Mises Wire

A Response to Daniel McCarthy’s “Why Libertarians are Wrong”

Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age and editor at large for The American Conservative, recently published an essay on the Spectator USA site titled “Why Libertarians are Wrong.” It merits a response because Mr. McCarthy is friendly and sympathetic toward libertarianism, and despite the infirmities of his article ought to be seen as a fellow traveler. 

The title misleads us a bit from the beginning, because McCarthy is sound on the single most important libertarian political issue: war and peace. He objected to George W. Bush’s foray into Iraq, he attacks the permanent-war complex and its funding, and he consistently advocates a reasonably non-interventionist US foreign policy far closer to Ron Paul than John Bolton. He also has read Mises and Hayek, and unlike many intellectual conservatives (a dwindling group) McCarthy is not mired in Burke or Buckley or Reagan. He even blogged for the 2008 Paul presidential campaign and has spoken at the Mises Institute on foreign policy. So unlike a Bill Kristol or Sean Hannity, his conservative critique comes without ignorance or malice.

But it doesn’t come without errors, a few of them gross. First and foremost, McCarthy reads political libertarianism and support for free markets far too broadly. He wants answers to the great civilization and cultural questions of our day, from China’s influence to the growth of Islam in Europe to wealth inequality and the rise of a bureaucratic overclass. Consider this sweeping criticism:

If this America without a middle class is more politically stable than I think it will be, I suspect it will nonetheless face insuperable external challenges. China won’t have to fight a war with us; it will just outgrow us. When the differential of power and economic productivity is great enough, China will determine the strategic and economic environment in which we live. The cultural and religious environment will also be strongly influenced, if not determined, by the growth of Islam, particularly if Islam succeeds in dominating sub-Saharan Africa. Europe will have to deal with that to a greater extent than we will, of course.

I’m not sure that Hayek or Mises are the relevant texts for understanding any of this. Does a libertarian even care whether Islam displaces Christianity or China displaces America, as long as there are no tariffs on steel? You might not have freedom of religion or freedom of speech in the post-Western future, and those cheap consumer goods won’t be so cheap any more, but a libertarian will rest content knowing he fought to import as much foreign-subsidized steel as possible. This is why I consider libertarianism to be every bit as much a suicidal ideology as left-liberalism. In some ways it is even more so, as libertarians are more oblivious than left-liberals to the consequences for themselves of hewing to their ideology.

Here is a classic mischaracterization of political liberty, captured so well by Frédéric Bastiat in his famous quote: “every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” Of course libertarianism per se can’t answer the civilizational questions of our day; of course economics per se can’t make us moral or ethical, much less strategic. Libertarianism is a narrow legal doctrine dealing with the justified use of force in society, a doctrine that makes no exceptions for state actors. Economics is a social science which studies how human actors choose among scarce means to achieve ends. 

What liberty can do is get out of the way of civil society and markets. A more libertarian society approaches problems privately, outside the narrow purview of the state, with private property and incentives creating skin in the game. Surely Mr. McCarthy, no grandiose neoconservative, understands the limits of state power to solve existential problems. Surely he understands the inherent problems with vote-seeking politicians, public finance, time preference, and democratic voting. Does he really think a more political society, in an increasingly secular and progressive America, is likely to yield conservative answers to the problems he worries about? Does he not understand that civic, social, religious, and cultural organizations ought to have more power than the state? Does he really want social, culture, and moral perspectives — which drive attitudes and actions on issues like immigration, inequality, race, and religion — driven by centralized politics in DC? 

If so he definitely seeks to redefine “conservatism.” And perhaps he must, succumbing as he does to the progressive hubris that our time, place, and technology somehow create a situation unique in history. Mises and Hayek are insufficient for the vaunted 21st century! We need something new new new! McCarthy, like so many pundits today, imagines a third way between politics (force) and markets (cooperation). He acknowledges the libertarian argument that economies are too complex to be directed, that government interventions create unintended consequences and inefficiencies. But he does not acknowledge how decades of government intervention not only failed to prevent our current predicament, but helped create it. The problems he deems libertarianism unsuitable to fix were largely created by government in the first place.

China and the (supposed) loss of manufacturing jobs? Even a slightly more libertarian US economy, with a somewhat lighter regulatory, tax, and tariff monkey on its back, would walk away not only from China but the rest of the world too. Foreign policy and defense spending? Immediate troop withdrawals and radical reductions in military projection, along with real cuts to the military state. Immigration? Private sponsorship and vetting of immigrants, with legal and financial liability residing with sponsors for a term. Rent seeking and cronyism in industries like Big Pharma? Radically slash regulatory and approval processes, eliminate patents, and let generics flourish. Entitlements? Immediate means testing, coupled with a thirty-year phaseout of benefits and immunity from federal payroll taxes for younger workers. As for Islam, why not worry about what’s killing Christianity instead? Is the rise of modern western welfare states and the abject decline of Christianity just a strange coincidence to McCarthy, or does he understand progressive state religion? A robust Christianity, one that serves as a counterbalance to Islam, can’t exist when it’s in direct competition with the state that has far greater control over education, culture, and resources than any Christian group could ever dream of attaining.

Now we can argue about the political chances of these ideas, but McCarthy seems to think libertarian proposals (or more libertarian proposals than we’ve got) simply don’t exist. None of this requires conservative government, or much government at all. None of this requires a New Deal, or some Teddy Roosevelt muscular vision for America, or any kind of robust “policies” favoring the middle class. What it does requires radically shrinking the size and scope of the state in society. But as always this makes conservatives suspicious, because they cannot overcome their mythical homo economicus caricature of libertarianism.   

Consider this hypothetical: imagine Mr. McCarthy could increase his income tenfold immediately by selling crack cocaine instead of editing conservative journals, without risk of criminal prosecution. Would he do so? Of course not. But why not? Is he a morally superior being, capable of rising above such an enticement—or is the notion of libertarianism as low-tax liberalism for grasping, deracinated economic actors actually silly? It’s even sillier applied across an entire economy of people.

Of course McCarthy also questions whether libertarianism can ever succeed as a practical matter, insisting that secession and decentralization are mostly pipe dreams. Fair enough; they may well be pipe dreams in the current environment. But it’s one thing to say libertarians likely won’t prevail, it’s another to insist they’re wrong. Incoherent modern conservativism offers no real alternative to the grim, incremental march of progressive political centralization over the past hundred years; only the exceedingly distant hope that someday they’ll control everything and impose their conservative views on blue state America.

But why not focus on reducing political power altogether, especially centralized political power? Social conservatives, even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful, have no answer to the aforementioned collapse of Christianity as an animating force in America. The country is not going to vote its way back into any kind of cultural condition favored by Mr. McCarthy or the Rod Drehers of the world (Mr. Dreher also writes for The American Conservative). Progressivism dominates every sphere of public life in America, and increasingly intrudes into private life as well. So however far-fetched McCarthy might find libertarianism as a political project, the prospects for a President Rand Paul exceed those of a Mike Huckabee or a red state evangelical governor. McCarthy might not see decentralization of state power as a viable strategy, but at this point it’s the only strategy his conservative readers have left, short of expatriation.

Only libertarians offer a critique of centralized power in the current environment, and only libertarians offer “live and let live” as a solution to the cultural rancor and political rancor all around us. Only libertarians propose real money, reality-based economics, and abolition rather than reform of doomed government programs. Only libertarians offer any just or humane approach to the question of what politically-vanquished people might do via decentralization and subsidiarity. Realistic conservatives should acknowledge the role the state has served in destroying the culture they claim to want to conserve.

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