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Libertarian Moment?

The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America [1], Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, PublicAffairs, 288 pages

Libertarian thinking can be sorted out into three baskets: first, a fierce negative critique of the statist status quo; second, a hopeful description of the many social trends that can be seen as favorable to libertarian inevitabilism; and third—just in case the inevitable doesn’t happen soon enough—a list of government-reducing policy recommendations that would hurry history along.

As for the first basket, everyone aligned on the right, libertarian or not, will agree that the current political system is rotten. This leviathan does indeed deserve to be starved.

And as for the second basket, taking note of favorable present-day trends, libertarians seem to have the Zeitgeist wind at their back. The developments of the last few decades have pushed society in a libertarian—although some would say libertine—direction.

Yet it’s that third basket, specific policy prescription, in which libertarianism has a harder time, for the simple reason that the American people don’t agree with many elements of the libertarian agenda.

But don’t try telling that to Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, coauthors of a breezy new book, The Declaration of Independents. Gillespie and Welch have studied the laws of history—as well as the main currents of popular culture—and foresee complete triumph for their point of view, sweeping away not only the bureaucracy but also the two parties. As they write: “This book is about hastening the inevitable arrival of that more efficient system on the doorstep of America’s most stubborn foot-dragging, reactionary sector—government at the local, state, and especially federal levels—and its officially authorized customer-hating agents, the Democrats and Republicans.”

In their critique of the status quo, the authors round on some easy targets, such as high public employee salaries, as well as the general incompetence of many public systems, such as education. As the authors note, annual per-pupil public education spending nationwide is now over $10,000, with little or no improvement in test scores. Indeed, in mid-May, New Jersey governor Chris Christie released a report that per-pupil spending in the Garden State had risen to $17,800. Given this combination of expense and incompetence, any market-oriented nostrum prescribed by libertarians, from charter schools to vouchers, starts to look pretty good.

If public education is a treasured totem of the left, neoconservative foreign policy is a totem for most of the right—and Gillespie and Welch are eager to knock that one down, too. They not only attack the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as “ill-conceived,” but they remind the reader that for a time at least even such a pillar of the liberal establishment as Vanity Fair was pro-war and pro-Bush. As the authors put it, in their own vivid, gonzo-wannabe style, those were the days when “Karl Rove haunted the halls of power like Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, cutting down enemies and opponents for the sheer joy of it, all before sitting down for a family supper of fresh liberal meat.”

Some readers will be put off by such stylings, as when they write that former President George H.W. Bush was “puking” on the Japanese prime minister two decades ago. Indeed, in their gonzo-ness, the authors seem so carried away by the flight of their rhetoric that they sometimes touch down in ideological terra incognita; they assert, for example, that filmmaker Ken Burns made “barfumentaries” that praised the establishment of national parks. Is Yosemite really that bad?

But in their pell-mell urgency to declare that this is “the libertarian moment,” the authors have no time to slow down for subtlety—they have an entire theory of optimistic history to cram into less than 250 pages. Expounding what might be called neo-Whiggism, as an homage to Herbert Butterfield’s 1931 Whig Interpretation of History, Gillespie and Welch unspool a cheery survey of human history inexorably chugging toward Liberty Station: “There is a learning curve here, one that human beings have been struggling with for 40 years, 400 years, 4000 years.” And the result of all this progress will be a “futuretastic world of nearly infinite individual choice, specialization, and autonomy”—but, of course, we first must get the government out of the way.

A key moment in this human progression is the American Declaration of Independence—or at least a part of it. Seizing upon “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the authors presume that those words are the essence of the document, a “refreshing blast of radical Enlightenment.”

And yet in 2011, “We do not equate happiness with politics.” That is, government and politics, inevitably bureaucratic and binary as they must be, are simply not fun because they restrict choice and curtail maximum happiness: “Democrats and Republicans still insist that you sign up for a bundle package that even the most truculent cable operators would be embarrassed to foist on captive customers.”

