just note that I would not have put as much emphasis on such oddballs as Galambos and Lefevre, but I recognize that they did play a role, mainly by inspiring people who carried on a tradition closer to the mainstream of classical liberal/libertarian thought.
I’ve been surprised by the response of several people to my comment on Brian’s initial essay, to wit, that I am “against” educating for liberty. Far from it. It’s mainly what I do. I just don’t think that it’s enough and I disagreed with what Brian seemed to be saying, that that’s the best use of scarce resources. As per his own admission, some people like political engagement or legal wrangling more than educating, and more power to ‘em. (Er, I mean, I guess, that would be “less” power to everyone!)
For Tyler and Virginia: I’ve recorded a podcast response [.mp3] to Tyler’s podcast [.mp3] on “positive liberty” (Take That!), so I’ll just state that I think it’s confusing to refer to the greater wealth and opportunity generated by conditions of liberty (well defined and legally secure rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) as being themselves “liberty,” positive or otherwise. That’s confusing the consequences of rules with the rules themselves. And anyway, we already have good words to denote wealth and opportunity: wealth and opportunity. In my podcast I offered a simple test: compare the life of Germans in 1888 and in 1938. In the latter case they had a lot more wealth and could make phone calls, listen to music on phonographs, tune in to the radio, and fly in airplanes. So by Tyler’s definition, they had more of that cool “positive liberty,” which is [Tyler’s words] “more important than negative liberty.” But by the mainstream (libertarian) understanding of liberty, they lived under a far worse tyranny and were definitely less free; that was true not merely of those who had been sent to concentration camps, but also of those who were not, as all were subject to power and did not enjoy the conditions of liberty.
Tyler’s approach, as I understand it, is to say that what most people really care about is the exercise of their capabilities of choice, and not being free from arbitrary power or the exercise of control by others over their lives. You don’t say?! Indeed, many people have considered wealth and power as more important than freedom and justice. So what? Through freedom you can get more wealth and opportunity (if not power, in the sense of power over others, which is what a lot of people want) and that might be a good reason for why you should want freedom. OK. But don’t confuse the reason someone might want the freedom (having more prosperity) with the freedom itself. That’s just a confusion, like confusing health and medicine (I take the medicine to become healthy, but I don’t call medicine “health”).
Finally, I’m not a pure instrumentalist. I think that being free is a constituent part of a happy life, which is something desirable for its own sake and not for the sake of something else, an argument I set out [pdf] in response to Jeffrey Friedman’s pure consequentialist critique [pdf] of libertarianism (a critique rather like Tyler’s). I do value freedom for its own sake, as a constituent element of that goal (happiness) that is valuable for its own sake.
Although I share Virginia’s generally skeptical approach toward pure deductivism, I think she has overlooked the role of principles, which need not only be posited, but can be garnered from an understanding of reality. That’s what economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines offer to political theory: the ability to generate principles that will guide us when we encounter cases similar to those we have encountered (or studied) in the past. We have lots of experience with price controls and don’t have to undertake a study of whether they will cause shortages or not. We already know what to expect. (In that sense, economics is the most developed branch of what used to be called the “science of natural law”: if you abolish property rights in agricultural land, you get famine and cannibalism [see Ukraine and China]. QED.)
Moreover, Virginia’s cautions seem focused mainly on economic institutions, which do, indeed, show a variety of possible forms. (For a discussion of the varieties of property in land, see any good book on the economics of property rights; land rights, mineral rights, water rights, and the like can take a variety of forms; there’s no reason to assume that English “freehold” is the uniquely libertarian-approved form of property rights, for example.) But what about other important cases of application of principles? Do we need extensive examinations of the ramifications of prohibiting the persecution of harmless minorities (or harmless majorities, for that matter)? What about the principles of freedom of speech and a free “press” (not enjoyed very widely around the globe)? What about the persecution of gay people, or Roma, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or overseas Chinese, Lebanese, Indians, and so on? Those are settled matters among libertarians. It’s not being “dogmatic” to assert that individual rights should be recognized for all. (My colleague David Boaz has recently highlighted the importance of principles.)
I agree that “focusing on the nation state as the source of all threats to liberty is anachronistic,” but let’s remember the last century: it’s the greatest threat of them all. Al Qaeda is an evil network that should be destroyed, but it’s killed fewer innocents than plenty of states during its existence. And irrational responses by state officials to such dangers can prove to be greater threats to liberty than the dangers from which those responses are ostensibly designed to protect us.
