05 January 2019

Guess I’m just a good man. Well, I’m alright.

I used to rag on libertarians a lot on this blog. Ragged on ‘em for perverting Christianity, and faking quotes by Saint John Chrysostom. (By the way: Johnny – not a goldbug.) Ragged on ‘em for likewise misreading Confucius. Ragged on their tea party. Ragged on their running Kansas and Wisconsin into the ground. Ragged on their mooning over moonbeams (oh boy did I ever). Ragged on ‘em for being dangerous utopians. Ragged on ‘em for hollowing out academia and inventing social constructivism. And, of course, I ragged on the bespectacled bow-tied breed for generally being the tweaked ones they are.

Though, it’s kind of hard to do nowadays in a post-liberal era. After all, they have no mass constituency to speak of, and their brand is broadly discredited on the American right. Doesn’t seem too seemly, kicking a fedora-tipper with his very fine hat when he’s down and all. Also, being somewhere on the realist spectrum my own self, I actually do tend to agree with libertarian priorities on foreign policy.

But, while I can sympathise with their independent stand on some issues, the recent endorsements given to the new anti-oxygen Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro by Forbes and the Economist in a sudden irrational wave of Chicago Boys nostalgia recently put me in a somewhat less charitable mood. There are a couple of features of libertarianism that require pointing out and, uh, stabbing. You know, politely. Libertarian theory was, after all, instrumental in conceiving, midwifing and nourishing the current political hellscape that modern-day libertarians now claim, like Dr Frankenstein to his monster, to disown and reject. Now, as a representative sample of the historical policies I talk about, I am going to be focussing on the thought of four major post-war libertarian theorists: Friedman, Hayek, von Mises and Rand. (Don’t like it? Don’t think that’s quite fair to your esoteric pet sub-theory of libertarianism or right-anarchism? 去你媽的。 I’m wise to that motte-and-bailey trick. Besides, your boy David Bernstein claims ‘em all.)

Coups and régime change

Libertarians these days generally aren’t fans of military interventions, colour revolutions and US-supported coups abroad. This is one of the points on which I find libertarian bloggers (like Justin Raimondo), think-tanks (like the Cato Institute) and statesmen (like Ron and Rand Paul) the most admirable. Unfortunately, this is also one of the points on which I find libertarians to be the least credible. There is a long and sordid history of the libertarian principle of ‘free trade’ being pushed on unwilling partners down the barrels of guns. Often as not, people with the Whiggish, classical-liberal views that modern-day libertarians lay claim to had a certain idealist, crusading make-the-world-anew mentality that is nowadays the signature of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. This was a tough habit to shake as recently as the 1960’s, the 1970’s and even the 1990’s.

Most infamously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek both supported the CIA-funded military coup in Chile that murdered Salvador Allende, as well as the resulting government. Friedman was personally instrumental in stocking the Chilean military with contractors and advisers that not only led the reforms, but actually carried out the coup. These attachés personally trained and educated by Friedman were inculcated in precisely this kind of crusading belief that American institutions and œconomists had a continental duty to spread the gospel of the free market, by force if necessary. Friedrich Hayek, too, would not only engage in two personal tête-à-têtes with Pinochet, but indeed defended his political accomplishments to Western governments and not merely his œconomic ones. In 1979, Ayn Rand supported Israel’s wars of aggression and conquest against its Arabic neighbours, citing Israel as the ‘advanced, technological, civilized country’ and Arabs as ‘almost totally primitive savages’. Note that she too displays this crusading-idealist mentality: ‘Israel [is] bringing industry, intelligence, and modern technology into their stagnation.’ It’s actually a mite stunning in retrospect how, in the early decades of libertarianism’s intellectual ascent, Murray Rothbard stood almost alone in his principled commitment to non-intervention in foreign affairs!

Unfortunately, the crazy 1970’s do not mark the end of the libertarian enthusiasm for régime change. Both at the time and in retrospect, the libertarian right has supported the civil violence orchestrated by Boris Eltsin and supported by the American military and the CIA. The man hailed by the libertarians at the Cato Institute as Russia’s hero during the 1990’s repeatedly secured his hold over the country, with American help, by force and by fraud. The columnists at Reason magazine indeed might do well to note this historical tidbit as they bellyache about Russia’s subsequent allergic reactions to their ideas. Even today, more modest ‘classical-liberal’ outlets still run interference for America’s interventionist foreign policy: for example, when the Economist magazine attributed Yemeni famine and immiseration not to Saudi bombing and American blockades, but instead to a qat habit.