Perhaps “happiness” was never the whole point of the Declaration or the war that followed; George Washington, to name one Founder, had a sternly civic-minded vision of happiness, and it had nothing to do with “infinite individual choice.” Having survived countless battles on behalf of his country, Washington was determined that America would survive as a nation—and it was only the hard, serious work of statecraft that would guarantee its survival.

It was President Washington, too, who commissioned Alexander Hamilton to write the Report on Manufactures—a 1791 defense-industrial agenda focusing on the need for the 18th-century equivalent of, yes, big government to make sure that military production was insourced, not outsourced. It’s worth emphasizing that the Report was written by the first Treasury secretary, at the behest of the first president, and accepted by the first Congress. If libertarians argue (and many do) that Hamilton was some sort of mutant militarist or corporatist, they find themselves at odds with the thinking of those who were actually present at the Founding.

Dismissing the essential Hamiltonian idea that concerted political action can help preserve and protect a nation, the authors approvingly cite the 19th-century historian Henry Adams, who wrote that politics “has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” To which one can respond: it’s a good thing, at least, that the hatreds are systematized—because otherwise, it’s the war of all against all. Indeed, the art of government is to see that conflicts are channeled, managed, and resolved in some fashion short of civil war. That’s how happiness is best attained—within the rigorous structure of a republic.

Despite the authors’ claim for the inevitability of libertarianism, their vision for America seems to be facing some fierce political headwinds. While Gillespie and Welch cite data showing that 14 percent of voters identify themselves as libertarian and that 59 percent lean at least somewhat in a libertarian direction, it is also true that the 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidate, former Rep. Bob Barr—who had far more Washington experience than Barack Obama—won less than half of one percent of the national vote.

OK, the authors say, but just wait for the next neo-Whiggish burst of emancipation. They invoke cyberspace: “The generation raised on the Internet has essentially been raised libertarian.” And it’s true that for decades theoreticians ranging from Howard Rheingold on the left to George Gilder on the right have rhapsodized about the libertarian potential of cyberspace—everyone free to be you and me, self-organizing in a non-hierarchical way.

Yet a substantial body of counter-utopianism about the World Wide Web has been building in recent years. Authors such as Debora Spar and Tim Wu have argued that the openness of the Net is just a phase in the cycle preceding ineluctable corporate control, while others, such as A.J. Keen, go so far as to envision “digital feudalism”—that is, a few giant castles of Net power, surrounded by microserfs. And Evgeny Morozov predicts a new and fearful wave of Web-based surveillance, a concern echoed by Julian Assange, describing just one component of this Brave Net World:

Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations and the communications with each other, their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S. intelligence.

Even if the U.S. government didn’t exist, would we trust Facebook by itself? What do libertarians have to say about the prospect of corporations growing so strong and all-knowing that they become, in effect, their own kind of government?

As for policy prescriptions, Gillespie-and-Welch-style libertarianism is a mixed bag. We might agree that school choice is an idea whose time has come, while exuberant foreign wars and endless nation-building are crazes that need to go. But then we confront other issues: What’s the libertarian position on abortion? How about legalizing drugs? Or opening the U.S.-Mexico border?

Finally, we might dwell for a moment on another issue, healthcare. In a tone that might seem more Naderite than Friedmanite, the authors denounce “the cult of the doctor … which needs to be thoroughly demythologized and recognized for the centuries-old propaganda campaign it is.” Apparently, some bamboozlement schemes emanate from the private sector as well—unless the healing arts are now to be considered to be part of the statist apparat. Gillespie and Welch even cite approvingly the assertion of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers that “nearly 30 percent of Medicare’s costs could be saved without adverse health consequences”—giving authority, in other words, to a despised government entity.

The authors’ solution, of course, is the free market. Yet the idea of a free market for Medicare was trounced in the May 24 special election in New York, in which mostly Republican voters rejected Rep. Paul Ryan’s “empowerment” approach to senior healthcare. And more broadly, is it really the case that the free market should trump professional canons of medical ethics? Should doctors put aside the Hippocratic Oath in favor of profit maximization? Are those the doctors that you want to visit?

