The Corner

The Libertarian Curse

I have no desire to get in the middle of Ramesh and Jerry’s brawl, though I must salute Jerry for his ability to drag Ramesh into the Corner more, which is a good thing.

But Ramesh’s point below about “libertarian irrelevance” raises an interesting point. Some might recall one of Friedrich Hayek’s famous lines about how conservatives get pulled in a direction not of their own choosing. Here’s the full passage:

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,”[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.

Now, I’ve written a bunch of times that I think this essay is often misused by libertarians to indict American conservatism when Hayek was speaking almost exclusively about European, continental, conservatism. Without getting into all that, it seems to me that the same thing can be said of libertarians (liberals, as Hayek would call them). In the American context, libertarians — like all idealists (in the best sense of the word) — can stay pure as the society goes in a direction not of their choosing or they can join the fray and . . . still be pulled in a direction not of their choosing, but — perhaps — in a slightly better direction. The point, I guess, is that to be involved in public life in any way means compromising with what reality will allow. And reality, whether you are a socialist or a libertarian, almost never gives you total victory. We are on a giant ship and you pull the steering wheel in as far as you can in your preferred direction when and where you can. But you can never, ever, get sole control of the wheel, at least not for very long.

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