For Tyler and Brink: Lastly, I’m not willing to make peace with the welfare state. I recognize that removing obstacles to wealth creation makes more wealth for the state to redistribute. Overall, however, we’re not (at least in the U.S.) at a historic high for federal government spending as a percentage of GDP. For some time now it’s fluctuated around 20%. I don’t like the fact that state spending has not plummeted as wealth has increased, but that’s a challenge to those who don’t like expansive state power, not something to celebrate.
Brink’s response to Tyler makes some good points, but I think he’s missing the hardest problem here:
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 reason that the welfare state is so hard to control is not because it is helping the poor and the temporarily distressed, but because it has captured so much of the middle classes, taking money from one pocket and putting it in another (minus transaction costs and handling fees, of course). Whether we accept a state-provided safety net is an important question (I’m a skeptic, as I think that the state does more to harm the poor and crowd out mutual aid than it does to benefit them), but the answer has virtually nothing to do with the reasons why the welfare state continues to grow, like The Blob. [Indescribable… Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!] The challenge for libertarians is to come up with some means of weaning the middle classes from the cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paula, and Paula to pay Peter. That’s a serious challenge for libertarians in the coming decades, in addition to Tyler’s challenge of fighting nuclear proliferation, pandemics, and global warming, not to mention curing the common cold.
Many issues have been raised, let me offer a few comments:
1. In response to Tom, I am a pluralist and I also value (libertarian) freedom for its own sake. But in most settings I value “positive freedom,” or capabilities, a good deal more. Positive freedom or positive liberty are common philosophical concepts, and I don’t see why they need be confusing. Isaiah Berlin for one straightened out the confusion some time ago. Note also that 1939 Germany was on an unsustainable path with regard to positive liberty, we all know what happened. The notion of positive liberty need not endorse such a state of affairs, plus of course libertarian rights matter too, just not as absolutes.
2. I tend to be strict in thinking that rule utilitarianism (or consequentialism) collapses into act utilitarianism. I also think that principles are contingent, and we are best off talking in terms of what really matters about outcomes and comparing it directly.
3. Al Qaeda is not only dangerous in its own right, it is also likely to provoke overreactions from nation-states. The two problems are not totally separate by any means. Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups, once that happens, threaten the very possibility of civilization.
4. I strongly agree that welfare programs should be targeted to the poor, and not serve as comprehensive transfer programs. I’ve blogged on this many times and, of course, I am hardly “sitting out the fight” or taking every aspect of the current welfare state for granted. That said, don’t expect governmental welfare to go away completely in the United States. That is a losing battle.
5. I don’t see much hope for a libertarian alliance with the left.
6. Once private corporations had the organizational wherewithal to get large in the late 19th century, governments got big too. There is an important lesson there. Technology, and to a lesser extent slavery, are why earlier American governments were often so small. The influence of classical liberal ideology is often overrated here. Somehow recapturing this past ideology won’t do the trick and it does not stand as an option.
7. Many of the blogger critics are not taking me literally enough. They read something I write and lump my views in with other people who make similar points but who hold many other opinions as well.
8. In closing, I’d again like to express my appreciation for Brian and his book.
Principles, the Welfare State, and Libertarian Cultural Traditions
Like Tom Palmer, I am “not a pure instrumentalist. I think that being free is a constituent part of a happy life, which is something desirable for its own sake and not for the sake of something else.” Unlike Tom, I’m not a philosopher, so perhaps my language suggested baggage I did not mean to imply. But in my lexicon at least, considering consequences includes—very importantly—considering consequences for liberty.
I also fully agree that an empirical approach is compatible with theory and principles, a point I thought I’d made in mentioning the large number of fine contemporary theorists in the empiricist tradition (not to mention all that talk of Hume and Smith). I reject the equation, common in some libertarian circles, of “principles” with a priori deductivism. Many of the principles we rightly defend as libertarians are heuristics derived from centuries of experience, but that does not make them any less valuable.