Gillespie and Welch also neglect the reality that science, including medical science, has imperatives of its own. It was not the free market that gave us penicillin, or the polio vaccine, or the eradication of smallpox. Instead, it was a pluralistic combination of public and private actors, spearheaded by doctors who, in fact, do have special healing knowledge to dispense.

And so contemporary libertarianism runs up against yet another weakness: its too glib dismissal of the long-term and expensive science that few entrepreneurs pursue. The miracle of the marketplace hasn’t come up with a cure for Alzheimer’s, and it’s unlikely that it ever will because those kinds of megaprojects have always been undertaken by nonprofits of one kind or another.

[2]The literature of libertarianism once abounded with lyrical fictions of scientists and engineers, dreaming of new trains, skyscrapers, and interplanetary rockets. Indeed, to young romantic minds the best vindication of the libertarian ideal is the Nietzschean awesomeness that comes from the full unleashing of human intellect. Besides, the best way to guarantee freedom is to move as far away as possible from those who would take away freedom; so why not a lunar libertarian rebellion against the oppressive earth, as Robert Heinlein envisioned in his 1966 novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress?

Unfortunately, in recent decades this pro-science tradition seems to have disappeared from the libertarian political discourse, replaced by a dry focus on markets. And so, for example, the authors never mention that the mighty Internet started out as a government program.

Moreover, the formula of less technology and more ideology is not the way to appeal to the pragmatic middle of America—the folks who simply want better lives. Simple human betterment has been the basic appeal of such techno-heroes as Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, and Steve Jobs. If there’s not much of that transformative spirit in our current two-party system, neither is there much in Declaration of Independents.

Always optimistic, the authors conclude that they have written this book to “ensure that our own children can pursue happiness the old-fashioned way—far the hell away from politics.” Well, OK, but absent a more compelling and comprehensive vision that can grab hearts and minds and win elections, libertarian polemicists, whether they like it or not, will indeed be kept far from real-world politics and real-world victories.

James P. Pinkerton is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributor to the Fox News Channel.

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21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Libertarian Moment?"

#1 Pingback By Eunomia » A Declaration of Optimism On July 6, 2011 @ 8:42 am

[…] Update: Pinkerton’s review is online. […]

#2 Comment By Dan On July 6, 2011 @ 9:10 am

It’s correct to point out that a slavish commitment to absolutely free markets is no where in the near future for this country. They are probably right, it probably is the Libertarian Moment. Unfortunately, we still need leaders, so that leaves libertarians out. It’s like golf; the worst thing about playing golf is hanging out with golfers.

#3 Comment By RockLibertyWarrior On July 6, 2011 @ 10:28 am

Sorry for being knee jerk but this guy seems to me like a apologist for statism. It seems he is giving big government excuses, again I don’t have reiterate that the FREE market drives technological innovation and scientific discovery. Sure the internet started as a government idea via the Pentagon but only became a wide spread thing when the private sector got a hold of it and it is incorrect of the writer to presume that a entrepreneur won’t pursue avenues of investment that “take to long” whatever, there is lots of them that do and have, they have contributed to the betterment of civilization. When I read this review I got the feeling the writer was some Kristolite conservative apologist. The government robs, it is a parasite that sucks its host (the private sector) dry. The only way it can fund it’s projects is taking money from the productive sector, many libs and cons forget this.

#4 Comment By Sean Scallon On July 6, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

“Even if the U.S. government didn’t exist, would we trust Facebook by itself? What do libertarians have to say about the prospect of corporations growing so strong and all-knowing that they become, in effect, their own kind of government?”

What would they say? Why they would say: “Gee, ain’t progress wunnerful?”

#5 Comment By Wesley Mcgranor On July 6, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

The License Party via their borderless ‘free-market’. Wich includes an economically defined ‘liberty’ — are not the liberty of culture and character that those adhering to the former civil religion — would so embody.

