By asking “If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?” Michael Lind has set up the all-too familiar trap of the intellectual straw man, and it seems that many libertarians have fallen for it.
His question makes as little sense when you replace “libertarianism” with, say, “atheism” or “environmentalism” or “feminism.” Operating in a liberal-democratic system that is driven by what Isaiah Berlin described as “value pluralism,” libertarian intellectuals and activists aim at affecting the world of ideas and the political process through the policy concepts they propose, not at establishing a Utopia based on their principles.
From that perspective, it’s difficult to argue that libertarian or classical-liberal ideas as they apply to economic policies—a.k.a. “free-market ideology”—haven’t had a dramatic impact in the last four decades or so.
Anyone reading this post will be familiar with the growing power of the free-market ideas of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and the like, and their role in launching the shift towards the restructuring the welfare state under leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a shift that in some cases (New Zealand, for example) was transformative in nature.
Lind is correct in reminding us that the welfare state remains alive and well in the United States, Britain, and other Western countries. Reaganism and Thatcherism didn’t take the form of revolutions that led to the creation of “libertarian countries.” And it’s possible that many of the reforms in the welfare state would have taken place in the form of pragmatic responses to economic stagnation and the process of globalization even without the direct infusion of libertarian ideology.
But the fact remains that for most of the 1980s and 1990s free-market ideas were in ascendancy and the political spectrum worldwide—including Democrats under Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Labour under Tony Blair in the UK, not to mention the leadership classes of post-Communist China, Russia, and India—moved in that direction.
That didn’t transform anyplace on earth into a libertarian Utopia, to be sure. In fact, Singapore, which Lind points to as an example of a libertarian state, is if anything the ultimate Nanny State, while the economic liberalization of Chile took place under a military dictatorship.
One of the main and obvious reasons why the libertarian movement in this country has failed to develop into an effective political force has been the existing two-party system. It’s not inconceivable that if the United States had a parliamentary system, a viable Libertarian Party could have played a role in shaping legislation and policy, not unlike that of the laissez-faire Free Democrats in Germany or the left-libertarian Liberal Democrats in Britain.
The good news for libertarians marginalized by the two-party system is that their thinkers and activists are not forced to implement their ideas by way of specific policies, a process that requires making formal coalitions, concessions to other political groups, and embracing a nuanced approach to issues ranging from free trade to drug legalization. Libertarians can remain ideologically pure—which is also the bad news since it allows Lind to ridicule them as dogmatic ideologues and Utopians.