Every now and then someone hits the nail on the headby E.J. Dionne Jr.
In politics, we often skip past the simple questions. This is why inquiries about the fundamentals can sometimes catch everyone short.
Michael Lind, the independent-minded scholar, posed one such question last week about libertarianism that I hope will shake up the political world. I’ll get to his query in a moment. It’s important because many in the new generation of conservative politicians declare libertarianism as their core political philosophy.
Libertarians have the virtue, in principle at least, of a very clear creed: They believe in the smallest government possible, longing for what the late philosopher Robert Nozick, in his classic book “Anarchy, State and Utopia,” called “the night-watchman state.” Anything government does beyond protecting people from violence or theft and enforcing contracts is seen as illegitimate.
If you start there, taking a stand on issues is easy. All efforts to cut back on government functions — public schools, Medicare, environmental regulation, food stamps — should be supported. Anything that increases government activity (Obamacare, for example) should be opposed.
In his bracing 1970s libertarian manifesto “For a New Liberty,” the economist Murray Rothbard … concludes: “Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.”
… “Why are there no libertarian countries?”
Ruggles: Well, we DO have small government countries like Somalia and Angola to "prove" the libertarian point of view, but they seldom bring those types of countries up as success stories despite the fact they have REALLY small governments.
The ideas of the center-left — based on welfare states conjoined with market economies — have been deployed all over the democratic world, most extensively in the social democratic Scandinavian countries. We also had deadly experiments with communism, aka Marxism-Leninism, or perhaps more accurately Stalinist "state" dictatorship.
From this, Lind asks another question: “If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?” Or in the case of Somalia, their failure?
The answer lies in a kind of circular logic: Libertarians can keep holding up their dream of perfection because, as a practical matter, it is a utopia that will never be — can never be — tried in full. Even many who say they are libertarians reject the idea when it gets too close to home.
The strongest political support for a broad anti-statist libertarianism now comes from the Tea Party. Yet Tea Party members, as the polls show, are older than the country as a whole. They say they want to shrink government in a big way but are uneasy about embracing this concept when reducing Social Security and Medicare comes up. There’s no way Republicans are going to attack their own base.
But this inconsistency (or hypocrisy) contains a truth: We had something close to a small government libertarian utopia in the late 19th century and we decided it didn’t work. Smaller government meant that too many people were poor and that monopolies were formed too easily.
JD Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and their cronies controlled wealth equivalent to over 20% of the country's GDP. In today's dollars, that would be over $3 TRILLION, rather more than is controlled by Buffet, Gates, Waltons, and Kochs these days. Government policy was routinely bought and sold.
In fact, as Lind points out, most countries that we typically see as “free” and prosperous have governments that consume around 40 percent of their GDP. They are better off for it. “Libertarians,” he writes, “seem to have persuaded themselves that there is no significant trade-off between less government and more national insecurity, more crime, more illiteracy and more infant and maternal mortality ... .”
This matters to our current politics because too many politicians are making decisions on the basis of a grand, utopian theory that they never can — or will — put into practice. They then use this theory to avoid a candid conversation about the messy choices governance requires. And this is why we have gridlock.
Smitka comments: Libertarians also refuse to engage in empiricism – unlike, say, a Milton Friedman, who moved away from his earlier monetarism by the 1990s because it simply wasn't supported by the data. On a different dimension, the New Right resemble the state's rights people of old, who when push came to shove did not believe in the concept of a United States, politically or as a national economy. (Do Tea Party members realize that they are thus anything but patriots?)
Too much government? Get states to gut higher education – hardly a hypothetical – and just rely on recruiting from the next state over. For that matter, shut down local public schools, and recruit from the next county over. Roads? Healthcare? Regulation of markets? Small claims courts? As David Ruggles notes, we then start to resemble Somalia. Now Stalin never went all the way to communism (or to be more precise, socialism), but we quite rightly reject the concept on the basis of the historical evidence from his attempt to push the boundaries of the USSR polity in that direction. Somalia stops short of a full libertarianism. But such failed states ought to be enough proof that libertarianism, too, should be treated as a failed concept.