by Max Hill
Sorry Bloomberg, We Are Just Getting Started
Noah Smith argues in Libertarianism’s Time Has Come and Gone that while libertarianism may have been useful during the 20th century, its ideas are becoming irrelevant and anachronistic. People, he believes, may have once had a reason to be skeptical of big government, but no longer.
Well, when ideas are irrelevant, people usually don’t spend time writing articles attacking them, so I’m not sure how much I believe the author. In any case, he’s wrong.
Who Libertarians Are
As Smith would have us believe, libertarianism — at least, the kind that most economists know — takes a stark, simple view of human relations. Individuals are atomistic entities, acting in voluntary contractual relationships.
Must we really point out that Friedman and Nozick both rejected “atomistic individualism” and spent their whole careers on the complexity of human community and the tendency of coercion to shatter it? Indeed, the capacity of markets to weave beautiful human relationships – not limited to contractual ones – has been a theme of the liberty tradition for hundreds of years.
The author sets up a strawman based on nothing and then knocks it down. When they have to create ridiculous caricatures to refute you, you win.
The Long Tradition
Modern libertarianism is the latest chapter in a centuries long struggle for human freedom. Prior to the 20th century, we were called liberals. Before that we were simply called rebels and traitors. Whatever names we’ve gone by, we’ve always been around and we always will be.
The modern libertarian movement is also much more ideologically diverse than the author realizes. In fact, many newcomers to libertarian ideas are shocked to discover how much libertarians fight with each other. We draw our ideas not only from Friedman and Nozick, but also from Bastiat, Proudhon, Molinari, Rothbard, Stirner, Mises, Hayek, and hundreds of other thinkers. In fact, the “night-watchman state” libertarians the author derides as idealistic and extreme are increasingly viewed as the tame moderates in the libertarian movement.
The “new political philosophies” the author thinks people are looking for aren’t actually new except to those ignorant of history. These ideas go by many names and take many forms, but all share the common fallacy that some people know best how to live other people’s lives. Libertarianism is the unqualified rejection of this assertion. We believe that the knowledge necessary for a peaceful society to thrive is not embedded in a few wise, benevolent individuals, but in society itself.
No Perfect Society
Far from being utopians, libertarians are probably the only ones who aren’t naively trying to perfect society. Libertarians labor under no delusion that they are going to save the world. The world will be saved by regular people, most of whom know nothing of economic theory or libertarian philosophy, as they serve each other in markets and pursue their own self-interest. Libertarians understand this and want to stop anyone who would interfere.
The author rightly notes that the state does not have a monopoly on oppression. That he thinks libertarians concern themselves only with state oppression betrays a fundamental understanding of why we believe what we do. We oppose all forms of oppression; we simply see the state as the greatest source of it.
Market competition and choice does more for oppressed individuals and marginalized groups than any well-intentioned bureaucrat could ever dream of doing.
That libertarians don’t offer a solution for every problem often frustrates people who don’t believe people can solve their own problems.
The individual whose boss tasks him with menial tasks for trivial reasons would benefit more from having more employment options than he would from a bureaucrat making rules protecting people with bad haircuts. In fact, employers face additional cost (and an associated competitive disadvantage) when they discriminate on bases that don’t actually relate to their businesses success.
Our advocacy of a laissez faire regulatory environment stems not from an ignorance of social ills, but from a keen awareness of them and a belief that markets provide much more powerful remedies.
That libertarians don’t offer a solution for every problem often frustrates people who don’t believe people can solve their own problems. Look around and think about the complexity of the systems and networks that people form as they go about their lives trying to create value for others.
Even the efforts that result in a simple pencil are almost unfathomably complex and yet humans figure it out because people want pencils. Yes, the government may claim a monopoly or near monopoly on certain aspects of that system, but do you honestly believe that a species as clever as ours wouldn’t find a way to solve the same problems through other means?
You and I are the beneficiaries of millions of entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, and problem solvers who see the world differently. Fortunately, those people will always exist and create prosperity despite the lack of imagination in those who turn to government to solve problems.
A New Era in the Fight for Freedom
I’ve had the opportunity to peruse Leonard E. Read’s journal, which contains a first hand account of the libertarian movement through much of the 20th century. The tone is always optimistic, but frequently exasperated. Until recently, the only avenues libertarians had to advance the cause of human freedom were in the halls of government. No wonder Leonard was exasperated. Heroic though the efforts of 20th century libertarians were, they made little progress in advancing human freedom through politics.
It is the political approach to advancing freedom whose time has come and gone, not the goal of creating a more free society.
But we aren’t living in the 20th century any more. It is the political approach to advancing freedom whose time has come and gone, not the goal of creating a more free society.
While we may see some targets of opportunity in the political realm, libertarians are increasingly leveraging technology to promote a freer society. Not only does social media make it much easier to spread our ideas, but the very fact that individuals can so easily network with each other undermines the state’s ability to control society, regardless of its intentions.
Justifying a war is much harder when we can communicate with and see the humanity of those the government wants to wage war against. Until war has been relinquished to the past, you can rest assured that libertarians will be loudly denouncing it and celebrating and promoting anything that makes it less likely.
Enemies of liberty have long sought to control people by controlling currency. We’ve been fighting those attempts for just as long and now we may have the technology to win that fight once and for all. Cryptocurrencies remove the need to trust others to not debase the currency. The state undoubtedly doesn’t want this competition to its currency monopoly, but in time, it will have to compete just the same.
Also gone are the days of trusting the government to respect our privacy. Encryption and other security measures are increasingly being built into the technologies we use to communicate with each other. This, like innovations in cryptocurrencies, is being done without permission from our would-be overlords.
So no, libertarianism will not be relegated to the 20th century. Our ideas are just as relevant as they have always been, and we’re more effective at spreading them than ever before. Individuals will continue to create innovative solutions to problems that slow-minded politicians preposterously believe can only be solved through violence. Our tactics may change, but rest assured, libertarians are just getting started.
Max is a PhD student at Georgia Tech studying nuclear engineering and a web intern at FEE. His research interests include fusion reactor dynamics, technology commercialization, and the future of energy policy.