#6 Comment By Mr. Ed On July 6, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

It’s painfully obvious that America is nowhere near a “libertarian moment,” Gillespie and Welch’s Hegelian, wishful “analysis” notwithstanding. Pinkerton very effectively proves why, though ironically not by his factual analysis (or lack thereof), but by trotting out all the half-formed impressions and shibboleths that continue to dominate the unexamined assumptions of American political culture.

Pinkerton is right to point out that Hamilton wasn’t the only unlibertarian member of who we refer to as the “Founding Fathers,” which shows that libertarians should stop citing them as some sort of pantheon of libertarian gods. Most of them were only for liberty to the extent that it suited their own pursuit of power. But the premise implied by Pinkerton’s own Founding Father worship hardly makes him more right than Gillespie and Welch.

Oh, oh, oh…who is going to protect us from the rapacious, evil corporations? He sounds like a typical Progressive Leftist. I have to wonder, if corporations are all by nature so evil, why has he fallen into their trap of using one of their most nefarious inventions, the personal computer, to spread his paranoid anti-free market delusions?

Oh, but the internet was invented by government bureaucrats, so presumably that’s what makes it so safe and effective. Only it wasn’t invented by the government–the INTRAnet was invented by the government, and any goverment employee who used it could tell you how clunky and time consuming it was. It was only after it was opened up to market actors that it became the internet and became only more efficient and more satisfying to the users as time went on. That’s no reason for Gillespie and Welch to predict digital utopia, but in Pinkerton’s just as happily fact-free, assumption-driven world, government is the greatest source of technology and scientific advancement, a proposition that’s just as dubious and just as countered by the facts.

To the extent that corporations can profit at the expense of others rather than by satisfying their desires, who does he think enables, facilitates and provides the skewed, perverse legal framework for such exploitation? Hint: Corporations can’t write their own laws, print up their own money and subsidize themselves, nor do they have their own armed thugs with the legal privilege of forcing others to do their bidding. It is coercive GOVERNMENT that such political entrepreneurs must lobby in order to benefit from its monopoly power to bully the populace, and it is ultimately GOVERNMENT bureaucrats who decide who gets which shares of the spoils, or if there are even to be any spoils (taxes). Without coercive government, the corporation has to compete for every dollar it gets by fulfilling the needs and desires of others. Without an entity privileged to levy taxation on hundreds of millions, all costs of aggression have to be internalized rather than externalized onto any hapless taxpayers, thus discouraging any tendency toward aggression.

But if Pinkerton actually bothered to read any libertarian thinkers other than the overgrown adolescents Nick Gillespie and former “warblogger” Matt Welch, he’d be aware of these arguments and could respond to them instead of building straw men.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re really afraid of Facebook or other social media conducting clandestine espionage, there’s a very neat solution to that: DON’T SIGN UP FOR IT. Contrast that with the government thugs who can tap your phones, record your conversations and yes, even kill you if the president of the United States wills it to be done.

But no, libertarians like myself are all wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and conservatives and liberals have reality and elections on their side. They have had elections on their side to be sure, and thanks to uncritical assumptions like Pinkerton’s they will continue to dominate elections for the forseeable future, but the reality is that profit seeking entrepreneurs of all stripes and sizes have been doing everything possible to make life easier for their fellow men while government bureaucrats and politicians have endeavored to bring us nothing but pain and misery.

Rock on in that world, people.

#7 Comment By Sips On July 6, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

Pinkerton, you’re an anti-interventionist neocon, but hardly a paleocon.

#8 Comment By Captain America On July 6, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

Libertarians have a dream-world they construct, it’s very utopian. . . such as the idle notion of a “free market.” They lack the ability to discern that politics IS a part of human flourishing, per Aristotle. Zero politics would be a bad thing.

Life in 2011 requires serious federal government, and true libertarians would do well to take their axes to the mega-corporation, if they honestly wish to promote economic freedom.

#9 Comment By Royden On July 6, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

“Should doctors put aside the Hippocratic Oath in favor of profit maximization? Are those the doctors that you want to visit?”

