The Real Libertarian Paradox


Libertarians can be too doctrinaire, and when they are, they are shut out of policy debates. It is far better to recognize that government is here to stay and therefore it is more realistic to devise middle-way positions that grant it an active role. Otherwise, no one will listen to the libertarians and they become irrelevant.

Or so says George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in an odd review essay of Brian Doherty’s new book on the history of the libertarian movement.

Cowen’s argument comes down to one of strategy. He writes, "The major libertarian response to modernity is simply to wish that the package deal we face isn’t a package deal. But it is, and that is why libertarians are becoming intellectually less important compared to, say, the 1970s or 1980s. So much of libertarianism has become a series of complaints about voter ignorance, or against the motives of special interest groups. The complaints are largely true, but many of the battles are losing ones. No, we should not be extreme fatalists, but the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not."

In other words, freedom and less freedom are a "package deal." And if you have a problem with that, then you have a problem with modernity.

It’s not a new argument. Indeed, many self-proclaimed libertarians (especially in the D.C.-area) have been making it since 9/11, and they display a lack of understanding of libertarian intellectual history. They ignore that the policy successes of libertarianism in the 1970s and 1980s, though far from perfect, resulted from decades-long intellectual battles in which libertarians, classical liberals, and members of the Old Right eschewed middle-way thinking about the State. The point is that the contributions of people like Albert Jay Nock, Garrett Garrett, John T. Flynn, Henry Hazlitt, Rose Wilder Lane, H.L. Mencken, Frank Chodorov, Ludwig von Mises, Leonard Read, Murray Rothbard, and a host of others allowed libertarian ideas to peak in the 1970s and 1980s, and that if they are to peak again in the future, we need thinkers of the same intellectual caliber who can think clearly about the nature of state and freedom today.

What all these thinkers had in common (to quote Mises in his 1950 essay "The Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism") was "an open positive endorsement of that system to which we owe all the wealth that distinguishes our age from the comparatively straitened conditions of ages gone by."

What’s included in this system? There are many aspects, but I believe two are essential. The first is a general belief in traditional metaphysics and natural law as a way to understand the truth about the human person, in marked contradiction to the modern utilitarian belief that truth is anything that cannot be proven false, thus catering the study of the human person to the standards of the hard sciences.

The second is a recognition that states are violent agents of redistribution that destroy those private institutions that have advanced human civilization for centuries. This implies that many of the problems that libertarians address have their roots in previous encroachments by the State and suggests that by coming to terms with government, we simply invite other problems (and promote violence) by introducing more statism.

It is the misunderstanding of one or both of these points that explains the tendency for many libertarians to make intellectual compromises with the State. But it is often more than a misunderstanding, because since there is no little prestige and money for intellectuals who include a positive role for the federal government in their work — even when doing so requires adopting a more-benign-than-realistic view of what government is all about — they are often willfully ignored.

Cowen may disagree, but he does like food, so perhaps a food analogy is appropriate to illustrate this point. Assume a friend presents you with a plate of brownies fresh from the oven and tells you they were made by the hand of a leading chef using a prize-winning recipe and the freshest domestic and imported ingredients available. Your friend places them on the table with a glass of milk and perhaps a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and as the aroma causes you to salivate with anticipation of a rare treat, your friend adds one more tidbit to the mix. She tells you that in order to produce the brownies it was required to include in the batter a smidgen of dog poop. This was required, alas, to assemble all of the other ingredients necessary to produce the brownies. In fact, you might call it a package deal.

Would you eat it? Cowen apparently would, call it the paradox of brownie production, and then he’d reassure us that the marginal benefit of eating the brownies exceeds the cost. And if you refuse, well, you must have a problem with modernity.

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