Don’t Tread on Me


Some interesting discussion of American libertarianism is floating around these days. I more or less agree with Bartlett and Klein, but it seems to me Klein misses something pretty obvious.

He says:

There’s very little libertarian foreign policy out there. Fairly little libertarian social policy. Hang out on Cato’s events page for a few minutes and you’re very likely to find out what to do about regulation and not at all likely to find out what to do about Pakistan.

Um, right.  It probably has something to do with the fact that libertarians are isolationists when it comes to foreign policy, and their most fundamental principles preclude the very existence of social policy.

The libertarian answer to what we should do about Pakistan is, “Nothing.  It’s their country and none of our d@#* business.”  Ask them what we should do about any other country on the globe, and you’ll get the same answer.  Libertarian foreign policy mirrors libertarian domestic policy: butt out.

As for social policy, why in the world would anyone expect libertarians to discuss social policy?  They don’t think it should exist.  Social policy — any social policy — is the government butting in where it has no business.  Plus, libertarian economics intentionally starves the government of any and all funds it might use to conduct social policy (or foreign policy or pretty much any policy you care to name).  The two fundamental questions any discussion of social policy revolves around are: what should we do? and how can we pay for it?  Two questions libertarianism would never even ask.

With the exception of Robert Nozick, who’s now deceased, libertarianism is pretty much a crank philosophy based on a concept of human nature and an epistemology that are 300 years out of date, and is adhered to only by a gaggle of self-congratulating Ayn Rand devotees.

Alan Greenspan is the only libertarian I can think of who’s had any detectable influence on anything in the past, oh, I dunno, 40 years (Barry Goldwater), and Greenspan’s contribution to the polity is looking pretty iffy these days; iffy enough that, in testimony to Congress, he admitted he’s having second thoughts about some of his most basic libertarian economic principles.

All that said, I have a libertarian streak, myself.  The difference between me and pretty much all libertarians, though, aside from diametrically opposed views on the literary and philosophical value of Ayn Rand, is I’ve learned its limited utility.

I think of libertarianism as sort of the Calvinism of political philosophy.  Calvinism is a really beautiful theological system.  It starts from a limited set of concrete posits, and works itself out with extreme logical rigor from them.  That gives it a lot of appeal to some people.  It’s internally consistent.  It makes sense.  Or seems to.  The problem with it, though, is nobody has ever been able to make it work.  That is, you can’t implement Calvinism — can’t live it — with anything close to its own rigor.  You eventually have some kind of psycho-spiritual breakdown.  See, for example, the Puritans.  Or, you know, John Calvin.  It’s inhuman.

Libertarianism is like that.  It starts from a very small set of concrete, seemingly sensible posits, and works itself out very logically from them.  It’s internally consistent.  It makes sense.  Or seems to.  But it’s completely unworkable in reality.  It’s inhuman.

If you’re cognizant of that fact, libertarian philosophy is a useful thinking tool — a handy way to get a different perspective on some facet of a different, workable political philosophy, a different standard to measure against.


4 Responses to “Don’t Tread on Me”

  1. jazzbumpa Says:

    We are somewhat kindred spirits. I’ve had my flirtation with Libertarianism – a fun date for a while, but not really anyone you’d take home to meet mom.

    I’ve reached your conclusions, also. And the appeal of Liberarianism to many of its adherents is its rationalism. But – if you start with a set of premises, follow them to their beautifully logical conclusions, and discover no correspondence with reality* – what do you do?

    The Libertarian decides reality must be wrong, and clutches (in the absence of pearls) at his beloved basic assumptions.
    As the computer guys used to say: garbage in, garbage out.

  2. urbino Says:

    The Libertarian decides reality must be wrong

    Exactly. In terms of empirical evidence, the most telling thing, to me, is that no human society I know of has ever chosen libertarianism as its governing philosophy. Human beings have always chosen to organize themselves into societies with complex, layered rules. Something like libertarianism may be one of the stages along the way, but it’s a brief stage. Nobody seems to want to stay with it.

  3. jazzbumpa Says:

    While foraging through the depths of my old blog looking for this, which has no relevance to the current discussion, I stumbled across this, which does.

    All of which might just be an solipsistic exercise in shameless self promotion.

    And where better for it than here.

  4. urbino Says:

    Pwned! by jb.

    I’m at least happy to know I’m not the only one who sees libertarianism that way.

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