Thursday, January 6, 2011
Ross Douthat on Libertarianism
Ross Douthat has a very good response to the Chris Beam article on libertarianism, which I posted on earlier. While Douthat accepts that many libertarian policies might not be practical, for that is beside the point.
But Beam's "of course, we'll never get there" kicker substantially undercuts the power and relevance of this critique. It's precisely because we're so far from minarchy, with no prospects for getting even remotely close, that libertarian arguments deserve a bit more respect and consideration than Beam's dismissive attitude affords them. If Congress was stocked with a few hundred members of the Paul family, if Penn Jillette ran the T.S.A., if the Cato Institute held veto power over every entitlement expansion and overseas military operation, it would make sense to use a long magazine article to fret, in detail, about the perils associated with the minimal state. But as it stands, Beam's lengthy critique of minarchy seems better suited to a college bull-session argument than to an article about American political economy as it actually exists, in all its bloated and not-at-all minimalist glory.
In this real world, the crucial question for non-libertarians pondering the movement's (modestly) growing influence isn't whether a libertarian minarchy would be the utopia that some enthusiasts imagine or a dog-eat-dog nightmare instead. Rather, it's whether a more-empowered libertarianism could have a salutary impact on debates over, say, the future of the entitlement system … or the reform of our incarceration policies … or the growth of the national-security state (to pick just a few rather pressing-seeming issues).
Douthat has hit on what may be the biggest practical strength; that we offer an opportunity to transcend the traditional partisan debate and can offer compromise solutions that both sides might be willing to accept. I admit that I often frame discussions about libertarianism in their most extreme forms, such as arguing for the legalization of child prostitution, in order to make the point that I am actually consistent in my beliefs and am willing to follow them through on their downside in order to enjoy the positives. That is the theoretical strength of libertarianism. So to reemphasize the practical, I recognize that this country was not founded on strictly libertarian principles and that over the past century, in many respects, we have moved even further away from libertarian government. That being said, I still do see a libertarian government as the goal which I set before myself as my compass even if I know that we will never got there. In the meantime I am willing to work with liberals or conservatives at any given time to bring about policies that go in this direction. To all my liberal readers, yes public schools are here to stay for the near future. Now we may not want creationism taught in them, but do we really want the courts to be the ones to stop it. Keep in mind that conservatives are going to respond by trying to place their people on the bench to push a conservative agenda that goes way beyond education. For your own safety does it not make sense to simply get the federal government and the courts out of education and simply leave it as a local affair? Otherwise do not come crying to me when conservatives get politically energized, gain control of the government and try pushing their vision of America on you.