Now, it is perfectly true that the state machinery by which the American government effected these military coups, interventions and régime changes has, with practice, gotten more and more effective and insidious as time has gone on, and the Washington foreign policy consensus has got no problem making all manner of dastardly use of it. The libertarians who nowadays decry all of this architecture and its aggressive use as creeping government totalitarianism are not wrong to do so, but with almost the sole exception of Rothbard, they were asleep at the wheel while it was still manageable and while they still had a non-marginal degree of influence on government processes. And they missed the boat precisely because the American government was implementing policy prescriptions that they wanted. For now, I’m willing to play nice with the libertarians who walk their talk on foreign matters. In the meanwhile, though, pardon me if I take the present-day libertarian penchant for non-interventionist foreign policy with a grain of salt.

Big money in politics

Libertarians pretty well shot themselves in the foot here. A common line among libertarians is that they endorse ‘capitalism’ but not ‘crony capitalism’. Course, that’s never properly been true because, going back to the days of the first joint-stock company charters and the first stock exchanges, all capitalism has been primarily driven by access to governments and their power. But nowhere is it observably more false than in the oh-so-precious libertarian attitude toward campaign finance.

Libertarians conveniently turn the other way whenever considerations on the corruptions of political power take the form of money. Friedman himself considered the matter a simple one of free speech, with money being equivalent to speech; Hayek’s viewpoint was a bit more pessimistic but he came to the same conclusion: whatever the distortions that private money could introduce into politics, they couldn’t possibly be as detrimental as the applications of political power itself. Ayn Rand, utter sociopath that she was, doubled down on this latter point of Hayek’s and said that the concept of the public interest itself was to blame for corruption, and that any attempts to limit it were doomed to failure as long as altruism existed. Some of the more radical anarcho-capitalists like von Mises are utterly incapable of seeing an intrinsic problem with private ‘gifts’ between private citizens, even if those citizens happen to be in capacities of public trust.

For all pragmatic purposes, then, libertarians line up solidly behind big money on this question. There’s something twistedly admirable about Gary Johnson supporting the Citizens United decision even though it directly hurts his electoral chances and aids the major established parties. For the most part, that’s a strategy that’s worked for pushing libertarian policies within those established parties because – as mentioned above – the data show fairly consistently that the donor class as a whole is the class most favourable to libertarian ideas.

Even so, the donor class are not ideologues, and they aren’t particularly beholden to ideas so much as they are to… well, power interests. So what happens when the political winds shift and the donor class starts pulling in favour of, say, immigration restrictions? Or mass surveillance? Or police militarisation (after all, whose interests are they protecting)? Libertarian ideology taken in its pure form starts working against practical libertarian policy objectives, precisely because that ideology is unable to reckon, on this question, with money equating to power instead of speech.

On a related note: given how insistent ‘classical liberals’ tend to be in their saner moments on the law of unintended consequences, it’s rather fascinating that they ignore that law wholesale when it comes to the policy ramifications of decoupling government funding from programmatic objectives. Of course, most libertarians – Friedman and Hayek in particular – would say that, in an ideal world, the only programmatic objectives of government would be territorial defence and a justice system to enforce contracts. But the problem with basing policy on ideals is that it never works wholly according to the dictates of the ideal.

Now, Friedman and Hayek both claimed themselves apprehensive about the 1981 Reagan tax cuts and the way they were implemented. In the end, those apprehensions didn’t stop Friedman from supporting the tax cuts as they happened, as he himself noted in retrospect in 1999. (Remember that Friedman himself was a key adviser to the Reagan campaign.) But their first instincts were correct. The tax cuts were not tailored to specific programmatic objectives; thus they wound up ballooning government spending and creating shiny new opportunities for private cash to grease public fingers. Polanyi said it best: all capitalism is crony, or goes that way left to its own long enough.

The opioid crisis: Prohibition inverted

What I’m gonna say here isn’t news. I mean, Lin Zexu could have told you this back 175 years ago. But one of the things that our current opioid epidemic has proven to those of us have eyes, is that simply making a market in legal drugs doesn’t reduce the social harms associated with those drugs, and indeed might even create them. It really is a crisis, by the way: we have 115 people overdosing on legal opioids and over 1,000 ER visits caused by opioid abuse every day. A full quarter of patients with legal prescriptions for fentanyl and other synthetic opiate painkillers misuse them, despite the assurances of pharmaceutical companies back in the ‘90’s that such misuses would not occur. There is evidence that legal opioids are a gateway to heroin abuse. Opioid abuse is costing our œconomy something to the tune of $80 billion every year, and creating a spike in violent and property crime.

Libertarians (following all four of their gurus Friedman, Rand, von Mises and Hayek) have fought tooth-and-nail to end the ‘war on drugs’, which they basically see as a spectre of Prohibition. Libertarians love to point to the failed American experiment in banning alcohol, and for good reason. Prohibition really did waste shiploads of cash money enforcing the ban on alcohol; it really did make black markets in alcohol more profitable; it really did turn more ordinary people into criminals; and it really did turn already-criminal profiteers in alcohol more dangerous. As they see it, the ‘war on drugs’ generates similar public waste, retrenches violent crime associated with illegal drugs, and crowds out legal companies who would render a ‘safer’ product if the drugs were legal.

