Libertarianism’s Achilles’ Heel
In politics, we often skip past the simple questions. This is why inquiries about the fundamentals can sometimes catch everyone short.
Michael Lind, the independent-minded scholar, posed one such question last week about libertarianism that I hope will shake up the political world. It’s important because many in the new generation of conservative politicians declare libertarianism as their core political philosophy.
It’s true that since nearly all Americans favor limits on government, most of us have found libertarians to be helpful allies at one point or another. Libertarians have the virtue, in principle at least, of a very clear creed: They believe in the smallest government possible, longing for what the late philosopher Robert Nozick, in his classic book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” called “the night-watchman state.” Anything government does beyond protecting people from violence or theft and enforcing contracts is seen as illegitimate.
If you start there, taking a stand on the issues of the day is easy. All efforts to cut back on government functions — public schools, Medicare, environmental regulation, food stamps — should be supported. Anything that increases government activity (Obamacare, for example) should be opposed.
In his bracing 1970s libertarian manifesto “For a New Liberty,” the economist Murray Rothbard promised a nation that would be characterized by “individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government and a free-market economy.”
Rothbard’s book concludes with boldness: “Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.”
This is where Lind’s question comes in. Note that Rothbard freely acknowledges that “liberty has never been fully tried,” at least by the libertarians’ exacting definition. In an essay in Salon, Lind asks:
“If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early 21st century is organized along libertarian lines?”
In other words, “Why are there no libertarian countries?”