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The Ignorance of New York Magazine

January 28, 2011

Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of Thought

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The Ignorance of 'New York Magazine.'"]

On Boxing Day, December 26, New York magazine ran an article — "The Trouble with Liberty," by Christopher Beam — that has provoked a bit of blogging and more than a bit of handwringing among libertarians and among observers of the libertarian movement during the three weeks that have passed since then. The Austrian economist Bob Murphy published a response a few weeks ago here on Mises.org, and a fine response it was, incisively identifying the problems with the way the New York magazine article portrayed libertarian ideas about taxation, banking policy, and war.

I'd like to add a few comments of my own to the ones Bob made, focusing my attention on different issues and perhaps doing my part to make certain libertarians understand that, on the whole, this article was a good thing, not a bad thing. Oh, it won't win any prizes for the accuracy with which it depicts libertarians and their ideas. But the author, a young freelancer — not yet 30 — did, as Bob Murphy, noted, do "his homework." To put matters a bit more exactly, Beam did a quick study of the relevant material so that he could appear to be more knowledgeable than he really is — one of the basic skills you need to master, it seems to me, if you want to be a successful practitioner of intellectual journalism. And, on the whole, he did pretty well.

As Bob Murphy puts it, Beam "wasn't setting out to write a hatchet job" and "tries to be fair to libertarians." Bob himself managed to read two-thirds of the way through Beam's article before he even began to feel annoyed by anything in it. He writes that "followers of Murray Rothbard should be grateful" for at least certain passages in the article, so fair and evenhanded and accurate are they with regard to libertarians and the libertarian movement.

Needless to say, the entire article is not as fair and evenhanded and accurate as certain passages in it may be. But even when Beam makes the usual crude errors commonly made by people trying to understand the libertarian movement as outsiders, he manages to be less offensive than he might have been. Like most outsiders, Beam is strongly drawn to the notion that libertarians and conservatives have something in common other than putting their pants on one leg at a time. He's strongly drawn to the idea, that is, that libertarians and conservatives have something in common ideologically.

Beam gives evidence early on of actually understanding what libertarianism is. He quotes the definition offered by David Boaz of the Cato Institute in his book Libertarianism: A Primer, "the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others." This is a good definition. But before you can even begin to feel congratulatory toward young Beam, he messes it up. "Like any political philosophy," he writes, "libertarianism contains a thousand substrains, ranging from anarchists who want to destroy the state to picket-fence conservatives who just want to put power in local hands."

Oh? And how do "conservatives who just want to put power in local hands" exemplify "the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others"? How, exactly, do such conservatives qualify as "libertarians" at all? Are laws regulating what drugs people can take, what pictures they can look at, and what they can read — long pet enthusiasms of conservatives — rendered somehow "libertarian" by being imposed on people by "local hands"?

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In another passage, Beam insists that "the tea party is the closest thing to a mass libertarian movement in recent memory," despite the fact that, by his own admission, "tea-partyers surveyed by Cato split down the middle between social conservatives and social liberals, making half of them traditional Republicans and half libertarians." But what sort of "libertarians" are these people? The kind who say they want lower taxes, a smaller government, a free market, and personal freedom, but also believe it is "self defense" to drop bombs on innocent civilians who happen to be unfortunate enough to live near people the US government considers enemies? News bulletin: such people are not libertarians at all, regardless of how many marijuana laws they want to change and how deeply they approve of gay marriage.

Beam also writes that "libertarians want less state intrusion into the market, which aligns them with Republicans, but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats." Wrong on both counts. First, Republicans do not want less state intrusion into the market. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee for president and a good example of a mainstream Republican, supported Obama's bailout of the financial-services industry. He also supports regulating tobacco as a drug.

Second, Democrats do not necessarily want less interference in social choices. It is Democrats who have given us laws regulating speech that is politically incorrect — that is, speech that might offend someone. It is Democrats who urge us to ban or regulate every legal product some bureaucrat has decided is "not good for you." It is Democrats who stand most firmly and fanatically behind laws restricting the ownership and use of guns.

Still, admittedly, Beam's understanding of American political realities is not so crude that he thinks of libertarians as simply part of the American Right. As he himself puts it, "there's no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella." It's true, he acknowledges, that "Republicans speak the language of libertarianism. They talk about shrinking government and cutting the deficit." But Beam frankly regards this Republican talk as "hypocrisy." For not only have Republicans "studiously avoided specifics when it comes to deficit reduction," they have also followed a consistent policy when in power: they "talk shrinkage, do growth. Even right-wing godhead Ronald Reagan expanded the federal government, bailed out Social Security, and signed off on tax hikes. Bush 43 was only the latest in a long line of Republican spenders."

It should come as no surprise, then, that "libertarianism has adherents on the left, too — they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry." Thus, "right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war," while "left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] to [the Defense of Marriage Act] to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix."

Beam thinks it significant that, as he puts it, "the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government — tax cuts and releasing the shackles of 'don't ask, don't tell.'" He comments, "If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy — on left and right — it's now."

Beam goes further. The controversy just before Thanksgiving about the Transportation Security Administration's new airport body scanners, he writes, "was a reminder of just how strong, not to mention loud, the libertarian streak is in American politics." He believes that

there's never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like [the Troubled Asset Relief Program], the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Beam presents some interesting statistics to back up this part of his argument. He reports, without identifying his source, that "about one in ten Americans self-identifies as libertarian," though, of course, many "fewer consider themselves 'movement' libertarians. Most of them don't subscribe to Reason or attend conferences at the Cato Institute. … But many are libertarians without knowing it. That is, they identify as economically conservative and socially liberal."