Here’s how it is, though. The libertarians basically got one part of their dearest wish fulfilled back in the Clinton years with these prescription painkillers. Those tidy, shiny, legal, for-profit, tax-paying companies (Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Endo) that libertarians all assure us would reduce the social harms associated with consumption of illegal drugs? They lobbied the FDA for the legal right to long-term painkiller prescriptions to patients. And the FDA complied: opium-derived drugs, completely legal. And then – without any prompting from the government – these same pharma companies started encouraging doctors to over-prescribe them. No crime, organised or contrary-wise, had ever been involved in the sale of these synthetic painkillers before their appearance on the Rx counter. No black market existed. But these for-profit companies – which libertarians still basically see as the silver bullet to the drug problem – conjured up a widespread addiction crisis of their very own, complete with all the œconomic and social harms libertarians rightly attribute to the original Prohibition.

Once an addiction problem already exists, getting rid of it is another matter – and there I tend to be more sympathetic to certain libertarian arguments about the ‘War on Drugs’ not working as it should. But clearly legalising all drugs, the way libertarians believe should be done on principle, is not the answer if you’re looking to minimise the harms associated with drug use. And the people most like to say so are the people who suffer from it.

The nudgey dictatorialism of ‘sound œconomic principles’

All the foregoing is just so much pussyfooting around the real heart of the matter. And that’s that libertarianism claims to be a philosophy of liberty, but when it comes to defending its policy preferences, it incessantly retreats to the fiction of ‘sound œconomic principles’ and ‘œconomic laws’. Problem with ‘principles’ and ‘laws’ sound like they’re coming from a hard science (when œconomics is no such thing), is they tend to reduce the human being down to a series of quantifiable desires and consequentialist calculations between them. Twice two is four. Every time.

The libertarian is enough of a true believer in the powers of ratiocination, in the ramifications of the calculation, in the brazen law of commerce, that it won’t occur to them that people could come to some other answer than four. That’s the entire point of Austrian ‘praxeology, which claims oracular predictive power for itself on the basis of individual-level rational calculation. The ‘œconomic consensus’ around which congealed the rather more amorphous ideological axioms of neoliberalism, however, is not quite so trusting. The newer breed of Chicago Boys share the libertarian faith in the rationality of markets and the brazen law of commerce, but generally don’t trust the rationality of market actors, who have to be… nudged, prodded, incentivised to put down ‘twice two is four’. You don’t have to make laws or threats to get folk to comply; you just have to lay down a path of least resistance.

Now, if these champions of œconomism – even the savvier, more cynical behaviouralist kind – actually read Dostoevsky or other literary students of human nature ‘stead of œcon textbooks, they’d see the problem with that. These ‘œconomic laws’ don’t and can’t account for either the individual or the mass instances of human perversity that’ll hold ‘twice two is five’. And it was just such an instance of mass human perversity that got us into our current political dilemma. As I’ve said, libertarians and neoliberals are not particularly identical in their political outlook, but they both hold to the ironclad logic of ‘twice two is four’ and can’t see how anyone could think otherwise. Problem is, folks who wind up on the wrong side of that equation often enough will end up writing ‘twice two is five’ with their votes – and with their middle fingers. Libertarians simply don’t have the conceptual tools or the will to answer these instances when people go against their own rational interests, which is near front among the reasons why they’re in such a pickle these days.

The principle of self-own-ership

Again, this is me just pointing out the self-inflicted wounds that libertarian idealism has garnered over the past five decades – whether it’s their utopian vision pitting itself against their immediate policy goals, or their cynical willingness to toy around with not-too-friendly private forces basically coming back to bite them in the end. Am I enjoying this? Little bit. Not too much, though, given the seriousness of some of the problems I just highlighted.

As I said above, all of the foregoing may look like an extended exercise in kicking the advocates of a largely-beaten and -discredited political philosophy when they’re down. And to a certain degree, it’s just that. But, as a great fictional libertarian-minded Bat Durston once said: ‘Mercy is the mark of a great man. Guess I’m just a good man. … Well, I’m alright.


  1. Libertarianism is interesting. In practice it tends to end up being a dictatorship of capital unless other measures are taken because if the government's one solid responsibility is to enforce contracts, that power difference is fatal.

    So there is a kind of libertarian who ends up reinventing Distributism and couching that in Libertarian views in order to have the liberty promised. And for these folks cross-pollination of ideas is possible and beneficial.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Einhverfr!

    I agree with you somewhat that there is 'hope' for a libertarian who comes to see that capital is as much a source of coercion in itself as it is something to be freed.

    But I have a nagging suspicion that the necessary point which has to be stressed is that homo oeconomicus is the wrong model to use for most forms of human behaviour. If libertarians had a deeper understanding of human perversity, they might get to a point where distributist-sounding practices become more attractive.