Among those that accuse libertarians of being wrong on some aspect of politics or history, the same themes come up again. I won’t list the really stupid ones, such as those accusing me of being anti-American, unpatriotic, a traitorous left-liberal Democrat, a capitalist pig, an apologist for the corporatist hegemon, an uncritical defender of the rich, a dangerous Southern demagogue who longs for hoop skirts and plantations, or any of the other ad hominem attacks that some people confuse with argument.
But I would like to address some of the more substantial common remarks.
Your suggestions are too extreme to be helpful.
This claim seems to leave out the last part of the sentence, and thereby makes one wonder: helpful to whom? If we were to fill in the blank, we would have to say helpful to policy makers, legislators, bureaucrats, journalists, and every other person who has an investment in the system as it is. The person making the attack, one presumes, is “helpful,” but I am not.
This “helpful” issue comes up in just about any area of political analysis. The proposal to abolish public school is “not helpful” to those who profit from the system as it is. The idea of getting rid of the Fed is “not helpful” for those who depend on an endlessly expanding money supply. The idea of scrapping Social Security is “not helpful” for those who use the system to loot the rest of us, and so on.
The “helpful” ideas are said to be the ones that remain within the confines of the established terms of debate and do not thus threaten the special interests. Extreme means to offer suggestions that do threaten entrenched interests. To play this game is to buy into the existing structure of ideological opinion that is designed to support the regime.
On the Iraq War, for example, we are often told that our demand for an immediate withdrawal of troops is not helpful at a time when economists are needed to fashion privatization plans and otherwise make suggestions for improving US security there. In other words, we are being told that we must accept the great imperial project as a given.
Now, it strikes me as ridiculous to claim to want fundamental change and yet avoid advocating fundamental change for fear of being dismissed. The only way to make a difference in this world is through forthrightly stating what is true. And yes, doing so is not helpful to those who resist all significant change.
You make the perfect the enemy of the good.
This would be perverse if true. For example, let’s say some want to cut the budget of the Department of Education by half. It would certainly be wrong for libertarians to lobby to prevent this on grounds that the entire bureaucracy should be abolished. Improvement should be celebrated whenever it appears.
As another example, we should favor the legalization of medical marijuana even if other uses and narcotics will not be similarly legalized. We can champion the full loaf while still being happy at half a loaf. One of the reasons is our conviction that freedom works and the best way to demonstrate this is with real life examples. Perhaps improvement in one area will inspire moves to go further.
By the way, I’m actually unaware of any libertarian who opposes the good on grounds that it is not perfect. For example, most of us want to eliminate income taxes. But we could still be pleased with a 1 percent reduction, even if that should not stop us from calling for eliminating the whole system of robbery.
Roderick Long notes that whenever he hears the phrase above, he suspects that some compromise of principle is in the offing. How true. Lately it has been said that those of us who oppose school vouchers and Social Security “privatization” are making the perfect the enemy of the good.
That’s not it at all. It’s that we think these programs will make the existing system worse — by increasing spending, nationalizing schools, and bringing about a new forced savings program. What we oppose are tricks that would use libertarian language to fasten the state more tightly around society.
That’s doesn’t mean that libertarians should not be practical. Nor does it mean that we should not advocate marginal changes. It only means that we must not be deceptive and we must not favor evil in the hope that good may come of it. Above all, we must never be tricked into backing ideas that will actually end up expanding statism.
You head the Mises Institute but you contradict (or adhere too slavishly to) Mises.
It is evenly weighted between those who say that our work too closely adheres to everything Mises says or that we dangerously depart and thus fail to show piety toward our intellectual inspiration. In fact, piety and development are not necessarily at odds.
We think of Misesianism as way of thought, a mode of analysis, a research agenda, and a model and ideal of how to be principled in times when freedom and rationality are constantly under attack. It is not a precise blueprint to follow on all matters of policy or news interpretation.
Anyone reading Mises cannot be but amazed at his prescience and brilliance, but to learn from him doesn’t require parroting back all that we hear. The whole point of cultivating a new generation is to teach what is known and then hope its members advance beyond the masters in making a contribution.
The same is true of Rothbard, Menger, Hayek, Bhm-Bawerk, or any of the greats. They all went beyond their teachers. The biggest problem we face today, however, is students that know nothing of these people. Our first job is to draw people’s attention to their legacy and then to tolerate differences among thinkers and cultivate an environment of principled but free inquiry.
The implication is that we are only talking to each other. That is not such a bad thing, by the way, if the group that consists of “each other” or the “choir” is brilliant and forever expanding. It can become terribly dull to only talk to people who are not in the “choir” and thus have no knowledge of the theory and history of the Austro-libertarian intellectual apparatus. There is no development if you only repeat the fundamentals.
In truth, we make every effort to reach out without giving up principle. We don’t slavishly write for venues solely because we are asked, but we are glad for most any venue to publish our writings.
In any case, with the web, this criticism concerning internal development has become patently absurd. The reach of libertarian websites is global and stretches to all ages and classes. One of the reasons for this is that we have a good product to offer the world — a direct result of having spent so many years on internal development.
There are many more accusations made against what we do, but that’s enough for part one.