My old man used to be a General Practitioner who ran his own office. He charged $4.00 for an office visit and $5.00 for a house call. Patients that were poor were treated for free. He didn’t use a collection agency and kept his own books and medical records with the help of two nurses.

This is how things worked before the subsidization of medicine by the government destroyed the pricing mechanism. Who says the free market can’t work for medicine?

#10 Comment By mpresley On July 7, 2011 @ 4:15 am

How “free” can the market be when any new US company is burdened with myriad regulations, but manufacturers can produce anything and everything in China under minimal constraints? But, other than libertarians, I don’t hear many Americans talking about dismantling the EPA?

There is an “open borders-free association” idea associated with libertarianism that dooms itself. Simply, Mexicans and other Third World types are anti-libertarians. The more that are let in, the less likely it will ever be that libertarian ideas are adopted.

Libertarians want to look at “individuals” as autonomous units, never understanding that “group behavior” is often a better explanatory model for human action. Different groups are not comprised of autonomous, interchangeable units. One must never underestimate the power of difference.

#11 Pingback By James K. Pinkerton, on Declaration of Independents: “libertarian polemicists, whether they like it or not, will indeed be kept far from real-world politics and real-world victories” – Hit & Run : Reason Magazine On July 7, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

[…] Welch | July 7, 2011 Over at The American Conservative, James P. Pinkerton throws cold water on the "breezy," "gonzo-wannabe," "neo-Whiggish" optimism of […]

#12 Comment By skr On July 7, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

@mpresley

Wow, the racism is strong with this one. I actually know a lot of illegal immigrants, and they are all very entrepenurial and hard working. Some will buy food products like ice cream bars and fruit at wholesale and drag them around the streets selling in order to make a little extra money for the family. Does that sound like the statist socialist stereotype you seem to employ? I understand that a lot of them come from very socialist countries. I also understand that some of the most vocal critics of communism (Rand for example) came from communist countries. Those they flee socialism for work in a capitalist country seem to be those most likely to understand the failings of centralized control of the economy.

#13 Comment By skr On July 7, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

oh right and they do that after working a 10 hour day on a job site.

#14 Comment By mpresley On July 7, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

@skr: Generally, whenever contemplating shouting the mind-killing (and argument killing) word, “racism,” one ought to have the presence of mind to hold off, at least for a sentence or two, if only for the sake of disciplined argument and proper rhetorical effect. You, however, by calling me a racist from the get-go, have committed a major breach of etiquette, not unlike the kid in ‘A Christmas Story’ who went for the ‘triple-dog dare’ embarrassingly out of turn. I suggest that you work on your subtlety.

On the other hand, it has been my experience that whenever one has been accused of racism for simply pointing out a common social fact, especially when they were doing it in such a civil manner, it can only mean that the accused is not only on the right track, but creating dissonance in otherwise gentle minds, minds that may one day come around to reality. Even libertarians are capable of coming around to reality, sometimes.

#15 Comment By Mad Doc MacRae On July 7, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

Ugh, optimistic libertarians are the worst. Pessimistic anarchism is the way forward.

lol or at least the right attitude as we continue our decline.

#16 Comment By Seen all this BS before On July 9, 2011 @ 12:55 am

I grew weary of libertarian utopianism about the time I started shaving. Stop with your pointless arguments and direct your ire at the GOP where you actually have a chance to enact some of what you say you want. I suspect that most of you, instead of working hard on the ground, prefer to sit on the veranda, with a beer can in your hands and a slogan on your lips, while the rest of us till your fields. Listening to you, it is all I can do to keep from barfing.

#17 Comment By Peter Morgan On July 10, 2011 @ 6:56 am

As an Australian I am always somewhat amused that in the United States liberterianism is considered right wing. I suppose this is probably due to the fact that both conservatives and liberterians were opposed to socialism and common enemies make strange bedfellows.