In his podcast, Tyler cited Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit in support of his argument that a large welfare state is inevitable. Perhaps his pessimistic conclusion is correct, but the argument is surely wrong. There is no reason to think that humans are biologically wired to consider something as vast and distant as the nation-state an extension of small-group norms. We could just as easily cook up an evolutionary explanation for why localism and private action is more natural than the welfare state. Hayek’s argument is more correct in explaining why people pay attention to visible costs and benefits and ignore less visible ones. The genuine emotional devotion of citizens to their countries and governments is not well explained by evolutionary arguments. Neither is the willingness to trust strangers that is demonstrated every day not only in global markets but in all sorts of Internet communications.
It’s not surprising that a group of libertarian intellectuals tend to focus on intellectual traditions, but I want to reiterate the importance of the libertarian cultural traditions I mentioned in my essay. With their visions of the value of being left alone to construct your own life, these traditions give emotional heft to the arguments and principles developed by libertarian intellectuals. And, despite their limitations, they can be extremely useful policy guides. “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” won’t tell you what to do about air pollution or whether to establish a safety net. But it will tell you that a good society will not allow the government to “disappear” citizens or to take their homes for the use of powerful businesses—both questions that have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court in the past few years. Again, caring about consequences includes caring about consequences for liberty. It is not simply a matter of maximizing financial returns.
Finally, I want to congratulate Brian on his book, which is not only a great achievement of history and story-telling but also a clear labor of love.
What Was Wrong With Socialism?
Reflecting on our exchanges, I’m struck by the lingering division over what was wrong with socialism, and with socialists. Libertarians agree that socialism was wrong. We disagree on exactly why. So in part what we’ve been calling a division between the empiricist and deductivist strands of libertarianism also reflects different diagnoses of the nature of socialism. Was socialism a well-intended program for the relief of human suffering that went awry because it misunderstood the nature of markets—an empirical error? Or was it an envy-driven attack on wealth creation whose main goal was to attack the rich rather than to uplift the poor—a moral error?
The answer, of course, is both. Socialists were (and are) no more homogeneous than libertarians, and “socialism” included all sorts of different policy versions and psychological motivations. But I think that Hayek was in the main correct when he dedicated The Road to Serfdom to “Socialists of All Parties” and wrote, at least in the English context, with the assumption of shared humanitarian motives. Their problem wasn’t bad will. It was bad analysis.
The arguments about socialism are relevant today especially in the context of health-care policy, which Arnold Kling rightly argues has replaced traditional industries as one of the economy’s “commanding heights.” What’s wrong with advocates of national health insurance (of one kind or another)? Is it really that they are suggesting a wealth transfer to provide a safety net for the poor or medically unlucky? Or is it something more-systemic and empirical—a risk to the freedom of choice, the consumer feedback, the innovation, and the medical abundance that Americans value in the health-care market, as compromised as it is? Advocates of “universal health care,” especially those unfamiliar with the details of policy, often suggest that it’s simply a matter of will and beneficence, not tradeoffs, and that we can somehow give everyone top-flight care—bringing those outside the system to the level of those inside—while spending no more money. They do not acknowledge the very real consequences of rationing and price controls, in the long term as well as the short term.
Most people, including many libertarians and including me, could live with a simple cash transfer of X thousand dollars per uninsured person, coercive though it might be. But that’s not what’s involved, nor is the looming fiscal disaster the most pernicious result of Medicare and its ripple effects on private insurance. We now have a situation in which primary-care physicians can barely make a living, general surgeons and anesthesiologists are migrating to cosmetic surgery, the federal government is a ubiquitous presence in medical decision making, and wealthy people over 65 won’t fork over $20 for a flu shot. If all libertarians had to say about this issue is, “Taxation is theft,” we’d be doomed.
Much of the current confusion about libertarianism’s future, and many of the deepest conflicts within libertarian circles today, can be chalked up to this fact: the world didn’t come to an end.
As Brian’s wonderful book makes vividly clear, the modern libertarian movement emerged as a prophecy of doom. Libertarians held vital knowledge about how the world works and how, consequently, societies should be ordered — yet the larger world had turned its back on this knowledge. Accordingly, the world was heading for ruin. Thus Hayek warned of the road to serfdom. Thus Mises argued that there is ultimately only the choice between laissez faire and socialism, and that all Third Ways are unsustainable makeshifts. And thus Rand made her magnum opus an apocalyptic fantasy about the consequences of abandoning individualism.
The apocalyptic mood at the heart of modern libertarianism had important consequences for the movement’s dominant intellectual style. If you think the world is coming to an end, you don’t mince words. You don’t seek compromises with the agents of destruction. Instead you state, as clearly and forcefully as you can, those neglected truths that alone can stave off disaster. And, in pulling together a “remnant” that can stick it out through the coming dark ages, you emphasize purity of commitment over all else.
