Standing Athwart History Yelling “Ha-Ha!”
In response to William’s discussion of Nozick’s classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia, commenter Travis makes what is I think a fairly typical argument for dismissing libertarians:
The nonexistence, in human history, of any stable, functioning anarcho/libertarian paradise tends to suggest that such a thing cannot exist.
If it can, why isn’t there a stampede of capital and well-heeled libertarians flooding to whatever chunk of land they can set up shop in?
Oh, right – they like living in a stable nation-state with regulated, enforced market standards, equitable and generally corruption-free systems of law and law enforcement, a highly-educated populace, extensive transportation networks that enable the free flow of goods and services, clean drinking water and (relatively) unpolluted air, access to public lands for recreation, etc. etc. etc.
Hell, the “Free State Project” couldn’t even get enough people to take over a *town* in New Hampshire.
To which, I respond “guilty as charged.” But I also say that this misses both the point and the value of libertarian theory. First, to quote Jaybird’s paraphrase of a quote from an unknown source “libertarianism is a vector, not a destination.”
But more importantly, this approach ignores the valuable role of the libertarian worldview in any kind of political discussion. It may be that, in a given instance, that worldview has some huge blind spots. But that worldview is also a voice that acts as a check against overreaches.
So maybe the moral question isn’t, what use can libertarians be to liberals, but what use can libertarians be to anybody? We are not going to bring about either a minarchist or anarcho-capitalist society anytime soon, where “soon” can be translated as ever. Truth be told, I’m not convinced that a purely minarchist society would be all that great to live in. As for anarcho-capitalism, I think even a lot of an-caps agree that it requires a long-term project of learning how to live that way as society. I think libertarians are, rather, the court jesters of politics. I mean that in a good way. We whisper to Caesar that that he is mortal. We caper about, turning ourselves blue if necessary, reminding everyone that government power is inescapably violent and inescapably self-interested. You’re probably not going to care, but we’re going to make you actively decide not to care. And sometimes, maybe you’ll care after all. As a class, we can be stupendously silly people, believing and saying the most absurd things. But our rulers are silly people too, in different and more malignant ways. And as fools, we have the freedom to say so.
I do wish that the whole post was still available online, but those paragraphs are a pretty good defense of why libertarianism has value even if anarcho-capitalism or minarchism (the “destinations” of libertarianism, if such destinations must exist) are historically and practically unachievable (and maybe even undesirable).
UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive! It seems that Jim, wise old man of the blogosphere that he is, managed to foresee the collapse of AOTP and saved/archived just about all of his writing for that Hindenburg. He has been kind (or is it shameless?) enough to reproduce in its entirety the post I quote from above along with two follow-up posts that made up the “Jester Trilogy.” I think it’s still every bit as good as it was 15 months ago, especially since a lot of his predictions about Obama (from April 2008, no less!) proved disturbingly prescient.
PS: The second post in the series calls a particular blog a “fine site that you should all be reading.” Alas, that site is now defunct as well; and yet, the authors of that site continue to press on at an even better site….I do hope that everyone who perhaps liked that first fine site has managed to update their feeds and/or blogrolls!