Sunday, December 03, 2006

Death of libertarianism?

In a Fukuyama moment, Michael Lind explains how libertarianism is dead as a serious movement in the U.S. (and, I guess, Canada and the U.K. to boot).
"The most epochal event in world politics since the cold war has occurred - and few people have noticed. I am not referring to the conflict in Iraq or Lebanon or the campaign against terrorism.

It is the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution."
"Utter" and "final" defeat?...

Lind explains:
"For nearly a decade, the Republican party has controlled Washington and most state legislatures. And yet every big proposal of the libertarians has been rejected by the public and their elected representatives. Their only temporary achievement has been tax cuts, which are likely to be rolled back at least in part to reduce the deficit in the years ahead. With the disappearance as a significant force of the libertarian right, the centre of gravity inevitably will shift somewhat left in matters of political economy. But we will not see a restoration of the mid-20th century pattern because there will be no revival of the socialist left. The demise of both socialism and libertarianism pretty much limits the field to moderate social democracy and big-government conservatism."
Those "big" proposals include social security privatization (through personal accounts) and health care privatization (also through personal accounts).

To be sure, libertarians in the U.S. have had a hard go of it. The Republican Party has abandoned the driving ideas behind, for instance, the Goldwater years, and the ideas of Milton Friedman that charmed many. That hasn't stopped Bush from giving Friedman a "freedom medal." Neither has it stopped Bush from spending more than anyone. Ever.

But to focus on fiscal libertarianism, to the exclusion of other issues, is to miss why the libertarian philosophy is not dead. Social libertarianism is far from dead. From gay marriage (with caveats) to marijuana, people from all over the political spectrum are thinking liberty. This is truer in Canada than it is in the U.S., but it doesn't change the fact that many Americans feel like Canadians on these two issues. And both of these issues are decidedly libertarian.

Yes, of course, many libertarians are not in favour of gay marriage. For these folks, it isn't that gays shouldn't get married, it's that the state has no business deciding who should and shouldn't get married. The state should decide who I'm allowed to marry just as much as it should decide what colour underwear I should be allowed to wear. In both cases, it's none of their business.

But if the state is going to be in the marriage business, then it should be neutral between different kinds of marriage contracts. If I want to marry a man or a woman should be no grist for their mill. Churches can choose whether to marry gays or straights, and people can go ahead and have their own private ceremonies too. That's the libertarian position. And it's a position many people agree with in Canada and the U.S. (and the U.K., and elsewhere too).

Social libertarianism is hardly dead. But neither is fiscal libertarianism. To take Lind's position is to be too short-sighted, and too narrowly focused on party politics. Yes, the Republicans haven't moved on any pro-liberty issues in a long, long time. They still pretend to be small government types by passing tax cuts. They fool plenty of people. But I suppose many people don't support the Republicans for principled reasons, but for the same reasons that you root for your sports team. It doesn't matter if the team sucks, or is playing poorly, or has nothing praiseworthy to recommend it. You pick your team, and you root for it. There is (almost) nothing that would count as being a reason to root for another team.

Other Republicans, the types who care about policy, are moved by the Republicans lack of fiscal discipline. They complain, and they feel betrayed. Many might move away from the Republicans for this reason. What keeps them hanging on? For my friends who are Republicans, they feel that the war on terror is more important. That doesn't mean they accept the Republicans' spendthrift ways. It just means that, for the moment, something else is worth having these types around for a while longer.

Lind is a bit too quick to think the pro-liberty movement is dead. It isn't. It's just not really at home in the Republican Party.

7 Comments:

Blogger Road Hammer said...

Peter, curious about this - what's the libertarian position on the death penalty?

7:05 AM  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

It depends.

I think it is inconsistent for libertarians to support the death penalty, but many do support it, and call themselves libertarians while they're at it.

Here's the problem. If you think the government isn't very good at what it does, why would you support the government having the power to kill people? They can botch it up. And we know they do. Plenty of times.

