One of my biggest quibbles with a lot of the libertarian writing I encounter is that it tends to focus so much on how terrible government is without really framing it in a larger, more compelling narrative about moral hazard and crony capitalism and so forth. Pick up a copy of reason magazine and you’ll find dozens of examples of stupid or absurd government actions and far fewer attempts to weave these abuses into a larger story about how government enables private actors to magnify their own misdeeds. (There’s also often really good articles by writers like Radley Balko on police abuse and other really urgent and important issues, but overall I find a magazine like reason too myopic, too focused on anecdotal anti-government sentiment.)
I prefer to think about shifting political coalitions, fusionist movements, bohemian conservatism and local food cooperatives. And fantasy novels. And good beer. That sort of stuff. So I’m not exactly aggreived by the New York Magazine piece. Much of it was a fair summary, if a little generic, and in any case I don’t have a lot of bones to pick with much of what he wrote – for the first half of the piece he seemed genuinely interested in giving libertarianism its fair shake. But a couple things did bother me.
The first is that the whole piece was just so predictable. I mentioned this in my last post. All the libertarian bogeymen make an appearance. The thrust of the article is the problem with minarchism – not with libertarianism at all, but with one particularly purist variety. James K gets to the heart of this in the comments:
One of the things that bugs me about critiques of libertarianism is that it tends to focus at the minarchist end (privatising roads, abolishing welfare), rather than at the current policy margins (free trade, school vouchers, ending the war on drugs).
Regardless of the merits of minarchism, there’s no feasible way to jump to it from a modern Western state in one jump. So why argue over a non-option? Why not argue about libertarian-aligned policies that could be implemented feasibly under current governance structures?
Focusing on minarchism is just a straw-man unless you’re specifically writing about the problems with minarchism. Which Beam wasn’t. He was writing about libertarianism writ large. And I guess I’m just bored with this sort of critique of libertarianism, much as I’m bored with the Fox News critique of Obama’s secular socialist machine. I’ve thought a lot about this – about choice, and freedom to exit, and voluntary associations, and the importance of low unemployment (honestly, this one is the biggest for me – I’m very uneasy about all the materialism in our society, the Big-Boxing of America, the death of the local as big corporations and big government sweep in to town after town, but I have trouble saying that my concerns are more important than other peoples’ jobs…) – and there are a number of things about libertarianism that make me very uncomfortable. I mentioned the Manzi piece as a way to point to one of those things: society is by its very nature a collective and democracy is by its very nature a weapon of the collective will. As much as I do believe libertarianism is a good guiding light for many policies, I’m also aware that you can only move so far down that path before the cultural values of a society will come into play. This is why we’ll have a much easier time legalizing marijuana than cocaine or prostitution. This is why we’ll never abolish the welfare state. But honestly, a lot of the important work libertarians are doing is on things that we could change: we could scale back the war on drugs, overseas militarism, SWAT raids on poor people. We could find ways to put better checks on concentrated power. And we should. I’m not a state’s rights guy myself – I tend to agree with Mark on that point – but I am a decentralist more broadly. I believe in the value of subsidiarity properly understood.
So to Freddie’s comment:
Honestly… look, I’m not a libertarian, obviously, and most of the people here are, and that’s the context. But seriously – toughen up, guys.
Look at me. I’m on the fringe, but really, there isn’t a much larger number of genuine libertarians than genuine revolutionary anti-capitalists in this country. Not really. What libertarians do have is the cover of respectability, which they’ve bought, with Cato and Reason and the libertarian think-tank and media establishment. And good for them. Me, I’m a part of an ideology that point blank gets me and my arguments assumed out of respectability and seriousness before I start arguing.
And you know what? Good. Because fuck them. it’s a good check on myself; I don’t want them to be cool with me, and I don’t want to be cool with them. I’m tough and I like it. We don’t have your money or your media or your influence but when you are dismissed out of hand you get a thick skin about things.
But now I read an article where a guy seems to me to frankly be falling all over himself trying to be even-handed and fair, and I read all these posts from aggrieved libertarians who have had their feelings hurt. For what? For this? Come on. When the Catholic priest scandal flared up again this year, someone emailed me to tell me that because I’m an insufficiently militant atheist, I am partially responsible for child rape. That’s the Internet. It ain’t beanbag, and neither are politics.
So I don’t know what the wounded attitude accomplishes. It doesn’t make libertarianism look wronged. It just makes it look weak.
I’m not always the best judge of my own writing, so if my last post came off as wounded and too thin-skinned, well that certainly wasn’t my intent. I would just prefer to see a more interesting critique that the one in the New York Magazine article. I’ve heard all of this before. The fact that Beam couches it all in a couple of pages of even-handedness doesn’t change the fact. That he goes out of his way to point out that libertarians are a diverse bunch before inexplicably lumping them all into the ‘abolish the welfare state’ camp is hardly egregious – it’s just sort of lazy.