Thursday, July 20, 2006

On Libertarianism

Does libertarianism mean anything?

Maybe I should rephrase that: it does offer a useful concept as the antonym to authoritarianism, which, I suppose, at its extreme would imply unrestrained individual liberty, or anarchy. Maybe the better question is does Libertarianism mean anything?

I was reading Jim Henley's blog this week. I like Henley. He and his commentators remind me of those now-unnamable amateur thinkers, way back in the days of the proto-internet, whose intelligent banter first got me hooked on cognizance. Libertarians (bordering on misanthropes) the damn near lot of them, which is maybe what you'd expect from the nerdy entrepreneurial types who'd form online frontier communities well before inarticulate college students started to invade the joint.

My Libertarianism faded away, however, about the time I became motivated enough to start reading the Cato stuff. Any one of these reports would be more or well less argued, but they always read exactly the same: building an argument to support a foregone conclusion. (Surprise! The free market did it. Again.) Libertarianism is an excellent starting point for a philosophy (as a matter of 'do what you want, so long as it hurts no one else') but in practice it's problematic (as is every political philosophy).

The problem with Libertarianism as an ideology (at least as far as I got into Cato) is that at the bottom line, it's incorrect to assume that the optimal market solution always correlates with the fairest human solution. That's a tremendous assumption when you think about it, and it's easy to think up cases that disprove it (e.g., public health, zoning, military, etc.). How Libertarianism fails as a political movement is that exceptions like these are necessary for it to be even remotely practicable, and once you get into which exceptions are necessary, then you've got a movement balkanized, with official platforms as retarded as anything a Democrat or Republican could dream up, but without the high production values.

Those Henley-ish libertarians who upon a time whined about the Democratic nanny state are in a bit of a rhetorical bind these days. So-called small government conservatives played them hard in the social nannying arena. The twin Libertarian pillars of free market idolatry and a grudgingly sanctioned need for collective defense have had a tough go of it against the needs of the military industrial complex, which has neatly coincided with negligent planning for peak oil and other pending economic and environmental crises.Henley makes a nice distinction between "civil" and "market" libertarians, and I identify with both types (though more the former), but there's still a role for government even for the most raging individualist. Namely, there's got to be sufficient rules for the game to be fair for everyone, and they need to be enforced.

Democrats used to be the party that claimed government could be used to improve the American condition. When you redefine unsolicited 'improvement' down to 'set the minimum standard for' then I suddenly find it far less objectionable. When you further define it down to 'make the game fair,' then I'm right down there with it. This may also be the irreducible form of libertarianism I can get behind, but way down here, what's the point of the distinction? I'm doing my best to avoid isms of any kind these days.

Government is a big blunt instrument, but it's the best tool we have to act collectively. (The next-most-effective alternative being non-governmental groups, your Hezbollahs, your IRAs, your Klans, your warlord factions.) Government is a cumbersome, corrupt, power-mad whorehouse populated by used-car salesmen and privileged mama's boys, but for some jobs, its really the only tool we have. And after all, as that libertarian humorist P.J. O'Rourke has noted, the whores, ultimately, are us.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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