Is There a Future for Libertarianism?

Is There a Future for Libertarianism?

The Rand Paul campaign and its (admittedly uneven) agenda of social tolerance, military restraint, and fiscal conservatism is little more than a very small pile of smoking embers. Paul was crushed by candidates caught up in a bidding war to meet voter demands for nativism, know-nothing economics, know-nothing Dr. Strangelove foreign policy, and bigotry. Libertarian-minded Americans have every reason, once again, to cry in their beer.

Why is the oft-prophesied libertarian moment in American politics so elusive? Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan at George Mason University has an answer. Libertarianism is a hopeless political cause, he says, because its tenets — even if rock-solid — are bound to remain unpopular. Consumers in the marketplace of ideas, Caplan argues, demand comfort and entertainment, not strict morality or empirical truth.

While there is some validity to what Caplan says, he is too quick to conclude that libertarian ideas are true but simply too vexatious to bear. Rather than resorting to comforting stories about market failure, perhaps we should critically examine the product.

Years ago, libertarian political theorist Jeffrey Friedman did just that, offering a devastating critique. The bundled libertarian product, Friedman concluded, is an incoherent vacillation between a theory of rights that most people do not accept and lazy, unpersuasive utilitarian arguments for laissez faire capitalism. And he's right.

Moreover, the kind of libertarianism that is hostile to social insurance sits uncomfortably with our moral intuition. So much of who we are and where we end up is due to chance: our genetic endowments (which are out of our control), our formative early childhood experiences (where we are little more than spectators), our personality traits and psychological make-up (a product of the above), and the simple vicissitudes of life can mightily bless or terribly curse.

How morally compelling is it for libertarians to say: Tough! Political theorist John Rawls' famous argument for the welfare state would appear to be a powerful rejoinder. If prior to our entry into this world, we knew about the fact that dice would be rolled but we had no knowledge of the die roll in store for us, wouldn't we collectively agree to some form of redistribution prior to the die being cast?

Granted, there's more that must be demonstrated to prove Rawls' contention. Even so, most people rightly conclude that it is morally suspect to allow wealth to be allocated in such an unequal and arbitrary fashion as it would be under pure libertarianism.

Were libertarians to ungrudgingly accept the case for a more adequate social safety net (a case, after all, accepted to some extent by libertarian heroes F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman) and give up on their blanket, dogmatic opposition to all regulation and market intervention (a perfect example is their remarkable hostility to mainstream climate science), they'd find a ticket to intellectual respectability. They would also find a ticket to political relevancy — something that is being well demonstrated by the Bernie Sanders campaign.

As has been noted by my colleague Will Wilkinson, there is a good (but not dispositive) case to be made that Sanders has been the most libertarian candidate in the presidential race. Libertarian Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith contends that Sanders is two-thirds libertarian given his admirable resistance to foreign wars, his spirited defense of civil liberties, his critiques of the criminal justice system, and much of his campaign agenda outside of economic policy. And there is anecdotal evidence from Iowa and New Hampshire that a considerable number of libertarian-inclined voters (and a lot of non-libertarians as well) have flocked to Sanders' banner.

Libertarians are right to cringe at Sanders' regulatory zeal, his romanticization of governmental power, and his domestic-spending plans, which are far greater than what even a Rawlsian libertarian might accept. A more thoughtful re-draft of the Sanders agenda, however, would serve libertarians well. Were we to leaven Sanders' commitment to civil liberties, his anti-interventionist foreign policy, and his instincts regarding the social safety net with a proper respect for the wealth creation produced by free markets — someone, after all, has to make enough money to pay all the bills that Sanders would impose — we would have an agenda that would be entirely consistent with social and economic liberty.

Libertarianism thus repurposed is the creed of honest, thoughtful liberalism. It is a creed that can appeal to the intellectually rudderless center-left and center-right while standing in stark contrast to the stale tribal dogmas that dominate the two parties. That's the future of libertarianism. And it's a worthy and powerful contender for being the future of America.

Jerry Taylor is the president of the Niskanen Center.

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