If we knew for sure that we wouldn't kill the wrong people (innocents), and that the death penalty discouraged crime, then I would probably rethink my position. Killing killers isn't so bad, and if it really did deter people, then that's a powerful reason to support it.

But killing innocent people is really, really bad. For my part, I have enough skepticism about the legal system to think that it happens at a rate that is not insignificant given the kind of wrong killing innocents is. I also don't think the death penalty deters *anybody*. Some kill out of passion, some are "rational" killers. For those two categories, which I think come close to exhausting the possibilities, the death penalty will have no impact.

The former do it *out of passion*, which just means "without really thinking about it." One thing they don't think about is the consequences. So the death penalty doesn't even factor into their decision to kill this person here.

The latter act after calculating. These people tend to think they have it worked out. They think that they will get away with it. Thinking this, they don't consider the death penalty a possibility in their case. So the death penalty doesn't deter these people either.

There's probably other categories. And there is a good likelihood that at least some of these categories of people will be deterred by the death penalty. But, in my opinion, they probably account for very few killers. So few that it isn't right to say the death penalty deters.

Anyways, the short answer is: If you think the government is incompetent to handle most everything, and many times has malicious intent, then supporting the death penalty seems to contradict this belief. Or, at least, it is in tension with it.

1:31 PM  
Blogger mostlyfree said...

Not to mention that once you have the death penalty, some idiot will think it's the right punishment for selling too much pot.

9:33 PM  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

Yes! Right. Great point, Janet. We would also have to consider what the death penalty would be used for, if we agree that the death penalty is a good idea in principle. And we should be nervous about what the state will use the death penalty for.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Matteson said...

I was talking to my graduate advisor at UTK the other day and we were talking about classes that I took at BG. When I mentioned that I took a class in Litertarianism he said something like, "Huh. I thought that subject was pretty much dead." I was suprised at the time, but given the affiliations of many in this department I shouldn't have been. I suppose it's my duty to bring the light of Libertarianism to UTK.

I can see your point re: the death penalty, Peter. I don't think that I agree with you though. While Libertarianism is clearly the right system, it isn't the one that we live in. We have to work towards our goals within our own lame system. Otherwise I think we'd have to have a Libertarian-coup, and that's a weird idea.

I'm conflicted on this. On the one hand, I don't like giving the government more power than I have to. Killing folks is certainly a power.
Criminals take away our freedoms as well. Their criminal acts rob us of what we commonly think of as rights. Their incarceration ciphons away tax money from schools and such. If a criminal is guilty of something horrible, and I have to think that in some (maybe even most) cases the gov does catch/convict the right guy, I think that death is a appropriate measure. You're right that the law isn't going to deter people bent on crime, but I don't think that I care much about that. I just want the nun-likking playground bully to be removed from the yard.

While is it anti-liberty to hand over power to the gov it is similarly bad to remove that power from all domains. Since the gov (right now) is at least better than we are at determining guilt through the courts, they seem to to be the most appropriate place to put the power for now.

The same sorts of factors are at play in the gay marriage debate. While it might not be the gov's business who I have sex with or what color my underpants are, it is important that they are the ones who can create entitlements and rights in this system. If I want to marry a man, then I have to have that right somewhere. If there is a law that says that I can, then this creates an entitlement for me. If on the other hand there is a law which says that I can't, that law is restricting my freedoms.

Baring the improbable, and oxymoronic, Libertarian-coup we should lean in the direction of personal empowerment, no?

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Republican losses in November could spur a revival of the libertarian wing of that party.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Wm. Hopper said...

Social libertarian ethics will always go further than economic ones. i.e., gay marriage. People will accept gay marriage as an equal right even if they hate gays because it's no skin off their nose. It does not genuinely interfere with their lives.
Economic libertarian policies are a harder sell because you are literally taking money from people who have been raised and educated to take advantage of pork barrel politics. It's endemic, and there is a whole swath of society whose livelihoods rely on it.
Think about "Yes Minister". What would Bernard do for a living if libertarian economics took over the parliament?

10:09 PM  

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