As I've already observed, this rough-and-ready sorting device — "economically conservative and socially liberal" — is not a particularly useful one if what you're trying to do is separate out libertarians from the surrounding statists. "Economically conservative" is really just another name for looking with favor on handouts to big business; conservatives do not advocate a truly free market. And it is those who regard themselves as "socially liberal" who are largely responsible, not only for the recent penetration of the nanny state into issues of nutrition, but also for the continuation and extension of laws restricting firearms ownership.

More important, you can be "economically conservative" and "socially liberal" while also taking the profoundly unlibertarian position that it is all right, or even admirable, to rain death on innocent third parties to a dispute between states, one of which may well be worse than the other, but both of which are illegitimate. Still, Beam reports that the number of Americans who describe themselves as "economically conservative" and "socially liberal" seems to be growing. "In a 2009 Gallup poll," he notes,

23 percent of Americans responded to questions about the role of government in a way that categorizes them as libertarian — up from 18 percent in 2000. A survey conducted by Zogby for the Cato Institute has put the libertarian vote at around 15 percent. Loosen the wording, and the pool expands. When the Zogby survey asked voters if they would describe themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian," the number rose to 44 percent. When it simply asked if they were "fiscally conservative and socially liberal," a full 59 percent responded yes.

Of course, the more you "loosen the wording," the greater the risk you run of counting as libertarians people who erroneously believe themselves to be libertarians because they don't really understand what libertarianism entails and implies. Still, setting all my caveats aside for the moment, it seems encouraging that such a large proportion of American adults think of themselves as advocates of small, inexpensive government, a free market, and a society in which people mind their own business and leave their fellow citizens alone to live their own lives as they prefer — a society in which "anything that's peaceful" is tolerated.

On the other hand, whatever people tell opinion pollsters, however they may say they identify themselves, it is not yet possible to achieve any significant portion of the libertarian agenda through the use of the political process. As Beam puts it, "If a libertarian wants to get elected, he's going to have to bend a few principles, deal with reality as it exists. The same is true if he wants to legislate." He points out that "since the election" that made the supposedly libertarian-leaning Rand Paul a senator from Kentucky, the newly elected senator "has challenged Republican orthodoxy by suggesting he's willing to cut military spending." But "during an appearance on CNN on November 9," a week after the election, "he ended the interview rather than name a spending cut." And as for Ron Paul's heroic bid to abolish the Federal Reserve Board, Beam writes, correctly, that "if he tried, Republicans would smother him just as quickly as Democrats would."

It might seem ironic that libertarian goals are politically unattainable at present, even though "there's never been a better time to be a libertarian than now." For, as Beam notes,

there's no idea more fundamental to our country's history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society's most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. (Though some Founders, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to centralize power.) All the government-run trappings that came after — the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system — were arguably departures from our country's hard libertarian core.

And so they were. For that matter, contrary to Beam's rather naïve assumption, the US Constitution was a departure from our country's hard libertarian core. It was, really, the founding document of the counterrevolution that set in only a few years after the revolution itself was supposedly won and immediately began rolling back its achievements. If Beam had a firmer grasp of the realities of American history, he would not have made this error.

Similarly, it might be argued that if more Americans had a firmer grasp of the realities of American history, they might support libertarian reforms more readily at the ballot box. For example, most Americans believe that, as Christopher Beam puts it,

there are reasons our current society evolved out of a libertarian document like the Constitution. The Federal Reserve was created after the panic of 1907 to help the government reduce economic uncertainty. The Civil Rights Act was necessary because "states' rights" had become a cover for unconstitutional practices. The welfare system evolved because private charity didn't suffice.

Well, no. The Constitution is not a particularly libertarian document. The Federal Reserve does not "help the government reduce economic uncertainty." The government is the major source of economic uncertainty, and the Federal Reserve is its principal tool in creating such uncertainty. The Civil Rights Act outlawed freedom of association on private property, which, up to that time, had been entirely constitutional. And actually, a combination of private charity and families taking care of their own did suffice to provide for almost all cases of indigence up to the time of the New Deal. For more about the specifics, see Marvin Olasky's 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. The welfare system evolved to give politicians something to trade for votes and to advance the agendas of certain politically influential special interests.

Beam would do well (as would all other interested parties) to take a look at Murray Rothbard's article, "Origins of the Welfare State in America," written around the same time as Olasky's book. Rothbard reminds us, for example, that among the interests lobbying hard for adoption of the Social Security Act in 1935 were "big businesses, who were already voluntarily providing costly old-age pensions to their employees, [and were hoping to] use the federal government to force their small-business competitors into paying for similar, costly, programs."

As Rothbard explains, the enabling legislation for the Social Security boondoggle "deliberately penalizes the lower cost … employer, and cripples him by artificially raising his costs compared to the larger employer. Also injured, of course, are the consumers and the taxpayers who are forced to pay for this largess."

All in all, then, I agree with Bob Murphy that Christopher Beam did his homework before undertaking his article, "The Problem with Liberty." I agree that he didn't set out to do a hatchet job on us. And I think that, by and large, he did an unusually creditable job, particularly for one so young and for a reporter working in the mainstream media. Beam's chief problem, and the basic nature of New York magazine's ignorance, is a certain degree of historical illiteracy. But that's commonplace in our society. It is, therefore, one of the chief things we have to focus on in our educational efforts to reach the day when something seriously close to libertarianism is politically achievable in this country.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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