Caricatures of libertarianism again
There have been a surprising number of reactions across the bloggy-sphere to Chris Beam’s long New York Magazine piece on libertarianism. I say surprising because Beam’s piece wasn’t a particularly compelling critique of libertarian political positions. In fact, it was pretty boiler plate, simmering down to essentially libertarianism = Utopianism. Though Beam takes some pains in the beginning to point out that libertarians come in all ideological shapes, sizes, and flavors, by the end of the piece he’s ditched the brush altogether and is painting with a sprayer:
Consider the social side of Libertopia. It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. “Man’s first duty is to himself,” says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. “His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.” Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise. If you don’t get your way, blow things up. And there’s the problem. If everyone refused to compromise his vision, there would be no cooperation. There would be no collective responsibility. The result wouldn’t be a city on a hill. It would be a port town in Somalia. In a world of scarce resources, everyone pursuing their own self-interest would yield not Atlas Shrugged but Lord of the Flies. And even if you did somehow achieve Libertopia, you’d be surrounded by assholes.
The most common complaints of libertarianism are all here: it is too Utopian; because of our two-party system libertarian ideas will never be tested; all libertarians are just Randians who want to Go Galt; without government we’d devolve into chaos (Somalia!). Indeed, Beam’s article reads like a confirmation or a summary of all the things liberals tend to complain about when they talk about libertarians rather than any grand new insights.
A far more compelling critique can be found in Jim Manzi’s discussion of school vouchers:
This [school vouchers] sounds fantastic, and it is, in both senses of that term. It leads to the obvious question of why we should limit school spending to whatever some government entity decides to call “education.” If individuals are the best judges of their welfare, why not let them decide how to spend this money? Taking the logic to its conclusion, we should ask: Why bother even to have such categories as school subsidies, health-care subsidies, and all the rest? Instead, why don’t we estimate the costs of a safety-net income, plus the costs of buying catastrophic insurance, and provide that amount of money to everyone in our society?
This idea has arisen again and again, on both the right and the left, beginning in the 1960s. Examples of such proposals include Milton Friedman’s negative income tax (1962), Robert Theobald’s guaranteed income (1966), James Tobin’s guaranteed income (1965), R. J. Lampman’s subsidy plan (1967), Edward Schwartz’s guaranteed income, the negative income tax proposed by President Johnson’s Income Maintenance Commission (1969), President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (1969), George McGovern’s $1,000-a-year plan (1972), and HEW’s Income Supplementation Plan (1974). The idea constantly resurfaces even today in academic discussions, and is being pursued seriously by the current coalition government in the United Kingdom. The key reason we haven’t implemented such a scheme in the United States is that we are afraid that many recipients would not work and then would blow the money on Cheetos, beer, and big-screen TVs. In more academic language, the moral legitimization of the welfare system requires that the recipients earn their benefits and use them in a way that comports with the idea of the good life held by the taxpayers who provide the funds.
Though this logic is most relevant for safety-net functions, which tend statistically to have the most irresponsible recipients, it also applies to the provision of welfare benefits to the middle class under the rationale of risk-pooling and economies of scale. To return to the example of K–12 schools, the focus on true privatization has been both doctrinaire and artificial. If school choice ever grows beyond Tinkertoy demonstration projects, taxpayers will appropriately demand that a range of controls be imposed on the schools they are funding. Would we allow families to use vouchers to send children to schools that taught no reading or mathematics, but only bomb-making, or that offered lavish “support payments” to parents that were, in effect, bribes? No, we would inevitably — and justifiably — have a fairly detailed set of regulations, along with inspection, adjudication, and enforcement mechanisms.
In other words, society will always be comprised of its own values, built haphazardly upon the beliefs of the majority. Where public dollars go so too go those cultural values. The state is a part of the mechanism by which we enforce these values. The left and the right (and libertarians!*) legislate morality because legislation is morality. Because we value stability in our society, and because there is a strong egalitarian streak wound so tightly to our individualistic streak, there will always be calls for a safety net just like there will always be calls for low taxes. Voucher programs and other efforts to limit government will face new rules and regulations, rendering many of these programs into essentially private-public cooperative efforts. Many libertarians are well aware of the real world obstacles they face, and few are so cavalier or so utopian or Randian or what-have-you that they think the state can be utterly dismantled, or even that minarchism is the best possible form of government.
In any case, I suspect the many reactions to Beam’s article are not because of any of its insights but rather because it is long and in a prestigious publication, and because it is written in such accessible language. It may not do anything but scratch a few surfaces and regurgitate a number of old anti-libertarian tropes, but that’s to be expected. Look, here I am commenting on it myself, largely because it is long and because so many other people are commenting on it and because I’m surprised at how little it really says about the Libertarian Moment in question.
* Added because greginak made a good point in the comments that libertarians also want to legislate their own morality, which is true. They place value in liberty and choice and so their policies mirror those values. I am not defending libertarianism here so much as I am critiquing what I view as a very lame take on libertarian philosophy. I am, if anything, a reluctant libertarian and probably not a libertarian at all though I share many of the same impulses as libertarians, and though I agree with a number of libertarian positions.