Liberterianism actually belongs on the left, and there are two main reasons for this.Firstly unlike conservatism which is a broad philosophy, liberterianism is an ideology, Secondly like all leftist ideologues liberterians are utopians, and this is were the real divide between conservatives and liberterians exists.

#18 Comment By langa On July 10, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

So, let’s see, Mr. Ed thoroughly demolishes Pinkerton’s half-baked “analysis”, but none of the subsequent comments bother to address anything that he said, choosing instead to stick with the time-tested refrain of, “Oh, those stupid, naive libertarians; don’t they realize we need government to save us from all the evil things in the world?”

#19 Comment By Kelly Rek On July 11, 2011 @ 2:19 am

Capitalism does not happen in a vacuum. Its participants are comprised of real human beings. They have empathy for one another. (Therefore, the profit motive is tempered by moral conscience.)

@Royden told us about his father who “charged $4.00 for an office visit and $5.00 for a house call. Patients that were poor were treated for free. He didn’t use a collection agency and kept his own books and medical records with the help of two nurses.”

“This is how things worked before the subsidization of medicine by the government destroyed the pricing mechanism. Who says the free market can’t work for medicine?” [@Royden]

Today, we have “corporate medicine.” It isn’t free market anymore. Monopolies dominate; prices are high; competition is squelched; insurance dictates.

The provider-side of healthcare is profited by the stringent licensing laws, the compliant medical boards, and the blessings of patent protection. These government regulations help to ensure tenure for the players within a monopolistic framework.

The American citizen is a serf of the insurance agency that rations care. The doctor has less of an interest in serving the patient’s needs and more of an interest to engage the insurance company that pays the bill. (In some cases, this engagement with the insurance agency [like Medicare] involves fraud.)

Whether we are talking about private insurance or government Medicare, this type of setup undermines the doctor-patient relationship. The pricing mechanism gets distorted. There isn’t any “skin in the game.” Thus, the patient does not have any discipline to pay attention to prices or to stop wasteful practices.

The insurance industry is a de facto government. The premiums are like taxes. The policy holder is then governed by the insurance company (regarding that person’s healthcare). It is the entity that negotiates prices and rations care — just like the government!

But there are differences. The insurance company is answerable to its shareholders. The government is answerable to its citizenry.

So what is the libertarian solution? Get the American people away from its dependence on insurance for routine care! We need to be in charge of our own health-care again. This will be liberating, not only for the patient, but also for the doctor.

The purpose of insurance is for catastrophe. For example, when we purchase auto insurance, do we expect it to pay for the gasoline we put into our cars? Of course not! The insurance is for accident coverage, not fuel coverage. (Nor do we use insurance for routine auto repairs, either.)

This popularity of insurance for routine health-care fosters a welfare mentality. We expect “free” doctor visits and “free” drugs. The premiums are expensive because of this scenario. Likewise, in a welfare state, taxes are high for the same reason.

#20 Comment By Kelly Rek On July 11, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

“Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations and the communications with each other, their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S. intelligence.” [Pinkerton]

Sunlight is the best disinfectant to Big Government. Why the paranoia?

“Even if the U.S. government didn’t exist, would we trust Facebook by itself? What do libertarians have to say about the prospect of corporations growing so strong and all-knowing that they become, in effect, their own kind of government?” [Pinkerton]

The insurance industry is a de facto government. When we pay premiums, they are “taxes.” The insurance company rations care; so does the government. The former works for the stockholders; the latter works for the citizenry.

The problem with corporations and government arise when they get too big. They become a monopoly; competition is discouraged. Alas … the corporate state is anti-capitalist.

#21 Pingback By James K. Pinkerton, on: “libertarian polemicists, whether they like it or not, will indeed be kept far from real-world politics and real-world victories” – The Declaration of Independents : Reason Magazine On August 5, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

[…] Welch | July 7, 2011 GA_googleFillSlot("inner1"); Over at The American Conservative, James P. Pinkerton throws cold water on the "breezy," "gonzo-wannabe," "neo-Whiggish" optimism of […]