During the fifties and early sixties, the heyday of American managerial liberalism, the libertarians’ dire warnings were dismissed by those in the know as so much crankish paranoia. But then came urban riots, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and gas lines — and suddenly libertarianism didn’t seem so crazy anymore. As someone who came of age in the seventies, I can assure you that it really did feel like the world was falling apart. The libertarian moment had arrived.
But then a funny thing happened. Politicians put a number of libertarian reforms into effect — not nearly as many as libertarians might have hoped, but enough to trigger the quarter-century boom that has followed the brutal recession of 1982. Big Government remained, but the apocalypse never came. It turns out that even a relatively free economy is so immensely productive that it can carry a heavy deadweight load and still make impressive progress.
So now what? Now, if libertarians are to be as influential in the next generation as they were in the last, they have to adapt to current circumstances. They have to recognize that incremental progress is the only kind of progress that’s available. They have to understand that compromise can be a path to progress. They have to forget about weeding out heretics and focus on winning converts — which means engaging and making common cause with those of differing viewpoints. In short, they have to be post-apocalyptic libertarians.
Liberty May Make Us Wealthy, but Liberty Is Not Wealth
I’ll start where my colleagues have ended, and congratulate Brian for his accomplishment in writing such a fine work and encourage everyone to go out and buy a copy. I’ve expressed my reservations about the book, but they’re quite minor. Radicals for Capitalism is a serious accomplishment and a genuinely good book.
I want to return to the issue of “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” that Tyler raised. I’m skeptical of the value of the distinction, for a variety of reasons. (Gerald MacCallum has questioned the value of the distinction and I share some of his reasons.) But I was more than a little surprised that Tyler referenced Isaiah Berlin as having “straightened out the confusion some time ago.” I hadn’t read Berlin’s essays on liberty in some time, but my recollection was that, like Benjamin Constant in his famous essay on “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to that of the Moderns,” whom Berlin cites, Berlin was warning us of the dangers lurking in the concept of “positive liberty.” I have since re-read the essay and, indeed, Berlin seems primarily to be sounding the alarm about the concept, not simply setting it next to “negative liberty” as just another valuable conception of liberty.
Berlin’s conception doesn’t strike me as quite the same as Tyler’s, in any case, which Tyler glosses as “what can I do with my life,” in contrast to the “negative” concern about “how many regulations are imposed on me.” So understood, an increase in wealth increases liberty, so that wealth = liberty. I think that’s a mistake, as I explained. (We already have a good word to denote wealth: “wealth.”) Anthony de Jasay warns us of the dangers of considering “Justice as Something Else” [.pdf] and I would repeat some of those concerns in considering “liberty as something else,” viz. wealth.
Berlin’s conception of “positive liberty,” shared by other thinkers such as Charles Taylor refers not to “what I can do with my life,” but to whether I am “my own master,” such that I am not governed by forces external to myself or – and this is where it gets really interesting (and especially dangerous to what Tyler in his second post calls “libertarian freedom”) – by those elements of my own self that are not truly or really me, that are not “authentic.” The “real” or “authentic” self has generally been, as Berlin notes in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” identified with
some super-personal entity – a State, a class, a nation, or the march of history itself, regarded as a more “real” subject of attributes than the empirical self. But the “positive” conception of freedom as self-mastery, with its suggestion of a man divided against himself, has in fact, and as a matter of history, of doctrine and of practice, lent itself more easily to this splitting of personality into two: the transcendent, dominant controller, and the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel. It is this historical fact that has been influential.
Taylor, who endorses positive liberty in his various writings, refers in his essay on “Atomism” to the requirement that, to be truly capable of freedom of choice, “we rise to the level of self-consciousness and autonomy where we can exercise choice, that we not remain enmired through fear, sloth, ignorance, or superstition in some code imposed by tradition, society, or fate which tells us how we should dispose of what belongs to us.” Such a conception of “positive liberty” is intimately associated with the “ancient liberty” described by Constant, in which the citizens are engaged in public deliberation about the public good as the realization of their freedom, which is an inherently collective freedom. Only those with the self-mastery of positive liberty, and freedom from drudgery, can engage in such acts of self-governance. In Taylor’s words, “A society in which such deliberation was public and involved everyone would realize a freedom not available anywhere else or in any other mode.”
