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Libertarian Moment?

The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America, 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.

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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about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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