Politics & Policy

Libertarians, in Theory


A French diplomat (a.k.a. a “German butler”) once famously remarked, “Yes, it will work in practice. But the question is, will it work in theory.”

That’s how I sometimes feel about my libertarian friends, and I do have many of them. Libertarianism means so many things to so many people that whatever you say about it, some libertarian somewhere will take offense. “You are confusing libertarianism with libertinism.” “You don’t understand, it’s only a partial philosophy of life.” “Libertarians aren’t liberals!” “You’re not talking about my kind of libertarianism!”

My mailbox is full of subject headers with these declarations.

Don’t get me wrong, I dig it. The quickest way for a conservative to clear out his intellectual inventory of little-mind hobgoblins is to have a good argument with a libertarian.

The ideological purity of some libertarians also condemns them to a certain crank status. They are lovers of the perfect to the exclusion of the good. Ask a libertarian (no, not all libertarians, please e-mail me with discretion) what the Department of Education should do, and he will say “Well, the Department of Education shouldn’t exist.” Now of course he’s right, the Department of Education shouldn’t exist. But it does. I’ve seen it. It’s practically brimming with bureaucrats who aren’t going away and they’re awaiting orders from somebody to do something.

The smart libertarians have follow-up thoughts about vouchers and free-market doo-dads we can all agree on. But the fact remains that their first mission is to get rid of all that government junk. The mission of conservatives is a little different. We want to get rid of things like the Department of Education — because the Department of Education sucks. With its gitchy-goo liberalism, teachers’-union feather-bedding, and Heather Has Two Mommies social engineering, it hinders our efforts to raise proper, virtuous citizens.

A better example would be public television. In some recent columns I wrote that we should get rid of PBS. All good libertarians would agree. But I want to get rid of it because it doesn’t make sense anymore (if it ever did). There is no obvious conservative position that says a state-owned TV network would be bad. Wisdom would tell us to be very skeptical of such a thing, given the nature of government institutions and the people who tend to run them. But if we could have a network that helps us make better citizens at an acceptable price, conservatives could back it without being forced to relinquish their gym memberships and washroom privileges. Not so with libertarians. As a matter of first principles, they say that anything the market can do should be done only by the market. Moreover, they think government involvement in the virtue business is a tyranny license.

As libertarian purists become more influential in Washington, to a certain extent they help the Left. For every market-based reform, auction, or voucher that the Right trumpets, the Left says, “See, they are proposing this or that as a way-station toward eventual total elimination of this or that beloved government function.”

Of course, in many cases they’re right. I always compared libertarians to the Celtic warrior-tribes often employed by British kings. They are incredibly useful as allies in battle, but you wouldn’t want them to actually run things. That, perhaps, exaggerates the differences. On a day-to-day basis, conservatives and libertarians are in near-total agreement. A good conservative is about 90% libertarian on most federal issues, though not always for the same reasons.

But where the confusion seems to be is on the issue of libertarianism versus libertinism, or, more accurately, this is where many, many readers think I am confused.

I’m not. Libertinism says if it feels good, do it. Libertarianism says that the government shouldn’t be able to use its power to keep people from acting on that impulse. But it shouldn’t artificially remove or temper the consequences of acting on that impulse, either. Charles Murray, who unfortunately for conservatives considers himself a libertarian, makes this point about the welfare state. If you get rid of it, people take their lumps, society learns its lessons, and people start behaving. But under a welfare state (in the words of David Frum in Dead Right):

“Why be thrifty when your old age and health care are provided for, no matter how profligately you acted in your youth? Why be prudent when the state insures your bank deposits, replaces your flooded-out house, buys all the wheat you can grow, and rescues you when you stray into a foreign battle zone? Why be diligent when half your earnings are taken from you and given to the idle? Why be sober when the taxpayers run clinics to cure you of your drug habit as soon as it no longer amuses you?”

David Frum — who fortunately for conservatives considers himself a conservative — says that the nanny state represents “the emancipation of the individual from the restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastrophe.”

Libertarians say that drug addicts and strippers at Mount Holyoke should be allowed to do anything they want, but they have to carry the freight for their bad choices, including paying for it themselves. Right on, brother.

But a conservative would say, you know, there’s this thing called wisdom. And we’ve been accumulating it for thousands of years, and that accumulated wisdom tells us some things that might keep you from making those decisions in the first place. Much of this wisdom is recognizable to any parent: don’t run with scissors, don’t piss into the wind, don’t put things in your mouth if you don’t know what they are or where they’ve been. Those things are easy to explain.

Some, though, are very hard to explain. That doesn’t make them any less true. In fact, explaining them sometimes destroys the lesson, making it sound trivial or stupid, in the same way that explaining a joke tends to make it unfunny (you see, when you pull my finger, I’m going to…). Reason often enlightens, but it can also corrode. Anyone who has tried to explain a beloved tradition to a skeptical outsider knows this full well. It seems we have lost the confidence to tell people that tradition-bound morality is important (see the Auden quote from yesterday).

Many of these lessons are represented in the U.S. Constitution (adored by conservatives and libertarians alike) and other government institutions. One place that harbored some of the greatest lessons of human civilization was American public education until about thirty years ago. That was when a bunch of social scientists, radicals, and civil libertarians so thoroughly messed things up that many conservatives threw up their hands and said, “Fine. Release the libertarians! Bring in the vouchers and the private schools!”

But if it was still okay to have prayer in school, the Pledge of Allegiance, expulsions, non-self-esteem boosting curricula and the rest, a conservative would say, “Don’t touch the public schools. They’re working just fine. Let’s give them everything they need.”

A libertarian would grumpily say, “Sure, they work in practice, but not in theory.”


I know I owe many corrections and clarifications for the past week. Alas, there is no time today. But I promise that Monday all will be C&C’d (not the cola).


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