(Even then, of course, such deliberation is not an act of freedom if it is based on “fear, sloth, ignorance, or superstition,” that is, if those deliberating are not already in agreement with the truth, and if they all already agree about the right course of action, what’s the point of deliberating? How can it be an act of freedom to express a view that is wrong, warped by fear or sloth, or falling short of truth because of ignorance or superstition? Positive liberty as collective liberty is self-defeating. Why would those who already conform to their true selves, that is, to the truth itself, bother to deliberate?)
Berlin is clearly worried – and rightly so – that the conception of “positive liberty” leads to the opposite of liberty as understood in the mainstream of classical liberalism/libertarianism:
Pluralism, with the measure of “negative” liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind.
So I don’t think that Tyler is, in fact, relying on the conception of liberty that Berlin (and others) have labeled “positive liberty.” If I have understood him correctly, he is focused on “capabilities,” not in the sense of the capability to make authentic choices as an autonomous agent, but in the sense of having more things I can do because I have more options, in a word: wealth. If that is true, then being wealthier means having more liberty, and Tyler’s response to my challenge to compare the liberties of the Germans in 1888 and in 1938 falls flat. Those in 1938 would have to have been freer, because they had more wealth and hence more things they could do with their lives (make phone calls, listen to phonographs and radios, travel in cars and airplanes, etc.). His response that “1939 Germany was on an unsustainable path with regard to positive liberty, we all know what happened” doesn’t begin to address that uncomfortable outcome of his equation of wealth with liberty. What if it had not been unsustainable? What if they had not lost the war, or had not even started it? Moreover, so what if it was unsustainable? By Tyler’s definition, they had more “positive liberty” in 1938 than in 1888 and he wants us to consider “positive liberty (‘what can I do with my life?’) as more important than negative liberty.”
That’s a worrisome outcome. Obviously, Tyler’s not endorsing any horrible outcomes. I know and admire Tyler and I’m not implying anything of the sort. I’m just pointing out that there are good reasons to be very, very skeptical about invoking conceptions of “positive liberty,” if they lead to such strange outcomes. If we were to take Tyler’s recommendation and shift libertarianism’s focus from “negative liberty” to “positive liberty” (understood either as self-mastery or as more wealth), it would represent a transformation of libertarianism that, like the shift toward the end of the nineteenth century toward “social liberalism” represented by thinkers such as Green, Hobhouse, and Naumann, would undo classical liberalism.
Lastly, Tyler’s focus on outcomes per se, and not on rules, is, I think, mistaken. I don’t agree with him that “rule utilitarianism (or consequentialism) collapses into act utilitarianism.” As a categorical statement, that’s clearly false. People follow the rule of law frequently, even though the consequences in the case at hand are undesirable. Persons accused of crimes are let off due to procedural police or prosecutorial mistakes, even though the various parties “know” that they’re guilty. And invocation of abstract rules, such as the First Amendment, convinces people who would like to force others to shut up to back off. Libertarianism is focused on the rules of just conduct, not on their outcomes. Those rules may in the end be justified by the outcomes of following the rules, but the outcomes and the rules of just conduct (notably respect for the liberty of each and all) are not the same thing and should not be confused. A freer world is – or becomes over time – a richer one, but we should not confuse wealth with freedom.
I’m struck by Brink’s use in his concluding post of the term “post-apocalyptic” libertarians. Not all libertarians were so apocalyptic, but he has put his finger on a central problem of twentieth century libertarianism. That’s a nicer and more clean discussion of what I was trying to articulate in my first reaction essay, that the goal of libertarians is to promote liberty, not – except insofar as it promotes liberty – merely to promote libertarianism. Liberty may come in great leaps, or it may come in small steps. It need not be the only alternative to total social collapse. In any case, it’s the liberty that matters to libertarians qua libertarians, and promotion of the ideology or the movement is only significant to the extent that it advances liberty itself.
I found Virginia’s podcast [.mp3] a very helpful and useful discussion of the generation and the role of principles. It turns out that talking sometimes allows for more precision than writing.
I’d like to conclude, not by congratulating Brian (which I did at the outset), but by thanking him, Virginia, Tyler, and Brink (and Will, for managing it all) for such a rewarding discussion, which has helped me to try to think through some difficult issues.